Magic’s Pawn

One of my favorite styles of magic, though not often see is not a clever way for the protagonist to control the forces of magic, but a system where the forces of magic control the protagonist.  I suppose an ancient prophecy ca work kind of like this or a higher being giving direction, but I’m talking a more concrete and local form of control, yet exercised by a more abstract force.

The forces of magic involved don’t necessarily have to be sentient or intelligent in the way a human is or, even an animal although they could be.  Honestly, I think not being so makes the situation all the more interesting.

Think of the way a bee is involved in an ecosystem: generally as a pollinator.  Now imagine that a human (probably a mage or this world’s equivalent, but not necessarily) has been incorporated into the magical ecosystem of the world in the same way.  Some force of magic has evolved to encourage certain behaviors in human mages that are beneficial to the magic of the world that force of magic is part of.

Perhaps there is a cycle sort of like the water cycle that benefits from humanity in chaos, and so the magic has evolved ways to create that chaos through empowering some mage or person.  The specific actions of the person are irrelevant to the magic, as long as they cause a great upheaval.  The system may not even care if humans would describe this pawn of magic as “evil” or “good”.

Humanoid characters are almost always portrayed as exerting control over the magic of their world, but they are rarely shown to have been integrated into the system–as we are integrated into nature, even despite our control of it–despite what is portrayed in the world’s history as thousands or even millions of years of coexistence.

Where are the magical world equivalents of modern climate change?  There are apocalypses sort of like nuclear bomb analogs.  Mercedes Lackey’s Winds series, for example, with it’s effects on the world of the end of the war depicted in her Gryphon’s series.  But rarely if ever are there subtle build-ups of all the interference caused by humans harnessing magical forces.  Not even on the local level like the magical equivalent of the flooding and ecological damage caused by damning rivers, or the water shortages caused by different political entities failing to cooperate on usage rights of the local river.

I would love to read (or write!) some fantasy exploring a closer relationship between man and magic than simply human master and magical servant/slave.


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Magic and Science and How Twins are Different People

Something that in my experience drives many (identical) twins crazy is how many people assume they look alike physically so they must be just alike in other ways.  Interests, hobbies, sexuality, gender, religion, whatever.  Twins may look the same superficially, but underneath they are as different as any two other people.  Or any non-twin siblings if you want to be pedantic about nature and nurture.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are like the Twins of Literature.  Whenever someone tries to talk about genre lines or the difference between science and magic, the same old shit gets trotted out.  Clarke’s Law and all that.  Someone recently left a comment on this very blog saying magic is just a stand-in for science.  My friend!  Boy do we have a lot to talk about today.  While it’s certainly true that magic can serve many of the same functions as science (or technology) in a story, the two are fundamentally different in both themselves and the uses to which they are most often put.  Sure they’re both blonde, but technology like red-heads, and magic is more into undercuts.


First, not to keep pushing the lie that science is cold and emotionless, but a prime use of science (not technology!) in literature is to influence the world through knowledge of the world’s own inner workings.  (Technology does not require knowledge in its use, often, but rather only in its construction.)  One of the major differences is that most (but not all) magic in stories requires knowledge to use it.  You have to know how the magic works, or what the secret words are.  Whereas tech is like flipping the light switch.  A great writer once said what makes it science fiction is that you can make the gadget and pass it to the average joe across the engineering bay and he can use it just fine, but magic requires a particular person.  I can pass out a million flame-throwers to the troops, but I can’t just pass you a fireball and expect you not to get burned.  That’s one aspect to look at, although these days, magitech and enchanted objects can certainly play the role of mundane technology fairly well.

Second, magic is about taking our inner workings and thought processes and imposing them on top of the universe’s own rule.  From this angle, what makes magic distinct from technology is that a magic conflict is about the inner struggle and the themes of the narrative and how they can be used to shape the world.  Certainly tech can play this role, twin to how magic can be made to act like tech.  But it’s much less common out in the real world of literature.


