MAGIC AND TECHNOLOGY
By Steven Savage
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We've all heard the saying that goes "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Now I hate to disagree with Sir Arthur C. Clarke (yes, he's the one responsible for the quote and some of the greatest SF literature of our time). Magic and Technology to me are the same thing as far as I'm concerned - a way of interacting with one's environment to achieve results and to alter things.
In short, "magic" and "technology" to me are ways of doing the same thing, and the dividing line is fuzzy at best. Is alchemy magic or technology? Where do psychic abilities fit in? The terminology you use is largely a judgment call - so focus on developing your technology/magic instead of shoehorning it into simple concepts.
From here on I'll refer to our subject as "technology." By this I will mean "the ability to affect the environment or oneself that involves creating an object or method to do so, and that can be passed on physically or mentally." A way to blend a potion, genetic engineering, psychic disciplines, martial arts - all would fit under this category.
And with that said, lets take a look at what questions to ask when you think about the technologies in your world.
QUESTION 1: Why was it made?
First of all, technology solves a problem (or is at least thought to). So, what problem does the technology in your world solve? Why is it there?
In many cases, the reasons for something existing are obvious - tools for hunting, psychic disciplines to resist possession by evil spirits, housing to avoid the elements. However, a technology can solve more than one problem, and not necessarily the one originally intended - or it ended up being used to solve another problem.
The solution a technology provides may also affect the social structure: "oh, but that's only for doing that one thing." Needless to say, your heroes may have to break convention to save the day.
QUESTION 2: Who made it and how?
Where does the technology in your setting come from? who built it? Who is building it/passing it on now?
This is very important as it will affect how technology is distributed, created, and developed in your world. A particular technology may be a well-kept secret or public knowledge. The people who developed it may or may not fully understand what they've done - or perhaps the dangers of what they're doing.
QUESTION 3: How was/is it disseminated ?
Technology wont do much or be relevant unless its passed on - voluntarily or otherwise. How it is passed on is also important.
If the technology ages quickly, can't be duplicated easily, is hard to write plans for, etc. it will die off or great pains must be taken to pass it on. If the technology is not particularly important, it may die off very quickly or keep being rediscovered.
This will also be affected by methods of information transmission in your setting. If everyone is literate, writing things down is an easy way to store information, and also guarantees that written information can easily be put to use. If a psychic discipline is transferred telepathically, the ability to transmit it and record it is obviously very limited.
QUESTION 4: Who can get to it/use it?
You have a technology. You have a solution. So who can actually apply it?
There may be limitations on gender, culture, race, intellect, physique, etc. that affect the use of the technology. This may give whatever group can use it advantages (and disadvantages), and affect what they do in society. If there are differences in who can use it and who makes it/passes it on/etc. that can produce interesting and unusual alliances and dependencies.
Some of these limits may be purely cultural, and exist for rational or irrational reasons. A very fearful culture is not going to quickly disseminate powerful technology - a culture at war may want the best weapons and fighting techniques spread quickly.
QUESTION 5: What cost is there?
Nothing comes without a price - if you're lucky, it's just a price you don't mind paying. The same goes for technology.
A technology may require resources, time, discipline, etc. to use. There's upkeep to consider, from repairing a device to retaining a mental or physical discipline. You don't get something for nothing.
This is very important to consider in designing the technologies for your world, otherwise things happen for no reason at no cost with less believable impact. A gigantic war machine of advanced weapons requires trained users and resources. A magical discipline that requires concentration is not going to be employable by everyone.
QUESTION 6: How is the technology regarded?
Not all technology is created equal, nor is it regarded as equal. People take time to adapt new technology, and may have fears or enthusiasms that aren't rational concerning it.
Technologies are not always understood or employed purely for their uses. There are repercussions ethically, socially, and psychologically. A technology may be invented by someone with a bad reputation and thus not used, or a poor or dangerous technology may be used because it was produced or implemented by someone admired.
Also, remember what people use technology-wise is usually something they know. Technology takes time to be understood and employed. The technology of the internet is far older than the web page you're it is.
QUESTION 7: How is it improving?
Technology is rarely static. People improve it and find new ways to use it, and try and use it in ways no one ever intended or should try to use it. People are curious after all.
Are people trying to improve the technology they have? Apply it in new ways? What are the results and repercussions? What are the social implications of these attempts to improve? What do these improvements cost in time, money, accidents, etc.?
Technology, obviously, is not a dead thing or a plot device - its a part of your world, part of who your characters are and what they do. There are repercussions you'll have to face about the introduction of (or loss) of a technology - or magic - or whatever you call it.
The more you introduce, the more the technology differs from what you know, the more work you'll have ahead of you. However, that also means a richer, more detailed, and more believable world.
NEXT WEEK: The Power Pyramid