It seems most worlds are run by either magic or technology. Sometimes it is both. But usually they are opposites. One may be the yin to the yang. Entire societies are usually based off of one or the other. From what weapons they use to types of healing, from forms of transportation to forms of building, usually everything around them is based of off either magic, or technology.

So the question is:

What alternatives are there to magic and technology in which a society can form its building blocks?

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    $\begingroup$ i'm pretty sure you can't do anything without some kind of technology (think wheels and bricks) either way?? correct me if i'm wrong, but society without technological development of any kind is impossible. $\endgroup$ – Aureminate Sep 29 '18 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ Well, Arthur C. Clarke would tell us that if we can understand its principles, it's technology, and if not, it's magic. That wouldn't seem to leave much room for anything else. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Sep 29 '18 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Ely Some technology is inevitable, but many fantasy worlds with magic involved stagnate in approximately the medieval era because at that point magic solves all of the problems that technology could solve. But really the crux of the problem is its usually either one or the other. Take for example weaponry. What are the most powerful weapons in some worlds? Are they ion cannons? Are they magically enchanted stones? Is there a third alternative? $\endgroup$ – Discant Sep 29 '18 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ Of course there's a third alternative: magically enchanted ion cannons. :) $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Sep 29 '18 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ By most common definition magic is everything that is not technology/science. Please be more specific about what you actually need. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Oct 1 '18 at 11:55

14 Answers 14


I think it is rather difficult to get away from the magic vs. technology contrast within the confines of Western storytelling. Feel free to call me a crazy person who reads too much into things, but I find that line is drawn by the way we draw the line between ourself and nature.

In the traditional way of thinking, there is the natural world which obeys rules. Rules like gravity, and conservation of energy. Man is born into this world, as an entity not fully bound by these rules. Thus we are a "self" that can cause things to occur.

By how we depict technology, technology is always bound to the world of natural law. When we write about technology, we write about how the natural laws can be manipulated to magnify our will. For example, consider the gun. The behavior of a gun is typically describe with respect to the laws of physics governing the metal or the explosive. Little attention is drawn to the finger that pulls the trigger. That act is unimportant until one starts considering the ethical implications. The gun will fire the same whether the trigger is pulled by a good guy, a bad guy, a toddler, or get caught on someone's trousers as it is drawn.

Contrast that with how we depict magic. Magic always consists of entities imposing their will above and beyond the natural laws. This is most visible in stories of subtle magic, like the Alynn the Scientific Mage series. But even in the series which codify magic like it was part of a MMORPG, we see the sense that there is some essence which is causing the world to shift from what the natural law would call for. It's outside of nature, or perhaps simply more real than nature, but no matter what we find there's some superlative that captures the idea of causes above and beyond the rules. Even if the magic springs from nature herself, some willful entity like Gaia always waits in the wings, waiting to be addressed.

If we phrase it this way, we see that technology focuses on what the world can do for us, while magic focuses on what we can impart on the world. Now from a practical perspective, every action we do is a blur between these extremes. It's somewhere between pure technology and pure will/magic.

To break free of this viewpoint would require breaking free from the Western obsession of us versus the world. It involves considering alternative viewpoints. Its a challenge to write a book with an alternative viewpoint. It's even harder to sell it to readers. So we generally see books elect to fall along the traditional axis of magic and technology.

What might it look like if we broke free. You mentioned one answer in your question: yin and yang. Yin and yang are polar opposites, but never stagnant. This is very popular in Eastern thinking. If you consider the map between nature and the self to be continuous and flowing, you might find the idea of yin and yang comfortable there.

But yin and yang are not things as much as they are a pattern. When martial artists and philosophers look at the world through the lens of yin and yang, they find it everywhere, from the high Emperor to the lowly rock.

Indeed, if you consider flowing non-static patterns like yin and yang, there are many alternatives. One of my personal favorites to explore is the Wu Xing, the 5 elements. This was a pattern that Chinese philosophers found effective for describing much of what happens on Earth.