There are two kinds of magic system:  One is the explicit explanation of how the magic works according to the word of god(the author), and the other is a system that the characters inside the world, with their incomplete knowledge impose on top of the word of god system.  So this group uses gestures to cast spells, and this group reads a spellbook, but they are both manifestations of the same basic energy.

So magic is the power to impose our will on the world whereas science/technology is powerful through its understanding of the uncaring laws of the universe.

Then, of course, are the differences in terms of how authors use them in the narrative.  Magic has a closer connection, in my opinion, to the theme aspect of literature.  It can itself be a realization of the theme of a story.  Love conquers all as in Lily Potter protecting her infant son from the dark lord at the cost of her life.  Passion reflected in the powers of the fire mage.  Elemental magic gives a great example.  Look at the various associations popular between elementalists’ characters and the element they wield.  Cold and impersonal ice mages, loving and hippy-ish earth mages.  This analogical connection is much more difficult to achieve with technology.


There’s a lot of debate these days about “scientific” magic versus numinous magic, and whether or not magic must have rules or a system.  But even systematically designed magic is not the same as technology, though it can be made to play similar roles, such as solving a plot puzzle.  But think:  The tricks to magic puzzles are thematic or linguistic.  The Witch-king of Angmar is said to be undefeatable by any man.  The trick to his invulnerability is the ambiguity of the words of the prophecy.  One could argue that a woman is not a man, and therefore not restricted by the prophecy.  We have no idea how the “magic” behind the protection works on a theoretical basis.  Does it somehow check for Y-chromosomes?  But that’s not the point.  The thematic significance of the semantic ambiguity is more important.  In science fiction, it’s the underlying workings that matter.  Even if we don’t explain warp drive, there’s no theme or ambiguity involved.  It gets you there in such and such time and that’s it.  Or, in an STL universe, lightspeed is the limit and there’s no trick to get around it.

You can’t use science or technology the same way as Tolkien did with that prophecy nearly as easily.  Imagine magic is hammer, and science is a sword.  Sure I can put a nail in with the sword, but it’s a bitch and a half compared to just using a hammer.  Just because I can put in that nail with that sword, it doesn’t mean that sword is really a hammer.  Just because I can have magic that appears to follow a few discoverable and consistent rules to achieve varying but predictable effects doesn’t mean it’s the same thing as real-world science.  Maybe the moon always turns Allen into a werewolf on the 1st of the month, but I’ll be codgled if you can do the same thing with science.

Whether magic or science or both are most suited to your story or the other way around depends on your goals for that individual story.  Do you need magic or fantasy elements to really drive home your theme?  Do you need technology to get to the alien colony three stars down?  Magic can evaporate all the water in a six mile radius without frying every living thing around.  Science sure as hell can’t.  Not even far-future science that we can conceive of currently.  They can both dry a cup, although we’re wondering why you’re wasting your cosmic talents when you could just use a damn paper towel.

Science can dress up as magic and fool your third-grade substitute teacher, and science can dress up as magic and fool the local yokels in 13th century Germany.  But even if you put a wedding dress on a horse, it’s still a horse, and throwing hard science trappings onto a magic system doesn’t change it’s nature.


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AI and AlphaGo: Why It’s Not the Big Deal It’s Made Out to Be

I’d like to open this post by admitting I am not a Go master.  I’ve played a few times, watch Hikaru no GO when nothing else was on.  But that’s about it.  However, I don’t need to be an expert at the game to point out the flaw in some of the press coverage.  I suspect actual AI researchers already know what I mean.

The first thing to remember is that AlphaGo is a deep-learning program built on a neural network.  What that means is that rather than an artificial intelligence program, AlphaGo is an artificial learning program.  Public perception of AI is still focused on artificial intelligence, but the field has now expanded to cover many related or tangential or component areas of study.  AlphaGo also has some form of reasoning ability.  But this ability is solely related to Go.  You cannot generalize it’s algorithms to other tasks.  In fact, DeepMind even admits there are better programs out there to play Chess.  Chess and Go are both “perfect information”(PI) games.  You can if you so choose know everything about a given game of Chess or Go by looking at the board.  You know all the rules and the position of all the pieces.  PI games are a very popular area of AI research, because programs can do a lot with them.  The information can be reduced to a very small set of states and rules, which is ideal for computers to excel at.  The trick of course is to teach the computer the best set of tactics for taking those rules and the initial state of the game, and trading states with another player to get to the win state.  And yet, even in two PI games, the best AI solution to a player capable of competing with the best of humans is different for each game.

