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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Background

In my last post, as sort of a prelude to the complex topic I’d like to discuss here, I talked about ways to create fantasy cultures based on real cultures and the advantages and disadvantages of this method.  I’m going to start out this post by talking about such counterpart cultures again, but this time, I’m going to focus on the difficulties of creating a truly original culture and how the common use of counterpart cultures undermines such attempts.

 

So, counterpart and generalized Earth cultures make up a great deal of the fantasy landscape.  The exert an enormous influence.  On both the types of stories that are common, and on reader expectations.  I’m going to talk about reader expectations first.

Readers expect certain things when they pick up a book.  These are based on the cover, the blurb, the author.  But also on their past experiences with the genre.  If they’re used to parsing and relating to stories and characters in a pseudo-medieval European setting, they’re going to have difficulty relating to a character in a different setting, because setting informs character.  Also, writers and readers in the genre have developed a set of short-cuts for conveying various forms of information from the writer to the reader.  A reader is familiar with the tropes and conventions of the genre, and writers can and almost inevitably do manipulate this familiarity in order to both meet reader expectations and violate them without going into a wall of text explaining the violation.

Both the writer and the reader of high fantasy have an understanding of the concept of the knight.  Or at least the version in Europa, our faux medieval European setting in which so many fantasies take place.  So when a writer introduces a character as a knight, it’s shorthand for a great deal of information which the writer now does not have to explain with long info-dumps about the history of European chivalry and feudalism.  There’s a strong tension in fantasy between world–building and not info-dumping, because for the most part, info-dumps get in the way of the story.  You don’t want to drop craploads of information on the reader all at once because it interrupts the story.  But you need them to understand the background in order to put the story in context.  Why would a fighter give his opponent a chance to ready himself and get on an equal footing when the stakes of the battle are the conquering of the kingdom?  Because his culture holds honour as one of the highest moral values.  Would sneaking up behind him and stabbing him in the back be easier, have a higher chance of success, and not put the kingdom at risk?  Sure.  So would shooting him with an arrow from behind a tree.  Or two hundred arrows in an ambush as he walks through the forest.  But it would be dishonorable.  And then he might do the same to you.  The same reason why parley flags are honored when it might be so much simpler for one side or the other to just murder the guy.

People do all sorts of dumb shit because it’s “the right thing to do” or perhaps because due to complex cultural values or humans being shitheads, the short-term loss helps uphold a long-term gain.  The tension between the obvious solution in the moment and why it might be foolish in the larger context is a powerful way to drive conflict in the story.  But teaching the reader larger context is a heavy burden when they don’t have any real previous understanding of it.  By using Europa as our setting, we get all that context for free because the reader has previous experience.

The same goes for any sort of counterpart culture.  Rome or Japan have a large collection of tropes in say Western English-speaking society.  Readers will be familiar with those tropes.  So if you want a bit of a break from knights and princesses, why you can take a quick detour through samurai and ninjas.  Or legionnaires and barbarians.  Sometimes these are just trappings on top of the same style of story.  Sometimes these new settings and tropes introduce new things to the story that are really cool.  But because even then, audiences have less exposure to various renderings of these tropes or perhaps the real history underlying them, they can be even more stereotypical or empty than Europa fantasy.

And even in terms of world-building they can do the same.  The writer has to communicate less technical detail to the reader and they don’t have to world-build as deeply because they have less need to justify their setting.  When you just know that knights and princesses and stone castles are real, even if you don’t know how they work exactly, you don’t worry so much about the details.  When something is clearly made up and not based on real Earth history, the questions about how things work and would they really work that way given the frame the author has built can become more of a suspension of disbelief killer.  There’s a joke that some things are just too strange for fiction.  Sure they happened in real life and we have proof.  But in stories, most people most often expect a sort of logical cause and effect and that if a thing happens, it has a good reason based in the story or world-building.  If something could happen once in a thousand tries based on sheer luck and it happening in your story is an important plot element, readers are much less likely to suspend disbelief than if it happens 754 times out of 1000 in the real world.  So your world-building needs to make some sort of logical sense to the reader if you want your plot to hinge on it.  And when you have the weight of genre history behind you, readers are far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt than if you’re the first person doing it ever.

And that’s why fantasy counterpart cultures are so popular.  We know from Earth history, our only referent of a real history that actually occurred, that the things thus depicted (sorta, kinda, if you squint a bit) really did occur and function in a world rigidly bound by physical laws.  Unlike a world bound only by words on a page written by one dude who probably doesn’t even remember the six credits of world history he took in high school.

