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Most settings with a magical component, whether this means wizards, magical races, or something similar, seem to be parked at a medieval level of development in terms of technology and society. Is this just because that's how the "high fantasy" genre developed, or is there some fundamental reason that having magic in a modern/future/high-tech world would be a bad idea?

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    $\begingroup$ Star Wars. Enough said. $\endgroup$ – Epiglottal Axolotl Sep 16 '14 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ Piers Anthony's "Incarnations of Immortality" has technology and magic existing and competing with each other. For example the books have magic carpets and cars competing for commuter business. Another example is the Shadowrun role playing games. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 16 '14 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ Thor (the movie for the Avengers character) and its sequel show that Asgard's Magic is just a different technology, developed through different means. $\endgroup$ – Envite Sep 18 '14 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ Note that a world with magic has a lower incentive to develop technology. Most of our modern technology is pretty recent, and it developed because there were problems needed to be solved. If you can solve your problems with waving a magic wand, you have less incentive for science. $\endgroup$ – vsz Sep 30 '14 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ This questions is now being discussed on meta. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 8 '17 at 13:32

14 Answers 14

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One primary reason why this is the case is because settings with more advanced technology and magic mixed together require a great deal of thought about how technology would likely develop when magic exists in the world. If magic exists, it's likely that many things in our world would have developed differently. How we handle long-distance travel, communication (the Internet), the games we play, the jobs that are available, any or all of these things could be changed when magic is introduced.

Rather than create an entirely different world that readers will recognize as alien, it's often simpler to revert to more primitive times, and simply add in magic when its existence doesn't require you to create a dozen centuries of magitech. It's a lot of work for the writer, and it may confuse or alienate the reader.

Thus, to easily and quickly create a world their readers will recognize, many authors prefer to use the "standard" medieval fantasy setting.

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    $\begingroup$ "Why have guns when you have fireblasts?" is a great starting point to see how differently tech would develop $\endgroup$ – Kroltan Nov 11 '14 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ And it's not just "how technology would likely develop when magic exists in the world" but also the other way around: it a modern world with a lot of technology there is less use for magic. If you have guns, you don't need fireblasts. The less knowledgeable a society is, the easier it is to make magic believable. Just look at history. $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Dec 1 '14 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ These quotes "Why have guns when you have fireblasts?" and "in a modern world with a lot of technology there is less use for magic" I feel are too cut-and-dry on both sides of the argument. There is a third way to look at it. Not everybody naturally has magic ability. So wouldn't technology evolve around the "normal" folks, to match/compete with the folks that do have magic? $\endgroup$ – Grapho May 14 '15 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DungeonPunk it doesn't need to be $\endgroup$ – Jon Takagi Jul 14 '16 at 4:23
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The genre of "urban fantasy" has been gaining in the last few years, largely related to werewolves and vampires. Yet still, there is a growing interest in having magic in a modern world. On the other hand, these stories also tend to be set in a world where magic is not accepted as being real, and the really wonderful magical world is hidden from the eyes of the general public. Perhaps it is too hard to really decide what the world would be like if wizards walked among us?

Magic and futuristic technology is another story, and I think part of it may be that future tech itself seems very magical. Reminds me of Arthur C Clarke's quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

In essence, the magic in fantasy literature and the high technology of science fiction are not all that dissimilar. I can shoot fireballs out of an exquisitely crafted wooden wand, or I can shoot fireballs out of an XK-Red-3015 Magmamatic Disrupto rifle. The only true difference is the explanation behind the ability that people have.

Which isn't to say that "magic" doesn't make its own special appearances in other clothes. Yoda's ability to use "the Force" and Gandalf's plethora of spells are also not all that different from each other. Just slightly different dress.

Then of course, there's the Shadowrun universe ... a post in and of itself.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks. I hadn't been thinking of supernatural creatures like vampires/werewolves as being magical in the way that spellcasters are, but I can see them being thought of together. Good observations about future tech. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Sep 16 '14 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ I believe the biggest reason this doesn't happen is because magic would probably affect our ability to perceive the scientific constants that (we believe) underlie our universe and in turn have led to many of our modern innovations. Still the best answer so far, I think. $\endgroup$ – Wesley Obenshain Sep 16 '14 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ I personally think it's not that people don't use magic in high-tech environment, it's just that scientific technology has replaced magic as "it can perform ridiculously awesome functions but you don't know how it works". Flamethrowers, radar, tsunami-warning-system, wireless connections are basically the modern version of fire spells, sensing magic, divination and telepathy $\endgroup$ – Raestloz Oct 2 '14 at 9:15
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Magic can lead to modern technology.