I like to call this specific intelligence, although the more popular terms are weak AI or narrow AI, a kind of non-sentient intelligence focused on solving one task or a narrow range of tasks. But even that is a bit of a misnomer.  After all, the machines aren’t truly smart, just impressively programmed dumb machines.

However, a learning program like AlphaGo comes a bit closer to true intelligence(though not sentience) by being able to take the initially programmed rules and knowledge and extrapolate from them on its own to do things it wasn’t explicitly hard-coded to do by the programmers.  It’s incredibly impressive.  But it’s not “AI” in the way most layfolk think of it.  It’s not general intelligence, even a crude version.  It’s a very sophisticated piece of specific intelligence.



But there’s a second flaw in the coverage.  Besides the great deal of mystique that’s built up around Go, which isn’t an issue of AI, although some of it is misplaced–for example, another lifeform does not “almost certainly play Go” whereas Chess is too human specific–there’s the issue that even as a powerful example of narrow AI, AlphaGo does not–as stated by some professional players–“play go just like a human but better”.  There has been much talk of its unorthodox tactics, or its algorithm’s focus on win-rate over all else.  Some have even said it made moves “only God could have made”–a common expression of a perfect move.


But the real truth is this: much like how genetic code, a style of coding in which a computer is given basic building blocks of code and tasked to mix them up until it finds a closer to optimal solution, AlphaGo has no idea it is playing go.  As far as AlphaGo knows, it’s just trading ones and zeroes around until it finds the desired sequence.  The ways in which a human player attempts to reach the winning board position are inherently different than the way a computer does, because they aren’t really pursuing the same goal.


We’re not particularly closer to strong or general AI than we were before.  Go isn’t truly so different from any other PI game.  AlphaGO has not learned intuition.  It’s merely played millions of games of Go subtly adjusting the value it places on a given set of stone positions on the board as it goes until more and more the win-rate increases to the point it wins the game.  Although the process is superficially similar to the way a human learns the game, the lack of framing devices such as vision used by humans has taught it to value entirely different things, and unlike a human, a computer has a perfect memory to go with the perfect information, and it is incapable of making an error.

After that, we can consider the psychological warfare aspect of multi-player games.  AlphaGo may be able to beat anyone Lee Se-dol could, but it cannot judge its opponents experience and thus alter its strategy to beat that player faster or more elegantly.  Instead, it will always play the same way every time, and react no differently to a master making three opening moves than to a novice making the same.  But where a human might see those moves and be able to make a variety of plays depending on their intuition of the players skill or likely next move, AlphaGo will continue to inexorably play exactly the move that will have the highest chance of victory against any and all players, rather than the one with the highest chance of victory against a specific individual.

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Posted by on March 15, 2016 in atsiko, Science Fact


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June 2015 World-building Seminar: Technology and World-building

This is the third post in my mini-Seminar on Technology in World-building.  This mini-series follow a slightly different format than the standard-form Monthly Word-building Seminars.  So for this post, I’ll be covering how to match your World-building to your technology in terms of general concepts.

There are five things to consider when deciding what level of technology will reasonably support your narrative with the fewest plot-holes:

