Magic As a Tool, Instead of a Replacement for Technology

PianoFire

Acolyte
Hey, first time posting.

I’m starting to create the bare bones of this world, and I’m still getting the whole skeleton together. The basics that I have so far is that the most developed parts of the world do have very rough technology. Think DaVinci, and possibly bordering Tesla once electricity is utilized. Most governments spend their time regulating this technology, some of the more authoritarian ones outright ban it, and the poorer ones have difficulty affording it. The main problem is that this technology is rarely utilized or pursued further. What we have tech for today, can usually be done with magic in this world. Why build a clunky airplane when you can just enchant a stick? Why develop complicated communication methods when a simple Scrying spell can do the trick?

The real kicker for this? Magic is provided by the gods. It has its limits and it can be taken away at their will. These gods are mostly benevolent and hardly ruthless, but that’s beside the point.

The main thing I’ve got going on is this “Secret Society” (i.e. they're anonymous to avoid governmental backlash, but they’re still well known.) that combats the above narrative. They believe that the dependence on magic is holding society back from reaching technology's true potential. Sure an enchanted stick could fly you places, but what if it doesn’t give you the control a plane could? A Scrying spell could work, but it only goes so far. This Society believes that if they began turning to technology, everyone would not only have a more progressive life, but the hold the gods have on them would loosen significantly. This, ironically, is the reason for most of their backlash.

So that’s the gist of what I have. My question is: Is this actually an interesting system to build off of? Techno dragons are cool as heck, but do people actually wanna know the process of how they got there? I guess I’m asking whether I should add detail to this, or if I should keep it as “in the history books” exposition.
 
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NRuhwald

Scribe
It depends on the story you end up telling within this world. Is your MC a part of this Secret Society? Or someone in the government who's actively trying to suppress technology? Or someone who really wants to invent a plane? Then it will be an integral part of your story. If not, it might simmer along in the background more.
 

Chasejxyz

Inkling
The dumbest idea can make the most interesting story, and the most original, cool idea can make an incredibly stupid story. It's all down to the execution. Think of any superhero movie. They're all "superhero has to punch the baddie really hard." But some are awesome and some are terrible. Guardians of the Galaxy is good because the characters are really strong, Thor Ragnarok is good because it handles everyting in a really unique, clever way. Man of Steel is bad because the tone is all wrong (no one wants to see Superman kill millions of people and not care about it).

You also said "do people want to know how they got here?" Is it important to the plot? When you get onto an airplane to go see your grandma, do you start to think about the history of aviation, fluid dynamics, how maybe, one day, you could be steppping into a teleporter instead? Probably not! You're thinking about seeing your grandma, or stressing about missing your connection, or wondering if you left something in the tray at the TSA thing. But if you're a pilot or an aero engineer or something, you might be thinking about technical things about the plane. That can say something about you, but are those important things?

Focus on your story, since that's the most important part. Your world-building should support your story and themes, not the other way around.
 
My question is: Is this actually an interesting system to build off of?

Yep, and double Yep. I like the premise quite a bit.

I guess I’m asking whether I should add detail to this, or if I should keep it as “in the history books” exposition.

I think you should decide the type of story you want to tell.

If it's an "idea" story, or has heavy elements of mystery surrounding the origins of this magic-technology conflict, the gods, etc., you may need to go into detail about how all this developed in the first place. This wouldn't be a single huge info dump, however, but would unfold gradually as the tale unfolded.

If the tale is basically a heist tale, you probably could leave most of that in the background.

If it's about the revolution, you could leave most of the history in the background but maybe gloss a bit of it so readers know how much of a revolution this really is.

And so forth.

Sometimes we can get way too wrapped up in world building and the problems of world building and lose sight of the story we intend to tell, set within that world.
 

Lynea

Sage
I think the whole schism about magic vs. technology is a good idea to build off of, yes. Is it original? Probably not, but I like what you'll be able to spin out of it. The conflict has to come from somewhere.
 