Wu Xing

What's fun about these non-static patterns is that they don't have to be the same thing twice. You can decide on one round that "Fire" represents the force of magic on the world. On the next round, fire isn't obliged to fit with magic. Maybe it's metal that embraces magic that round. Maybe water picks up elements of technology.

So I'd say the best solutions for you would be to look at these non-static patterns to avoid getting hung up on the sterotypical static patterns like magic vs. technology. However, if you do look at the static patterns, its worth noting that magic vs. technology can be tied deep into our understanding of Self. That makes it difficult to develop a book which explores alternatives unless that book also unseats our understanding of Self. Books like Illusions by Richard Bach seek to do this. But if you're not seeking that, it will be hard to find static patterns that avoid this common trope.

And remember: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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    $\begingroup$ This is probably the most thorough-thought answer here. I like how you define the line we draw to distinguish magic and technology, it helps the reader extrapolate ideas after having read through. $\endgroup$ – B.fox Sep 30 '18 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ I think it is of extreme importance to understand how to break through these culturally-situated norms and dichotomies - not just for writing fiction, but more generally, when it comes to solving or addressing problems in the real world right here. How many potential solutions are missed because of a cultural norm that is wrongly seen as absolute or simply because we cannot think of alternatives outside of it? $\endgroup$ – The_Sympathizer Oct 2 '18 at 5:43

Only thing I can think of is a sort of biological 'technology.' Something like the Tyranids from Warhammer or the Zerg from Starcraft.

Where various organism work together as one. One might be a factory, another a soldier, another a spaceship,...

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    $\begingroup$ How this is done could fall squarely within technology. To continue your game analogies: the spaceships of the Polaris from Escape Velocity. But if the change is brought biologically rather than technologically (not by tools designed through knowledge), then it might not be. The Zerg would be a border case, as StarCraft implies that the overmind, cerebrates, and other creatures which manipulate others have knowledge of genetics and DNA manipulation, and they were originally altered technologically by the Xel'Naga. It wouldn't have to be that way though. +1 (not only for referencing StarCraft) $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 4 '18 at 17:34

From the story-telling point of view, a third option to technology and magic is psychology; specifically, the psychology of the narrator.

When we read a story, we see the world through the eyes of the narrator. If the narrator reports that all things in that world obey a set of natural laws, then the society described in that story is defined by technology. If the narrator reports that unexplained things happen, then magic is a possibility. But what happens when the narrator lies to the reader?

If the narration serves an insane master, then the reader can be carried from one extreme to another without any certainty of whether technology or magic is involved. A great example of this is Poe's Tell-Tale Heart. Is the victim's heart really beating? If so, that's magic. If not, then why did the narrator hear it? There certainly cannot be a technological explanation since technology is about obeying natural laws and hearing things that aren't there doesn't sound very natural. This story falls into the gap between magic and technology. It is all about the failing sanity of the narrator which for the sake of that one story, becomes bigger than the magic/law divide.


If we are considering alternatives to magic and technology as the basis of societies, then we need to take into account that magic is effectively the supernatural equivalent of technology. This means "magic' and "technology" are equivalent. Basically in the sense they are both ways of manipulating aspects of the world for social purposes.

There are two possible alternative ways of manipulating the world to make life better for persons and societies. Both are intrinsic to people. Scenarios in which people are basically superhuman in nature.


In world where everybody had super-powers they wouldn't need to invent technology. They would simply go out and use their super-powers to accomplish whatever they wanted. This would be especially the case if they possessed powers and abilities similar to that of Superman. There would be a greatly increased need to form societies if there was a range of people with different super-powers which would make it necessary for them to use their various super-powers in concert to achieve a wide variety of beneficial ends.

It is assumed that super-powers will be essentially physical in nature. This leads into the second alternative.

Psi-powers or Parapsychological powers and abilities

It is assumed that these are powers and abilities that are mind-based. This can include telekinesis (alternatively this can be called psychokinesis), levitation, teleportation, telepathy (which may or may not include mind-reading), psychic surgery and healing, remote-viewing, dowsing and, optionally, precognition.