  1. You need to have a general idea of what is powering your technology.  Is it man-power?  Horse-power?  Do you have steam engines or electricity?  What natural resource is generating this energy?  You might have food for humans or animals, coal or gas for steam engines or internal combustion engines.  You could have nuclear power running a steam turbine to generate electricity.  Perhaps you have wind, geothermal, solar, tidal, or river power to run an electric generator.
  2. You need to know what support technologies and knowledge are required for your energy-production method.  Do you need metal-working?  What about physics?  Battery power requires knowledge of chemistry.  Electric power requires lots of advanced knowledge to be widely-spread.
  3. What other technologies are likely to have been discovered on the path to your most modern science, and are they obsolete, moribund, or still of practical value?  Most societies with war as a major component learned how to make edged weapons and armor.  Sword-forging techniques are incredibly innovative and complex.  When reliable fire-arms came along, however, they were soon obsolete.  Windmills and watermills were original created to grind grain or pump water.  But even though we have more advanced methods for that today, we were able to incorporate that knowledge into new technology, to generate electric power.  With the advent of computers and electronic mail stationary production is no longer strictly necessary.  Many people no longer rely on letters as a form of communication on a regular basis.  And yet some of the technology and systems involved still survive in diminished capacities.
  4. What technology does evidence suggest are developed alongside the technology you wish to use in your story?  Can or would a society evolve to ignore those technologies if they don’t work for your narrative structure?  Modern communication has invalidated many of our most popular narrative structures.  Yet many authors are so used to writing in those structures, they find increasingly creative and improbably ways to invalidate the new technology and thus create space for their narratives rather than figuring out how to create tension by designing new structures to incorporate modern realities..  Or they don’t have the technology exist at all.
  5. Relatedly, can you somehow justify your narrative or society despite the fact that the necessary combination of technologies is plausible based on your world-building or story events?  How many plot-holes can your story support if you can’t quite make things fit how you’d need them to?

In its simplest usage, technology is the list of possibilities available to you as an author to move your narrative along.  But it’s also a set of restrictions on what you can realistically accomplish within your narrative.

If you have cell-phones, then it’s a lot harder to plot a story where key pieces of information are kept from various characters due to narrative shenanigans.  Really any sort of spycraft story is gonna be very different with long-distance communication.  You can text pictures of important documents, for example, instead of having to break back out of the evil fortress.  Sneaking around is a lot harder with cameras and heat-sensors. It’s relatively easy to assume a false identity in the middle ages.  How are they going to fact-check you when you’re from a thousand miles away with shitty roads and a bandit problem?  In the modern world, it’s a lot harder to get along as a fake person, despite what you may see in the movies.  Communications technology has a huge impact on a society and its national identity, and we’ll be covering those effects in-depth in a later seminar.

Cheap, high-quality steel can lead to very advanced swords–way better than were available back in the day.  But!  They’ve probably been outmoded by guns by the time such steel is available.  But the implications as far as national security and expansion potential given a certain level of military tech relative to neighboring lands should be pretty obvious.

And all this is ignoring the possibility of magic mimicking advanced technology in a fantasy story.


It’s also important to keep in mind that available technology is going to have a strong influence on how your society is structured.  Your population density for cities increases sharply with easy transportation or aqueducts to supply water.  Concrete makes for cheap, durable housing for the masses.  Good building insulation increases the number of climates humans can have an advanced civilization in.  Road-building and ship-building technology mean increased trade, which leads to more wealth.  They also make it easier to hold together a large political region, because it’s easier for the ruler to communicate and enforce his will.

Medicine is also important.  Good medical technology lets people live longer, take greater risks, and increases population.  People aren’t dying all the time from plagues, and they’re living longer.  This can lead to more skilled workers, give a genius more time to pursue knowledge, and increase the amount of wealth held by individuals or families.


It’s impossible in a single post or even a series of posts to cover even every major question about how technology will influence the world and any narratives that occur in it.  Different environments or political situations are going to affect how important a given aspect of technology is.  Some paths of development on Earth are just accidents of history and can be deviated from.  But it’s still an important thing to consider.  In the fourth and final post in this series (for now), I’m going to examine Jurassic World and the ways in which technology both make the story possible, but also leave some pretty gaping plot holes.


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Why Obsessing About Rape Only Muddies the Waters

That titles is absolutely intended to be click bait.  A completely honest description of the topic is going to sound very boring.  That I had to use the click-bait title only demonstrates my point, really.  So, what is this post really about?

