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Around 1100 years in the past, a great empire spanned most of the known human world. At its center was a great city of learning and discovery, where humans first developed methods to channel omnipresent magical energy directly into their wondrous inventions, setting civilization on the cusp of an era of magitek - technology that was based upon and powered by magic, yet able to be used even by a layman via simply touching a rune or speaking a verbal command.

However, a massive, deadly accident left this city largely destroyed, as well as sealed away beneath a conventionally impenetrable barrier. The loss of technology and magical power accelerated the fall of the empire into civil war, ending in a 300-year dark age for most of humanity. Despite this, magic remained present in human society, and the profession of sorceror remained highly prestigious. Humanity in the current day has also already experienced a more conventional industrial revolution and technologies such as the combustion engine, electrical power or flight are widely available.

My question is, why would the (deathly curious and willing to do a lot to make their lives easier) humans, splintered into many separate nations with no central oversight, never seriously foray into magitek again and just be content with developing conventional technology, despite having both folklore related to the heyday of the old empire as well as occasional turnups of actual magitek artifacts across the land?

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    $\begingroup$ Science beats magic. Sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. Why bother with dangerous arcane and imprecise magic when you can have science? $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Apr 24, 2022 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ You don't have science until you develop it. And it's not clear it will be an improvement until then. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Apr 24, 2022 at 3:03
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    $\begingroup$ Ever heard of the Amish? Nuclear power? Gene editing? Those all involve things that are forbidden (by some definition) for different reasons. Somebody can probably turn this into a good answer (or 3). $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 24, 2022 at 5:22
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    $\begingroup$ @NotThatGuy Disagree, those are all things that are over come by other more curious people. $\endgroup$
    – Nearoo
    Apr 24, 2022 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ What if it's just too hard to figure out? Many thousands of scientists might've visited the dome, many experiemnts were conducted, but it's simply impenetrable. The artifacts and spells have some weird properties, but so far nobody was able to use them beyond trivial matters. People know there's something there, but not what, and they can't get to it. $\endgroup$
    – Nearoo
    Apr 24, 2022 at 16:15

15 Answers 15

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Why wouldn't the descendants of the survivors delve into magitech? Because some of the underlying framework still exists.

But why wouldn't that be a good thing? Why wouldn't it mean that the survivors' descendants have an even easier time in recreating the lost magitech?

The answer to that is because of the nature of the accident. The accident didn't just destroy the civilization that used the magitech, it poisoned the underlying magitech framework. As a result of the accident, any magitech has become deadly or harmful. That's part of what destroyed the civilization, and it's what is preventing a magitech revival.

Quite simply, magitech isn't that hard to replicate. You perform the enchantments, and it just works. However, because the web of magic that underpinned the tangible interfaces has been damaged/poisoned/corrupted, tapping into the magitech web is a recipe for disaster, not power. Anyone who creates or uses a piece of magitech is doomed to a horrible fate... death, or worse...

The problem with duplicating magitech is now not just the problem of recreating the tangible interfaces, but recreating the entire underlying web of enchantments without using any of the same approaches. Do almost anything the same way as the creators of the magitech did, and your new approach also gets poisoned.

So, in effect, to safely recreate magitech, you'd have to not only completely reinvent it, but you'd have to do so without using any significantly similar process. No doubt the original magitech was made the way it was in order to be simple and cheap... so any new approach that won't be poisoned by the old just won't be as easy or cheap.

Think of it using this analogy: Imagine that every scrap of copper in our technology has somehow become - or creates - a horrible, insidious contact toxin. How would you recreate modern electronics without using copper? It's not that the knowledge has been lost, the problem is that it still works, and is still useable, it's just that if you use it, you're poisoning yourself. The problem then becomes how to replace copper entirely.