Some of more cynic nature may consider psi-powers are a form of super-power. Well, fie upon you. This answer makes a distinction between super-powers and psi-powers for the purposes of clarity. Super-powers are deemed to be physical and mechanical in nature. Some psi-powers will have definite physical results, but they can be regarded as essentially mental and psychological in nature. OK. This is powers and abilities pedantry. But if you're going to be pedantic about anything, this is a good place to be so.

In conclusion, two alternatives to magic and technology are based on scenarios where human beings are inherently superhuman in terms of their capacity and ability to influence the world around them. The alternatives considered here are super-powers and psi-powers.

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    $\begingroup$ Super powers and psi powers are essentially magic, and could be proven to be magic by some peoples' definition of magic (and indeed function identical to some stories' forms of magic), but they certainly don't have the same type of magical feel to the viewer. Super powers are magic by another name, but that is all it takes. +1 $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 4 '18 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Aaron Psi, magic & super powers can be functionally equivalent. This is more so these days. Originally they were more compartmentalized. Magic was conventionally supernatural or other worldly. Psi had a default naturalistic basis. Super powers have always been a mixed bag. What they share is magical thinking about what they can do. Historically magic was different, in quite creepy & nasty ways, from the super-power lookalike current view of magic. Your comment shows we were thinking along similar lines. $\endgroup$ – a4android Oct 5 '18 at 4:21

What is magic?

Separate Set of laws:

There is one form that has sorts of laws: * Law of similarity / Doctrine of signatures. Things that have a degree of similarity have a degree of interaction. Voodoo dolls, lungwort as medicine for lung ailments (lung shaped leaves) * Law of contagion Things that have touched once have a bond. * Law of relevance The more relavant one object is to another, the stronger the attraction/relaitonship. A trigger is more relevant to the gun than the wooden grip.

See Randal Garrett's Lord Darcy books.


Things can be done by making some supernatural being do them for you. Pentagrams, invoking demons, elementals etc.


Certain things can be done with the mind by the appropriate individual. Poltergeists, telepaths, etc.

Examples: Zenna Henderson's "Book of the People" series. Anne MacCaffrey's series in Get Off the Unicorn, and Damia, Stanley Schmit's Hub stories.

In some systems of magic, power can be invested in an object (Tolkien's Rings of Power, Palantir, etc) and then used by someone else. He picked up something off the table, and the room was filled with music from unseen sources A magician using a spell stored in a wand, or you picking up a remote. Palantir's ability to see/communicate; smartphone with skype or a drone.

In traditional magic a magician has to make all his own tools from scratch.

Many cultures have the power of language -- magic words that have effects with the right person, artifact or place. See how important it is not to reveal your true Name. (In passing, naming something is power. Once something has name it is easier to see. When all conifers are "pine trees" you can't seed that spruce and cedar are different)

Be careful to put limits on powers -- otherwise story solutions get too easy. One of Schmit's characters is telekinetic -- she can move things with her mind. But her range is about 5 feet and the maximum weight is a paperclip.

Work out the magic details ahead of time. Probably write 20-40 pages of how it works, and how it doesn't work. This will help you with your story. Don't publish this. It's your guide.



Here is a feild of study which is not quite magic and not quite technology. Reality-bending is the use of energy to interact with the fickle nature of atoms and the inconsistencies of the laws of physics in general in order to create substances that defy known physics. The reason this study isn't magic is because the result still obeys the laws of physics, just not our laws. We still don't know a lot about how physics works in our world. Things like quantum tunneling and multiverse have interesting applications when weilded for a specific purpose. Reality-bending isn't a technology because its products are usually temporary, and the desired result is not always produced.


Reality-bending was originally thought to be a subset of magic, until advanced benders (like this field's version of a mage or scientist) created objects that were unlike anything magic had ever seen. Antimatter and mineature black holes showed the world that reality-bending was its own study between magic and technology. Cerca [insert time period here based on your world's history], reality-bending was classified as a separate study.

