Category Archives: Fantasy

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.


Tags: , , , , ,

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.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

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.


Tags: , , , ,

Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Fantasy, Technology, and Inequality

World-building is essentially creating the setting for your story.  What many people don’t think about consciously is that the setting has possibly one of the strongest effects on a well-told story, even compared to the plot and the characters.  What is a plot-hole except a failure to match the plot properly to the full range of possibilities inherent in the setting.  What is bad characterization except a failure to have your characters react properly to the setting?  The interaction of the characters with the setting is what creates the plot on a basic level.  You can’t have a restoration of the rightful monarch(read: farmboy hero) without having a monarchy, a false ruler, a rightful ruler, and someone who wants to change the status quo.  Those are all elements of the setting, and when you start the machine of the setting ticking, it inevitably creates the conflict that drives the plot.  You can start planning story with any of the three elements or a combination thereof, but essentially you are using abductive reasoning to tie all the elements together.

Now that we have that premise out of the way, the actual issue I want to talk about here is what technology is and what effect it has on a society.  In particular, how does technology affect the gap between the rich and the poor.  In order to explain these effects, I’ve found that the metaphor of a lever works particularly well.  Both literally and figuratively.  Technology is the lever and individual human ability is the force that’s being applied.  Now, a lot of people like to say that technology raises the standard of living in the sense that the rising tide lifts all boats.  Which is true to an extent.  Anyone with a lever can do more than someone without.  But, because the most privileged are starting ahead in terms of the force they can input into the system, their output is always going to be greater.  Assuming two people of equal skill and ability, the poor man can never catch up to the rich man.  If both men have access to the piece of technology, they both advance, but the rich man advances farther.

Here’s a simple mathematical example:

One man has 100 acres.  Another man has 900 acres.  They can both produce 10 bushels of wheat per acre, which totals to 10,000 bushels.  The gap is thus 8,000 bushels between the rich man and the poor man.  Now say we introduce a machine that increases productivity per acre by 50%.  The first man can now produce 1,500 bushels of wheat.  The second man can now produce 13,500 bushels of wheat for a total of 15000 bushels. The gap is now 12,000 bushels.  Technology has brought up both men’s productivity, but it has also widened the gap between them.

The rich man can now afford to sell his products more cheaply, because he’s moving a higher volume, so customers buy his wheat and the poor man loses out.

Further, greater technology allows a leader to actively organize a larger power base, whether that involves an army, a workforce, a company, or resources. The greater the level of tech, the wider the reach of a given company.  National chain businesses, for example, flourish better in a high tech world, while individual small businesses tend to fair better in a low-tech world because competition is less and it’s harder to synchronize business and products and suppliers.

Other factors excluded, a world with higher technology is likely to include wider inequality, even if the lowest level may have a higher standard of living on average than in a world with less technology.

Now, there are more kinds of inequality than economic inequality.  A common topic in military discussion, whether fiction or otherwise, is how the disparity in technology might affect tactics, and even lock a given force into certain tactics even though they may not be effective in the situation.  It also affects composition of forces.

For example, while better technology may mean an average soldier for one group is worth some multiple of soldiers in another group, the extra expense means that of two groups of relatively equal resources, the group with the better military tech will often maintain fewer soldiers to make up for the expense.  The hope is that the better efficiency will make up for that, but it does leave holes open for the less advanced group to attack from another angle.  You can hope to split the opponent up, ambush them, make use of terrain or inherent flaws.  And the opponent may prefer tactics that leave them open to strategies they don’t have experience with because the technology is considered “inferior”.

This also applies to population.  For most of the periods involved in fantasy, higher technology leads to greater population density.  (Eventually you hit a peak, where the bottom of the standard of living is pushed so high that birth rates drop; this can be tied both to gender equality and technological advancement.)  So a country with higher tech levels has more people, giving them an extra economic and military advantage.  Magic may follow the same pattern depending on the style of magic in the world.

More population means you can occupy more territory, raise more food at the increased level, have more minds working on further advancement, etc.

Finally, we have the difficulty of living outside the system but near the same standard of living and level of technology.  The greater the technology, the more integrated it is into the society, the more you need specialization of labor to keep things going.  So an individual or small group can’t maintain self-sufficiency equal to someone in the web of society as easily.