I’m taking a quick break from my World-building seminars to address a topic that’s both in the news a lot lately, and is also a relevant example of how you can add depth to your world-building.  The issue is sexual consent, and the broader application is linguistics.  Using the word “rape” to talk about issues of sexual consent is a linguistic choice, a cultural choice, and a rhetorical choice.  But what a lot of people don’t understand is how those three types of choice interact, and it really makes it hard to have a useful discussion on the issue of sexual consent when we focus on rape and whether or not the definition of the word should be expanded.  I’m going to make a lingusitic, cultural, and rhetorical argument that it shouldn’t.  The interaction between those three frames of references is the world-building aspect of the post.

First, I’m going to give my short essay on why I am taking the position I am, and then I’m going to explore how the topic could be generalized to help with world-building.  Those of you who aren’t writers or don’t care about world-building can certainly skip the second part of this post.  I think you could benefit from it, but if the issue of rape and consent is why you came here, I’m not going to try to force you to look at the broader implications of my argument.  Here we go!

Rape is often defined as forcing sexual intercourse on a target.  From a linguistic standpoint, you could argue that rape is any form of sexual intercourse without consent.  That’s the linguistic frame of reference.  Now, consider the “prototype” of the word rape.  (I’ve talked about prototypes in linguistics before.  Essentially, it’s the first example you think of when you picture the word in your head.)  It’s a guy dragging someone kicking and screaming into an alley for a lot of pop culture.  So you’ve made a perfectly valid linguistic choice, especially if you explicitly state your definition of all forms of sexual intercourse without legal consent.  But you haven’t made a good rhetorical decision, because when you call someone a rapist, or say a crime is rape, your listeners/readers are going to compare it to their prototype, and it it doesn’t fall within that individuals personal tolerance zone for deviation from that prototype, you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage in convincing them of your argument,

There’s also a cultural choice involved.  Each culture has its own prototype for a word, and the concept the word describes has its own connotations.  Rape culture is a common buzzword these days.  It’s not a “culture”, it’s a set of attitudes, beliefs, and connotations within our larger common culture or popular culture that arguably encourage, allow for, or cover up rape and sexual misconduct/lack of consent.  By calling something “rape”, within a culture with a strong rape culture component, and knowing the prototype for rape is different, perhaps significantly so, from the crime in question, you make a poor rhetorical decision.  It might even be argued to be a poor linguistic decision, because to an extent words are variable, and a word in one culture might have such a strongly differentiated prototype that you can’t really say your definition is correct or reasonable.

However, there’s also the rhetorical decision that “rape” gets people’s notice.  You might write a linguistically, culturally, and even otherwise rhetorically sound decision to use a different term, and then you won’t reach your target audience because that term isn’t on their radar.

Now, my argument is that we should not be focusing so much on the word “rape” in these discussions.  Not only is it rhetorically risky, it doesn’t acknowledge that so-called “rape” is only the tip of a massive iceberg called “non-consensual sex”, the prototype of which is just the tip of another massive iceberg of incidents which are non-consensual sex but not considered so by popular culture, even if they may be considered “skeevy” or sleazy, or ethically grey/black.  But to call them rape gives your rhetorical opponent a lot of wiggle room.  Here’s a technically “true” statement reworded in several different ways to give you an idea of how strong an influence these cultural and rhetorical choices exert on discourse:

  1. “Barney Stinson raped a dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  2. “Barney Stinson assaulted dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  3. “Barney Stinson had unconsensual sex dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  4. “Barney Stinson lied to dozens of women to get sex they would not otherwise have given within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  5. “Barney Stinson tricked dozens of women into having sex with him within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.

Now, given the popularity of the show, and the lack of outcry over Barney’s behavior, I’d argue that last version is the worst most people would say of the behavior of Neil Patrick Harris’s character in HIMYM.  Personally, I think #3 does the best job of balancing linguistic reality, rhetorical wisdom, and cultural perception.  The trick here is, I don’t think mainstream cultural perception would accept the label “unconsensual sex” for these incidents.  After all, the women said “yes”.  barney did not use force on any of them.  None of them were roofied, although depending on how you classify alcohol, you could argue many were drugged; but, most of them drugged themselves, so you probably won’t have an easy time making that argument, despite its truth or falsity.

