[GUEST POST] James L. Sutter on Technology in Fantasy

James L. Sutter is the author of the novel Death’s Heretic, which Barnes & Noble ranked #3 on its list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011, as well as the co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Escape Pod, Starship Sofa, Apex Magazine, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death, and his anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories of SF luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James has written numerous roleplaying game supplements and is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on twitter at @jameslsutter.

Technology in Fantasy

The other day a fellow developer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and I are were arguing about spinning frames–those mechanical devices for spinning fibers into thread. He was wondering if it was bad form to put such a machine in Pathfinder, given that much of our world has a classic medieval fantasy feel, and spinning frames came about during the Industrial Revolution.

“Let me get this straight,” I replied. “This world has wizards who can stop time and make wishes come true. It has priests who can perform miracles and talk to gods. It’s got creatures who are physical manifestations of theoretical ideas, self-made immortals, folks who regularly come back from the dead, and heroes who literally ascend to godhood through their own actions. And we’re worried that it’ll seem too weird if somebody discovers a more efficient way to spin yarn?”

Put in those terms, it sounds silly, yet the question of technology is a huge one when building a fantasy world. Some people prefer technology that precisely matches that of a given real-world historical era. Others see nothing wrong with mixing and matching, combining swords, laser pistols, zeppelins, and dinosaur-pulled chariots. Some feel that technology itself should be the defining feature of the world (hence the ever-popular steampunk genre). Yet whatever path you choose when designing worlds for your fiction or RPG setting, there are a few important technological issues to consider.


Anachronisms are things out of place in a given time period, often introduced accidentally when an author makes assumptions about the past from a modern perspective. Since speculative fiction enthusiasts tend to be a well-educated lot, not to mention detail-oriented (to put it politely), odds are that any time you write a story set in the past, one of your readers will know the history better than you and catch you in an anachronism, kindly pointing out that a certain style of saddle didn’t come into use until much later, or that cell phones were actually invented well after Paul Revere’s ride.

Being caught in an accidental anachronism is embarrassing and annoying, but it’s important to remember that your fantasy world doesn’t need to be a direct model of Earth. A great deal of technological advancement is dependent on luck and circumstance, and it’s possible for a world to advance faster than ours in one respect while slower in others. If you want to write a world where people created personal computers before the internal combustion engine, go for it! Creating alternate versions of history–including the history of scientific progress–is a whole genre of SF, and our own world is just one example of how technology can develop. As long as yours is internally consistent–meaning you can imagine an explanation for how the people of your world discovered Thing B before Thing A–you’re golden.

Multiple Technology Levels

Some people frown at the idea of mixing technology levels, yet depending on the world you’ve created, it may make more sense than having a single overarching technological ceiling. Do vast distances, feuding governments, or cultural (perhaps even species-based) barriers separate cultures on your planet? If so, it seems reasonable that they might not share notes, or might guard their secrets carefully. Just because one of your cultures has robots and laser guns doesn’t mean others will have the education or resources required to understand and retroengineer such an artifact. Even cultures on our own planet have historically advanced at different rates–for instance, China was using cannons, rockets, flamethrowers, and land mines in warfare long before anyone in Europe discovered gunpowder.

The Question of Magic

One of the biggest objections I hear to including post-medieval technology in fantasy is that it takes the place of magic. Personally, I don’t buy it–I’m happy to have both in my worlds, and I believe fully in Clarke’s law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I’d much rather treat my wizards and magicians like scholars who are happy to use both magic and science to get what they want, but your preferences may differ. Just remember that no world is fully one or the other–even the most magical society needs a basic understanding of physics and engineering in order to function.

If you do include both, it’s worth deciding some key points, such as: Which scholars pursue which path, and why? Which is cheaper–science or magic? When is it better to use one rather than the other? How does organized religion view the two differently? Do scientists and wizards get along, or is there a rivalry there? How does magic–especially divination magic–influence the scientific process?

Common Technologies

While the spinning frame probably had a greater impact on the average person than the invention of the flamethrower–on a given day, people are more likely to wear clothes than to set each other ablaze–it’s not something your protagonists or adventuring party are likely to think about. Assuming you’re taking the classic fantasy route and using a more-or-less medieval base setting, below are notes on a few of the technologies most likely to play a noticeable role in your heroes’ adventures.

