Paradigm Shift: Systems, Change, and Fantasy

We live in fascinating times: we are experiencing impressive changes in technology that will shape our lives and our future. I am going to use one of these shifts to illustrate how paradigm shifts can be a wonderful source of conflict in genre fiction, focusing on Fantasy.

Oil is the keystone of the industrial economy. It seems obvious to any forward looking person, however, that oil will be knocked off its pedestal by renewable energy sources within a decade or two. At this point the same people denying that oil is facing a serious challenge are the same people who deny climate change, mostly for the same reasons.

However, oil has been so important for so long that whole systems have sprung up around it. Oil not only dominates the energy industry, it has a huge amount of influence on the automotive industry, construction, the air industry, and so on. Just watch the fluctuations on various stocks when the price of oil changes. Here in Canada we have become so closely tied to oil that when the price of oil drops the TSX often drops with it, and the valuation of the Loonie seems tied to it. Meanwhile if the price of oil drops stock in airlines will often go up, for example, as they save more fuel costs.

With this kind of importance oil and oil companies have a lot of power. Many people argue that certain recent wars have been fought mostly at the behest of oil interests, and even if you disagree, you have to admit that the idea of wars fought over oil sound plausible. They are the sort of conflict that could easily replace good vs evil in a fantasy novel , but more on that later.

Entities with a great deal of power will use that power to put down threats to that power. The transition away from an oil based economy is as inevitable as the transition from a primarily paper based workplace to a digital one. Oil won’t cease to be used, but it will no longer be nearly as important. Obviously this is a problem to anyone who is heavily invested in that lovely black stuff. This is why we see have seen so many seemingly stupid, misguided attempts in recent years to shut down renewable energy. People who have a vested interest in oil are trying to prevent rooftop solar from gaining popularity, for example, and are willing to pay large sums of money to politicians to do so. This bleeds over into other sectors as well. Gasoline is a big boon to the oil industry, so suddenly electric cars become a political target, after all if you can charge a vehicle with energy from solar or wind then that takes a big bite out of the demand for oil.

The most interesting, and ugly, use of the power that the systems built around oil have accumulated is in the twin dismissals of climate change and concerns over oil spills and pipelines. People are being paid to lie, change laws, and enhance the profits of an enormous industry which is doing serious damage to the environment, possibly on a very large scale. Rather than sit back and examine it, the industry seems determined to use short term political power to preserve its dominance. If you look at it properly, it all sounds very human, like a rich king trying to keep his throne at all costs even as the clamour for democratic reform reaches a fever pitch.

With those points in mind it is very easy to see how a paradigm shift over something as seemingly banal as oil can ignite conflicts that can easily power a compelling narrative. The best part is, in a Fantasy novel, the author can illustrate these changes without stepping on any political toes and offending readers or tailor the paradigm shift directly to the story he wants to tell.

Anyone who has read my works knows that I enjoy using magic as a metaphor for power. So let’s replace oil with magic. Imagine, for example, that a certain type of magic has risen to pre-eminence, but it is somehow limited to a small number of people. Heredity would be a good example of this. If magic is passed down only through certain bloodlines, then it is easy to see how those bloodlines would become a sort of feudal nobility by default, especially if magic is powerful. Those bloodlines would wield a tremendous amount of influence, even beyond the power that they possess.

  • The magical nobility would likely treat non magic-users as second class citizens.
  • Magical dynasties would make sure to control the destiny of the bloodline. It would be bad for one of their young to marry someone without magic and thus dilute the line. Arranged marriages are almost certain, while breeding programs are not out of the question.
  • The power structure of each nation would be based around the family, again similar to feudal societies.

So lets say that our mages have set up a kind of republic, with only those with magic allowed into achieve full citizenship. To avoid the standard medieval feudal setting we have our mages meet in some kind of senate, where only they are allowed to vote. Each family vies against the others for control, and they all more or less ignore the non magical plebs or use them as pawns.

Then one day, someone discovers that fashioning a staff out of a certain kind of wood and topping it with a certain kind of crystal will allow anyone to use certain kinds of magical effects.

  • We decide that this type of magic is less powerful, but just about anyone can use it.
  • The wood and the crystal are common enough that this type of magic spreads quickly, but not so common that it becomes ubiquitous or can’t be controlled.

The reaction of the magical nobility, and the conflicts that followed would be interesting. Here are a few thoughts on what this paradigm shift would cause.

  • The magical aristocracy would likely first try to make the staves illegal and hunt down anyone who knows how to make them.
  • If the magical aristocracy was powerful enough they might try to take over the sources of crystal and wood. There would be a huge black market for these items and they would inevitably become available.
  • People would become less reliant on the mages. This would lead to them wanting more say in their government.
  • Cracking down on this new form of magic could make even the most loved of the magical nobility into villains in the eyes of the people.
  • Someone would eventually form an army of staff wielding soldiers. This would create whole new forms of warfare.
  • Places where the staffs become commonplace would have a better of quality of life than the others, setting off even more desire for reform in places where they aren’t.

Acting to preserve one’s own power is not inherently evil, but as things shift conflict occurs, and those who resist an inevitable change can become more and more desperate to hold on to their beloved source of power and influence. This can easily lead to an excavating series of oppressive and evil actions that could make a wonderful plot for a fantasy series.

Saruman with staff

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One comment on “Paradigm Shift: Systems, Change, and Fantasy

  1. […] this blog, I write about ideologies, systems, and institutions and how the shifting of these powers make for interesting narratives. My arguments include the idea that the functionaries of a particular ideology, system, or […]

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