Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.49: Magic and Technology: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Fonda Lee, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler

Magic and technology are tools that we, as writers, use to tell interesting stories, and they’re very, very similar tools. In this episode we’ll examine some ways in which both magical and technological elements can be used in our stories.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Come up with one speculative element to add to our world. “Children have night vision.” “Dogs can talk.” Come up with as many aspects of the world that would be different from our own as a result and mark one or two that would be the seed for interesting stories.

Thing of the week: David Mogo Godhunter, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Magic and technology are often mentioned as parts of worldbuilding for speculative fiction stories. They are tools. Not inherently good or bad, it is how the author uses them that creates the interest, tension, and story. You should use them for a purpose. Either magic or advanced technology can be used to advance your plot. Set the ground rules, then remain consistent and follow those rules. Do remember that resources are never evenly distributed and accessed. People who have daily access are likely to consider it technology, while less common access makes it magic. Remember that all your characters are biased, and their view of the world is incomplete, so pay attention to your character’s relationship with the magic or tech. Think about what your character does not know or misunderstands about the magic or tech. Try to avoid the “just like our world but with X” fallacy. Remember the ripple effects of even small changes. 

[Season 16, Episode 49]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Magic and Technology: Two Sides of the Same Coin.

[Fonda] 15 minutes long.

[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Fonda] I’m Fonda.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] We’re going to talk about magic and technology. We could come up with all kinds of fun little quotes about how they’re related to each other. But… Tell us about them, Fonda. How are they related to each other?

[Fonda] I like talking about them together and in a sort of special separate episode because they are mentioned as such huge parts of worldbuilding when it comes to speculative fiction stories. I think of them as tools. They’re both tools. They’re tools in two different aspects. The first being that they’re not inherently good or bad, right? I mean, you have a tool, you could use a knife to free a hostage, you could use it to cut steak, you could stab someone with it, and it’s what people choose to do…

[Howard] Those are all three the same activity. Sorry, keep going.

[Fonda] Howard, I’m a little worried, but I will continue.

[Dan] [garbled] stab Howard.

[Fonda] So, what people decide to do with that tool is where the interest, where the tension, where the story lies. They’re also both tools in the sense that if you create them, it is for a purpose, and if they’re in the story, they need to be there for a reason and they ought to be used. So I think of them as serving similar narrative functions. It’s one reason why I move very easily between writing science fiction and writing fantasy. Because, regardless of whether you are employing magic or you’re employing advanced technology that doesn’t exist as we know it today, you can do similar things with them in order to advance your plot. The thing to keep in mind is that in either of those cases, you establish the ground rules for your magic and your tech, and remain consistent and follow them.

[Dan] Now, I’m going to say this because I know that one or more of our listeners out there is thinking this right now. What if I invent a magic that is inherently good or bad? An example that comes to mind is the Reckoner series by Brandon, where having superpowers is inherently corruptive and makes you into a bad person because of the nature of the magic. That is to Fonda’s second point, a narrative tool, and the way that the author has chosen to use it. So, yes, don’t think of these as limits or us telling you that you can or can’t do something. Just be aware that you are making choices, and that you are using these tools for a specific outcome.

[Fonda] Yeah. That’s a good example of doing something different with the idea of dark magic. Right? Like, often times in fantasy, you have this term dark magic. I always want to sort of dissect that a little bit and ask, “Well, okay, what makes it dark? Is it the people who use it? A tendency to do dark things, or is it used primarily by a certain type of person, or it has been used to do terrible things in the past and so now it has connotations of being evil?” So I think if you pull that apart and tease it apart a little bit, you can find more nuance and more angles to approach something that is sometimes taken for granted, like dark magic.

[Dan] That’s very cool.

[Fonda] Another thing that I want to say about magic and tech is that there is no human resource in our world that is ever evenly distributed or accessed. Right? We have cell phones in the hands of pretty much everybody that… Who you see on the street, but there are places in our world where people don’t have running water. So they’re… An easy way to make your fantasy or science fiction world seem simplistic is to give the impression that the world doesn’t have any of the same problems that we do, and everyone views the magic and the tech in the same way and has equal access to it. Because, we talked about making our worlds feel real. A world where everyone has magic and the magic is limitless and it’s equally accessed feels not only difficult to believe but has less conflict and is inherently less interesting.