Subsets of the field

Reality-bending has multiple sub-diciplines like magic and technology do. Among these are fields of bending (air, water, mind, etc.). Mind-bending includes telepathy and ESP. There also exist many unproven diciplines that just work. We can't yet understand them with our limited knowledge of physics, and they don't appear to fit in to any existing field. The depths of these fields are constantly being probed by the best and brightest reality-benders, sometimes with devestating results.

Energy sources

Another separation from magic and technology is what materials are used to produce the desired result. Technology uses "traditional" means, from test tubes to particle accelerators. Magic of course uses toad eyes and salamander tails along with wands and cauldrons. Reality-benders connect to physics using crystals and their minds. The physics that we can't understand happens on a galactic, sometimes universal scale, and also on a nano or quantum scale. Using crystals with different magnifications, benders can "reach out" to the physics they need by channeling their energy through the crystal(s). Genius and greatly misunderstood benders have left behind crystal relics that we still cannot understand consisting of thousands of large crystals spread out over several [your planet's units of distance].


You don't need magic or technology to build a society

If it's building blocks of society you're after, there is no need for either technology or magic. Society is defined as "the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community". This definition, if you use the term "people" loosely, is applicable to bonobos, meerkats and even ants. None of these societies have technology(1), and presumably they don't have magic either. What they do have are individuals that live together in a somewhat structured manner, they have their rules for dealing with each other, and it could be said they have culture.

This means a culturally very advanced society could exist with language, traditions, laws, etiquette and even art like dancing, singing or storytelling without having magic or technology at all. Looking at orca's you might even argue that these societies exist in our world today.

So for so far as "none" can be called an alternative, your world could very well have societies that need neither magic nor technology to exist .

(1) please let's not split hairs about sticks used to dig out termites etc


Beyond the mundane is power. (Axiom)

Befriend one who is close to a God. Albeit a minor deity with limited powers but some influence with those who make the rules, no explanation need be given.

You have the ear of (a) "God", who does your bidding.

Words that can be substituted for God include Urge, Sourcerer, Magician, Wizard, Alien Overlord, Ancient-Source, Dictator, Caesar, Prime minister, Sovereign, Supreme Technocrat, His Shadow, President. Power lies hereabouts.

Why settle for English words, or titles even? "Alexander III of Macedon", "Steve The Lame of Chigley" - you shoud decide what's appropriate to your world. A chanel to the great is what you have.

Create a relationship with 'power'. That's what it's about, make your own label, all the while painting a picture that throws hints at the rational and emotional halves of the reader's brains. Essentially tell a story, no need to commit to being trapped within a "Scientific" or "Magic" narrative unless you want to be.

I say again: no explanation need be given.


Economics, politics, lifestyles.

Especially lifestyles is the best way to go. Star Trek did almost it's entire formula based on this. Technology and even magic (Q-continüum) are used in the series, but the main focus is the society and how they live. Star Trek does it like Star Wars does Planets: one planet with one type of biosphere or in this case society. I assume you run into how most stories use similar one-dimensional societies like how Elves are usually strict magic-centric societies and Orcs invariably war-centric and Gnomes technology centric etc.

You can just build your society like human society: the tech or magic does not define them (well it does but it's not front-and center), and go from there. Nomadic people? Keep magic and technology in support of their lifestyle and make it normal. Get magic lamps in there and make it nothing special. Some kind of super technology? Have your characters use it and toss it away like a lighter, nothing to focus on just something that exists.


There is an abstract answer to it.

Based on the third "law" from science fiction writer Arthus C. Clarke:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This yields us an indication to how we can compare technology with magic. Let's list the types of elements we are dealing with:

  • Elements which are already known are considered "science" and "technology." We know them as reality, because we already physically proved them feasible.
  • Elements which are not known, but are in the scope of possible science and technology and are at least somewhat bound to reality, are considered science fiction.
  • Elements which are either entirely unknown, unthinkable, not bound to reality or plain old school fantasy magic (not based on technology, but rather mysticism, legends, superstition) are considered fantasy.

