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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Magic and Technology

I don't know how I started following Marian Perera. One day, I looked up to discover that I had been consuming everything she wrote like it was popcorn. Marian is eloquent, perceptive, and well read. I almost always find something useful in her observations, and today is no exception.

Add to that, Marian debuts this month with her very first book,
Before the Storm.

Give her a warm welcome, everyone! Please make her feel at home.


Magic and Technology

As a genre, fantasy can be very versatile. If you like magic in a modern environment, that’s usually contemporary or urban fantasy. The flip side of that is science in a medieval world, which is steampunk and all its variations. This subgenre is popular now, and I enjoy writing in it, showing technological progress – with all its consequences – in fantasy worlds.

So I’ll discuss why that’s the case, and give a few examples of books which combine the fantastic with the scientific.

It creates conflict

It’s fun to put machines into societies which may not be quite ready for them but will have to brace for impact anyway.

Every part of a society is affected by innovation and technology. Rulers may choose to suppress or to encourage these – in the latter instance, that can lead to competition between scientists who may have rich and powerful rivals as patrons. Established religions will have to take scientific discoveries into account. Industries which used to run on physical labor may now find steam engines more efficient – but what will happen to the workers who have been replaced?

It creates contrast

I grew up reading fantasy novels like
The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down. The fresh and unspoiled countryside is very much a part of the setting in those novels. Progress destroys the rabbits’ original home, though, and ruins the Shire to the extent that only Galadriel’s gift can completely restore it.

While it’s usually safer these days not to demonize either magic or science, it’s interesting to contrast the two. Do people consider science safer because it operates according to natural laws, as opposed to magic? Or is magic, with its centuries of tradition and highly regulated Guilds, more respected compared to the bizarre new developments in alchemy – no, chemistry, as its practitioners prefer it to be called?

The old order changes, giving way to the new. Unless it fights back, or the two eventually settle down to an uneasy coexistence.

It acknowledges the modern

this article says, steampunk satisfies “a longing for machines that don’t suck”. Speculative fiction runs rampant with stories of machines which turn against humanity.

But technology and scientific advances, when used appropriately, improve the quality of life. And steampunk can be a nod to that. Several novels feature innovations in transportation – airships and zeppelins and hot-air balloons, as in Holly Lisle’s
The Secret Texts trilogy and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.

On the other hand, if you prefer medieval warfare taken to a completely new level, science can deliver. John Marco’s
The Jackal of Nar has kerosene cannons used in battle, and a scientist works with chemistry and microbiology in the Poison Kitchens of Alan Campbell’s Scar Night.

A good non-fiction book on this subject is
Science Goes to War, which hooked me from the moment it described how the Roman army used engineering to take the Hebrew fortress of Masada.

In summary, steampunk bridges the distance between 1500 and 2010 and is one of the most entertaining ways to make a fantasy world dark, realistic or just plain different. And there are no limits to how science can be used in such a story: one of my heroes is the medieval version of a clinical psychologist. He would probably be happier in 2010.

Marian Perera is the author of Before the Storm, a romantic fantasy where psychic magic and steam engines clash on the battlefield. When she’s not writing, she studies medical laboratory technology (one more year of college to go!).

She has a
website and a blog where she discusses writing and publication. Comments always welcome!


Joanne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maria Zannini said...

Joanne, I've had a little trouble understanding what exactly steampunk was too.

Glad I wasn't the only one. :o)

Marian said...

Thanks very much for hosting me, Maria!

Joanne - You're right, steampunk has huge potential when it comes to ideas and stories. You could pick almost any kind of technology and see how its introduction would alter a medieval world - or pose a threat to The Way Things Are Done.

Thanks for your good wishes! :)

Sherri said...

Interesting post. Good luck with your debut novel Marian!

Thanks for the birthday wishes Maria.

Marian said...

Thank you, Sherri!