The simplest example of the influence technology can have on the setting and thus on the plot and characters is steampunk.  Theoretically an entire sub-genre based on the technological level of its setting,

Look forward to further entries in the Technology in Fantasy Seminar this month.

Leave a comment

Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Fantasy, World-building, Writing


Tags: , , ,

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.


Spoliers:  It could have been better.

Leave a comment

Posted by on August 7, 2014 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Reviews


Tags: ,

Real World Booty: Plundering Reality to Meet Your Fantastical Needs

Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn.  One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.

What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy.  I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.


So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe.  Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots.  And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting.  Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in.  Etc.

And that’s understandable.  They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on.  Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take.  And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?


The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world.  What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods?  Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings?  And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?


I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.


1. Industrialization is one such plot.  It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk.  The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts.  Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution.  Control of data and information drives many of the plots.  Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it.  Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.

2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were.  You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era.  During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class.  You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class.  Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.

3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues.  The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity.  The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries.  Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence.  The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain.  The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination.  Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point.  So is the ability to trade.  Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in.  British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.

4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries.  The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion.  Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.

5. Resource management is another common source of tension.  Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value.  All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.

6.  Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points.  Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society.  The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.

7.  Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict.  Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel.  So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US.  Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories.  US influence pre-war on Afghanistan.  Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.

8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp.  Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.


And there are many more things than what I’ve listed.  Almost infinite sources of inspiration.  Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.


In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:

1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.

2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.

3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Fantasy, Ideas, Speculative Reality, World-building


Tags: , , , , , ,

Don’t Judge a Series by Its First Book

Series are very common in speculative fiction, and especially in fantasy.  And even more especially in Urban Fantasy.  Normally, when you read the first book in a series and find it less than satisfying, you don’t read the rest of the books in that series.

So, when I finally put down Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts, the first book in her Downside Ghosts series, I was very disappointed.  Here was I book I had greatly been anticipating, and had recommended to me, even though I don’t usually read a lot of Urban Fantasy.  The author is also active on Absolute Write, my favorite writing forum, and I have in fact spoken to her there.

But after the first 50 pages, I found the book very slow going.  The magic system was interesting, there was a unique twist on the post-apocalyptic world, the character was a strong but flawed woman with drug issues and ties to the underworld that actually caused conflict with her everyday job.  The writing was good.  The villain was interesting.  Yet the book wasn’t.  (Keep in mind this was my first Stacia Kane book.)

I tend to finish things I start, and so I finished the book.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually enjoy books, and I felt let down.  Even though I was desparate for reading material, the other two books sat on the shelf for two or three weeks.  If I hadn’t bought all three currently available books in the series in one mass splurge of book-balancing, checker-shocking hemorrhage of cash, I would have written it off as bad luck and moved on.  I would not have picked up the sequels.  And I would have missed out big time.

Because the sequels were both page-turners, which I tore through in one day instead of studying for my finals.  I loved them.  I could see how much they benefitted from the set-up in the first book.  There was a bit much re-hashing from Unholy Ghosts, and I think the books could have still been good reads if I hadn’t slogged through the first book.  But overall, they were great, and I’m glad I bought them.

I’ve heard similar stories about Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.  Fans are constantly explaining that the series really gets started after the first book, Gardens of the Moon, which is apparently slow and boring in its overwhelming detail.  (Personally, I loved it.)  The point is, even though writers are often advised that the first whatever–sentence, paragraoh, page, chapter, novel–is what makes or breaks a sale, those criteria don’t always match up with reality.

While it’s true that there are more books out there than a single person could read in ten life-times, that you can always just move on to a series that is good from start to finish, that doesn’t mean you should never read a book by that author again.  Some authors deserve a second chance.

If you haven’t taken the hint already, Stacia Kane is one of those authors.  But this post is not about how much I now love Stacia Kane.  It’s about how no matter the amount of polish you grind into your first whatever, it won’t always be good enough to hook someone’s interest.  But that doesn’t mean it sucks, or that you should give up on further work in that direction.  So keep writing, and keep reading, and hopefully you’ll find what you’re looking for.

1 Comment

Posted by on December 16, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Fantasy/Sci-fi, Rants, Reviews, Series, Writing


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,