Queshire

Auror
The idea is fine, but I think the motivations could be tightened up a bit. Why does the secret society believe in technology so much? Why do the various kingdoms suppress it?
 

Miles Lacey

Maester
My work in progress also has magic and technology side by side but it's magic that is increasingly on the back foot. In regards to magic there are three schools of thought:

Traditionalists believe technology and science should take a back seat to magic. "Magic is more reliable than technology and safer."

Rationalists believe magic should take a back seat to science and technology. "Magic is all very well and good but in a modern world magic can't keep up any more."

Egalitarians believe magic and technology can compliment each other. "Whu choose between them? We should utilise the best of both worlds."

Your idea is great and you should run with it.
 
As the others said, I think the idea is fine. There's lots of potential for conflict, and conflict is the glue which binds a story together. Without it, there's not much story to tell. So go with it and dig a bit deeper. I think magic and technology can interact a lot more than most fantasy writers do. Having such a conflict really roots the magic in the society and explores the consequences of having magic.

One thing to note is that technological development rarely works the way you describe. People don't research stuff because it will completely change the world. They do so because it's cool. When the first mobile phones were invented, some people might have seen a future where everyone had a computer in their pocket. But no one predicted angry birds or that it would become so common that no one would leave their house without one. Just watch some news coverage from the 90's about the first mobile phones. Most people's reactions about them were "I don't really need one, I have a phone at home."

So people inventing a plane do so to find out if it is possible. They don't start with the idea of an Airbus A380 in their mind and how that will change society.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
I have something akin to this in my worlds, especially with the technology end.

On the main world, the province of Equitant in the Solarian Empire is renown for it's technological creations. At first, these were mostly ignored - Equitant being seen as a backwater - but a curious Emperor decided to sponsor various creations of theirs. Some, like semaphore signal towers and telescopes, were instituted Empire-wide. Others, like the printing press were placed under draconian State-church control. And many were suppressed, with great efforts going to keep them confined to Equitant proper. Thing is, though, much of the suppressed tech leaked out anyhow - enterprising merchants in the Free States bought printing presses, to cite but one example. Then came the Traag War, where Solaria found itself going toe to toe with an enemy possessed of vastly superior sorcery, and reluctantly gave full reign to Equitant's innovators, unleashing such creations as black powder, bicycles, and balloons upon the nation. At the same time, the Solarian military aggressively recruited and trained any magician or person with magical talent they could find, resulting in a large number of half trained wizards.
 

S J Lee

Inkling
It seems a good enough way to motivate people to work hard for it (and maybe against it, not to anger the gods). In my DnD game, there are few herbalists and surgeons - after all, why bother? magical healing is where it is at, and it is instant and 100% effective. Would those clerics approve of non magical Star Trek style healing to replace their way of doing things...?

If it helps give people motive "I'll show those pesky gods..." then great.

If you are asking me is it REALISTIC - who cares? Probably not. Real inventions take money and time to perfect? Da Vinci drew up clever designs ... but didn't actually build anything NEW that was a success - correct me if I am wrong. As for Tesla, --> a quick google shows -->
How did Nikola Tesla fail in his career?

  • Failure befell him, however, when his previous employer, Westinghouse, confiscated the large equipment from his lab for nonpayment of loans.
again, correct me if I am wrong.

The crazy lone inventor making his time travel Delorean in his shed is great fun in fiction, but its not how the world works. You get a Gutenberg from time to time, but even he had to borrow lots of money to get started. Rockets to the moon/nuclear weapons are actually the result of massive budgets and national determination in a society that values such things and they take a LOT of educated people to get things going. Read "Gunpowder, Germs and Steel" and at least think about what J Diamon is trying to say in that book.

But when it comes to fiction, don't worry about it. Is the story fun to read? Everything else comes second.
 