Now we have to dig down a bit deeper.  Most people consider consent as a simple black and white “Did she say yes at some point?”  That certainly makes it easier for someone accused of misconduct to defend themselves.  Or to avoid a lot of thought on whether the person actually wanted to be part of an encounter with them.

A more sophisticated view is, “Did they say yes without external pressure such as alcohol, force, or threat of force?” Does a slightly better job of determining true consent by my definition, but still isn’t quite there.

Better yet, add “implied force, peer pressure, hierarchical pressure(boss, teacher, adult to kid), cultural pressure, or economic pressure”.

However, that can be very hard to test for, and our society’s focus on freedom and being able to go with the flow and not be too analytical can make it hard t determine consent to that level.  Explicitly asking those questions can get you a rejection you might not otherwise have gotten.  Again, this creates wiggle room for people who do know that they wouldn’t have gotten sex without external factors.  The vast majority of rape accusations are against people who knew they were applying outside pressure or that some other factor was.

However, the ethical standard I’m choosing to apply is, “Did the accused (or not, if you’re judging yourself) know that under normal circumstances, the other party would not have consented to sex with them?”  If so, and if they had sex with the person, they must have known that the person’s capacity to consent was compromised when they decided to pursue sex.  Legal issues aside, this is unethical.  It also often accounts for why people view some approaches to obtaining sex as sketchy or generally less than a stellar recommendation of someone’s character.

Now, is that rape?  No, I don’t believe so.  I would restrict rape to the person knowingly applying their own form of force through physical means: ie, physical force, threat of physical force, implied threat of force, them drugging the person, or them getting the person drunk.  However, I do think it should be considered immoral, unethical, and probably criminal.  The crime here is intentional denial or avoidance of consent for the purposes of obtaining intercourse with the person.  We don’t have a rape problem, we have a consent problem, and insisting on focusing on rape obscures that.  Certainly in our lifetime, it’s unlikely this sort of crime will ever be considered under the umbrella of rape from a legal or pop culture standpoint, and I think trying to shoehorn it into that category makes a difficult task even harder.

Now, onto the world-building section, it is a bit short, since this is an example-based article.  Using this as an example can you think of any other issues that suffer from similar complexity?  There are quite a few.  Drug crimes, religion, various areas of ethics.  The humanities, the sciences.  You can use the contrast between culture, rhetorical value, and linguistic meaning to add depth to any area of your world-building.  The spaces between these related meanings leave people room to rationalize, have different opinions or takes on a subject, and room for cultural change and/or growth.  This also applies to conflict between individual characters and groups of characters.

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Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Con-worlding, Gender Issues


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Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Narrative vs. History

Putting the “Story” Back in “History”

(A continuation of my Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar series.  For the month of June, I’m looking at the effects of narrative on worldbuilding and its use in writing good stories and characters.)

What do we really know about the past?  What other people tell us.  Go read Ken Liu’s You’ll Always Have the Burden With You.  I’ll wait.  Not only is it a fun story, it’s a perfect example of the fallibility of the historical record.  Human beings are wired for narrative.  It’s in our genes.  It helps us make sense of a world that’s merely a random sequence of events within a given system.  Narratives are our best attempt at making those obscure rules transparent.  In the story, the narrative of a Gilgameshic epic serves the purposes of the head archaeologist.  People like the story, the expeditions get funded.  An alien tax code is boring (not really, but for your average human, it holds little interest), while an epic fantasy with religious overtones is fascinating.  It’s an open question in the story whether the truth really matters.  The main character criticizes an interpretation of the findings that within the expedition team has since been discredited, and yet when the same thing happens with the interpretation of the most fascinating artifact, he refuses to believe it.  or at least bows to the argument of the expedition leader.  It’s unclear if any of the characters notices the irony, although I can only assume Liu intended it to be available to the reader.

