Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Using Technology in Fantasy:
"But what if I press this button?"

Peggy Kurilla
©2003, Peggy Kurilla

ccording to some of the books I've read, the Chinese fumigated houses for pest control by 591 BCE and the ancient Egyptians had effective contraceptives.  Theodorus the Samite invented a bubble level and locks with keys by 521 BCE.  By 371 BCE, Plato is said to have invented a water clock with an alarm.

The ancient Chinese had developed a double-acting piston bellows--it would not be known in the West until the 16th century of the Common Era.  They also not only had cast iron, but a malleable form of it they used to construct many of the pagodas that still stand today.    Around the same time, the Chinese also developed paper--though they apparently didn't think of using it for writing for another 250 years or so, but rather used it for walls. 

As these dates and inventions demonstrate, humans are a curious and experimental lot--we always want to know how things work and find ways to make the work easier.  Given that trait, and the abundance of knowledge about early inventions, why do many fantasy writers seem to stick to a Medieval European level of technology in their works?   The only way to have a different technological level in stories, it seems, is to write modern fantasy or science fantasy.  Any other fantasy, no matter how different the world from our own, seems stuck in the Middle Ages of Europe, at least so far as tallow candles and pewter mugs are concerned.

Why do so many fantasy writers opt for this technological setting?  Some possibilities are that it's (perceived as) easier to write about a time that many people know something about; it's (perceived as) the expected setting for fantasy novels; it's what <insert favorite author here> used.

Let's look at each of these reasons in turn.  First, is it really easier to write about a time that many people are familiar with?  Probably not.  The more people who know about your time period, the greater the likelihood that people will catch you in a simple mistake.  One classic example comes from the movies:  many times, no matter what the time period, people will use stirrups when they ride horses, despite the fact that stirrups weren't developed until about 300 CE in China; they didn't migrate westward until about 200 years later.  Nonetheless, in GLADIATOR, the mounted Romans had stirrups.  This is the kind of simple assumption that can trip up a writer who chooses a setting with which many people are familiar.

As for the second, that a medieval setting is somehow "expected" in fantasy; that very expectation may provide the reason for a writer to choose another time period--and with another time period comes another technological level.

Finally, the weakest reason to adopt a setting, or technological level, or whatever is because it's what someone else did.  Breaking new ground is never easy, but frequently it leads to fresher stories.

So, how do we, as writers, decide what kind of technology to use in our stories if the setting doesn't automatically give it to us?  There are two factors to consider.  One is your own worldbuilding; the other is reference material that's available about our own human history.

When you begin worldbuilding, question everything that your characters come into contact with on a daily basis.  How do they cook?  Are they still cooking over open fires, or have crude ovens been developed?  How about wood-burning stoves?  Will this technology affect the outcome of your story in any way?  What other effects on daily life would that have?

One thing you can do to truly make your world different is to give a historical invention a new twist.  What else could molded cast iron be used for besides building?  What other shapes than a pagoda might be cast?  What if cast iron was reserved for specific buildings--temples, perhaps, or government facilities?

Looking to our own history for ideas is the other possibility for choosing your technology.  The one potential drawback to this approach is that, in order to find out what technologies were used when, a fairly large library may be needed.  On the other hand, there are a few good general references for technology in general that can be used as a springboard for your research.  Two that I consulted in writing this article are THE TIMETABLES OF SCIENCE, by Alexander Hellemans and Bryan Bunch (ISBN 0-671-73328-1) and ANCIENT INVENTIONS, by Peter James and Nick Thorpe (ISBN 0-345-40102-6).  These works give an overview of science and technology from ancient times to the present.  TIMETABLES is arranged chronologically and INVENTIONS by topic.   Once you've found things in these books that work in your world, Inter-Library Loan might obtain more specialized works to answer more detailed questions. 

INVENTIONS is more easily readable, and provides fascinating tidbits such as the Greeks developed automata of various designs and purposes (pp. 134-139).  Hmmm.  What if your medieval society had automata (early robots) to do some of the manual labor for them?  Or what if your society developed its own version of the "Baghdad Battery" (pp. 148-150)?  What might they have powered with the energy the battery stored?  Surely either of these questions can lead to stories that will lead to fresh settings and technological levels…and isn't that freshness that editors say they want?


THE TIMETABLES OF SCIENCE, by Alexander Hellemans and Bryan Bunch (ISBN 0-671-73328-1)

ANCIENT INVENTIONS, by Peter James and Nick Thorpe (ISBN 0-345-40102-6)