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    $\begingroup$ A similar idea is Kessler Syndrome. A past disaster makes all future endeavors in the same area much more difficult. Launching a satellite without being struck by debris was easy the first time we ventured to space. After filling our planet's orbit with tiny, fast-moving debris humanity's second space race was doomed from the start. $\endgroup$
    – Mar
    Apr 26, 2022 at 17:56
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The methods to make magitek are not obvious at all.

hagia sofia

source

Technological methods get lost. An analogy is ancient architecture. Medieval persons 1000 years later could bake a brick, and stack them up. But medieval architects could not build a hanging dome like the Hagia Sophia even though they could visit and stare at it and wonder. It is not obvious how such a thing could be done.

So too your ancients. They accumulated some serious bodies of knowledge in the creation of magitek. These were not codified and written down but passed along as a trade - understood recipes to make and do things. These recipes were leveraged by the administrative and organizational might of the ancients just as a piece of technology we hold in our hand today owes its existence to a multitude of mines, factories and supply lines.

Your people cannot replicate magitek because they have lost more than just the recipe of how to put the thing together.

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    $\begingroup$ Plus one for guessing a very plausible aspect of magitech, and presenting it in such an attractive way. (And anyway, magic being magic, any existing grimoires would be written in a very cryptic style.) Minor nitpick: Justinian's Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 CE. Brunelleschi completed the dome of the Florence Cathedral in 1436, which is (1) only 900 years later, and (2) still in the Middle Ages. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 23, 2022 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I was ready for a much more trenchant criticism from you because I was unsure about dome building and how / if it was really lost. I like the 900 years as close enough and also the link for me to read up about how dome building was rediscovered. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Apr 23, 2022 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ Alternative example: Just look at an LED. Medieval people could probably reverse engineer a (very bad) light bulb with enough trial and error, but would absolutely fail at the microscopic LED. And likewise, even though you can just google how to theoretically build one, could anyone here just do it? Nope, that requires machines unavailable to most people and deep deep engineering knowledge, both quite easy to be lost $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 25, 2022 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ Note: the Roman Pantheon of Agrippa has an even larger dome. It was built in its current form under Hadrian in the 130's. The East-Roman capital Byzantium built its Hagia Sopha church 400 years later. There was no magic involved, read this page for archeologists speculating about various methods that could have been used for the Pantheon dome. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Apr 25, 2022 at 23:05
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The disaster left a lot of demon code.

While the full details may be lost, one thing that is known is that a lot of magitek was corrupted with viruses and corruptive spells on them. Anyone who builds magitek will find that unless they have as advanced as military grade firewalls that the ancients had that their magitek gets hacked by demon code if they go in the wrong places.

While people have experimented with reviving magitek, it has been disastrous for most.

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    $\begingroup$ People don't even need to know this is what is happening - all they experience is inexplicable, horrific consequences when they poke the magitek, a' la Roadside Picnic. $\endgroup$
    – Ottie
    Apr 23, 2022 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ While they may not have any idea how to actually secure their magitek, if a lot of magitek was corrupted they should have some idea that a lot is corrupted. People who dig up ancient tombs may find magitek which attempts to murder them, or worst. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Apr 24, 2022 at 12:32
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This city has library with one of a kind magic books and manuscripts gathered from all known world during centuries, and because of this:

However, a massive, deadly accident left this city largely destroyed, as well as sealed away beneath a conventionally impenetrable barrier.

nobody can read this books one more time.

There are some basic "Magic for Dummies" manuals spread around the world, and sorcerers has access for them, so magic is not lost. But manuals has basic knowledge only, and even if somebody gathers all magicians and require them to research and improve magic, it will took much more than 300 years to return back to level old empire had.

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Worldbuilding.SE is full of questions about how long it would take to recreate modern society if X gets teleported 1000s of years into the past (e.g. How long would it take to create a Windows 1.0 capable machine from complete scratch? , If 120 experts in 12 different fields were sent back 10,000 years, could they recreate the 21st century in 100 years? and Speedrun to the moon in one lifetime?). Inevitably the answer is: It takes an incredibly long time.

So what if Magitek is just as complex in the same way, except it's all about fulfilling magical requirements. Let's say that simple Magitek has a similar complexity to a 1990s calculator. You need way to shape the housing, store energy, figure out how create very thin pieces of metal, where to get metal, how to refine metal, how to heat metal, how to create a display, etc. etc. etc.

