Magic After Technology

May 1, 2013

As I’m nearing the end of The Black Mountains, which takes place in a world that mixes magic and technology, I’ve been wondering about other fantasy/science fiction hybrids. Ardneh’s world was once our own, until in the midst of a world-shattering war, the laws of science changed, and new powers replaced the old.

There are many works where the boundaries of magic and technology are intentionally blurred. Think of Ghostbusters, where a central premise is that, if the paranormal is real, it can be studied using conventional scientific methods. Sometimes, magic works better in some parts of the universe, and technology works better in others. For example, in the works of H. P. Lovecraft (which ran from traditional undead horror to material that was, at the time, considered fairly hard science fiction) it was sometimes mentioned that other parts of the cosmos had different laws of physics. Humans could travel to (and perhaps create) a parallel fantasy world through dreams, but they could get to the same place by just by taking a spacecraft and flying halfway across the cosmos. In Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, a great deal of technology seems to be replaced by magic on the peculiar planet where it takes place. In this case, it’s not that the technology doesn’t work, it’s that magic also works. (For a bizarre take on the real-world influence of Zelazny’s book, I suggest this story.) In Jack of Shadows, a non-rotating planet is technological on the day side and magical on the night side. Fred Saberhagen tried something similar on an even smaller scale in Berserker Star, with a “planet” with regions where technology—even things as simple as crossbows—don’t work. However, there’s no compensating magic in the technology-free zones.

However, I can’t think of so many examples like Empire of the East, where magic (mostly) replaces technology. The history of a world with this feature would need to include a huge (probably cataclysmic) upheaval. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else like this, although I know I’ve heard of at least two other series that is an example of the genre. As I understand it, the Shanara books by Terry Brooks take place in a post-apocalyptic magical version of Earth. There’s also The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, et al., which apparently has a similar setting and a cyclical cosmology. I haven’t read more than a few pages from any of these books. They were phenomenally popular when I was in middle school, high school, and college—a time when I indulged in more than a bit of literary fantasy snobbery. It may be my loss that I never paged through any of these, but they’ve been variously described to be as juvenile, excessively long, or both.

I would, however, be interested in hearing comments from people who have read them—whether the technological past plays a really interesting role in the plots, or whether it’s more like window dressing. I would also be interested in other substantive examples of this kind of setting, if any of my readers can think of more.


3 Responses to “Magic After Technology”

  1. Snobbery or no, in the case of the last two mentioned series, from what I’ve read, I really don’t think you need to regret not reading Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan’s unnumberable thousand page tomes of slowness. I think he was under the impression that huge masses of description are a valid substitute for plot, and Brooks is quite generic…(though I don’t recall any hints of a previous world of technology from what I read)

  2. Diapadion Says:

    “For a bizarre take on the real-world influence of Zelazny’s book, I suggest this story.”

    Or you could, you know, watch Argo.

    Terry Brooks’ work is better than Jordan’s. Brooks started in the 70s, so while his stuff is fairly generic, the immense precedent we have today didn’t exactly exist back then. I’ve only read the first of his books (Sword of Shannara), which is again an advantage because that story is entirely self-contained. You don’t need to read eleven books to get satisfaction.

    Shannara does take place in a post technological world. They talk about it once or twice and do encounter a crazy robot killer thing in the first book. I don’t remember the technology being important to the overall plot, but I suspect it comes into play more in later books. The first book could have been effectively the same without any technological paths; it is barely present even at the level of windowdressing.

    • Buzz Says:

      I recall now hearing that recently (within the last few years), Brooks at last “officially” connected the Shanara series to another (much less popular) science fiction series he had written. Of course, as you say, small references to the technological past must have already been in the Shanara books. I suppose it’s very similar to the late connections Asimov drew between the Robots and Empire/Foundation novels; there had always been clear similarities between the setting of the later series and the aftermath of the former, but only after many volumes did the author make it explicit that it all took place in a single universe.

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