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Technology & Changes in Modern Fantasy - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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October 16th, 2009


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01:19 am - Technology & Changes in Modern Fantasy
Here's an absolutely wonderful RPG.net thread on magical mobile phones in fantasy RPGs. The thread is fairly fluffy but fun, and I was both pleased and intrigued at how many people loved the idea. I think we are seeing a change in way that at least some people think of fantasy. Anime and manga clearly have a role in this, since there are a great many seemingly fantasy anime and manga with all manner of seemingly advanced technologies, like radios, airplanes, and even mecha, The Vision of Escaflowne is only the most obvious of many of these. Also, the swift growth in the popularity of steampunk and odd works of fantasy like China Miéville's Bas Lag novels clearly show a growing taste for genre-blending and at least a high tolerance for anachronistic technology in fantasy settings.

All that's very cool and I'm strongly in favor of it – I find standard medievalesque, Tolkienesque or D&D-esque (three separate sub-genres, with some similarities between them, with the later being unfortunately the most common in fantasy novels) fantasy worlds to usually be exceptionally dull. [[1]] However, in the case of fantasy mobile phones, I also wonder if we might not be seeing something else. What now have a generation of people who have grown up with mobile phones, and many of us who haven't nevertheless find them to be invaluable and in many cases now have difficulty imagining life without one. The increasing spread of smartphones like the iphone has made these feelings both stronger and more common.

It makes sense that something like a landline phone wouldn't appear in fantasy games or stories – fantasy stories usually involve travel, and so phones would be irrelevant. However, for people who are used to being in near constant communication, and now for some, near constant internet access, even when far from home, or in the middle of a wilderness area, I can easily see how it makes sense for mobile phones to appear in fantasy games and perhaps soon fantasy novels. I am very pleased that the Dreams of the First Age boxed set for Exalted contained both magical mobile phones and an intelligent magical internet (with magical smartphones being available to the wealthy and powerful). In any case, as we all grow increasingly used to near constant contact and data access, I both expect and hope to see this reflected in fantasy games and stories. We shall definitely see.

[[1]] This isn't to say that there aren't low-tech fantasy worlds that I love, but they are rare and tend to be exceptionally idiosyncratic - for example, P. C. Hodgell's Rathillien is definitely my favorite fantasy series.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

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[User Picture]
From:cericonversion
Date:October 16th, 2009 11:56 am (UTC)
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I had the thought the other day that there are three stages of plotting sf/f/h with different tech:

#1. Imagining something way well in advance of its existing. The handheld computers in the Foundation books and The Mote In God's Eye are stock examples of mine here.

#2. Dealing with the potential in things that didn't exist in the creator's formative years and aren't spreading in accordance with any very tidy, compact way, nor in accordance with dicta about rational self-interest maximizers and the like.

#3. Adapting to other environments stuff that's now part of routine life.

I wonder what kinds of patterns one might trace in stories' weight given to travel tech versus communication tech versus other sorts of stuff.

Actually, this is a real help. I'd been stuck thinking about the milieu of a fantasy story I might write, and this kicks loose some ideas. Thanks. :)

[User Picture]
From:kitten_goddess
Date:October 16th, 2009 01:45 pm (UTC)
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Magical cell phones would also be a cool way for a Fae, wizard, or other character to wield spells (as opposed to crystals, wands, or staffs).

I take it you're not a fan of Mercedes Lackey. She's a wonderful storyteller, but most of her fantasy worlds seem rather pseudo-medieval with characters who act like they're in modern society. The good guys all have modern American progressive sensibilities, like gender equality and acceptance of all sexual orientations. The bad guys all seem to act like a cross between Fred Phelps and the Taliban.
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From:silvaerina_tael
Date:October 16th, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC)
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While they weren't common by any stretch of the imagination, there were instantaneous, long range communication devices in LotR - the Palantiri. One would think that, with as massively powerful as they were, there would have been lesser versions that could/would have been used for the same purpose on a somewhat wider scale. Grant you they wouldn't have been as widespread as cell phones are now, but they would have been there.
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From:pompe
Date:October 18th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)
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Urgh. I really don't like fantasy where the Magical Thingies are replicas of Technological Thingies. The curse of the Repeating Crossbows with Explosive Bolts. AD&D is packed with magical items (and spells) which mostly feel like they make sense if put in a late 20th century context. It's like pseudohistorical fantasy were men, women, class and money work exactly as, well, about right now, which I find really stupid and extremely uninteresting. Part of why the past is a different country and why real history is fascinating - often much more fascinating than fantasy novels ever are to me - is because tech and society really were different.

To me it feels like sloppy world-building, isn't part of the attraction of fantasy that it describes Something Different?
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From:heron61
Date:October 18th, 2009 07:43 pm (UTC)
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If something looks too much like modern tech, then I'm both uninterested and consider it to be sloppy worldbuilding. However, I love fantasy set in heavily urban cultures where magic has made a significant impact on the culture & daily life, and where there are equivalents to many modern conveniences. However, I also want the result to fit with the magic and not merely to look identical or nearly identical to modern life. The best example that I know of in book is Steven Brust's Dragaeran Empire series - where teleportation and telepathy replace cars and telephones. I think we largely managed this with Dreams of the First Age for Exalted.
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From:pompe
Date:October 18th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
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I mean, if magic did work as in what do I know, old Norse or Sami shamanist tradition, the world would be different. Not just magical, but different. That old saying that advanced enough technology would be like magic is a rather materialistic no-hitter for me. It'd be like Magic if Magic and Technology were comparable. But to me the concepts aren't comparable.

I guess what it comes down to for me is that fantastic magic in fantasy and in RPGs often do the same things fantastic technology do. It Changes Objects, Communicates, Moves and Destroys. Teleportation and telepathy as such could be high-tech non-magic. If it could be in an episode of Star Trek, it doesn't really feel like interesting magic to me.

I can't help thinking about magic as something which would do things technology can't do and be unable to do things technology does, even very advanced technology.

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