In the 13th century CE, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon proposed what is recognizable as a modern scientific method. They reinterpreted Aristotle in light of ideas and practices presented in works that Arab polymaths had been putting out over the last couple centuries, such as Book of Optics by Ibn al-Haytham. In the following century, William of Ockham stated his parsimony principle of choosing the shortest hypothesis that explains the observations. These led over the next few centuries to rapid advances in science (understanding of natural laws) and technology (their application).

Fast-forward to the 20th century, when centuries of this progress have dramatically affected life in the real world, and Arthur C. Clarke stated his famous third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." A few years later, a character in the Studio Foglio webcomic Girl Genius stated the corollary: "Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!" This observation, also attributed to Larry Niven, Terry Pratchett, and others, is why answering "what is magic" isn't as easy as it sounds. Heck, how do we know that phenomena on which we rely in the real world aren't magic?

So if your world develops a scientific method, systematic analysis of magical phenomena as natural laws with a mathematical basis and subsequent application are likely to follow. Consider the Tippyverse, a thought experiment built on the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. In the Tippyverse, mages have perfected their understanding of "magical" phenomena to the point where they can trap spells in push-button devices. These machines act as food dispensers, showers, training dummy makers for grinding experience, emergency rooms, transport, and more, allowing for a way of life much closer to the modern real world. Or in another setting, people might discover how to harness fields associated with ley lines for power instead of discovering fossil fuels.

The question for a writer then becomes what would keep philosophers in a setting from arriving at a viable scientific method. One way, as you have seen, is to just set the story before analysis of magic has had a chance to spread. Another way is to make magic not repeatable, such as "wild magic" or magic that relies on summoning demons. A third thing that could hinder the progress of science and useful arts is if survival is difficult enough that there are not enough surplus resources to devote to science.

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    $\begingroup$ Princess Bubblegum from Adventure Time: All magic is science! You just don't know what you're doing, so you call it magic! And, well.., it's.. ridiculous. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Dec 2 '14 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ "Make magic not repeatable" - makes me think of the (very NSFW) webnovel "Tales of MU", where magic possesses a sort of semi-sentience and if you try to abuse its predictability, it stops being predictable for a bit. Just long enough to blow you up with a failed experiment, for example. In that universe, there is a fiction genre trying to describe what the world WOULD be like if the scientific method worked. Industrialization has happened, but in the form of factories full of enchanters individually creating magical cars and such. $\endgroup$ – Syndic Nov 25 '16 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ The entire "magic is analyzable" idea is a modern perversion of the original concept of magic, in which the practitioner imposes his will on quite specifically supernatural beings who do his will without concern for mere physical considerations. The heart of magic is simply, "Wishing makes it so," and the idea that magic follows rules which allow it to be analyzed the same way science is represents a major failure of imagination. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 9 '17 at 14:40
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Clarke's three laws, 3rd point

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Medieval societies tend to use more "magic" than modern societies due to the fact that modern society tends to be able to duplicate magical effects, after all, in the past did lighting a fire or using gunpowder not seem as wonderous or as fearful as sorcery?

An example science duplicating magic of this is seen in the Nasuverse (Fate/ Series) where Magecraft is

the ability to reproduce what can be scientifically realized regardless of time and funds. The limits of Magecraft have changed with time, as science evolved and sorceries from before became technically possible through science.

Of course that's not to say Magic in Modern societies can't exist and be more open. In the Nasuverse there are organizations which still work with aspects of Magic (Magecraft) such as the Mage's Association based in London, the US Backed Organization mentioned in Fate/Strange Fake who duplicated the Fuyuki Holy Grail War Ritual, Yggdmillennia in Fate/Apocrypha who sought to separate from the Mage's Association and the Egyptian Atlas Academy, one of many subdivisions who work with the Mage's Association.

Though like with the Nasuverse, Magic in Modern Society tends to be hidden away (the Mage's Association does care how inhumane experiments are, they will only act if the existence of Magic is made public), in Anime (particular Magical Girl Genres) those with magic kept their magical identities hidden.