Put more simply: To build even a simple magitek device you first need to build the tools to craft the tools to build the machines that will build the machines that will get you your first magitek artifact. Creating magitek artifacts requires a global supply network (e.g. specialized types of mana from across the world that interact with each other in just the right way), it requires incredible specialization (the guy who spend his entire life studying and creating magitek machines that can weave incredibly fine magical 'cloths' that are the basis of making magitek interactive. Or what about the guy who specializes in creating chambers where you can safely 'superpower'/heat mana to the point where it changes it's type/shape/form/affinity/something else), etc. etc.

The point is: Even if you a magitek artifact, it won't allow you to recreate it, because you don't have the prerequisites. Even if you had books describing every single step in the process it will take decades if not centuries to go through all the steps. It's like humans getting their hands on an alien artifact ( What could prevent us from making alien technology if we had the schematics? ), but instead of missing future technologies and infrastructure, we just miss the infrastructure and specializations that were developed in the past.

Now let's make one little deviation from non-magical technology: Imagine that all the steps on the way hold little to no value by themselves. The only reason the old empire pursued all the steps leading up to their magitech discoveries is because they valued magical knowledge for its own sake. They invested absurd amounts of money into magical universities.

So back to the main question: So what stopped all that from developing?

Now that we have established that it takes a lot of people collaborating to get all this off the ground it means that just a couple of high profile failures can be incredibly demotivating. Maybe after the dark age there were one or two countries who were trying to recreate it, but all of them got invaded as they didn't have enough money left to protect themselves. Maybe after the dark age there was another country which tried to recreate magitech and destroyed their magical capital in a huge magical accident (ideally with some handwavium justifying why the same thing can't be weaponized).

So everyone believes it's possible to build... but everybody always feels the time isn't right yet.

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Curses

A sorcerer driven insane by the disaster poured all his considerable skill and knowledge into cursing anyone who tries magiteck, and recruiting new followers for a secret order that keeps the curse going.

They have splintered into cells to protect the activity and keep renewing the curses. Whoever tries it finds himself suffering disaster after disaster.

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Permanent Enchantment is a lost art

Thanks to scientific advancements, the sorcerers today are much more powerful than they were 1000 years ago, but somewhere along the way we forgot how to make enchantments permanent. So, while a spell can solve any immediate problem, it can't really be used to solve a continuous problem very well. For this we use technology. But the ancients could cast permanent enchantments on things and thus solve continuous problems without the use of technology. How they did this, we do not know, but we now call it magictech.

We see similar things in our own real world history. For years, ancient technologies like Damascus steel and Roman Concrete baffled modern science. When we finally figured them out, it turned out the secret was in the impurities that these ancient civilizations did not remove from their works as opposed to something they intentionally put there.

In Rome for example, they would mix their concrete with whatever water was most available (typically sea water) instead of fresh drinkable water like we normally do today. The salts became part of the concrete's structure and made it far more resistant to salt water corrosion.

In India, there is a common impurity in iron ore that you don't find in other parts of the world that was responsible for forming the higher quality Damascus steel.

enter image description here

In ancient times, this made steel from India especially sought after, but during the industrial revolution, improved refining practices began removing this impurity from the ore making it fundamentally no different than any other iron ore. So when scholars began comparing modern steel with Damascus, they were shocked to learn how good this ancient steel was, and for decades, they were not able to figure out how they did it; so, for decades we called it a lost technology.

These technologies were difficult for modern science to solve because we kept trying to figure out what they were adding to their materials when in fact, the secret lied in what they were failing to remove. So even when we studied their writings we could not figure out the secret, because even they did not know what made their materials better.

