Saturday, 14 March 2015

Magic as Tech, and the Time-Tech Conundrum in Fantasy Writing

A thousand years ago, the greatest wizard of all time, Evil Fred, was cast away into another dimension, but now he is about to return and threatens to conquer the world!

Sound familiar? It is the basis of a zillion fantasy stories including The Lord of the Rings. But I have an issue with this plot. If Evil Fred was alive during the technological equivalent of medieval Europe, what would the world look like upon his return? If the fantasy world in question progressed as our real world did, wouldn’t his deadly fireballs seem a bit dated when he showed up to rule the 21st century? At best, he could get a job at a Renaissance Fair.

The heart of the issue is that most of us (directly influenced by Tolkien?) want our fantasy worlds to be forever set in a medieval world, albeit one with ‘magic’. This obviously begs a few difficult questions. Unless the world was created in an iron age, the technology must have developed from earlier techs, so did it stop developing or are we just witnessing a certain a point in the world’s history? If this is the case, what is the time-span of the fabula, including the history that is necessary to make it function (e.g. is there a relic that was created 1000 years earlier and, if so, was the knowledge and craft available)? If a culture was able to make a really cool sword 1000 years previously, why are they still only making swords (not nukes) and why is that old sword still important?

Before exploring possible answers, you may need to consider what constitutes ‘magic’ in your world. I will address this question more deeply in a separate blog post, but what’s important here is the methodology of the magic. If the power can or must be learned and it relies on a set of rules, then there is probably a science to it. I would suggest that the typical fantasy wizard casts ‘magic’ that operates in this fashion. Again, using The Lord of the Rings as an example, when the elves are asked about their ‘magic’, they seem confused because, to them, it is simply science [1] (thus demonstrating Clarke’s “law” that any technology advanced enough will indistinguishable from magic to the uneducated [2]). Why does this matter? Because, if magic is the science of the day, then it should advance along with the technology (in fact, it probably drives it forward). In my early example, Evil Fred’s fireballs are outdated not because he returned to a world that had nukes simply growing on trees, but because those nukes are the direct intellectual descendants of Fred’s fireball spell. For this reason, you really can’t separate technology from ‘magic’, and both should become more sophisticated through time.

So, if this presents a problem for your plot, how do you fix the time-tech conundrum? Well, to be honest, you probably don’t need to. I think most fantasy readers will give you a pass on this. Still, addressing the topic would make your world more interesting. Here are a few ideas that I have toyed with. None of them are perfect, but they may be good starting points.

Science and industry, at a high level, may require the support of a centralized government. If this collapses, a golden era may go with it. Baghdad, a city not currently known for its scientific prowess, was one of the brightest intellectual lights in the western world from the 9-12th centuries [3]. Historians are not really sure why it all fell apart (though it is easy to blame theocratic repression, this can’t be the sole issue because the city was a religious centre during its apex as well [3] – certainly the Mongol invasions didn’t help [4]). The important thing about a golden scholarly age such as Baghdad’s, however, is that information was diligently recorded and travels to and from the city was extensive enough that much of the knowledge was translated into other languages and locations before the collapse. Even if Baghdad had burned to the ground, the knowledge would not have perished from the earth (this is partially true for the material at the library at Alexandria as well, though the destruction of the library occurred approximately 1000 years earlier and it is not known how much unique material was lost [5]). If you are going to propose that a large amount of advanced technologies were lost, you may want to consider how those technologies advanced so far in secret and died with their generations of creators.

You could rationalize your world’s scientific stasis by limiting its population. The industrial revolution required much more than just knowledge; it required large cities and a society with loads of specialization in its population [6]. If a world (such as Middle-Earth) has only a few million people [7], then it probably would not undergo such a shift. Why the population of this world has not increased due to technological advances (in agriculture, for example), as it did in real world history [6], is a more subtle problem that you may want to consider. Furthermore, if your magic is a science, you might still be stuck explaining how research could have progressed far enough to create powerful spells, yet other technologies have lagged behind.

