Modern Fantasy: Speculation without Obsolescence

One of the great difficulties of Science-Fiction is that technology is advancing at an accelerated pace, and often in unexpected directions. World-building technologies that might seem cool and edgy a decade or two ago seem almost charmingly anachronistic now in many cases. Take the Decker in Cyberpunk literature as an example. The idea of the Decker, a kind of covert action hacker, is so brilliant and on the bleeding edge in a world where Anonymous is a real entity that it blows my mind. The core of thought behind the Decker is even more potent in modern day, years after it was first conceived. Unfortunately the technology behind the Decker, the Cyberdeck, seems so dated now that it obscures, rather than, enhances the concept. This sort of conundrum has become a bit of a problem with any Science Fiction that deals directly with technology and does not want to seem dated within a few years.

A cool Steampunk drone from Echofour studios

Spook Country, by William Gibson is an even more direct example. Spook Country, the middle book of the awesome Blue Ant trilogy is a direct discussion of the current state of the security and surveillance industry in the post 9/11 world. Now that the whole NSA thing is on the verge of being dragged into the light, it is an immensely relevant book that everyone should read. The problem is that it was written in 2007 and the Technology has moved on. The deep ideas and philosophical discussion of Spook Country is held back, just a little, by the degrees of deviation in gadgets and technology that populate the book. I find it oddly frustrating, but that might be because I did not dive into the the Blue Ant trilogy until 2012.

Fantasy used to be out in the cold on speculation about the nature of technology and objects. Readers were interested in swords and magic, and generally not happy to see even relatively solid technologies like guns show up in their pastoral worlds. Now that Fantasy has grown and diverged sub-genres like Steampunk and flintlock can deal with technology in a recognizable form  and actually offer cogent commentary on the gadgets that change our lives with less chance of Obsolescence. I don’t want to read a fictional treatise on how cell-phone culture  changes people’s lives featuring clunky 1980s cell tech, especially if it is supposed to be bleeding edge, on the other hand if you dressed that up in Steampunk genre fiction I would be very interested.

Here are a few examples of current hot-topics in current technology and how Fantasy could be used to comment on them.

Attack Drones: Drones allow us to kill at a vast distance, almost disconnecting the person who chooses to destroy from the action itself. Drone attacks are just as brutal from the target’s perspective, but can be very sanitary from the attackers perspective. Drones are fairly apolitical, we know we don’t like them, we also know that they are a reality of certain types of war now.

  • Steampunk: In a Steampunk setting you could fairly easily come up with an analogy to a drone. Steampunk often has a fair bit of Victoriana woven in, which makes it a great forum for discussing imperialism and war. This seems like a fairly easy conversion. Unleash your steam powered magically controlled drones and explore the idea.
  • Traditional Fantasy: A golem has some of the functions of a drone. It can certainly kill without exposing the user to danger. To make it an obvious analogy for a Drone might be difficult, but sometimes challenging the reader works well.

NSA Surveillance: The NSA Surveillance scandal is a juicy topic. It has broad societal implications. It involves a system that is unwieldy and most definitely out of control that is based off an ideology that is fundamentally flawed, but very compelling. Unlike Drones the surveillance state is fairly political; people really don’t like being watched constantly and the potential for abuse is such that it will inevitably come crashing down.

  • Traditional Fantasy: Magic gives an easy out for something like NSA surveillance technology. We are unsure exactly how much we are being watched, and it feeds our sense of Paranoia. Magic really works well with this you could have spells that allow agents of the powers that be to listen in on keywords. In fact this is already a common theme in Fantasy literature and even in mythology where saying certain words immediately attracts baleful attention. The Chandrian in the Name of the Wind, or even the Devil in some legends are attracted by mention of their name. In fact the whole idea of an afterlife where you are judged by your deeds speaks to the idea of surveillance. Perhaps that is why some people are so accepting of it.
  • Lord of the Rings: The Eye of Sauron is an interesting metaphor for surveillance. Think of Frodo and Sam creeping through Mordor, trying to hide from the eye.

Climate-Change: Climate Change is something most people agree is happening, but aside from adding to our misery the actual outcome is unpredictable and has a way of making fools out of those who try to portray it. This makes speculative fiction about real climate change fairly difficult. It is also a very political topic and one that almost everyone has strong opinions on.

  • Steampunk: Steampunk offers many direct analogies to climate change. Coal is a very dirty material, especially in its early forms. Really all it takes to deal with issues of climate-change in Steampunk is a willingness to take the political flak that comes with the territory. The sub-genre almost demands dirty, gritty industry and polluted canals, why not throw in some more modern climate change?
  • Oilpunk?: Warmachine flirts with the idea of a steampunk World War One, why not go a little further and create Fantasy in the automotive age? I suspect this will develop soon, once the style is settled. Hot War the RPG may come close.
  • Traditional Fantasy: Magic itself could me a metaphor for climate change. Perhaps magic is a naturally occurring resource, either physical or ephemeral, and over-using it or depleting it has real work consequences. The Dark Sun setting for 2nd Edition D&D had a type of magic that allowed the wielder to destroy the world around them to draw on additional power, which led to the world being turned into a bit of a wasteland.
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