In Defense of Fantasy: Magic vs. Technology

To go in a slightly different direction, this week we’ll be looking at aspects of fantasy that tend to get flak from readers. Unlike science fiction, of course, fantasy doesn’t need to conform to modern-day scientific knowledge, but that can be both an asset and a liability.

Fantasy still has to make sense, after all.

One of the biggest issues you run into with fantasy and making sense is in the magic vs. technology debate. This manifests in a couple of ways:

1) The levels of magic and technology on a single world don’t make logical sense together.
2) People think fantasy can’t have advanced technology because it’s fantasy.
3) People think magic doesn’t have to make sense and so their magic rules make no sense.

THINGS MUST MAKE SENSE.

Let’s address these one at a time.

1) It’s perfectly fine to have magic and technology co-exist on a world. What is unlikely to happen is that you have widespread, powerful magic combined with rocket-science level technology. If magic can control the weather, why would you create a machine to do the same thing? That need is already filled. But just having both magic and technology is not a deal breaker as long as there’s a reason for both to be at the level they are.

2) Fantasy is an overarcing term that includes most things that are in the least bit fantastical. There does not need to be magic, necessary, so technology is fine. (And I would argue that science fiction falls under the general “fantasy” umbrella, but I know I am a minority in that opinion.) Just because something has technology doesn’t make it science fiction. Thrillers thrive on technology.

3) It was a trend among early fantasy novels to have magic but not explain how it works. This leads to some people thinking that your magic can just do whatever, but in general, you have to do this really really well or you just come out looking like you don’t understand cause and effect. Magic needs to be consistent. (And realistically, there needs to be limits on what it can do, or else you face having your planet destroyed by magical battles on a daily basis.)

So, long story short – you can have both in a single story, as long as they both make sense.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by DS on 2014/01/05 at 2:13 AM

    We can get another perspective by looking at where the idea of magic originated in the first place. It has two origins:

    1) Superstition and religion. Ancient (and many modern) people attributed certain natural phenomena to magic and the power of God, etc. Many traditions included rituals and spells and so forth that had a real psychological and social effect. Of course, none of these things really did what they claimed, but they influenced reality nonetheless. This could come into play in a fantasy world in much the same way as it has and does on earth – by affecting people’s minds and behavior.

    2) Technology that is sufficiently avanced beyond common knowledge of science is considered to be magic. In the old days, scientists were labeled as witches, warlocks, wizards, magicians, etc. because they posessed knowledge that was beyond most people and they could do things that were inexplicable in the eyes of the average person. So, of course, the label of ‘magic’ was slapped onto technology. This could apply to a fantasy world as well. But, as you mentioned, it would also have to conform to the laws of nature – but in a way that is imaginative and beyond the comprehension of the average person.

    Reply

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