One possible answer to the time-tech conundrum may be to set a tech ceiling. Production of ‘magic’ or a certain technology (if you can even separate those two concepts) could lead to a specific type of global catastrophic event (with more powerful magical spells fuelling the problem proportionally). This would knock everything back until the cycle started again. If the set-backs were global in scale, affecting all aspects of society, then it would also help to address the idea that scientific discoveries can’t be stopped from happening once the societal and technical pieces are in place to drive them (for example, even if Darwin had never existed, we know that the mechanisms of evolution would have been established, as Alfred Russell Wallace independently found them shortly after Darwin did -- but would it have been so if all of the world’s intellectual progress had been set back?). Of course, some of the earlier knowledge (pre-collapse) would persist, so the cycle would be shorter each time, but only a certain level of industry could be reached. This answer (my favourite one) is obviously influenced by real world concepts of global warming and the threats of global thermonuclear war, each of which may set limits on our real-world global prosperity, so it might sound too modern for your setting, but it might also lend the explanation credibility.

And so, as Evil Fred is led away in energy-binds, he can overhear the elvish children’s schoolyard banter through the chain-link fence:

“A fireball?! Did that old dude really just cast a fireball?”
“Yeah, totally lame, right?”
“We did that in class, but we didn’t bother with the fire; we just started with atomics.”
“Really!? I can’t wait til I’m in 6th grade; our teacher still has us doing plasma-based stuff.”
“Aww, man, don’t wait til 6th grade, just look it up on Magipedia; it’s all there...”

Works Cited

H. Gee, The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining the Science Behind the Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told!, Cold Spring Press, 2004.
A. C. Clarke, "Hazards of prophecy: the failure of imagination," in Profiles of the Future, London, Gollancz, 1962.
J. Al-Khalili, The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
A. Y. al-Hassan, "Factors Behind the Decline of Islamic Science," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 23 March 2014].
M. Bragg, Composer, In Our Time: The Library of Alexandria. [Sound Recording]. BBC UK radio program. 2013.
J. Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, London: Vintage Books, 1998.
T. Loback, "The Kindreds, Houses and Population of the Elves During the First Age," Mythlore, vol. 14, no. 51, 1987.

A Place for Realism in Fantasy?

I recently took advantage of some free time to rework my fantasy setting so that nearly every aspect is explainable through interlocking natural (in my world) laws. Should I have bothered? Should you bother? Not if you don’t care, and most people don’t. I contend, however, that you will design a far more interesting world if you give some thought to the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of various fantasy aspects of your fiction. In doing so, you may find that you sidestep common clich├ęs not because you are obviously trying to avoid them, but because those tropes are satisfyingly replaced by the logic of your setting.

A very simple example of this includes fallout from questioning why, for example, your wizard character doesn't wear armour. If it is simply because this runs contrary to the trope, you might consider breaking from convention, but it would seem forced (and leave the reader feeling irked) to dress a mage in plate mail simply to defy the standard. If however, your reader learns that large amounts of nearby magnetic metals interfere with spell casting, then you can dress your wizard in armour made from dragon scales. Now you have a character that is not so typical, and your reader will not feel like they are reading a post-modern commentary on the genre.

Perhaps the more important outcome of this kind of logic exercise is that it gives you a launching point to create unique and flavourful story points. Carrying the previous example further: if magnetic metals interfere with spell casting, then couldn't a wizard be deemed powerless in a room that was lined with loadstone? Maybe all magical devices would be useless? And, perhaps there is a downside to wearing dragon scales. Do they hold a power of their own? Do they act as a beacon in the spirit realm, drawing ghosts, demons, or other dragons? You get the idea. Following the logical extensions of your unique rules opens the way to ideas that will make your story, likewise, unique.

If logical extensions are done well, the reader will appreciate being shown something new. Maybe I am misidentifying the emotion, but it is certainly one of the reasons that I am impressed by serious Sci-fi. Presenting a ‘what if?’ question followed by an answer that is more clever than anything that I could have derived on my own makes me not only admire the author, but allows me to feel safe in the investment that I am making in the story, knowing that I am not going to be let down by some ridiculous, ill-thought plot point that causes me to lose respect for the author and the story. The most egregious example of this kind of betrayal was the script of the TV series, Lost. The story started with a brilliant premise followed by increasingly fantastic subplots that hooked a lot of people. Even many die-hard fans, however, were feeling betrayed by the end when they realised that “lost” simply described the writing team. And midi-chlorians to explain The Force? Even Time magazine openly shat on that one [1].

