What if You Want to Include Technology in Your Fantasy?

Turrim Archive Titles (2)

Airships soar through the sky, floating above a city of brick and steel. A plume of steam puffs into the air, melding with the clouds, and on the horizon you can just make out the wheeling figure of a massive gryphon, the sunlight glinting off its golden feathers.

Although many fantasy stories set themselves squarely in the middle ages, your world does not have to be limited by a singular time period. Thanks to the subgenres of steampunk, gaslamp, urban, and super-hero stories, you can have a fantasy world set in just about any time period you like, with any level of technology you deem fitting for your story and realm.

Inserting levels of technology into your world can be fascinating, thrilling, and a little overwhelming. I’ve found that this is one of those places where I really have to do a lot of research.

But it’s fantasy! In a made-up world! You remind me… and yes, that is true. If you want a world that has airships, dishwashers, and microwaves, but hasn’t invented matches and cars… you are certainly welcome to do that. But there is a danger in losing your audience if you make the “this not that” technologies too complicated.

As there are exceptions to every rule, one place I’ve seen this done well was in William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” (the book that the movie is based on). The “author” S. Morgenstern, inserts a lot of “asides” throughout the story with random details such as, “This was before fashion, but after Paris.” or “This was after mirrors, but only just.” At one point, William Goldman even interrupts his flow to tell you that his editor was going crazy with these asides, trying to figure out exactly when this story was supposed to be set, and he says, “I think Morgenstern was just trying to make the point that this is a made-up story in a made-up time and place.” (Which is even more entertaining when you realize that Goldman IS Morgenstern and all of that was made-up, as well). But that’s a topic for a different day.

Ahem.

Clearly, you can get away with just about anything if you do it well enough.

If you know the rules, you can break them.

For example: if you know that matches weren’t invented until 1805, but your story set in the 1600s requires them… you can make that happen. There’s no reason matches couldn’t have been invented in your world earlier than in ours. (Especially since sulfur matches were actually in use in China as early as AD 577 and you could investigate what those looked like and give them your own sort of twist). But you might want to include some little nugget of history in your fantasy world that helps the reader accept that this is not an inconsistency, but rather a quirk of your fantasy realm that is different than our own. In this way, you break the rules with style and your readers will appreciate it, rather than being annoyed by it.

Turrim Archive

With the Turrim Archive, I’ve been having a blast (and often getting bogged down) in the various technological achievements of the lands. The world is set in a sort of early-1800s time period in terms of food, clothing, and some basic levels of technology. But it is also a world where some large technologies have been artificially advanced before their time by magic. That means that I have things like trains and airships, but no electricity or cars. There is indoor plumbing in the cities, though rural areas still use outhouses. Wind-up clocks and even pocket chronometers exist. But weapons are still at the sword and crossbow level, as guns and cannons have not yet been invented.

It has been fascinating, studying different technologies and finding out when they were common and then deciding which ones would fit in this world and which ones would not have been invented or discovered yet due to the hindrance of magic being used to “meddle” in their technological development.

And throughout the story, some new technologies get developed and invented, so that was even more fun to explore how that might come about and delve into how the characters would react to some of these new inventions and how their lives are changed or impacted by them.

Mountain Segue

What do you think, dear Reader? Have you read any fantasy books with interesting technology (whether it be a sub-genre or not)? Do you enjoy steampunk/gaslamp/or urban fantasy? Why or why not?

How is Fantasy Month going for you?

On Monday we will be discussing magic and magic systems for our fantasy worlds, so make sure to come back for that!

~ jenelle

13 Comments

Allan James

Well, I guess I am not truly a “student of Fantasy Fiction….or….Science Fiction”. My response to Technology in Fantasy/Science Fiction is similar to Harry’s response to Dumbledore when he says…..”I’ve just learned to go with it sir”….or something like that. In Lord of the Rings, surely this takes place in a world that is designed prior to 1800 where railroads, cars, planes do not exist and yet I have no problem accepting the premise that someone has the technology or wizardry to create a ring with some kind of spell that can make you invisible or that can control the people who wear other, lesser rings. If I accept that and I accept that Sauron can create an army out of raising the dead…..I sort of wonder why he is limited in not creating fighter jets and tanks. Of course when I place myself in the world of the author….I just accept whatever capabilities are presented and don’t really question such logical or inconsistent considerations. Oftentimes….very oftentimes….when we are watching a Fantasy/Science Fiction Movie…..Avengers, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars (that about covers all of them doesn’t it) we will pause the movie when let’s say Black Widow is in the middle of one of her “kick-boxing sequences where she walks up walls and across ceilings and wraps her legs around her opponents neck and then does a double back flip and rolls out of it while dodging machine gun bullets fired at her from all sides by over one hundred stormtrooper like figures…..and we will say…..”how is that possible?”…..but never once questioning that Thanos can snap his fingers and destroy one-half of all life on all planets in all universes. This is when we are reminded by Brittany……..”well, I think it’s supposed to be kind of like a Comic Book”….and then we click play and go merrily on our way. My point is….I find technology interesting in any of these genres….but I never question whether or not it is realistic or whether or not it belongs in this story. I guess that may be a reflection of how well the author has thought this through in advance of putting it into the story. Regardless….it is a lot of fun to read, consider, poke fun at…..and then simply accept.

