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.
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.
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.
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!