Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology...
There have been several threads about magic and tech on this forum, so I thought I'd write a post about it.
So you're writing a story, and it's either fantasy or urban fantasy, and magic and tech coexist. Great. The only problem is, you don't know how to make it work.
Before I begin, I'll assume that you've got a fair idea how your magic system works. If you don't, you'd better sit down and do that before anything else, because you'll never get anywhere without it.
* How long has mankind known about magic? In most fantasy worlds, magic has always existed (I don't recall any series where magic suddenly appeared, though I'm sure someone's done it); in urban fantasy, it leans more toward "hidden world" (magic and magical beings exist, but most people don't know about them) than "alternate history" (Anita Blake) or "open world" (technically The Hollows, though this is more "revealed world"). Again, I don't know of any urban fantasy series where magic suddenly appears/becomes available to a populace that didn't have it before (I think it would make for a fascinating series, but that's a topic for another thread).
* When did people learn to harness it, and how advanced is their knowledge? Was it long ago, before major technological advancements were made, or was it more recently? Obviously, the presence of magic would change the course of history (see DJ Butler's Witchy Eye), but more importantly, it would change the course of technological innovation. Imagine what the Renaissance era would've been like if we'd had planes, or if the Mongols had had firearms, or if something similar to the atomic bomb had been developed during WWI.
* How widespread is magic? Is it available only to those who can afford it, or is it common and cheap enough that everyone benefits from it? Remember: just because you have a magitech setting doesn't mean it has to be "magitech for all". Keeping it in the hands of the elite could make for an interesting setting, too - one where the rich flaunt their wealth and status by showing off how much magitech they have, or where the rich use their power to oppress the masses.
* I would also ask how well your magic system lends itself to integration with technology, but if you're reading this post, you probably don't need to worry about that. Still, it might be a good thing to think about - are there limits to what magic can replicate or replace? More on this in a bit.
When I was researching magitech, I came across an interesting post. It's rather long, but the author summed it up pretty well: "So in a world without pre-existing technology, like one where magic is innate or common, the drive for progress would have to be fundamentally different to make any headway." Basically: if it's easier to do it with magic, there's little incentive to develop other methods. For example, if the people have access to instant communications through crystal balls or mirrors or whatnot, radios and telephones will probably not exist - at least, not the realms that have those magics (see above).
Another way of stating this (I call it the Law of Innovation):
People will use any system that works unless and until something better is developed, or they're forced to find an alternative. The better it works, the less incentive there is to improve upon it.
No matter how well something works, there's usually someone who will try to improve upon it, but in general, innovations still fall under the Law of Diminishing Returns (the point at which the level of profits or benefits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested).
Innovations are generally developed in this order, from most to least important: basic needs (food, clothing, shelter), labor-saving, transportation/shipping, communication, entertainment, quality of life (things that are not essential to survival, but make life better). Energy sources are also important, but a separate category.
Basic needs goes without saying: if you don't have something to eat, a place to sleep, and some kind of protection from the elements, you're not going to live very long.
Labor-saving devices run the gamut from the lowly plow to construction equipment. Can you use magic to move large, heavy objects, do fine manipulation, alter the structure of objects (refining ore, e.g.), manipulate matter and/or energy (earth-moving, water control, firefighting, electric power, etc.), teleport objects and/or people... the list goes on and on. Just think of your basic labor-saving device and then say "Can I do this better with magic?"
Transportation/shipping go hand-in-hand. From the time we learned to tame animals and use them to haul goods, we've also used them for transportation. Wagons/carts, sleds, boats, trains, cars, planes - nearly any vehicle used to carry passengers can double as cargo transport. The question is, can you make it work better with magic? The Avatar universe is a great example of magic-assisted transportation - the Earth kingdom has Bender-power trolleys and a mail system; the Fire Kingdom uses steamships powered by Fire Benders, and the Water Kingdoms have Water-Benders moving their ships. Teleportation (via spell, gate, or portal) is a quick and efficient means of transport, though as I mentioned above, it might not be available to one and all.
Communication is a big one. As the ability to communicate advanced, people could pass messages back and forth more quickly - news spread faster, rulers could govern their nations more effectively, and innovations and technology leapt forward as people could share their ideas and pool their knowledge more easily. Can magic send messages over long distances (either verbally, telepathically, or through, say, a spirit messenger)? If so, is there a limit to what can be sent (words, images, entire movies, etc.)?
Entertainment goes along with communication, to some degree: radios and TV are a form of both communication and entertainment. Take things a step further, though: What if magic could replace CG/special effects? What about subliminal messages - is mind control a thing? Could it be used to summon creatures (for movies, TV shows, the circus, etc.)? The list here is nearly endless - anything you do for fun could be enhanced with or affected by magic.
Sources of energy have a large impact on quality of life, as well as innovations and how we use them; magic can play a big part in what kind of energy is being used and how. Aside from the obvious elemental manipulation, can magic be used to draw forth, store, and/or transfer energy? For example, did someone invent a device that draws power from the Earth's magnetic field, taps into the heat in the Earth's mantle, uses solar power, or feeds off energy from another dimension entirely? Magic could also make things more energy-efficient (no matter what source they use), or able to use multiple sources of energy.
And finally, we have quality of life. This ranges from the basic stuff like heat and AC for your living space to things classified as luxuries. Are these things more readily available through the use of magic? If alternate energy sources are more readily available, devices that use them would be too (and they would be cheaper).
One final note: I want to include a "miscellaneous" category, for all the oddball stuff magic can do that people don't think about. I've been watching The Gifted, so I try to think about all the things mutants can do that would be helpful, rather than harmful. Telepaths, for instance, can do a lot - help people work through traumatic experiences, interrogate criminals, or communicate with those who can't speak. People with super-strength? No-brainer. Kinetics? Same as magic (see above). Portals, water-breathing, immunity to heat/cold/whatever.... The possibilities are endless - you just have to keep an open mind and take a minute to consider them. Ask yourself: "If I had this ability, what could (or would) I do with it?"
* Lost Kingdom: A blog full of all kinds of fascinating stuff; each post "tackl[es] Magic (as well as issues like the existence of other races, gods which actually exist and interact with the world) as an overlay on top of historical data, which will format the final outcome of each subject." - a must-read for anyone using a high-magic setting.
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