In the Sci-fi genre, stories that pay close attention to the ramifications of new technologies are placed in the sub-genre, “Hard Sci-fi”. I would like to see more well-done examples of magical systems within “Hard Fantasy” (by which I am referring to the treatment of magic as an interlocking natural science, not to a George Martinesque style of grittiness and adult theme), but they are rare enough that I am having trouble. Brandon Sanderson presents some excellent insights to this topic in his article, Sanderson’s First Law [i], and I am guessing[ii] that his magical systems are among the most coherent. There are several other authors who show concern for hard fantasy, but even one of the best, R. Scott Bakker, would have trouble explaining the full physics behind his magical systems (though the use of different mathematics as an analogy is a good start). Jane Lindskold blogs about the importance of magical systems [2], though I have not read enough of her material to know how well it plays out.

The reason for this scarcity is not due to a lack of good writers. Instead, I suppose that it is for the same reason that nobody (to my knowledge) has done a full wiring diagram of the Death Star. Nobody really cares that much. Fantasy, as the genre name implies, is about losing oneself in an unreal world. Sanderson offers keen insight on this. [3] While he is an advocate of “hard magic” in which the reader understands the rules of the magic system, he acknowledges that “soft magic” is satisfying when the reader and protagonist(s) are meant to see magic as an outside force of wonder and not as an integral part of the plot (as far as the protagonist can affect the plot). But I still hold my position (and Sanderson’s): if more writers took a “hard” look at their fantasy, the entire genre could become much richer.

Works Cited

E. Narcisse, "20,000 Per Cell: Why Midi-Chlorians Suck," 10 August 2010. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 March 2014].
J. Lindskold, "TOR.COM Science fiction. Fantasy. The universe.,", 06 January 2009. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 1 June 2014].
B. Sanderson, "Brandon Sanderson," 20 February 2007. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 13 October 2014].

[i] “Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” [3]

[ii] I am embarrassed to say that I have not yet read any, but I hope to do so soon (and delete this endnote).

Friday, 13 March 2015

What is Magic?

“The supernatural can be very annoying until one finds the key that transforms it into science," he observed mildly... "Come on, Ox, let's go out and get killed.” Master Li Kao [1]

Nearly everybody believes in magic at some level; be it through prayer, destiny, superstitions, or lucky charms. But these things cannot exist without a support network of ideas that are even harder to accept. If you believe in magical concepts, or if you are writing a story that includes them, this post may be of interest to you.

We all have a sense of what makes something seem magical, but the term is rarely formalized. Most scholarly articles[i] focus on the traditional uses of “magic” ritual or “magical” thinking. Wikipedia describes many of the major genres of “magic”, but I have not found a good source that seeks to categorize magic by its mechanisms (i.e. the way it ‘works’)[ii],[iii]. This is probably because magic in the real world is, after all, a cultural phenomenon, not a scientific one (i.e. it doesn't work). In fantasy settings, however, magic is assumed to actually function.

In a previous post I suggest that an author can make a more rich and satisfying world by understanding their magic more fully. Here I attempt to formalize magic by its mechanisms and I posit a few assertions about the requirements for certain magical concepts, if they were to work together in a ‘realistic’ sense. If you have bought into the notion that systematizing the magic in your world is worthwhile, or if you simply want to explore magical thinking, then read on.

can something be “supernatural”?

The foundational thing to establish (sooner or later) is the nature of your universe. “Magic” is a difficult term because it implies an appeal to, or control of, the supernatural. But what does “supernatural” mean? How can anything actually be beyond the laws of Nature? If the “magic” in your world is repeatable and manageable (not just a random series of burps in the laws of the Universe) then it must have its own rules and, therefore, be a part of Nature. To the lay-person, these rules might be so unintuitive that they seem to violate Nature’s laws, but this won’t be true for those who can actually manipulate these mysterious forces.[iv] This is even true if the magic is based on an appeal for intervention from the spirit world.

