Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Magick disguised as Technology

An age of Progress is under way, as the apocalypse swept away the old to make room for the new.  Folks now devise all manner of strange Contraptions and Engines to ameliorate the many miseries of life.

This is a story of technological progress and new development, but it's also a fantasy of the remnants of civilization in the wilderness.  Where some fantasies have magic items, this story has technology.

(It also has magic, but that's for a different post.)

If we're going to talk about Magic and Technology, I think we should figure out the difference between them.  You've probably seen this quote from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Imagine handing a flashlight to someone from ancient Egypt.  Understanding what it is and how you use it only takes a moment, but understanding how it actually works is far outside the science available to that Egyptian.  What looks like technology to us would look like magic to them.  It's not magic, but they could easily mistake it as such.

To be fair, how many of us know how a flashlight works anyhow?  Why do batteries work?  What is electricity?  Why can't we know where an electron is and how fast it's going at the same time?  Dig down far enough and you'll eventually hit a point where your knowledge ends.

But even though I have no idea why electrons behave the way they do, a flashlight still doesn't feel like magic to me.  The difference is one of expectations.  I don't know exactly how batteries work, but I expect that the answer would make sense.  It's technology, after all, so it's made of sensible parts that I could learn about for myself.

For that Egyptian, a flashlight is magic, so far outside their realm that they don't expect to understand how it works.  Open it up and of course there's no flame inside, but instead some cylinders full of inexplicable magic energies, and of course they're covered in strange symbols that no one can read.  None of it works like it should -- it's magic, after all.

This must be technology, because it has captions explaining how all the parts work.

For Signs in the Wilderness, I'm interested in exploring magic that looks like technology.

It's magic, because it doesn't really follow any of the usual rules of how the world works.  I couldn't tell you the science behind the Golden Goggles or the Atmospheric Engine because there isn't any.  They're just magic items that I made up.

But they look like technology because of the expectations people have.  Sure, we don't know what's inside the Engine, but that's just because we haven't opened it up for a look.  Of course we'd find gears or pulleys or lenses that all make sense if you study them, because that's just how technology is.

With the right expectations, you can slip just about any magic item into the story under the guise of technology.  And in this post-apocalyptic setting, every new invention has something obfuscating about it anyhow -- the inventor might be dead by now, and no one knows how it works.  But because it's technology (and most certainly Not Magic) we expect we'll figure it out eventually. 

Let's roll up a random Invention.

Purpose (d12)
1 travels across the Sky: hot air balloon, cable car, pigeon
2 allows travel Underwater: diving suit, submarine, air pump
3 transports over Land: bicycle, pneumatic tube, sail-carriage
4 affects the Weather: causes rain, attracts lightning, emits fog
5 transmits Messages: semaphore, megaphone, tiny writing
6 Entertains or distracts: music, image projector, carnival ride
7 Detects hard-to-find items: ores, gems, water
8 helps with the Crops: harvesting, weaving, baking
9 creates Light/Fire: lighter, safety lamp, gas tubes
10 provides Security: safes, explosives, alarms
11 reveals Knowledge: find position at sea, show the future, read minds
12 improves Health: food preservation, healing, prevent scurvy

5: This invention transmits messages in some way.  There are plenty of options here, but first we'll need to know what the invention looks like.

Form (d10)
1 wearable and cumbersome
2 pocket-sized, must open or set up before use?
3 heavy item that takes two hands to use/carry
4 only works when installed in a common thing
5 large, must be set in ground, unlikely to be moved once set up
6 colossal device, moves on a track of some sort
7 huge engine on spindly legs
8 small barrel/box, must stay still while in use
9 large, freestanding, can be moved about
10 enormous, built in place, an entire building?

2: It's pocket-sized, and might need to be opened or set up before use.  (Unfurled, maybe?)  It could be something like a signal mirror, or maybe a portable telegraph device, or even a radio by some other name.  Let's look at its overall style next:

Style (d8 twice)
1 wheels, gears, ropes, belts, pulleys
2 glass, silver, silk, kept inside amber glass
3 noisy, clanking, rumbling, high-pitched squeal
4 smoke, dirt, soot, ash, foul smell/taste
5 sparks, embers, flames, electrick shocks
6 leather, brass, pipes, mirrors
7 polished mahogany, walnut
8 emerald, amber, quartz, amethyst

3/6: It's noisy/clanking and it has some combination of leather, brass, pipes, and mirrors.  I think this might be a sound-based device, maybe something that can focus the sound of your voice on a point many miles away.