Let's define science fiction and technology, fantasy and magic. Science fiction has its focus on providing plausibility by potential futuristic technology. Fantasy has no focus on being plausible. Rather it takes leaps and simply assumes something to work out of no plausible explanation, like humans being able to cast magic. Of course there are boundaries and explanations, but that does not matter because it doesn't even assume futuristic technology and instead ancient roots and stories. So we can assert that there is a strong tie each between science fiction and technology, and fantasy and magic. Also, to expand the definition of technology, knowledge and understanding of biology and evolution can be understood as such as well. We have a good understanding of what species could possibly exist and what could not, and we do not need to reach into the realm of fantasy (and magic) in order to make them up (at least not too far).

Now, the first two types of elements belong to the category of technology, the last one belongs to the category of magic. Those terms are already covering most, if not all possibilities there are. Elements can be part of both, for example many science fiction pieces use mysticism and things which are beyond reason even in the scope of their own science fiction world. There is nothing which does not belong to either of the two categories.


Another planet with life, aliens with or without higher intelligence are rather part of science fiction (and thus technology) given that they are just other versions of reality. After all, they could exist.

The example about Starcraft Zergs would fall into technology as far as their existence is biologically and evolutionarily plausible, the rest is fantasy or magic, because that's the part which is not sufficiently plausible.

Ghosts, demons, angels, etc are creatures of fantasy with no foundation in biology or evolution. No technology could ever reproduce them - unless it is so advanced that we enter the domain of Clarke's third law. Technology which is so advanced that they appear as magic to us.

Dragons could be both. If there would is a reasonable physiology to allow them to do what they do, it would be science fiction. But that does not happen - they are just able to breathe fire for some reason. Also they were made up in times where the knowledge about biology and evolution was miniscule, thus rendering them merely mythical tell-tale creatures - just by their history alone. A transition from mythology into science fiction is uncommon and not realistic enough to reach the level of "science fiction."


Magic and technology are both just ways of solving problems within a given framework (i.e. the "rules" or natural laws of the universe). What you call technology is what results when the rules are very close (or identical) to the rules which govern our own universe.

When you drastically change the rules to permit things which are not possible here, then new solutions arise. Hence, magic. As an example, let's say there is a mysterious form of matter which responds to thoughts and emotions (i.e. mana), and that humans have learned to sense and manipulate it with their minds. This introduces a new way to solve problems in the world, and you can think of all the ways this might supplant or modify more familiar methods of solving the same old problems that you mentioned (transportation, construction etc).

Not only can you increase the number of possible solutions by changing the rules, you can also reduce the number. Another example: you could have it so that the chemical reaction that causes gunpowder to ignite does not work in your world, hence gunpowder as we know it does not exist. Or perhaps the ingredients to make it are simply so scarce it could never be produced in quantities to make it viable for warfare.

Bringing this back to your original question, I think what you're looking for are less clichéd sets of rules that do not fall into familiar dichotomies. Once you start thinking of them as rules that you can modify at your own discretion, I think you'll find the possibilities opening up a lot more.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. If you think about it, you didn't answer the OP's question. Your insight is excellent, but it is really just a long comment. The OP has asked you to name a third set of rules (your last paragraph indicates a third set, but doesn't plausibly name it). $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 2 '18 at 20:07

You would need a set of gods with specific roles, who would be in very proactive relationship to their followers. That's not exactly magic as you can't force them to do things with rituals and sacrificises, but you can convince them to help you (because of some special relationship you have: you belong to chosen race, you live on his/her island, etc) with pious life, heroic acts to honor gods, etc. And it wouldn't be technology, quite obviously. I think the good "reference" would be Terry Pratchett's "Small gods".

