Vision: A Resource for Writers
Science in Fantasy
is the systematic study of how the universe works.
Magic, if it exists, is a part of that universe and therefore functions
according to certain rules and laws, just as everything else in the universe
does. Magic, when properly
constructed during the worldbuilding phase of writing, can be subjected to
scientific inquiry. (The exception, of course, is magic that is available only at
the will of a deity. Such magic
exists outside the universe proper, though it will still have limits—if only
those of the deity’s whimsy.)
can a writer use science in a fantasy setting?
That’s the subject of this article.
it should be clear that the common history of science is inadequate.
In the United States (at least when I went to school), it was the Western
world’s use of science and their "discoveries" that were taught.
I never learned in school that we acquired the zero from the Arabs, who
had borrowed it from India.
I never learned that Mendel made discoveries in genetics long before
Western Europeans—not until college, anyway.
When using science in fantasy, we have to put aside our preconceived
ideas of when scientific knowledge develops for best results. Gunpowder, for example, was developed in two different
cultures several centuries apart.
course, certain things are dependent on other things to exist (we couldn’t
have computers without electricity, for example), but much basic scientific
knowledge is not dependent on other knowledge.
there is new evidence of past scientific discoveries emerging continuously.
A recent book, LOST DISCOVERIES: THE ANCIENT ROOTS OF MODERN SCIENCE by
Dick Teresi, details some of them. Other
sources for early scientific knowledge include SERENDIPITY: ACCIDENTAL
DISCOVERIES IN SCIENCE by Royston M. Roberts (ISBN 0471506583, out of print),
THE TIMETABLES OF SCIENCE by Alexander Hellemans and Bryan Bunch (ISBN
0671733281), and anything by James Burke (THE DAY THE UNIVERSE CHANGED and THE
PINBALL EFFECT being but two examples). A
web search should yield even more resources and ideas.
most scientific knowledge is gained because a few individuals dare to ask
"Why?" and "How
come?" and "What if?" A
Leonardo, for instance, curious about how the human body works, dissects
cadavers to find out. You don’t have to have a society that institutionally
supports scientific research to use science in your story.
a staggering number of scientific discoveries are made by accident. Everyone has
heard of Archimedes shouting "Eureka!" as he ran naked through the
streets after figuring out displacement, and of Sir Isaac Newton formulating the
theory of gravity after an apple fell on his head.
Again, one curious person, or one person in the right place at the wrong
time, can make a significant discovery. Whether
he realizes the significance of his discovery or not is your decision.
these principles in mind, it’s time to start thinking about how science will
figure in your story.
first decision you’ll make is what technological level you want in your world.
Steam technology? Electricity?
combustion engine? Let your mind
wander here—medieval European technological levels are not the only ones where
fantasy can be used. (For excellent
examples of non-medieval fantasy, see J. Gregory Keyes' AGE OF UNREASON series
or Holly Lisle's THE SECRET TEXTS.) You’ll need to know your tech level before
you can decide how much and what science your world has.
in mind that technological levels can vary from one branch of science to
another. Steam engines coexisted
with leeching as a viable medical practice, for example.
A good general guideline is this: whatever
is important to your people will have a higher tech level than what’s not. If your people value making war and conquest, they’ll focus
much of their organized scientific inquiry into weapons technology.
Even if an individual makes a significant discovery as to how the heart
operates, it might be ignored because it’s not considered important.
Conversely, if someone invents a steam engine, they will immediately look
for ways to use it in war.
you’ve decided the general technological levels, decide whether and how
science is supported by society. Do
scientists have patrons, as artists did? Is
science generally ignored for religious reasons?
Are the physical sciences considered less important because magic can
power things? All of these societal
factors will affect science in your world.
that you’ve determined the basic attitude toward science and the scientific
literacy of your world, how do you use this knowledge in a story?
that science--the daily process of testing and experimenting--can be
horrendously dull to everyone except the researcher fascinated by his subject.
Edison is rumored to have tried a thousand different methods before
successfully developing a light bulb. If
you have a scientist as a character, he or she will likely share that kind of
patient fascination, while those around him will likely think him delightfully
mad at best and loopy as a loon at worst. Those
around the scientist may also feel left out, or as if they come second behind
the discovery. We face similar challenges as writers, and using these feelings
and situations can add depth and conflict to your characters.
daily work can be dull, focus on the moment of discovery or, possibly with more
dramatic results, the time someone figures out how to use that discovery.
If someone figures out how to use the discovery in ways that weren't
intended, you may have an even stronger conflict.
What if the Chinese had used gunpowder for firearms instead of fireworks,
on your societal structure, science may have to be a hobby for your scientist
character rather than his primary occupation.
If your character is wealthy, or has a wealthy patron, this may speed the
process of discovery, if only because equipment and esoteric ingredients will be
more readily obtainable. If your
scientist neglects his regular duties to work on his discovery, how will that
affect him and his family?
will your society accept his discoveries? In
our own history, we learn that Galileo was ostracized for contradicting
religious teachings. He has since been vindicated, but if the Church had remained
strong, we may not have ever heard of Galileo.
Which leads to another point--often, scientists like artists are not
appreciated until after their death. How
will a centuries-old discovery affect your characters now?
What if that discovery was ignored originally and is only now being
these large questions that could make stories in themselves, think about the
day-to-day use of science. We think
nothing of flipping a switch and having light and power to our computers, but
even a century ago, that wasn't possible. Where
does science (or, more accurately, the application of science) fit in the
background of your world?