Likewise, during your setting's dark age, sorcery could have continued to evolve. While it may have regressed in some areas, it would have also moved forward in others. So, imagine magic comes from some ethereal source that surrounds us. To case a spell, you must extract mana from the ether, and then manipulate it into its desired form. But the ether is not just a cloud of mana, it contains all sorts of energies, many of which are detrimental to casting; so, the first thing any sorcerer from the late dark ages onward does is isolates the mana from other ethereal energies allowing him to maximize the power and predictability of his spell. It is so ubiquitously done that it is the very first thing young mages are taught to do, but in the ancient times, people did not isolate mana very well to cast spells; so, one group of wizards found that when they cast spells on certain lay lines, that they could be used to make permanent enchantments.

The reason these lay lines don't work for modern mages is because it does not occur to them to use the unpurified mana that exists there; thus, this ancient form of spell craft is lost to your modern civilization, and with it the kind of magic they need to make Magitech viable.

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The massive deadly accident was caused by or produced some sort of magical rot or evil that continues to pervade all magic performed thereafter - spreads throughout magic like a virus. Every time that someone tries to experiment with magic, they encounter this and receive injuries or curses or something that is a result of the left-over blight.

The sorcerers who continued to perform magic after the accident had the rare skill of being able to purify or control magic in spite of this, but over time this became a lost skill and as mundane technology advanced, the need for this ability became less and less, and so it was finally forgotten.

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The rules keep changing.

Imagine if, in our universe, the laws of physics kept changing. E=mc^2? Oh well today it's E=mc^3. Every physics formula is subject to change without warning. Basically everything might be fine tomorrow or maybe the universe will explode.

Turns out, magic is like that. It's energy drawn from a neighboring universe but the "neighboring universe" can shift from one to another at any time without warning and the new one may have completely different rules. The original magitek society was built during a time of unusual stability -- the rules for magic may well have been unchanged for thousands or millions of years and they didn't even know it could change. Until it did. When the shift occurred, the magitek devices drawing power (and, perhaps, a relative handful of sorcerers who were actively using magic when the shift occurred) experienced major malfunctions.

Magic may be in a state of constant flux at the moment. The rules could change daily. Sorcerers can still access the energy, probe it, and use it, perhaps not unlike tapping into a totally unknown power wire where you're not sure what the volts or amps are or if it's AC vs DC. First you find out, then you buffer some energy, then you use it. That's sorcerers. They have not figured out how to make Magitek items that robust. They need a steady, known supply. If magic settles down again, Magitek could take off again. And nothing stops you from making a device today, based on today's rules, but you don't know if it will work for an hour, a week or a month, and if it fails, you don't know how spectacular that failure will be (maybe you can invent a "magic circuit breaker" to avoid catastrophe but the constant shifting of rules still means your device stops working and has to be redesigned to fit the new rules, which, again, keep shifting).

(To expand the electricity analogy, imagine trying to make a hair dryer that can work off of literally any power source. You can plug it into a USB port. Or a 120V US wall socket. Or a 240V wall socket. Or a wall socket in Japan. Or Germany. Or directly to the raw output of a nuclear power plant. It's probably possible but represents a big challenge and ultimately makes your hair dryer impractical -- you're spending more on the converters and buffers than on the device. This is what the people of this world face with magic. They can make the devices but since the properties of the power source keeps changing, the devices become something between impractical and dangerous. The sorcerers themselves might occasionally tap into the magic network and go "Woo! Wow. Okay. Not using magic today I guess. Check back later.")

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If the accident you were talking about that triggered the dark age involved magitek, everyone would be wary of using such devices again. The threat of another disaster would keep people wary and distant.