[Mary Robinette] I think, to your point about magic and technology being two sides of the same coin, because people are pattern seeking creatures, we treat them the same. Like, we have… We’ll say… There are magic spells in our real world. Like, if you need a bus to come, you will walk away from a bus stop. It’s a very simple magic system, but it works every single time. If you need to invoke rain, leave the house without an umbrella. It’s a very… It’s again, a simple magic system. But these are the ways that we interpret the world and the ways that we use things. Electricity is a magic system. Some people understand it deeply and can get it to do really cool things. The rest of us just apply the work that someone else already did. One of the reasons…

[Howard] There’s a group of people in the middle who are dead.

[Mary Robinette] There is a group of people in the middle.


[Mary Robinette] But there are people in modern-day America who do not have a good relationship with electricity, who think that it is related to many of the modern evils, and so want to limit its use. There’s a number of different places where you can find that being reality. It’s my parents were born in the same year, in the same city. My dad got an electric train when he was seven at a time that my mom was living in a house with a dirt floor that did not have electricity in the house at all. So, when we’re talking about the things that are uneven, it’s not just along one axis. It’s along multiple different axes that people have uneven relationships to whatever this, whether it’s magic or technology.

[Dan] I want to pause here in the middle to do our book of the week, which I get to talk about this time. It is David Mogo Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa. He is a Nigerian fantasy author. This book, it was his first published one, takes place in a post-apocalyptic Lagos, Nigeria, where magic and technology have kind of been combined together. Which is why I thought it would be fun for this one. The apocalypse in the book was that the thousands of gods that kind of live in the spirit world have collapsed into earth, and Lagos is this kind of semi-livable wasteland where these gods and their magic powers are just kind of there, and sometimes they cause good things to happen, and sometimes they just cause more entropic reactions of things falling apart or ceasing to work. David Mogo, the Godhunter of the title, he can go around and kind of collect these things and trap them and use them for different things. The villain also is trying to use the gods for various purposes. So it’s a really fascinating book, not only at the culture that he develops for this kind of ruined Lagos, but also the way that magic is used in the way that technology is used by the characters in the book. That’s David Mogo Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa.

[Mary Robinette] It’s a great book. It’s really… It’s well worth reading. But a book that you made me think of is God Engines by John Scalzi, in which the literal engines of spaceships are gods that have been harnessed as power sources. So again, both magic and technology. I think that’s kind of the thing for me is whatever… Anyone who is interacting with it on a daily basis is going to view it as technology. Anyone who is not interacting with it on a daily basis is going to view it as magic, regardless of what it is.

[Fonda] I love stories that combine magic and tech. There’s something about them that is so catnip to me.

[Howard] Yeah. There was an Iain Banks story, novel, Against a Dark Background, I think was the name, where it’s a science fiction adventure with a MacGuffin, and the MacGuffin is called the lazy gun. All we know about the lazy gun is that if you point it at someone and pull the trigger, they will die, and the larger the group of people you point the trigger at… You point at when you pull the trigger, the more likely it is that you’re just going to get a big boring explosion. Also, if you turn it upside down, it’s 3 pounds heavier. That’s all we know about it. Those elements never get explored. We never try and throw the gun to someone and have it turn over midair and end up heavier when it… It’s… It functions in the story like a magical artifact. In that regard, in a science fiction story, it’s a worldbuilding tool that tells us we’ve forgotten a lot. Somebody built something that we no longer know how to build. There are a lot of other things in the story that are your typical sort of science-fiction things that work the way you expect a science fiction thing to work. They have some rules and then those rules get exploited in order to use the thing in a heroic way. Huzzah. But when we get our hands on the gun, we’re not actually answering questions about the gun. We’re shooting it in order to get away with it and then the story ends. I was actually very satisfied that it left me with this puzzle, and this idea that in a technology and pseudo-magic story, there were elements that wouldn’t be explained.

[Fonda] Yeah. I have a magic element in my trilogy, but I never call it magic. Back to Mary Robinette’s point, that the people who interact with something on a daily basis don’t think of it as magic. Characters don’t think of this thing as magic. They would never call it magic. It’s just a natural part of their world. We talked way back in episode two of this master class, all your characters are biased and have an incomplete view of the world, like the blind men and the elephant. When you are writing a world with magic or advanced tech, that principle of all your characters are biased is one to keep in mind really strongly, because what does your character have access to? What is their relationship to the magic and the tech? So you need to answer for yourself, well, who controls this technology or this magic? Who benefits? What’s the power structure around it? What is possible to do with it? Do you need training? Do you need a license? Do you need someone to vouch for you? Are you born to it? Like, what are all the sort of social structures and rules, inherent rules, around the magic or technology? Then, where does your character fit? What do they see? How do they interact? Because they’re not going to have the complete view. Your char… People are going to have very different opinions about magic and tech, just like they do in our world.

