A Question Of Technology
When people think of the fantasy genre the concept of technology isn’t usually at the forefront of their minds. They’ll be thinking of the magic, the monsters, the castles and townships out of the past, so it’s understandable that thoughts of science and progress are pushed to the side. But so long as somebody in the novel has even rudimentary tools or has mastered fire, then you have technology of a kind. When the writer is creating their world, they will often blend technological level with the setting; they want their story set in a castle, so the story becomes a medieval equivalent fantasy. Yet the question of technology deserves more thought than that, as it can have far greater implications throughout the novel.
Technology allows for possibility, it can help to sculpt your world, influencing everything from the food your characters eat to the roads they travel on. Is your world populated by primitive nomadic peoples? Odds are they are following herd migrations with a hunter/gatherer culture, their food source will likely consist of various meats and easily harvested vegetation like berries. If your people have developed technologies for irrigation and cultivation, allowing them to build settlements, then the structure of that society will change.
There are reasons that agriculture is linked with the origins of civilisation – without the constant need to seek out food, a people can develop its culture with things like art and science. If your characters need to visit a great library at some point in the plot, then you will likely require a civilisation with the capability and drive to construct one. Still, these are not definite rules, especially in the fantasy genre. I believe China Miéville has a nomadic people with a moving library, though in fairness the nomads are bird-people, which brings me to my next point.
How fantasy elements interact with technology is another aspect of worldbuilding to consider. Necessity is the mother of invention, the creation of a tool to aid in a task. But when you have characters that can make it rain at will, it seems pointless to dig ditches for irrigation. Does your world have magical solutions instead of technological ones, how prevalent is magic and its availability in solving daily problems? The opposite can be true as well, does your world have technological solutions to magical problems? Has a castle population built giant net launchers and long range crossbows to help defend themselves from dragon attacks? Perhaps they’ve developed fire resistant armour and building materials. This is an example of the necessity point in action, it’s human nature to try and counter a hostile force. In a world ruled by magic users, perhaps a resistance has created mechanical devices that negate their powers; maybe your heroes need them to complete a quest?
The level of technology in your work can influence the plot and what kind of solutions the writer can present to their characters. Is a character sick or injured? Is there a medical cure, it is easily available or a rarity? What about travel, does your world have domesticated horses, are there paved roads that allow them to make good time?
Think about the consequences of the technology you introduce as well, in the Middle Ages castles made warfare a battle of endurance in sieges. There was no way to breach them without a considerable cost of men and resources. With the invention of gunpowder, castles were made virtually obsolete in large conflicts. If your book requires a long siege battle, it might be better to have a pre-gunpowder world, or make it very rare. Again, this is not an absolute rule, it might also serve as a plot device, remember the breach in Helm’s Deep by the Uruk-hai? Gunpowder is an important consideration if there’s to be a lot of fighting in your novel; it will change the face of battles, from sweeping conflicts between armies, to skirmishes in back alleys. Your character may look great in a suit of shining armour, but nobody would wear something that heavy if handguns were easily available, as bullets would punch through it with ease.
A good knowledge of history is always useful when sculpting your world, even if what you’ve created is completely different to anything in reality. Understanding how different cultures worked and how the people of different times lived will enable a writer to construct a more believable world. The more you know about the daily lives of people, and the technology they used, the more you will be able to ground the story in place and time. However, it’s important not to go overboard with this idea as it can slow the pace of the story, there’s no real need to go into the specific details of a medieval city’s plumbing (unless it’s relevant to the plot).
The technology in question may not even need to be realistic, as in the case of many books that tread the edges of sci-fi and steampunk. But the author still needs to think carefully about the use of their custom inventions and what the impact on their worlds and story will be. How has it affected the development of society, is it safe, is there potential for misuse? How will it affect the plot of the story? If a writer has established a city with some kind of fast transportation system between districts but needs their character trapped for plot reasons, then they must find a way to justify that – everything the writer adds will create another level of complexity.
Whether it’s a sword, a water pump, or a mesh of cogs and gears, technology has more of a place in fantasy than most people realise. It can be relevant to every part of the story, and it should be appropriately addressed during the world construction rather than being sidelined because you’ve decided to write about magic. If you want knights, you need metallurgy. If you want stone walls to fight from, you’ll need masonry. What’s that you’re eating, bread? Not without a mill, hand it over. Now there’s no need for a writer to stifle themselves with issues of technological plausibility, the story should win out over other concerns. But when you set out your journey of imagination, don’t forget the inventions that make it possible.
This article was originally published on November 27, 2014.