Next let's see how this device is powered:

Power Source (d8)
1 consumed by use, inert, reflects light and sound
2-3 handcrank, pushed by hand, turned by oxen
4-5 has its own: waterwheel, windmill, coal-fired steam engine
6-7 clockwork, windup spring, weights on chains
8 slowly powered by heat of the sun, alcohol flame, requires ice or noxious chemicals

1: It doesn't need a power source: it's inert or runs on its own.

This device is like a line-of-sight walkie-talkie.  It lets you communicate by voice with anyone else who has one, as long as they're visible, even if they're many miles away.

Let's call it the Voicecaster.

In form, it's something like an umbrella or a modern tent (a bit bigger than pocket-sized, but still easily portable), folded up for carrying (probably in a protective case) then unfurled for use.  The structural ribs are made of shiny brass pipes that snap together, supporting a hemisphere of thin canvas with leather straps in places for strength.  Out at the edges of the frame, the brass pipes flare into complex little trumpet shapes.  At the center the pipes all come together.

To use a voicecaster, you set it up facing in the right direction, then sit down so your head is in the middle of the device.  There's a tube in front of you for sighting your target, so you carefully aim it at whoever you're trying to communicate with, as far away as the horizon.  There's another tube by your mouth that you speak into, and one by your ear so you can listen.

This raises an interesting question: does the other person need to have one of these devices to hear your voice, or can you project your voice at any point in the distance?  Or maybe they don't need one of these devices to speak, and you can just listen in on conversations from miles away?

A real listening device, meant for hearing incoming aircraft.

But like all magic, this device shouldn't be too commonplace.  In the story, it's meant to serve the purpose of a rare magic item, something powerful and important, but not so common that the basic concept of the world changes.

What's stopping this device from being widely adopted?

Rare Because (d8 twice)
1 design still unfinished, not yet functional
2 reclusive inventor, state secret
3 rumors of peril, illegal, addictive, deadly
4 costly, hard to make/use
5 many would lose their livelihood by it
6 not understood, inventor died in the apocalypse
7 fragile, easily damaged
8 legal battle over ownership, distribution, usage

8/1: There's a legal battle over who owns it, and it isn't entirely functional yet.

Let's say the voicecaster works just fine for listening and speaking once you've got it aimed right, but the process of getting it aligned is too finicky at the moment.  If there's a demonstration model, it's permanently fixed in place to avoid this problem.

The inventor has an idea of how they might fix the alignment problem, maybe using something like a spyglass with a small hand-crank, but they haven't had a chance to try it yet.

Besides, they're trying to stay out of sight for now.  To get the funding, they turned to some investors who are expecting the device for their own use.  I'm sure we could think of some shadowy and nefarious people to have behind the scenes.

Let's roll up another one, just to see how this works.

  • purpose: traveling across the sky
  • form: huge engine on spindly legs
  • style: ropes and pulleys / polished wood
  • powered by: clockwork, windup spring
  • rare because: many would lose their livelihood / said to be dangerous

This is a flying machine, a giant winged ornithopter powered by clockwork made of wood and rope.  Its spindly legs somehow support its weight while on the ground, then can be folded up while in flight.

Of course it's terribly dangerous, but if it could be flown safely it would provide safe travel over difficult terrain and rough seas, putting many porters and wilderness guides out of work.

Click below to roll up one of your own:

Newfangled Invention
power source
rare because

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! This feels similar to the tables for constructing (far-far-future) artifacts and cyphers in Numenera. As fond as I am of Roadside Picnic style deadly bizarreries, though, I like that these are current inventions. A hopeful post-apocalypse is refreshing.

    The fact that the European/colonial technology base prior to your apocalypse would have been largely (but not entirely) pre-machine-tool and pre-standardized-parts surely helps with reskinning magic items - inventions can be weird and idiosyncratic because they're all bespoke. Nice!