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jenelle

That tends to be the way I read things/watch things, as well. Especially since I love fantasy/sci-fi, which requires a little more suspension of disbelief. Of course, there’s a difference between a writer asking me to suspend my disbelief a little and bad writing and actual plot holes! :) :)

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Sarah Pennington

I actually love the intersections of fantasy and technology. It’s one of the reasons I wish I could find more really good urban fantasy. Steampunk/gaslamp fantasy gets into it too, of course, which was one of the fun things about writing Mechanical Heart . . . but also one of the stressful things, because it gets into medical technology a little and do you know how HARD it is to find comprehendible sources on certain medical stuff? It’s stupidly frustrating.

As far as fantasy worlds with interesting tech, outside of Sanderson, The Aeronaut’s Windlass has some cool stuff. (Also, the tech in that world leads to a brilliant little interaction very late in the book about how even in fantasy worlds, NO ONE EVER READS THE MANUALS. I appreciated it far too much.)

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jenelle

I loved that aspect of Aeronaut’s Windlass, as well!

Oooh, that sounds frustrating. I try to steer clear of medical stuff, just because passing out while doing writing research is not ideal. And that would happen. :-D

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Christine

I looooOOOoooove when technology is thrown in with fantasy. That’s a big reason I love steampunk so much. Blending old world things with new world stuff is just FUN. I put in a lot of technology in my King Midas story. Even though the world was Ancient Greece-ish, some of the dragon kind and other cultures had made some technological breakthroughs mixed with magic. It was a BLAST.

I feel like I find this more in video games than literature, actually! Like some of the Legend of Zelda Games, Skyward Sword especially, have some technology thrown in with an old world setting, and it’s really fun. And basically all the Final Fantasy games do that. They’re VERY fantasy-ish worlds, but full of machinery. I don’t know, I just love it. Genre mashing is my favorite!

The first time you mentioned Turrim Archive I was like, “YES. GIMME!” And the more I hear about it, the more I get excited. It just sounds so amazing! Cannot waaaait for it to be published one day!

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jenelle

I am learning that I really enjoy steampunk (well, gaslamp, more specifically, because I like wizards and dragons with my airships, thankyouverymuch) I really really really need to read your King Midas story, please and thank you.

Genre mashing is the best!

Awwww, thanks! I’m hoping to get through the first round of edits on the series this year. And then, depending on how well that goes… possibly begin the rapid-release of the series next year sometime? Maybe… trying to be more clever about our release plans this time around.

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Chris Morcom

Oh look, I’m talking about Eberron again.

Eberron is a world in which magic has been industrialized and magitech is widespread. The fun thing with it…is that all the technology is actually magic. It’s all explainable, it’s all internally consistent to the world–it’s a totally different technical tree because it is “technology” in the form of industrialized/commercialized magic.

Like…there are trains in Eberron. But they function by controlling an elemental bound to the lead car, towing the rest of the cars on a curtain of lightning across lines of pyramidal Conductor Stones. There are powered ships, but they are powered by a Water Elemental bound into a massive ring around the ship. They have microwaves and refrigerators–but those are just the “Warm” and “Chill” function of the Prestidigitation Cantrip bound to a box–and what’s fun is that they don’t take time to work. You put something in the chiller, activate it, and your thing is now cold.

It even extends into warfare. Eberron has their own version of artillery–Siege Wands. Which are what happen when you make an entire tree trunk into a wand.

It’s a fun take on the “X but not Y” thing you talked about–because the question always goes back to “Can you justify this within the established magic of D&D?

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jenelle

I love that the Eberron creators took Prestidigitation and made it useful. It’s one of my favorite cantrips, but for the most part, it’s so pointless. LOL

Okay, the siege-wands sound so epic!

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Katrina Dehart

I love reading about it all. Cinder was a really good book. Interesting technology

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