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In the Avatar the Last Airbender manga/comic and Avatar The Legend of Korra, scientific advancement took over industrial work replacing bending. Eventually nuclear weapons would be found (as well as other weapons) and technology would take over bending in war. Bending would be replaced by technology leaving to it being mostly useless.

How to make superpower irreplaceable by technology?

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    $\begingroup$ "How can I make characters study powers without digging into the laws of that universe?" powers are the laws of that universe. Science is just a study of the world. The whole notion that "magic", or superpowers, or deities, etc fall outside the realm of science is extremely strange. If a world contains, say, psychic phenomena - then that world's scientists would be examining them, just the same as IRL scientists would study natural phenomena like lightning. $\endgroup$
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    Jan 9 at 15:44
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    – L.Dutch
    Jan 9 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking in specific about the Last Airbender comic? If so, we don't entertain questions about other people's work. You don't mention your own fictional world at all, and our purpose here is to help you build up your own fictional world. Can you tell us more about your world in order to guide our answering process? Right now, even after your edits for focus, lacks sufficient detail & clarity to give an answer. Lastly, please remove the green checkmark: you should wait at least two days... $\endgroup$
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    Jan 9 at 18:29
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    – elemtilas
    Jan 9 at 18:31
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How to make superpower irreplaceable by technology?

If you're aiming for "forever irreplaceable", you can't, unless you tweak very much the rules of your universe - which sorts of means you say "Technology can't replace this superpower because". In a logical and self-consistent universe, this can't be done; you need something mystical that you declare being forever outside of scientific ken (something like natural sea salt being forever different from sodium chloride in some inexplicable way). While non-consistent, lots of people readily believe such things, so it could work for a story. In common parlance we, perhaps incorrectly, refer to this as "magic violates physical laws" (even if, by rights, within a magical universe, physical laws of course include magic).

Otherwise, slightly reworking Clarke's Third Law, we would say that the superpower is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology; but we can still place that "sufficient advancement" point far enough in the future that we needn't care.

The superpower allows doing something that current technology either cannot duplicate, or cannot do so cheaply enough.

This applies to anything, not just "superpowers". For example, the ordinary power of "understanding human speech in a mildly noisy environment with next to no errors", that most people share and think nothing of, is currently "irreplaceable by technology" and will remain so for at least the next five years (or, depending on the noise nature and intensity, maybe even more).

Let us imagine that teleportation is physically possible - some weird quantum manipulation of Heisenberg's indetermination principle at the macro scale, so that five hundred tons of coal mineral might be made to disappear from here and reappear five kilometers distant, at the same height and with no energy expenditure.

This feat is readily replaceable by technology - with monstrous trucks like the Belaz 75-510. Purchase and operational costs would ensure than no one in their right mind would even try to do so, much preferring hiring a professional teleporter.

As for developing the means of performing teleportation technologically, we might need years of experiments on human teleporters, a whole new scientific theory, and so on and so forth, with no return on investment in sight. Might we duplicate this superpower in one thousand years? Maybe. Would we do that anytime relevant? No.

This kind of approach is often lampshaded (e.g. in McCaffrey's Pegasus/Damia series) by the characters possessing the superpower - in McCaffrey's case it's telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation at interstellar distances - wistfully talking of the day when their powers will be available technologically, and they'll be free of becoming just people like any other. Something like that happens in the UnArcana Stars (Ship's Mage) series by Glynn Stewart, with Legatus developing a technological duplicate improving Mars' Rune Array (there, it is hinted that duplicating technologically the teleportation power is instead too difficult, which is the reason behind the... plot behind the series' plot, discovered by one of Mars' AIs).

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    $\begingroup$ If in a world there is a phenomenon which violates the third law of thermodynamics, then in that world there is no third law of thermodynamics. That's the thing with the laws of physics: there are no exceptions. If a world has magic, then magic is woven into the fabric of physics of that world, just as gravity of electromagnetism is woven into the fabric of our physics. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 9 at 18:47
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1. Technological advancement is not inevitable.

There are cave paintings in Europe that are 30,000 years old that seem to be made by people who see the world as we do. The descendants of those people made nuclear weapons. There are cave paintings in Australia that are 30,000 years old that seem to be made by people who see the world as we do. The descendants of those people (up until recently) lived as their ancestors did.

Why didn't the native australians advance technologically? A deep and complicated question but the take away point: technological advancement is not inevitable.

