Speculative Fiction Tropes: Magitech



Most science fiction fans are aware of Arthur C. Clarke's famous "third law," which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Many writers apply this logic to the universes they craft, even those who build their stories on hard science. After all, if you were to present an iPhone to someone who lived a few hundred years ago, you would probably have an easier time telling them it was a magical artifact than trying to explain integrated circuits and liquid crystal displays. According to Doctor Who, however, the reverse can also be true. Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. And who are we to argue with a Time Lord?

Indeed, speculative fiction is filled with examples of technology powered by magical means. From spaceborne shipyards powered by magical energy fields to cameras that house imps who literally paint pictures on demand. The name of this entry comes partially from one of my favorite video games of all time, Final Fantasy VI, which features an antagonistic empire that forcibly extracts the magical properties of beings called Espers and applies them to mechanized suits of battle armor. They call this process Magitek, the fusion of magic and technology.

As with most tropes, if you peer back far enough into the myths and legends that inspire much of our modern fiction, you can find the early seeds of magitech. For instance, you have the Greek deity Hephaestus, who was worshiped by blacksmiths and stoneworkers as the god of fire and craftsmanship. According to Greek mythology, he crafted many of the weapons and armor of the Olympians, which were almost always imbued with magical properties of some kind. He also built magical automatons out of metal that served him in his craft, including tripods that would travel to and from Mount Olympus at his beck and call.

Works of fantasy are the most obvious place to look for magitech artifacts these days. Many stories within this broad genre envision worlds in which the use of both magic and technology have progressed on an even plane, resulting in societies that use the forces of magic the same way we use electricity, or combustion.

The wizards of the Harry Potter universe tend to frown upon the use of "muggle" technology, using a magical equivalent instead, like self-writing quills that serve as word processors. In The Chamber of Secrets, however, we see an otherwise ordinary automobile enhanced with magical properties—most notably, the ability to fly.

Thus far, my own fantasy has yet to approach the use of magitech. My fantasy world is light on magic altogether, but when it does appear it stays firmly in the realm of the other, seldomly intersecting with that of the mundane. That being said, I'd love to play around with the concept one day. As someone who adores both science fiction and fantasy, the magitech trope can be an awesome opportunity to bring both realms together in interesting ways, depending how you play it.

And I think that gets to the heart of the appeal of tropes like this one. Magitech brings the real and the unreal within the same plane, at once making the forces of the supernatural and metaphysical far more relatable. Your traditional crystal ball or magic wand is still very capable as a plot element in the hands of a skilled writer, but let's face it: that stuff can also be pretty boring. It's been done. Give me a bazooka that shoots fire elementals instead, and you have my attention.

Recommended Reading:
Magic, Inc. by Robert A. Heinlein
The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
The God Engines by John Scalzi

Recommended Viewing:
Harry Potter
Thor
The Avengers

Recommended Gaming:
Final Fantasy VI
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Lost Odyssey

Comments

  1. Love the Doctor Who quote. Especially since it's so self-referrential -- I'd add Doctor Who to the list of magitech viewing! :-)

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    1. Absolutely! The only reason I didn't include it is because I'm only just getting into Doctor Who, so I'm not as familiar yet. I'm loving it though.

      Thanks for reading, Ellen!

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  2. I guess the teleporters in my books could be considered magitech since they are mechanical devices fueled by a compound but activated by the mental powers of those who use them.

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    1. You could certainly include that, depending how "magical" your mental powers. But that could also fall under Clarke's Third Law, depending how hard you want your science to be.

      Thanks for the comment, Alex!

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  3. I love magitech! It's two of my most favorite things fused together. I have a couple of ideas in the tank that use this...maybe in a bad way, but I won't know until I try. It sounds great in my head. Lol! Love the Avengers. Perhaps Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein also fit?

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    1. I think Jekyll & Hyde and Frankenstein count as science fiction, since our overall scientific sensibilities were much different back then (in fact, I think they're both great examples of Clarke's Third Law in action). In fact, I think Frankenstein is arguably the first science fiction novel ever written.

      Thanks for stopping by, Krystal!

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  4. Imps living inside cameras? I have never heard of such madness! *bookmarks eagerly*

    Magitech sounds awesome. I haven't read any book with such a mixture, but I bet it's a lot of fun. I can only imagine the diabolical pleasure of mixing science with magical powers and fantastical creatures. Very intriguing indeed!

    Great post, and really interesting examples. :)

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    1. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series has all kinds of great examples like that one. There's an entire line of imp-powered devices in his world, from cameras to watches to egg beaters. Pratchett is a great, hilarious writer.

      Thanks for reading, Vero!

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  5. I Love stuff like this! I only wish I was better at writing it!

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    1. You and me both! I'm going to play around with it a little in some future stories, I think.

      Thanks for the comment, J.A.!

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  6. I very much enjoyed the God Engines by Scalzi, but hadn't thought of it as magitech, but not that you linked the two - that makes perfect sense! Good post.

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    1. The God Engines is one of my favorite recent examples of this trope. What better way to power a starship than to enslave a god-like being and force it to do it for you?

      Thanks for reading, tmso!

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  7. Oops! Typo, but 'now', not 'not'.

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