This concept is reflected in actual history.  Greek and Roman “historians” have often been suspected of telling fibs to further their agenda.  Did Carthaginians really sacrifice infants, or was that merely a convenient fiction during the conflict between them and the Romans?  Were there really temple prostitutes, or was it merely a way to discredit otherwise comparably civilized opponents?  Does belly-dancing really descend from the sacred dances of the temple priestesses in the Levant?  Or does it just make lessons more marketable to New Age and Feminist customers?

Beyond mere misinterpretation based on imposing our own value systems on alien cultures or just plain old aliens, there’s a purposeful misunderstanding, of which no culture is innocent, that can corrupt true history and misguide us in our understandings of others.

Rather than the truth, history is just the most successful narratives that have survived long enough that no one can refute them.

These narratives can even be so successful that they overshadow living truths of other cultures, or the narratives put forth by the modern descendants of past cultures.  All it requires is a lack of competing narratives.  Whether this is because those narratives are lost to history or are being purposefully suppressed, or because they aren’t available in a given language, or just because they haven’t penetrated popular consciousness, it makes little difference in the end.  Sometimes we can manage to unseat false or misguided narratives.  Sometimes even when the truth is known, it’s just not sexy enough for people to care.

What does this have to do with fiction?  You can take advantage both of narratives and how we apply them to history and apply them to your world-building, to your plots, to your characters, to your themes.  Being able to conceive of multiple plausible narratives for one situation, and being able to point a reader down those roads can be a valuable skill for a writer.  Mystery writers use it to place red herrings, to keep their characters from looking stupid in the multi-suspect structure of many procedurals.  Medical procedurals such as House MD make use of this concept such that a tiny little fact can change what appears to be the most reasonable narrative, or more specifically, the most believable diagnosis given a certain set of symptoms.

The three easiest targets for a narrative are those who are honestly ignorant of a topic, those who are more ignorant than they think they are, and those who are invested in the likely outcome of a given narrative.  Our understanding of economics is rife with competing narratives and confounding factors.  We know many small pieces of the puzzle, but the whole picture eludes us, and that makes for plenty of seemingly reasonable possibilities.

And as a result, what is the general populations view of economics full of?  Conflict.  Various people are invested in various economic narratives for various reasons.  They may or may not believe these narratives to be true, but they act as if they are true, or pretend to act like they are true because of the benefits of doing so.  Trickle-down economics benefits those at the top of the heap; the truth of the theory is irrelevant in that sense.  Plenty of competing theories are guilty of the same.

And that applies to any area of human study or endeavor.  In politics, we may be more familiar with the concept of propaganda, which is a subset of narrative, generally associated with political bodies.

No society is truthful with itself.  Whether they deliberately mislead themselves, are tricked by someone, or are just blind to the perceptions of others.  Neither are humans.  Self-image is also a form of narrative, whether it’s someone’s actual opinion of themselves, or the “reality” they try to project into the minds of others.  Any non-zero number of humans engages in spin at one time or another.

The next time you’re working on a story, whether it involves a single character in the moment, or the history of an entire nation, consider: How would this person or group spin themselves to outsiders?  To insiders?  To themselves?  How do they want to feel about themselves, how do they want others to feel about them, and what do they gain from the various possible interpretations of the facts?

Finally, ask yourself, what are the burdens of maintaining these narratives?  How do they affect your characters’ or society’s relationships with others?  Where do the various narratives your characters or societies feel the need to assume conflict?  How do they balance those conflicts, if they can?  How do the imbalances force their hand?  And how does self-image conflict with self?  Is it better to assimilate to the useful image?  Is it worth the pain and stress not to?  Why these self-images?  Guilt? Ambition? Or desire?

Look forward to next week for some specific analysis of the effects of narrative on history as regards the Japanese in World War II.

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Posted by on June 1, 2015 in worldbuilding


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Monthly World-building Seminar: Fantasy, Technology, and Occupation

Welcome back to Atsiko’s Monthly World-building Seminar!  Today, we’re going to be talking again about technology and its influence on society.  In fantasy literature.