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    $\begingroup$ I've gotta say, assuming that all humans, everywhere will avoid doing things known to be dangerous and stupid, and continue to avoid doing those things for hundreds of years for the collective well being of everyone is less plausible than magitech. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2022 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ Especially since the tales will rapidly become legends. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Apr 24, 2022 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ Starfish's comment perfectly captures the main point behind the question - humans will stop at very little in pursuit of progress, and there's always going to be someone who's willing to break cultural taboos or scavenge ancient tombs for knowledge. I am looking for a way to rule out magitek completely, despite the existence of these people. $\endgroup$
    – krabi
    Apr 24, 2022 at 3:19
  • $\begingroup$ @krabi - I think this is plausible, and has been, in fact, the subject of other sci-fi works. I came across this in the TV series "Babylon 5", the season 4 final episode. And Wikipedia says that even when writing this episode, it's author realized that someone had done this before - A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Apr 24, 2022 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ @krabi - Basically you need to be the event to be so catastrophic and destructive, that the very idea of magitek turns into a cultural taboo. It is shunned. Anyone who dares try it again is quickly shut down by their peers and authorities. It is The Root of All Evil. Even if the details get lost in time, the strong social stigma associated with magitek remains. Individual sorcerers however are considered to be OK, because one person can only wield so much power without amplification by magitek. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Apr 24, 2022 at 13:11
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A combination of extreme personal sacrifice, boobytraps and cynicism.

You could state that building up magical "infrastructure" requires both trial and error, the willing surrender of one's life-force (it kills you) and after the accident, there are unknown magical instabilities which can be detonated when extending magical "infrastructure" which could completely destroy that set of magical "infrastructure" and force a nation to start from scratch again.

In the prior era, an old sage may consider it an honor to give the last few years of his life to improve the lives of all humanity for all time. After the event where the magical "infrastructure" of countless generations of human sacrifices was not only lost but also almost destroyed humanity, the perceived risk to reward ratio of self sacrifice has gone from guaranteed saint to dubious self-execution.

Back then you could kill yourself for the good of all, after the collapse and tainting of unknown swathes of magic, killing yourself could just destroy what few magical artifices your culture has retained - so better to just enjoy your own life then be remembered as a fool who damaged the nation through the hubris of trying to help.

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They wouldn't.

From time to time you hear about those, who pursuit the old ways of magitec. They die in smaller accidents or are denunciated by their neighbours. No one without direct benefit from magitec research would tolerate it in their direct vicinity, because it is so dangerous when it goes wrong, so private approaches to rediscover the old tech usually fail quickly.

Of course the private pursuit of magitec is forbidden, a ruler can't allow it, sudden explosions and collapsing buildings can't be ignored.

Pretty much every country has a program going on to rediscover the full potential of magitec, but due to its unstable nature sabotage to this projects is easy and no country wants to allow another one to rediscover too much of it, as it would be a too significant disturbance to the balance of power.

If that still seems to little as reasons for why magitec did not return, you can make it very visible. It could take days to create a new magitec item and it could produce a huge column of light as a side- effect (or something similar visible).

So although humans still pursue this path, it leads them nowhere as they fail on their own or are brought down by other humans.

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The gods forbid it!

Death to the sorcerers!!!!

BURN THE WITCH!!!!!!!

i.e. the usual stuff, ho-hum, nothing to see here, move along now, folks - just a servant of evil and his nag being roasted. Move along, folks - move along...if you know what's good for you...

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The ancients left warnings that persist to this day.

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Every magitek item was a one time prototype

While redeveloping technology at the end of the Dark Ages, they realized the old magitek stuff could not be repaired or modified, because the magic to repair or change things was unknown, the makers did not leave the information. Probably, it had never been there at all. Further development of a magitek device depended on its original maker, who envisioned it, then recreated it. Others could only imitate it. Each magitek device was a unique work of art. The maker wizards themselves had little understanding of the physics of their creations. When a wizard died, his nifty gadgets would die with him.

Mankind resorted to technology-only solutions and math/method schooling instead of magic, to make sure things can be reproduced in an industrial way and modified to the needs of a new design.

you need prototyping and reverse engineering

Despite magitek engineers being Alice in Wonderland in their own projects, they were very creative and produced things from scratch quickly, which is an activity that still exists, also in modern technology. It is the noble art of prototyping.. and even nowadays, often only the prototypers know how they achieved their results. But when engineers take over to create a product from the prototype, it can be reverse engineered to produce a proper design and building plan. Technology can be analyzed. With magic, that is not the case. Magic can only be applied, not understood.

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