Maybe your people do not have the cultural background to innovate. Maybe their mindset does not lend itself to tech. Maybe they do not have environmental pressures that could be answered with tech (which seems more likely if there is magic to take the edge off). Maybe the population was dispersed such that there was no critical mass of persons to nurture technological innovation.

This would be cool because you could make sure your readers understood how things were with these people because to set them in contrast, there is one person who is an innovator and tech minded. She is viewed with suspicion and sometimes awe - the equivalent of a witch.

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Even if technological developments are similar to those of our timeline, they may be fundamentally dependent on understanding the magic system to work or piggyback off of the previously established uses of magic. For example in the Avatar universe advanced technology is powered through electricity created by lightning benders rather than fossil fuels or traditional green energy sources (coal-powered ships and tanks were common in ATLA but they seem to be largely phased out by lightning-bending by Legend of Korra, and even before that Fire Nation dirigibles were firebending-powered). This by itself would suggest the Avatar universe would go down a very different history than our own, since they wouldn't have any of the problems our timeline does with global warming or shortage of non-renewable fossil fuels.

Nuclear energy analogues do exist in Avatar, specifically in the form of exploiting spirit energy, which just so happens to become viable now that the spirit portals are open and there are spirit vines lying around all over Republic City. The explosive potential of spirit vines is a rather unsubtle nuclear weapon analogy in Legend of Korra, and there's no reason to think that future wars might not involve a spirit nuke rather than just being used to power a giant robot.

The Avatar universe is actually a really good example because a lot of the so-called advanced technology replacing bending isn't really pure technology at all, it's exploiting the rules of the magic system that the story exists in. That said, all technology is exploiting the rules of nature for fun and profit, but in the Avatar example they are exploiting laws of nature that are explicitly not present in reality.

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You can have some technologies advance but not others. Technological progress is not a linear progression, and some things can advance while others do not. If you don't want weapons to advance, you simply need a reason that they don't.

Using the example of Avatar, it is notable that the one 20th century piece of technology we never see is the firearm, because it would make bending vastly less effective. So this means that The Equalists have biplanes with torpedoes but not machine guns. While it does arguably feel contrived in the case of The Legend of Korra, it works well enough. Also, even in The Legend of Korra, bending is highly useful in industry. Mako works in a power plant using lightning bending, while metalbenders are highly prized for their uses in industry, as can be shown by the unusually advanced city of Zaofu that has some of the best metalbenders in the world.

All you need is a good reason why guns or other advanced weapons weren't developed. If you're going with a world that has superpowers, you have one possible reason. Those with superpowers can prevent primitive and extremely unreliable guns from becoming considered effective in combat, which would then allow them to prevent the development of the technology as a means to maintain their power structure. This does arguably require hindsight, but it would generally work well enough.

For a science fiction world with superpowers, there is no reason that they can't coexist with technology. With an example like Mass Effect, biotics(essentially telekinetics) are at least as powerful as guns and armor. It's not canon, but I thought it would have been interesting if the asari(all-female aliens that all have biotics) never invented the gun until they encountered other races who had them due to their own biotics making them less necessary.

For the specific issue of nuclear weapons, those don't necessarily matter that much. They are simply too destructive to be used, and so if you want a world without nuclear weapons you can simply argue that this is the case. If we assume a magical source for superpowers, this could also work as a substitute for even nuclear weapons. Which was the case in The Legend of Korra, in which spirit powered weapons were used.

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To make superpowers irreplaceable by technology, they need to be able to do something which technology alone cannot. Most magical systems and superhero systems handle this by allowing the magical/empowered to accomplish things which defy the laws of physics. The wielders of power (wizards & heroes) somehow get to ignore the rules which the wielders of knowledge (scientists & engineers) must continue to obey. The empowered therefore excel in any area where the physical laws of the universe limit our most advanced technology.

Super Smart Man can think faster than our fastest computers Super Strong Man can lift more than the strongest structures can even hold. Invulnerable Man can swim in lava which melts our strongest metal. Then it is up to the empowered's creativity to apply these advantages productively such that their success in a chosen venture dominates any competition from unpowered technology alone.

For this to make sense, all you need is a universe which applies different physical rules to living things than it does to unliving things. I've believed for years that we already live in such a world because the scientific principles of evolution and entropy appear to contradict each other. Our existence as complex sentient beings seems to defy the universal trend towards heat death. One explanation of how this could happen is that living things don't have to obey the rules which govern the inanimate universe. Extending that idea from simple existence to super-empowerment is a pretty easy stretch from there.

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