Most fantasy settings are based on traditional substance dualism[v], being built of material and spiritual energies. Dualism may be intuitive to us because virtually every society is steeped in it (even if we don’t all believe in gods or ghosts, we all know what they are). In the real world the material world is the dominion of science texts, but the ‘spiritual’ side of the coin is not well-defined. Instead, unmeasurable claims are commonly thrown together into a ‘spirituality’ junk drawer wherein karma sits next to numerology and past-life regression (all of which are entangled by a misrepresentation of quantum mechanics). You may find it helpful to sort this mess by establishing the rules by which your ‘spiritual’ world works (yes, I am suggesting that you create a ‘science’ for your metaphysics)[vi]. If you follow this through, you will run into the inevitable conundrum that, if the spiritual world can be harnessed or manifested in the material world, then it is no longer strictly “spiritual” and your fantasy world is no longer dualist (this is often known as the ‘interaction problem’ [2] [3]). That’s ok; you are probably trying to create a world in which the powers of gods, spirits, etc. are unequivocal, so you actually want all types of energy to be transferrable (therefore conflatable?). Just learn the physics of each realm (if you can call them separate) and figure out how they intersect.

Ways in which magical concepts might function:

A consideration of the ‘physics’ of your world is important because the magical genres commonly categorised by their tropes can now be considered in light of the ways in which they function. Here are a few considerations:

conjuration (creating energies and material)

“Who are you who can summon fire without flint or tinder?” Arthur, King of the Britons [4]

Where does the energy come from to create a fireball or a new object? If we accept that energy is never created or destroyed, but only changes form and locality, then one possibility is that it is drawn from the surrounding environment (and passes through the spell caster?). Your readers might get a kick out of learning that, after Evil Fred casts a fireball, the surrounding terrain has been chilled to freezing because its heat energy was drained and channelled through Fred’s body (and what happens if Fred gets it wrong half-way through the procedure?). Another idea is to have energies exchanged between planes of existence and/or other dimensions. You may then want to consider if those dimensions have a parallel set of physics and if the energy is comparable. If it is simply a negative or alternate version of the spall caster’s world, then explanations can be made simpler. And, of course, if E=mc2 in your world, then even the tiniest material spell component might yield a massive bang.

This category might also include any situation in which the user taps into a nebulous source of energy (e.g. the Force, chi, mana) and becomes a conduit. If the energy is ‘spiritual’, then it might overlap with prayer and ritual. The source of energy could also be fully contained within the user, and only needs to be released (in this case, does its expenditure leave the user exhausted, and is it the same type of energy that keeps a non-spell caster moving, thinking, and feeling?).

prayer (and wishes)

“Valor pleases you, Crom... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge!” Conan [5]

If the practitioner is trying to garner favour with (and favours from) the spirit world, then it is a simple appeal for help. Why the target chooses to help only some of the people some of the time is not clear. Keep in mind, however, that there are other forms of prayer that are not based on appeal, but are more contemplative[vii]. In these, the practitioners may try to harness spiritual power by focusing on an internal or external spiritual source (which overlaps with conjuration), or simply try to garner a feeling of peace by placing themselves in the presence (metaphorical or not) of their spiritual target (e.g. their god). In simpler terms: it may be meditation.

incantation (magic words)

“Hocus-cadabra! Abraca-pocus!” Bugs Bunny [6]

Perhaps it is the long-recognized power of speech (and music) or the more modern idea that objects have resonant frequencies, but the idea that words and sounds have clout is prevalent in religion and magical folklore. If used well, therefore, incantations will feel natural to your reader. But how might these sounds work? Do certain sounds call spirits, who assist. Maybe the frequencies resonate with objects, gateways to other planes (John Harten does a nice job with this concept in Island), or with the spiritual elements (e.g. chakras) of their target(s). The only idea that falls terribly flat, in my opinion, is the use of actual words. For example, in the Harry Potter series, faux Latin is used to cast spells. Why does the universe ‘speak’ faux Latin? Do the materials that comprise a pair of glasses really respond to the words “oculus reparo” by figuring out how they might best restore their function? [7] And why can one person say these words effectively, but not another, even though they all have different accents? To keep my brain from bleeding, please don’t do this in your fiction. Please.[viii]

divination (reading the future, premonitions, prophecies, and the concept of fate)

“That I have missed the mark, henceforth declare
I have no wit nor skill in prophecy.” Teiresias [8]

This one is difficult because it is tied with concepts of free will and the arrow of time. If the future, in general, is already determined (implied by the idea that it can be accurately predicted), then your characters are just acting out scenes in a movie that has already been written. Therefore, they have no free will or responsibility. In any case, actually learning about a person’s future is tricky. How does that happen? In the scenario where everything has already occurred and the characters are simply moving along a timeline, unable to see the already-written future, then the predicting device or some intelligent being must be able to leap forward in time to see the future or it must be able to calculate, with ridiculous accuracy, the likely outcome of all interacting events that will affect the person in question until the moment of interest (in the way that a computer could predict all of the final resting locations of billiard balls if it knew of the force and angle of the break along with the properties of the table, balls, and atmosphere).