Saigonnus

Auror
I can imagine a few situations in which technology simply won't work, or might be less efficient than magic. Why use an ordinary (technological) bullet when you could make it much more effective with magic (exploding rounds, fireball rounds or even teleporting rounds)?

I would think in any civilized nation, there would be room for both technology and magic, and the two can coexist without the need to force one to dominance. It all depends on how your world is set up. If you already have a long-range travel system (maybe portals etc)... then why would even need to waste resources on developing an airplane or avionics technology in general? I could however see the need for a rudimentary understanding of avionics if say; your world uses airships; which is one of those things that would blend technology (construction, engineering etc) with magic. I use something like this in one of my "modern fantasy" ideas.

If you have magical healing, you still might have the need for science-based medicines. If only to make it more readily available in areas where perhaps the availablity of magical (god-granted) healing is limited. Magic could also augment (like the bullets above) to make any medicines more potent, or even have additional properties aside from healing.

I do like the ideas you laid out, for that secret society trying to bring tech to the forefront. Firstly because it adds conflict to the story; people with different mentalities and objectives, secondly because it tends to mirror what's going on in the real world and finally because it could have the effect of evolving tech; even if unintentionally, in the world you are building.
 
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Solusandra

Minstrel
Most governments spend their time regulating this technology,
Monsters.
some of the more authoritarian ones outright ban it,
That's historically always gone bad for them.
and the poorer ones have difficulty affording it.
Funny thing about technology is that it rapidly gets cheaper and easier to create the more people use it. They'll get there as soon as it becomes a market issue.
The main problem is that this technology is rarely utilized or pursued further.
Antithetical to most scientists and engineers... but very common to Guilds. Are guilds a big thing in your world?
Why build a clunky airplane when you can just enchant a stick?
Power requirements.
How many people in your world are magical? How many have the mana pool to use that stick long distances? Do they have storage items that will allow them the same or greater cargo capacity as an airplane?
The real kicker for this? Magic is provided by the gods. It has its limits and it can be taken away at their will. These gods are mostly benevolent and hardly ruthless, but that’s beside the point.
Yeesh. Big reason for technology right there! The gods very probably don't want to be bothered granting blessings on an industrial scale, even if they are benevolent. Tech takes care of all the silly questions of "why use tech when magic can..." with the one simple answer that you can get the power of magic without pissing of your patrons.
Sure an enchanted stick could fly you places, but what if it doesn’t give you the control a plane could?
Wrong rebuttal, the flying stick would give you much better control, especially in the early days of flight. Same with tech coms vs scrying. The younger the tech is, the weaker it is. Magic provided by a god would be much more effective... providing the god saw fit to grant such petty things.
Society believes that if they began turning to technology, everyone would not only have a more progressive life, but the hold the gods have on them would loosen significantly. This, ironically, is the reason for most of their backlash.
Yeah, i can see why. It makes no sense.

Progressing towards what? Progressive is a horrible statement because it doesn't define what the goal or path is. If you're progressing towards tyranny and oppression, then being progressive is evil.

If they're progressing away from a religion which has gods you can actually interact with, that literally give you blessings for pretty much free, being progressive is literally insane.

If instead the 'society' propped up their argument by noting how people are abusing the gods good will, and that after a certain point each day blessings stop being given because the gods are overworked or feel you've had enough, they can then put forward Technology as the progressive solution to improving your standard of living while honoring the gods by only using their blessings for important things, like saving a person's life or fixing a catastrophe.
My question is: Is this actually an interesting system to build off of?
Yes, it is an interesting idea. If thought out and written, i'd definitely purchase a copy.
 

Scott

Acolyte
I like the idea.

And there are strong motivations built in... If the government is run by the church, then they control the magic and they have all the power. If people can suddenly use a telephone to call someone on the other side of the country then they can organise unions and rallies without the church knowing. If they can use a gun to shoot someone from a hundred meters away they can fight back against the church and their magical lightning bolts. If they can use tractors in their fields, they don't have to pay the church $50,000 pope-dollars to get wizards to harvest their crops in before the (magically summoned?) rains come.
 