And as a very meta example of my point, I have now written two long posts full of info-dumping that I’m demanding you read before I even start talking about what I promised to talk about: how to overcome all these hurdles and actually create unique and original worlds and cultures for your fantasy story.

 

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Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.

 

Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.

 

Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.

 

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Machine “Translation” and What Words Mean in Context

One of the biggest commonly known flaws of mahcine translation is a computer’s inability to understand differing meaning in context.  After all, a machine doesn’t know what a “horse” is.  It knows that “caballo” has (roughly) the same meaning in Spanish as “horse” does in English.  But it doesn’t know what that meaning is.

And it certainly doesn’t know what it means when we say that someone has a “horse-face”(/”face like a horse”).

 

But humans can misunderstand meaning in context, too.  For example, if you don’t know how “machine translation” works, you’d think that machines could actually translate or produce translations.  You would be wrong.  What a human does to produce a translation is not the same as what a machine does to produce a “translation”.  That’s why machine and human translators make different mistakes when trying to render the original meaning in the new language.

 

A human brain converts words from the source language into meaning and the meaning back into words in the target language.  A computer converts words from the source language directly to words in the target language, creating a so-called “literal” translation.  A computer would suck at translating a novel, because the figures of speech that make prose (or poetry) what they are are incomprehensible to a machine.  Machine translation programs lack the deeply associated(inter-connected) knowledge base that humans use when producing and interpreting language.

 

A more realistic machine translation(MT) program would require an information web with connections between concepts, rather than words, such that the concept of horse would be related to the concepts of leg, mane, tail, rider, etc, without any intervening linguistic connection.

Imagine a net of concepts represented as data objects.  These are connected to each other in an enormously complex web.  Then, separately, you have a net of linguistic objects, such as words and grammatical patterns, which are overlaid on the concept net, and interconnected.  The objects representing the words for “horse” and “mane” would not have a connection, but the objects representing the concept of meaning underlying these words would have, perhaps, a “has-a” connection, also represented by a connection or “association” object.

In order to translate between languages like a human would, you need your program to have an approximation of human understanding.  A famous study suggested that in the brain of a human who knows about Lindsay Lohan, there’s an actual “Lindsay” neuron, which lights up whenever you think about Lindsay Lohan.  It’s probably lighting up right now as you read this post.  Similarly, in our theoretical machine translation program information “database”, you have a “horse” “neuron” represented by our concept object concept that I described above.  It’s separate from our linguistic object neuron which contains the idea of the word group “Lindsay Lohan”, though probably connected.

Whenever you dig the concept of horse or Lindsay Lohan from your long-term memory, your brain sort of primes the concept by loading it and related concepts into short-term memory, so your “rehab” neuron probably fires pretty soon after your Lindsay neuron.  Similarly, our translation program doesn’t keep it’s whole data-set in RAM constatnly, but loads it from whatever our storage medium is, based on what’s connected to our currently loaded portion of the web.

Current MT programs don’t translate like humans do.  No matter what tricks or algorithms they use, it’s all based on manipulating sequences of letters and basically doing math based on a set of equivalences such as “caballo” = “horse”.  Whether they do statistical analysis on corpuses of previously-translated phrases and sentences like Google Translate to find the most likely translation, or a straight0forward dictionary look-up one word at a time, they don’t understand what the text they are matching means in either language, and that’s why current approaches will never be able to compare to a reasonably competent human translator.

It’s also why current “artificial intelligence” programs will never achieve true human-like general intelligence.  So, even your best current chatbot has to use tricks like pretending to be a Ukranian teenager with bad English skills on AIM to pass the so-called Turing test.  A side-walk artist might draw a picture perfect crevasse that seems to plunge deep into the Earth below your feet.  But no matter how real it looks, your elevation isn’t going to change.  A bird can;t nest in a picture of tree, no matter how realistically depicted.

Calling what Google Translate does, or any machine “translation” program does translation has to be viewed in context, or else it’s quite misleading.  Language functions properly only in the proper context, and that’s something statistical approaches to machine translation will never be able to imitate, no matter how many billions of they spend on hardware or algorithm development.  Could you eventually get them to where they can probably usually mostly communicate the gist of a short newspaper article?  Sure.  Will you be able to engage live in witty reparte with your mutually-language exclusive acquaintance over Skype?  Probably not.  Not with the kind of system we have now.

Those crude, our theoretical program with knowledge web described above might take us a step closer, but even if we could perfect and polish it, we’re still a long way from truly useful translation or AI software.  After all, we don;t even understand how we do these things ourselves.  How could we create an artificial version when the natural one still eludes our grasp?

 

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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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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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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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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.

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

 

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