Fantasy and Guns

One of my favorite read of late was Promise of Blood, an Epic Fantasy set in a period that approximates the Napoleonic Era. The book is advertised as Flintlock Fantasy, and prominently features guns and magic side by side. Now, when I was a wee lad, playing D&D and early video games and reading Fantasy, mixing guns with swords was almost heretical. It offended purists. Never mind that fact that guns and swords were used on the battlefield, at the same time,  for a relatively long period of history. Guns were frowned on in Fantasy settings until relatively recently. Here are a few of my personal theories as to why.

4 Points?... nice.

The Black 13th From Warmachine… mmm gunmages.

1) Realism: Who would wear plate-mail or bother to learn magic in a world with guns? This is an older argument and essentially a failure of imagination. The idea was that guns were such a dominant technology that they would overpower common Fantasy elements like mages and dragons. No seriously, people used to say this to me. As the genre broadened, writers have shown that they can easily accommodate both in the right setting.

2) Anachronism: Some pastoral Fantasy is certainly based on a yearning for the purity of an idealized pre-industrial middle ages, the kind of storybook setting you would see in an early Disney movie. This sort of vision has no place for guns. Even in modern day, Fantasies that want to evoke a strong medieval feel shy away from firearms. Think about how even simple gunpowder weapons or even explosives would alter a setting like Westeros or Middle Earth.

3) The idea that technology and magic cannot mix: Often magic was seen as the polar opposite of science. This makes a certain amount of sense since magic seems like a crazy superstition to us in the modern day. Thus when technology did show up in the same story as magic, the two would act as forces battling it out.  However many of the ancient magical and alchemical traditions were seen as pretty legitimate forms of thinking in their day. Modern Fantasy writers like Patrick Rothfuss draw on these traditions to create magic systems that feel a little more rational and mesh better with technology and the age of reason.

4) Lost Golden Ages and progress: A common trope in pastoral fantasy is that everything was better in the past. In the case of swords this is somewhat true. The making of a proper Katana is nearly a lost art, and certainly well past its Zenith. With Firearms this is harder to sell. Guns are an invention that have improved dramatically even in my lifetime. Hell, we even have guns that can aim themselves and come with a mobile hotspot, these days. Guns as we see them now are an artifact of progress. It would be interesting to read a Fantasy world where firearms were the product of some lost golden age, a convention usually reserved for post apocalyptic settings.

What changed? As the industrial age gives way to information age, guns have become acceptable in Fantasy. The easy answer as to why is that Fantasy has become a broad, vibrant genre where internal consistency and a good narrative are more important than following a particular formula. We have seen several new sub-genres of Fantasy develop lately with steampunk and urban fantasy, and even more seem to be budding. These are not displacing traditional Fantasy settings, but rather growing alongside them. Makes sense. Sadly it leaves me 400 words short of my goal, so here are some more specific reasons as to why I think guns have become acceptable in Fantasy.

1) Star Wars, yo! (and a lil bit of 40k): In many ways, Star Wars is Fantasy with spaceships and blasters. The Force is pretty much a magic system. It could be argue that Lucas’ early Star Wars movies helped pave the way for guns in Fantasy by popularizing them. The same goes for properties like Warhammer 40k and possibly even Dune, where elements of mysticism exist in a futuristic setting.  Even if you don’t buy that it is hard to deny that watching the Jedi parry blaster bolts with their lightsabers helped writers imagine how magic and guns might interact and share the field.

2) More experienced consumers: As Fantasy grew in popularity, its readers grew in sophistication. More books, games, and other media means more exposure to new ideas and paradigms. This makes it vastly easier for a new author to introduce new concepts like an enchanted gun with runed bullets that explode on contact. Sophisticated readers are willing to buy more divergent ideas, as long as they make sense. They can also help explain things to new readers, who might have trouble understanding what a spell is, let along a gun mage firing thunder-shot.

3) A niche to fill: As Fantasy becomes more and more popular it attracts more and more writers, people like me who want to make a living writing Fantasy books. It is harder to stand out writing traditional Fantasy. Fantasy with guns is yet another niche to explore for veteran authors and for new authors to try to establish themselves in.

4) Is the gun an anachronistic weapon? Terrorists use bombs, superpowers use fighter jets and drones. The gun still has a strong role on the battlefield, but it is hardly the sexiest technology in the arsenal these days. While some guns are crazily high tech, the idea of fighting wars with guns is pretty settled in our minds. Could it be that we are so familiar with guns that they seem to be a little anachronistic now? After all knives were pretty common weapons in the middle ages, but our soldiers still carry them. The gun is a banner artifact of the industrial age. If we are indeed moving to the information age, then perhaps Fantasy’s acceptance of the gun is merely an indication of a larger cultural shift…

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6 comments on “Fantasy and Guns

  1. M T McGuire says:

    I absolutely agree about StarWars. In my head, a ‘proper’ fantasy world was the kind of reality the Avengers, Randall & Hopkirk, the Men from U.N.C.L.E. and the like lived in with a dash of magic added. And StarWars absolutely hits it right. The best bit of historical novels – sword fights – combined with modern technology. I love trad fantasy but seeing as a lot of it is about dragons and dwarves and fey races and you have to know about them to be able to write it properly (or people will send you irate e-mails telling you how wrong you’ve got dwarves/dragons etc) it feels, to me, more like fan fiction.

    I like a bit of magic but I also want ray-guns and light swords and laser pistols and whizzy science. And you’re right, there’s a whole generation of us who’ve grown up on that stuff who want to write it our way now… Thinking about it, that’s probably where the speculative fiction label came from…. and Pirates of the Caribbean!

    For a long time now, I’ve thought that the trick to mixing stuff up in books is to believe it yourself, if you do, everyone else will. That’s how I delude myself, anyway!

    Cheers

    MTM

  2. Great post and timely. Magic and science are completely separate—until you allow yourself to think of them as interconnected. Suddenly possibilities rush into your brain faster than dragons on ice skates. The only caution I have is that the stakes become higher. Medieval times were a simpler time and so when basing a world on such a period it’s easier to maintain consistency. Add in firearms and the like and the world becomes a more complicated place—and richer. Let us journey forth.

  3. showjumping says:

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