There is however some anime which does have Magic in Modern and/or futuristic societies. One notable mention is that of Mid-Childa and the World under governance of the Time-Space Administration Bureau. due to scientific advancement, Magic is

closer to science and technology than mysticism

and it being used as an alternative to Mass Based technology which is seen as more destructive to nature, while a lot of the characters use melee weapons (swords, hammers, scythes) or Staffs, Teana Lanster's "device" Cross Mirage is a set of guns while one of the forms of Erio Mondial's device Strada obtains rocket thrusters making him like a rocket when he attacks.


The reason, I believe, that a lot of the time Medieval Society and tech is used over modern or futuristic is that the characters don't know any better as they have nothing to compare to which exists in their world and the audience can believe that.

In Star Wars, Han Solo has trouble believing in The Force passing off as just luck because he knows how his ship can achieve speeds faster than light. One of Darth Vader's officers at one stages refers to The Force as an old sorcery which no longer has power (demonstrated otherwise mid sentence) because he is on board a station which can blow up planet. This is because they are in a society in which explains how energy is fired from a weapon or how a city could float in the sky. Yet there is this unexplained power behind firing lighting from one's fingertips or lifting up rocks and ships with one's mind.

As such, for Magic to be apart of a more modern society it has to be explained why it can be used? Why can't you just use science or vice versa? How come some people can use it and some can't? Sure some of the audience may not care but there are others who would strive for this and if your making a world/universe which you want audience to be invested in you'd want those people to believe in that world, the closer it is to our world, the harder it is to have the unexplained. With the 2 anime I mentioned

  • In the Nasuverse, magic is mainly done though Magic Circuits - a pseudo-nervous system that spreads itself through the human body

  • In the Nanohaverse, Magic is achievable with the Linker Core - an organ in a mage's (knight's) body which works to link and manifest Mana generated within themselves.

In medieval times how would we know these things without the technology/techniques available, even if you were to explain it you then have the audience ask "How do they know?". The best worlds have their concepts explained by the world itself and the people therein, not the author (ie. supplementary material released in the form of a research paper that would have been published in the world, similar to how Fate/The Fact was released as a magazine which featured an interview with Rin Tohsaka explaining the Resistance against the Harwey plutocracy), therefore if the people of your world can't explain it then we don't expect them to. Modern societies/tech is easier and require less work to explain things

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    $\begingroup$ did you type ‘medievil’ on purpose or was it just Freudian? :P $\endgroup$ – user2230 Oct 18 '14 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ Finally someone who knows Clarke's Laws. $\endgroup$ – Doomed Mind Jun 9 '17 at 15:24
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It's because the medieval period on historical Earth was the last period when magic was treated as factual. Then the Age of Reason etc. led to science, which eventually (though not immediately) developed understandings of how most things worked, that were in opposition to, or at least absent, magic and spirituality. If magic on Earth had featured more scientifically-observable magical phenomena (such as flashy spells found in fantasy magic systems) then science would have included that magic in its observations.

Since this is what happened historically, making a fictional reality where magic coexists with higher technology, probably implies a different history, society, economy, politics, associations, etc.

Back to the real world, some science is starting to take more notice and interest in some phenomena once considered magic/spiritual. I imagine that in future centuries, if we survive the effects of our own industrialization, there may be more integration of technology with "magic".

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In my opinion, magic can lead to its very own kind of technology, possibly very similar to ours.

If it is a kind of magic where you use one energy source to trigger one other event (like in The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss), then it actually is very similar to electricity and you can imagine a watermill generating a rotating force used to power the wheels of a cart, the barrel of a washing machine...

If it is a kind of magic where you can enchant tiles to react logically together, then it is very similar to a computer and you can imagine advanced sorcerers working on diminishing the size of the logical tiles and augmenting the processing power...

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There are plenty of novels with magic and magical creatures in contemporary times. Usually under a genre called Urban Fantasy. Most current vampire and werewolf stories fall into this.

Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis is magic and magical creatures on the East coast. If you want a book closer to "High Fantasy" that still contemporary you have the series like Harry Potter.

