Magic versus Technology: Setting the Rules for Your Fictional World

Today the terms “fantasy” and “science fiction” are becoming broad, catch-all terms that encompass a wide range of sub-genres. Most people don’t just write fantasy, they write urban paranormal romance or YA epic fantasy. The same with science fiction: there’s everything from space fantasy to steampunk to retro-futurism. This is a good thing, because the person who likes fairytale retellings with a dark urban flair may not be a fan of epic high fantasy. There’s room for all of the sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative sub-genres, and all their mash-ups and cross-overs, too.

But even with all of the genre-crossing, I believe it’s still important to define whether your world is magic-based or technology-based.

This does not mean that anything with magic is automatically fantasy, nor does it mean that anything with technology more advanced than the steam engine is science-fiction. I believe the distinction lies is how the world of the story is governed. More to the point, it’s how you as the writer establish the rules of your world. A magic-based versus technology-based world has more to do with the culture of the characters and how they interact with world around them, and less to do with whether the characters wave magic wands or fly around in space ships.

Magic-based Sci-Fi

Let’s look at Star Wars as an example of this. It could be argued that the Star Wars saga is actually just classic high fantasy set in outer space instead of a pseudo-Medieval kingdom. The main element that I believe makes Star Wars more fantasy than science-fiction is that the science behind all their technology is both inaccurate and unimportant to the plot. (Let’s not get into an argument about the science of Star Wars, because yes, I’ve read many of the technical manuals for the Star Wars universe.) 

Anyway, the unrealistic feat of the Millennium Falcon zipping across the galaxy in a matter of hours doesn’t matter for the rules of the Star Wars universe. In the storytelling rules of the world, how the technology works doesn’t matter – all that matters is that it simply does (or doesn’t, as is often the case with our beloved Falcon.)

The emphasis on science in shows like Star Trek or Stargate is what helps to make them science-fiction. It’s fictionalized science. A space station smaller than a moon that blows up planets, and a mystical energy field that gives some people super-powers need no scientific explanation in a fantasy story (and no, I’m not counting the “scientific explanation” of midichlorians as a valid explanation of the Force).

Folks may fly around on spaceships and fight with laser weapons, but the world of Star Wars is ultimately governed by the supernatural and the contest of Good versus Evil.

Science-based Fantasy

In addition to being a Star Wars geek, I’m also a big fan of the TV show The Librarians. For those who haven’t watched it, it’s about a magic Library that is the safehouse for all of the dangerous magical artifacts of the world. The Librarians chase around the globe fighting evil and keeping magical artifacts out of the bad guys’ hands.

It’s billed as a fantasy adventure show, and magic of one sort or another figures into every episode. But the rules that govern the world are science-based. First of all, it’s set in modern-day, so technology plays a huge part. The show’s writers are very good at blending magic with modern science, like in the episode where someone had created a phone app that could create magic spells, or the military-grade missile that was set to fire off a magic love potion. The Librarians hack into security cameras and the bad guys’ emails, but they travel the world by means of a magic teleporting door. It’s a great blend of magic and technology.

While the show makes no claims of being the most scientifically-accurate thing out there (especially when compared to a science-heavy show like Star Trek or Stargate), for the most part modern technology and the basic laws of physics rule the day. When the Librarians need to subvert the laws of physics or accomplish something that science and technology can’t, they resort to magic – and it doesn’t always turn out right.

In the world of the Librarians, science governs the world and the magic must work within those laws.

How do you define your world? Even if you blend magic and science or technology, pick one to rule your world, and everything else will fall into place.

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6 thoughts on “Magic versus Technology: Setting the Rules for Your Fictional World

  1. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke. The more I hear people say “I believe in science,” the more it seems like a religion. We can’t keep fact and fiction straight anyway, might as well mix it all up in our stories. As long as you come up with a set rules that are plausible.

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    • I love that quote of Clarke’s. 🙂 Yes, keep a set of rules that are plausible and consistent within the world you’ve created is really the only thing that’s needed for a believable world.

      And in fiction, things have to be a lot more plausible and consistent than in real life. Reality may be illogical, but fiction has to make sense – even fantasy and sci-fi. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an interesting issue. It’s great advice for lighter works, pulp fiction, or genre-conscious writing. Personally, I like to play with what the people, the characters, believe in.

    For example, shamanism in its various forms is said to be one of the oldest forms of medicine (acting like technology for its recipients) but gets interpreted, in our modern sense, more like magic – while to the people living in shamanistic cultures, it’s more like faith, if faith was so embedded in culture you couldn’t imagine one without it.

    In the same vein, our modern world is a baffling mix of high tech (we have gene therapy and rudimentary AIs) and belief in magic, not in the fantasy sense, but in the form of “magical thinking”, where people think that if they just take this pill (technology) everything will be all right (magic).

    Fiction shouldn’t mirror the writer’s perceived reality exactly, but it lends depth when it is informed by reality. I believe it’s good even for the most light-hearted of works.

    An excellent post, Grace! Look at how much it made me think. 🙂

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    • A blog post that makes someone think is always a success, I believe. 😉 And it’s true that the terms “magic,” “science,” “technology,” “faith,” etc. can mean different things to different people and mean different things within different contexts.

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  3. Great article, Grace!

    One definition I’ve heard, that works pretty well, is that in science fiction the “magic” comes from devices (often inanimate) whereas in fantasy the “magic” comes from organic sources (people, the earth, trees, etc…).

    This works pretty well as a classifier for most works. It gets murky in Star Wars because “The Force” is a mystical force that works through people. But everything else (droids, light sabers, spaceships, etc…) are all inanimate devices.

    Likewise, Harry Potter uses objects to *channel* powers from wizards. So that falls pretty squarely in the realm of Fantasy.

    Your works are interesting because you mix magic with diesel-grade tech. It’s an interesting crossover. How do you classify what your works are?

    Continued Success!

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    • That’s a great way to classify sci-fi versus fantasy – thanks for sharing that, Greg. I hadn’t heard that definition before.

      I’m calling my Mrs. Jones dieselpunk adventures a “jazz-age dieselpunk fantasy” and “historical fantasy” because there is a large element of magic; and also because the word “fantasy” has a better ring to it in those phrases than “sci-fi.” By the definition that you give above, the stories would definitely be fantasy, because the magic comes from nature or inanimate objects that have been imbued with magic by a person.

      However, by the guidelines I give, I rely heavily on science in the stories, and I try to follow the basic laws of physics and science, even with my “high tech” devices – therefore it would be more sci-fi. It can be tough with these cross-over genres. 😉

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