  • Airships: The first winged gliders appeared during the medieval period, and perhaps even earlier. (They didn’t work, of course, and terribly injured their pilots, but still–the idea was there.) And the principles that power hot air balloons were understood well before that. Airships can be a fun addition to your game, but it’s important to think about what it does to your world, especially to military engagements–a spotter balloon can see the enemy coming a long way off, and a castle’s walls can’t do much against a zeppelin that drifts over and drops bombs, flying safely above the range of archers.
  • Sanitation: The Middle Ages were pretty darn gross, with everyone emptying their chamber pots into the streets (often at high velocity from upper stories). While you might want to include this filth (and disease) as part of your world, there were a few cultures that managed to create decent plumbing and sanitation, so you can do the same without worrying about anachronism. (And really, if your fantasy world has magic capable of moving mountains, why is everyone walking around with sewage on their boots?)
  • Medicine: Europeans had no concept of hospitals until the crusades, when they first encountered the idea in the Middle East. Ancient Egyptians wrote down the first medical texts, South Asian dentists were drilling teeth nine thousand years ago, and the Greeks were mind-bogglingly advanced in some of their surgical procedures. Medicine advances at different rates in different places, often specializing in one area while falling behind in another. In your fantasy world, how advanced is medical knowledge? Do the people rely on priests for healing, or doctors? Do they understand germs, or why they shouldn’t drink downstream from a battlefield or cow pasture? When one of them gets sick, are they cared for in a hospital, or do their friends leech them and beat them with sticks to drive the demons out?
  • Printing Press: This may seem like a relatively mundane consideration for adventurers, but the availability of texts is a big deal for scholars (like wizards), priests, and the general literacy movement. Without cheap, mass-produced books, your average citizen probably won’t know how to read and write. The ability to print cheaply is also a great force for democracy, helping to organize and spread dissent among oppressed groups (like, say, feudal serfs). For a duke or prince who depends on his subjects remaining isolated and unimaginative, letting the people learn to read might be more dangerous than any rampaging dragon.
  • Steam Power: It seems like steam power is everywhere these days, with steampunk and “industrial revolution fantasy” showing no signs of slowing down. Steam-powered vehicles (especially locomotives) make transportation faster and more efficient, leading to the establishment of larger empires and quicker troop deployment. Steam-powered factories allow mass-production of identical goods with interchangeable parts, changing huge swaths of the economy (and devastating traditional cottage industries, turning artisans into factory line workers). It’s a fantastic advance–and also a dirty, dangerous one.
  • Firearms: No issue so divides fantasy fans–especially gamers–as the question of firearms. Some readers will instantly drop your book as soon as your warrior trades a sword for a flintlock, while others will happily read a thousand pages about bear-mounted Gatling guns. Ultimately, you need to make whatever decision is right for you, but it’s best to keep in mind firearms’ evolutionary process: large cannons and simple bombs are easier to make than small arms, muzzle-loaders predate cartridges by generations, semiautomatic weapons come much later, etc. And while anti-firearm pundits may declare that gunpowder immediately ruins (or imbalances) a fantasy setting, it’s worth noting that early musketeers had plenty of problems, and that a soldier with a musket is extremely vulnerable to arrows and daggers while he’s going through the time-consuming procedure of reloading.

So how do you feel about technology levels in fantasy? What important topics have I left out, and where’s the technological sweet spot in your own reading?

6 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] James L. Sutter on Technology in Fantasy”

  1. Are the electrons still warm, John? ;)

    Technology is often described as being not only in competition with magic, but actively opposed to each other. As if it were a binary choice, you get one or the other, not both.

    There is an old computer game (Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura) that explores that dynamic, and then there are the Victoria Strauss “Stone” novels where technology is suppressed for fear it will destroy magic.

    I think its nonsense, but its a trend I see all over the place.

    Firearms seem to be a big one. Firearms seem not to work in most “fantasy” universes where magic exists. The Bradley Beaulieu novels Winds of Khalakovo and Straits of Galahesh violate that paradigm, having two magic systems and Streltsi with guns. But he is a rare exception.

  2. Conversations like this always remind me of James Burke and his Connections series. To me it is a much watch for people that would change tech levels.

  3. Let me start off by saying that I do NOT mean that magic & science are in opposition to each other. But they do often address the same problems and social needs, and so the answers they come up with may have to compete with each other. An obvious example. Harry Potter has an owl for sending messages. Now this is cool, because I truly love owls. But wonderful as Harry’s owl is, she is neither as fast nor as efficient as a text message which is virtually instantaneous and can go to a large number of people simultaneously (not to mention not needing to live in a cage in your already over-cluttered room.) If you had a choice of both, would you really prefer the owl? Corresponding, if your soldier takes a prisoner for questioning, there is nothing in technology anywhere near as effective as Veritas spell. If a writer chooses to include both magic and technology in their world, I think they need to put a great deal of thought into the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each system, and what situations would cause a character to choose one over the other.

  4. The technology in fantasy thing comes up a lot. I am definitely one of the readers who are a little put off if I see a dragon and a gun on the cover. I must admit that I also do find it a little annoying when a writer talks about warriors wielding steel swords when the culture in the world built by the author clearly is not yet at a level advanced enough to produce steel weapons.

    I did give Brandon Sanderson’s new book “alloy of law” a try and even though the story paled in comparison to his other books, the mix of magic and guns was not that successful. He tried and I can see it partially worked, but just not well enough.

    The issue I have with a mix of magic and guns is that in a society with powerful magic, where the “wizards” are the scholars/scientists, I would expect all weapons research to be in the form of fine-tuning magic usage. That would take the focus away from traditional weapons research and thus stop weapons such as guns, cannons and the like from being discovered.

  5. One of the principle distinctions between magic and technology (as opposed to magic and scientific reasoning) is that technology, once it’s figured out, is replicable.

    The primary advantage of the crossbow in military affairs was that training men to use them was faster.

    It doesn’t take a one-in-2,000 Special Person to shoot crossbow bolts. Or even to make crossbows. Once the design of the crossbow is done, and the molds for the parts are made, they can be artisan crafted in 1-2 weeks. (Aging a good piece of yew for a longbow, or worse yet, making a composite bow, could take two months before you had a usable weapon, and environmental conditions could ruin it…)

    By way of comparison, only the Chosen Few can use the Arts Arcane in most fantasy settings (Xanth being a primary exception). One of the Chosen Few can’t come up with a single spell that non-mages can use to make unskilled guys more effective in combat.

    That’s, to my mind, the largest difference between magic and technology…and why a lot of “fantasy RPG magic” doesn’t feel like magic to me.

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