Last column, I looked at writing magic and technology for your setting – and noted that in many ways for the sake of world building they could be treated the same. I still believe that, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out the differences as well. Or perhaps I should say “areas of variance,” as it gets complicated, but more on that shortly.
I believe it’s important to loo at differences, as in too many cases creating the magic and/or technology for a setting treats them as the same for all the wrong reason – as opposed to the right ones. Technology easily becomes hand-woven neutron particle miracle rays, a mythology with lab tools and circuit boards. Magic can get systematized or explained in such a way it either is technology, or is really just magic wearing technologies clothes and wandering around looking out of place.
So, having suggested that you have to look at them as similar for the sake of worldbuilding, I now want to deal with when you have to look at them differently. Yes, this may produce writing whiplash, but who said worldbuilding was going to be boring and straightforward? I certainly didn’t promise that.
Think of it as general and specifics. In general, they’re the ways people change and affect the world. In specifics, well . . .
When it comes to writing magic and technology I find we can think of it a continuum. On one end is pure magic where the laws we know in real life don’t really matter or exist, and on the other is essentially fiction so realistic it comes with a bibliography and a list of reference papers. Most writing is somewhere in that wide, wide area in the middle, though usually near one end or another.
It’s important to remember this to know where you stand in making your world. If you’re writing a scientific thriller, you’d better be doing your research. If you’re writing a magical world you may kind of screw it up by giving us sixteen pages of systematic description that sounds like an engineering manual with runes. If you’re doing Space Opera it’s a bit more muddled, with recognizable technology that often serves to get things to happen, much as doing a steampunk magical world wanders in the middle ground happily.
In turn, your world will vary greatly in several factors. In fact, for the rest of the column I’m going to call out these factors to note how magic and technology differ. These are not just ways “more science” and “more magical” worlds vary, but are areas your world will vary in despite how you defined them.
After all a magical world with alchemy may have it’s “scientific” elements, and an SF world with psychic powers is going to verge into magical territory. In a few cases a setting really is just cosplaying as another or is meant to ape another, such as post-apocalyptic stories with a fantasy feel. Sometimes Magic or Technology is a viewpoint (which you know if you ever tried to explain to the technologically-uninformed), which could lend all sorts of richness to your worldbuilding.
Easy? Not always. But the challenge is worth it, and let’s face it, most writers just can’t stop anyway . . .
So let’s look at where magic and technology differ. For your setting, you’ll not only want to read the summarizes below, but ask if they fit your world. Think of them not just as important areas of difference to consider, but questions to ask!
By the way if you look at technology and note at some point it seems almost magical, then I’ll refer you to Sir Clarke and my previous corollary.
Accessibility: Parallel to acquisition below, how available is the magic/technology/whatever of your universe? How do people get ahold of it?
Acquisition: How do you actually get ahold of your technology or magic? This affects your setting and thus the tales within it because when it comes down to it, these are resources no matter if it’s due to gears or magic crystals.
Componentization: Can the components of one tool (be it magical or technical) be used or repurposed into another? Can you easily break down and build something up – or even repair via replacement?
Evolution: How does technology or magic improve? The two tend to differ in that it’s assumed technology is improved upon over time while with magic, it gets fuzzier.
Independence: Does the technology exist and function independent of it’s user/wielder? Can anyone just pick it up or is it more personal/personally bound?
Production: How is it made? These important artifacts/spells/abilities have to come into being somehow, even if someone’s born with it because they were the seventh son of a seventh son.
Rules: Everything has rules. We humans think in rules. But Technology and Magic’s rules tend to be a bit different.
Magic and Technology are often the same from a worldbuilding standpoint as noted earlier – but when you get into defining them then there’s distinct, if often fuzzy differences. Looking these over, asking questions, helps you better know what you’re aiming for, what you’ve created – and what you can create.
– Steven Savage
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