Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Using Science in Fantasy

Peggy Kurilla

©2003, Peggy Kurilla


cience 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.)

How can a writer use science in a fantasy setting?  That’s the subject of this article.

First, 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.

Of 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.

Second, 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.

Third, 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.

Fourth, 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.

With these principles in mind, it’s time to start thinking about how science will figure in your story.

The first decision you’ll make is what technological level you want in your world.  Steam technology?  Electricity?  Gaslight?  Internal 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.

Keep 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.

After 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.

Now 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? 

Remember 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.

Because 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, for example?

Depending 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?

How 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 rediscovered?

Besides 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?