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  • $\begingroup$ True, Harry Potter combines the elements, but the magical and muggle worlds are largely kept separate, so magic isn't really "part" of the ordinary person's world. Thanks for helping me to clarify my thinking; I didn't bring that out in the question. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Sep 16 '14 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ Harry Potter features a contemporary setting, but the wizarding world is a strange hodge-podge of ancient and modern tropes. Wizards always wear robes and fly on brooms, even though a car might work better. Except for the Knight Bus, which is a magical bus. Wizards don't understand television or electricity but they have magical radio. Wizards use quills to write, instead of pens, but they have spell-checking quills. I'd say Harry Potter is a good example of the problem: the author seemed to genuinely struggle between making the magical setting archaic and also modern at the same time. $\endgroup$ – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 28 '15 at 17:16
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There are actually a lot of works with magic set in modern or future world, off the top of my head:

  • Harry Potter (they don't interact much, but they did have a magical flying car)

  • Night Watch/Day Watch

  • Buffy (it was mostly vampire slaying but they did have witches with spells as well)

  • Practical Magic

  • Secret Circle

  • Beautiful Creatures

  • Arguably anything involving super heroes

And there are a LOT more that I'm forgetting, so no there is no reason why magic has to be in medieval settings, but it does tend to be more hidden in modern settings since compared to modern weapons a magical person isn't as overpowered and have to keep it on the down low so that they aren't experimented on or shot by paranoid neighbor etc.

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There is no requirement that magic and medieval tech have to be tied. Yes it has very frequently been done — probably around 4 to 1 with 'modern' tech and magic (given my libary/readings).

There are in universe type explanations that can be applied, specifically:

  • lots of research would be done into magic rather than technology
  • Magic users might be anti-technology due to technology reducing their power

Then there are real world reasons:

  • for some reason a lot of people like dragons and knights (and similar themes)
  • a lot of early magic tales (i.e. fairy tales) were medieval in age.
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    $\begingroup$ "Magic users might be anti-technology" : in Pratchett's Discworld, an arquebuse is seen as more powerful than a mage. the later can only fire a few fireball before needing rest, while the former can be used by any body, can be reloaded at will, and is precise. Mage and assassins are not pleased with the idea... Possession of such weapon is punishable by death (and only one was made, and it should have been destroyed) $\endgroup$ – PATRY Guillaume Sep 17 '14 at 8:17
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Not at all, D&D 3.5 released Eberron, which has a much higher level of technology, often powered by magic. It's often compared to the late 19th, early 20th century in terms of the level of technology involved.

There's also the Rifts universe that has high tech, with lasers and mechs, but also incorporates magic and psionics. They specifically have a tech called Techno-Wizardry, which mixes the two together.

These are just the two universes I could think of off the top of my head. Whilst it's true that a large number of high-fantasy games use magic, it's certainly not exclusively that way.

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To make a counter exemple, in the game "Arcanum", both magic and steam-level technology (i.e. train, gas, guns...) co-exist.

In fact, magic is studied like a science (i.e. at university; theories exist and so on...), but on separate (and distant) ground of the technological science.

The reason is that magical operations modify the "standard" laws of nature, and that technology is based on those laws. If a spell as the side effect of modifying the coefficient of friction of metal, then the nearby steam-engine is going to have a problem.

In this society, you have tech zones and magical ones, where the usage (or even the presence) of the opposing tech is forbidden. The society as a whole use both, depending on the need. For example, steam trains are more effective to move large quantity of people/material than magic, so there are railway stations in most big cities.

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The scientific method is based on results that are reproducable, through consistent rules that operate on the lowest level.

If physical law were teleological instead, an attempt to understand physics would be more like psycology or politics. It would have more in common with Madison Avenue than Mathematics.

Success in predicting or intentionally producing desired results wouldn't be utterly perfect but would be like modern understanding of Economics.

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It's not a requirement for it to be medieval, it's just easier on the mind for some writers. I purchased a book of 30 wizard "short stories" some time ago and several involved modern day uses. With magic, you're limited only by your imagination.

One such story involved magic being essentially code, you coded a spell and you could carry spells in your cell phone or a Zune and cast them by bringing them up. You had to sacrifice some 'mojo' to do so (The resource they had) but otherwise magic was pretty much an app that almost anyone could use. Getting 'mojo' apparently required some work though, IIRC you essentially sucked it out of people who visited your sites as sort of a fee.

A particular spell I loved was the D*ck Cactus curse, which does exactly what it implies and turns the organ into a cactus, with painful results.

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  • $\begingroup$ Best magical curse I ever read was the "Incessant Rectal Itch". :-)) $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 9 '17 at 20:01
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Look at the video game "Destiny" for a sci-fi plus magic setting. The Lore miraculously mixes sci-fi, with time travel, harnessing power of suns, giant supercomputers that gain sentience, and fantasy, with ancient Gods imposing their will across dimensions and space, performing rituals and such.

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protected by Tim B Nov 2 '14 at 19:54

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