In the spirit of my official seminar schedule, I wanted to talk about how the ideas in the previous post can be applied to the real world.

According to the MIT Technology Review and the National Bureau for Economic Research, income and wealth inequality are directly related to the way in which an increasingly technological culture advantages the technologically literate over any other group.  Which only makes sense.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that those most likely to be technologically literate are people who are already advantaged in a given economy/society.  And when new technology comes around, they are also the most likely to have the time and resources available to capitalize on the possibilities of that new technology.  And this has been true throughout history.  When a group of people has a smaller share of inherited wealth, and a technology comes along that eliminates or changes their field of employment drastically, they have less chance of being able to recover and find a place in the new incarnation of society.

The roots of this problem all go back to the concept of specialization of labor: As a society grows larger and more organized, individuals in the society begin to switch from being jacks of all trades to being the master of one.  With the advent of agriculture, the job of producing food could be handled by a smaller percentage of the population, leaving the rest of the society free to pursue other trades.  This leads to the development of trades, where the master passes on their skills and knowledge to the apprentice, and these traditions result in an increasing level of quality in those areas.  As trades become more specialized, it becomes increasingly harder for an individual to learn a new trade, whether by themselves or from a teacher.  Finally, trades become specialized enough, and important enough to the economy that they begin to gain prestige, the supply of those skilled in the trade is exceeded by the demand for their services, and they become economically more stable and lucrative.


And some day, a new technology is invented which makes some trade obsolete.  Or perhaps a step in the production of a good that was once important and labor-demanding becomes simpler and easier, eliminating the need for the people who specialized in that step begins to dry up.  Now they must either invest in learning a new skill or be relegated to the pool of laborers suited for only easy tasks which are little trouble to learn.  The suppl of workers is closer to or even exceeds the demand, and the individual faces a decrease in the standard of living.

Not every technology has this effect, but the more innovative and powerful the technology, the more likely it is.  And while new technologies make create new jobs and trades, they tend to be more specialized, and create fewer jobs than a job-killing technology may destroy.


The next step of the association between technology and inequality involves the way in which technology breeds complexity in a society.  As more technologies arise, and the limited population divides further between career paths, it becomes necessary to have more effective organization.  Now jobs in organization begin to diversify and increase in complexity.  Because some human beings are better at certain tasks than others, and because there are a limited number of slots in most fields, especially as increasing levels of technology make tasks in those fields more efficient, the ease of switching between careers decreases.  And even the mid-level careers go through this, such that high-level and mid-level careers both drop to low-level when their relevance is eliminated by technology.

Finally, as technology and organization increase in complexity and investment of time and knowledge, there is a class of job that only a tiny number of people are suited for, but for which workers are in high demand.  You can never eliminate all the low-level jobs.; human society will always have the equivalent of today’s “minimum wage” job, at least as far as fantasy is concerned, no matter what the level of technology or magic involved.  Supply and demand will always hold, and so as a result, the greater the level of technology, the wider the income gap is going to be, no matter how much that same technology may raise the floor.  And as this rise in demand for certain skills convinces more people to aim for those career tracks, the people in the middle shift more towards the top, and the economy sees more profit in those areas, increasing demand and also increasing inequality.  Those who would previously have been in the mid-level fields are now instead either hitting the tail-end of the upper-level, or failing out and losing their investment, dropping into the low-level fields.  You can read a bit more about the ideas of capital bias and skill bias here.


The easiest example of this today is Silicon Valley.  As noted in the MITTR article, Silicon Valley is one of the areas of the highest economic inequality in this US, being one of the centers of technological innovation and change.  But basically any American corporation can model these concepts.  Certain high demand fields, such as CEO or other management jobs are paid not according to merit, but rather based on competition between companies for an under-available commodity.


So technology leads both to a massive increase in the overall productivity of the society, but also to larger and larger amounts of inequality.  This is something that’s important to keep in mind when building your own fictional society, and it can lend a lot of verisimilitude to your world-building. And in our third and final post for this introductory mini-seminar, I’ll go into more detail about both realistic and reasonable applications of these concepts to fictional world.


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