[Mary Robinette] One of the fun exercises that I play with sometimes is also what do your characters not know or misunderstand about the technology. I have a friend who’s an astrophysicist. She was recently asked to explain… Like, a reporter called and was like, “Can you explain, we’ve got some questions from children, why is the speed of light what it is?” She’s like, “Nobody knows that.”


[Mary Robinette] “That’s the speed of light.” He’s like, “Why did the Big Bang happen?” She’s like, “First of all, the Big Bang is not actually what happened, probably. Second, no one was there. We’ve got theoretical models, but how am I supposed to… You want me to explain that to a five-year-old?”


[Mary Robinette] But at a certain point, it doesn’t matter how much you know about something, you’re still going to run up against something that you don’t know. Like, parachutes. We don’t actually know how parachutes work. Like, not enough to be able to design better parachutes by any method other than building them and tearing them.

[Dan] So, while we are talking about this idea, this giving context to the magic and the technology, let’s talk about some of the… I guess one of the main problems that I see with a lot of aspiring writers is the kind of just like our world but with X kind of fallacy, where everything is identical, except something has changed.

[Mary Robinette] You mean like Jane Austen with magic?

[Dan] Yeah. Which is… No. That’s a good one to bring up. Because I’ve had long conversations with you about how you designed the magic in the world so that they could compliment each other without either one breaking the other one in half. Whereas there are a lot of things we see… The Netflix movie Bright did not do that, and it was trying to use our modern world essentially unchanged except that orcs and fairies and elves and stuff are real and everyone’s known about them for hundreds if not thousands of years. Which doesn’t work. There’s a lot of things fundamental to even just the naming conventions of Southern California where the story takes place would be different if the Catholic Church had been destroyed or altered by the presence of fairy magic, right? So, talk to us a little bit about that, that kind of ripple effect about changing one aspect of a world can change everything else.

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the examples that I cite sometimes, or think about sometimes, is that in Valor and Vanity… So, glamour, which is the magic system, is basically… It’s an illusionary form of magic. In my mind, and this is why I’m like magic is technology, in my mind, what they’re doing is manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum. But they’re only manipulating the waveforms. Glamour is just waves, not particles. This is my own brain. Obviously, that does not actually work. Just FYI, glamour is not real.


[Mary Robinette] Despite some of the letters I have received. So… But, the… There is a point at which I was having them do a form of glamour, and I’m like, wait, if you do that, they will have invented telephones in 1817. That changes everything. I had to go back in and layer in a little bit about having glamour droop down to the earth. Like, I basically went back and looked at the things that I already laid, and thought, which tool can I use to explain why this won’t work? In order to keep it from being… From accidentally having this ripple effect. So I was constantly doing this back and forth to layer things in to keep it from changing the world too much. Because I wanted the power dynamics to stay the same. I also made the decision that glamour was equally distributed, so that what you get instead is the differences between… That’s not the power difference between countries. The power difference remains the same… Related to many of the effects that happen in our world. Whereas, if I had said, “Ah. This is…” Which I did with Ghost Talkers. Their understanding of ghost was something that was very British-centric. But quite recent, and a carefully guarded secret. So, if the world of Ghost Talkers, which is set in World War I, if that had continued past that book, the outcome of World War I, the… Like, I was going to have to start changing every battle going forward, because of those decisions that I made.

[Dan] That’s awesome. Well, it is on this subject, in fact, that we have our homework. So, Fonda, tell us our homework.

[Fonda] Yeah. This ties very closely to what Mary Robinette was talking about, which is thinking about the ripple effects and the second, third, fourth order effects that adding a speculative fiction element to your world would result in. So I want you to think of one just thing that you would change about our world and come up with as many aspects of the world that would be different from our own as a result. So, let’s say, children have night vision, or, dogs can talk. Just one little thing. Do a brainstorm of how that would affect everything that you can think of in sort of our society daily life. After you’ve done that for a little while, mark one or two that could be the seed for an interesting conflict or an interesting story.

[Dan] Sounds great. Well, this is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.