Funny thing about technology is that it rapidly gets cheaper and easier to create the more people use it. They'll get there as soon as it becomes a market issue.
This is not universally true. If anything, it's more the modern exception. It comes down to scalability. With computers, automation and the internet and similar technologies, the per unit cost of something becomes cheaper as you have more users. If you have a website you only have to design it once and then you can have everyone in the world as a customer. It's why google is such a profitable business. They can serve several billion people with very limited resources.

However, say I figure out the process to make steel from iron so I can make better swords. The technology doesn't save me any time or resources. If anything, making a sword will be more work, since I need to create the steel from the iron (which adds a step) and the material might be harder to work with. Which means that the steel sword will be more labour-intensive than the iron one, and as a result more expensive to make, not less. And there is no benefit to creating a thousand swords over just 10 (of the same quality), since the whole process is manual. I can only make so many swords in a week. To create more I need to hire more people and get more resources. There is then nothing to automate.
 

Solusandra

Minstrel
Scalability is a major resource, yes, but you're wrong about it not being an issue prior to automation. We have historical data about this, especially in regards to steel. Every time a new process came out, it became cheaper and easier for the individual smith to create and shape steel; as demonstrated by how many knights and men at arms got to use it in battle. The scale may look small next to automation, but it was still a huge jump compared to each previous process. Don't forget, a cheaper easier process means that a wider range of apprentices can now shape the steel as well.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Technology is such a vague term. I would draw a line somewhere around steam, certainly no later than electricity. Prior to that--say the end of the 18thc at earliest--innovations did not become cheaper with scale, for the most part. I'm thinking here of inventions such as cement, the horse collar, the stirrup, the windmill, the mechanical clock, spectacles. All important, none that scaled well. Indeed, the very concept of scalability is post-industrial. And the term itself could use some precision. Scalable just means something can be made bigger. In popular usage, though, there's an implication of increased profitability.

In our times, I'm coming to believe flexibility is more important than scalability; that is, the ability of a tech (or business) to remake itself--sometimes radically--while minimizing loss during the transition.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Otherwise to which of my statements? About the meaning of technology, about my dividing line, about the meaning of scalability, about the specific examples of inventions I gave? All of it? Did I get any of it right? <g>

I'd be interested in those book titles.
 

Solusandra

Minstrel
All of them. That you can't call a thing technology before steam or electricity. That the horse collar, windmill and cement didn't matter much in terms of scale. The windmill and water wheel meant that small team of millers could mill an entire villages grain in a week, where it would normally require the entire town to work for a month. Cement allowed for the creation of aquaducts and castles in a year or two where without them, it took decades to build up the stones and mortar. Different horse collars didn't mean much, but the colar itself meant a farmer could till ten to twenty times as many fields in time to plant and the horse rider could wear heavier armor and carry better weapons, revolutionizing cavalry and the horseman's suitability. Any, every, major innovation in tools and crafting methods had a big impact, only limited by how much the master was willing to spread his knowledge to apprentices or rivals able to steal it.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Ah, I see. We are operating from different understandings of the word scalability. I understand it to mean that the thing itself is scalable, by which I mean that it can be produced in larger and larger numbers for less and less cost per unit. That's how we understand scalability in the context of, say, computers or most anything based on transistors. Your exammaples speak to increased productivity, which I believe is something separate from scalability.

Just to be clear, I completely agree with the proposition that those inventions either increased productivity directly or enabled other factors that led to this. To use a different example, the horse collar meant that an animal (oxen, but also horses) could pull a heavier load, which greatly improved transportation. The impact of inventions has been part of the historian's narrative since at least Lynn White's book Medieval Technology and Social Change, but really long before that (1962). There was a time when the popular perception of the Middle Ages was that there were no inventions at all.

IOW, I think we agree about impact of inventions.
 
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