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    $\begingroup$ What you have just described is how some of us actually define magic. Ie: "Magic: intervention into the physical world by supernatural beings, especially to effect humans they have special relationships with." $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 4 '18 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ My description is rather closest to religious practices of ancient Greece, and though magic usually is described as dealing with supernatural forces, it is, as far as I am aware, considered distinct from both religion and science. If I can describe this common definition of magic, it could be described as sort of supernatural "technology", when performing ritual guarantees result. Unlike this, in world of Greek gods, it's up to deity to do what it is asked of, or not. $\endgroup$ – user61244 Oct 4 '18 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ My description is rather closest to religious practices of ancient Greece, and though magic usually is described as dealing with supernatural forces, it is, as far as I am aware, considered distinct from both religion and science. If I can describe this common definition of magic, it could be described as sort of supernatural "technology", when performing ritual guarantees result. Unlike this, in world of Greek gods, it's up to deity to do what it is asked of, or not. $\endgroup$ – user61244 Oct 4 '18 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, and that is fine. I did not down-vote. Still, there are many people who truly believe magic is real and who define magic as what you suggest in your answer. In fact, when I am speaking of reality and not of fiction, your answer is how I define magic personally. I was just pointing it out. But in popular literature, that is not generally how magic is portrayed, so your answer is constructive to this world building. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Oct 4 '18 at 19:16

Some possibilities that come to my mind are -

Environment: Take aspects of Earth that we are familiar with, and make them drastic, or remove them completely. Day/night cycles, seasonal cycles, tides, weather patterns, etc. could be longer, shorter, irregular, or more extreme. distances between different terrain types, climate regions, and ecosystem types could be shorter or longer, or the vastness of those areas can be increased or decreased

Wildlife: Completely fictional, though not necessarily magical, creatures (dragons, griffons, sea monsters, etc., dangerous or not). Or, unusual variations of existing animals or animals that existed but don't now (dire wolves, cave bears, mammoths, dinosaurs).

Resources: Increased or decreased abundance or ease of access to real materials. Or new variations of existing materials. A planet with no gold, or no copper, or no iron, or with an overabundace of any of those, or any similar material. Abundant steel in ancient egypt would be very different from actual ancient egypt where steel existed but was rare. The present-day on an Earth with just as much titanium as we have iron would be very different from actual modern day. New types of wood, from fictional trees. Fictional metals or metal alloys, not necessarily "super-metals" with absurd qualities, just with qualities that are decidedly different from known metals, and so they are useful in new and different ways.

Cultural interactions: Any or all of the above examples, if spread out from each other, could create a variety of new societies and cultures, and then the interactions of those unexpected cultures with each other would create even more new and unique sub-societies, or merged societies.


Magic and Technology are the same thing, within a given universe and from omniscient perspective. We need to break from this dichotomy entirely.

Assuming the position of an omniscient narrator, there can be no true difference between magic and technology within a given setting. Instead, "magic" is simply that which is not possible in the reader's world, but is possible within the fictional world.

The concept of magic may still exist in the world, but unless you're forcing the reader's definition of "magic", then "magic" is just an ill understood technology or other phenomena. The more a character knows, the less likely they are to think in terms of "magic".

The magic vs technology trope is not inherently bad. It might make a perfect metaphor for whatever message you're sending. But, it is inherently 4th wall breaking, because it forces the reader's definition of "technology" and "magic" into the fictional world.

Think about it like this: If casting fireballs from your hands is possible in your fictional world, then this is an aspect of your world that can be studied and utilized just like the real-life sciences of thermodynamics or magnetics. Scientists would study the act of casting fireballs from hands and would try to ascertain its causes and ways to generate better fireballs more efficiently. They could make artifacts to help do this better, or do so without an actual person involved. It's just technology in a world with different rules than the reader's.

My suggestion is to stop thinking in terms of magic vs technology and instead just imagine a world with rules that are different than our own. Trying to frame it as "magic" will almost certainly bias you to start thinking of D&D spells. Just don't. Think of a way in which your world can be different from the reader's, and then think about the consequences of that difference.

What if some quirk of physics in your world meant that getting a small area of space hot enough reversed gravity? What if you could make plasmas at much lower temperatures? What if you could make Bose-Einstein condensates at much higher temperatures? What if the luminiferous aether was real?

You can see I have a very scientific leaning, but you could also do stuff like, what if all objects had a spirit, and with enough time humans could befriend and influence them? Or, what if eating an animal slowly changed you into that animal?

Start with something like that, and then see where it takes you.


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