A more subtle approach to premonitions is that the future has not yet been determined, but strong forces (e.g. gods) have vested interests in certain aspects of the future. Perhaps these force interfere just enough to cause the hero to unwittingly kill his own father, but this is not an assurance – it will only work to the extent that the gods can affect such matters. In such a scenario, there can still be an undetermined future, but a “premonition” is simply a god making clear its intentions to guide things.

luck (lucky charms and curses)

“In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” Ben Kenobi [9]

If luck is a randomly achieved outcome that benefits the recipient then, for something like a ‘good luck charm’ to work, the item must be (or be able to call upon) a sentient power that not only understands the difference between good and bad outcomes, but knows how to (and be able to) alter the world such that good outcomes (or bad in the case of curses) are more likely. How might this happen? If we use an example wherein a heroine is caught by a tree branch as she falls over a cliff, perhaps the power (the charm itself?) is very clever and can surmise the outcome of certain actions better than the heroine can. Upon doing so, the power influences the hero or the situation such that the hero is more likely to fall only at the spot where the tree branch is growing. Or, instead of influencing the situation, the sentient power searches through a huge range of parallel or potential worlds and ‘chooses’ one that is in league with the will of the hero (akin to a macro-scale version of a Copenhagen interpretation of reality). Combinations of these ideas also might work well. In any case, the question of why the sentient power decides to keep its influence so secret and subtle is another issue worth considering.

material spell components (stuff that is required to make the spell work)

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog” 2nd Witch [10]

To a modern mind, the use of salts, metals, or certain animal parts may just provide the components for chemical reactions, which makes such ‘magic’ no more mystical than baking. Because this will probably be the mindset of your readers (I am assuming them to have a somewhat modern mind and, at least, a high-school exposure to chemistry), you may want to craft the chemistry of your world to stay a step ahead of your audience, even if you don’t explicitly explain it to them.

Interestingly, the ‘chemistry’ view of spell components is not typical though history. More often, items were supposed to work via principles of sympathy (correspondence and contagion)[ix] wherein they were somehow linked with the desired effect or target (e.g. a comb that belongs to a person might lend power to spells that target them, or a broach shaped like a lion might make a warrior stronger). [11] As with so many other magical concepts, it seems that there must often be a ‘spiritual’ connection for the link to make any sense. How is the formerly mentioned comb connected to the soul of its owner? Does it have a memory or is there some direct link through a spirit plane? Something like the broach being shaped like a lion is much harder to explain. It implies that strength comes from shapes (yet this doesn’t work with all shapes?) or that there is an intelligent observing power that has decided to reward its wearer for some reason, which takes us straight to rituals...

rituals (and rites)

“Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less.” Cleric (with Brother Maynard) [4]

I will consider a ritual to be multiple factors acting in concert and/or in sequence that invoke a ‘spiritual’ realm. This often differs from prayer in that prayer is open ended (e.g. “please let me score the winning touchdown”) whereas ritual seems to fulfil a contract, as if it were an equation (e.g. if I stab an albino cow using an obsidian knife during a full moon, then my crops will grow better)[x]. Especially as items are used in rituals, you might want to consider why that particular item is more effective than any other. It might be as simple as a judgemental spirit world that respects the use of certain resources. Perhaps a deity is impressed by the use a real obsidian knife and a real albino cow, as opposed to cheap knock-offs?

There is always the possibility that a ‘ritual’ does not call on any ‘spiritual’ forces at all, but is just a very complicated manipulation of forces in the material world. This could constitute a ‘spell’ such as a conjuration. Alternatively, it may not be ‘magical’ at all but, to the uninitiated, it may seem like ‘magic’ (and may be assumed to have a spiritual appeal)[xi]. One of the most fascinating real-world examples of this is the cargo cults of Melanesia[xii].

magical items (powerful swords, etc.)

“With my spear and magic HELMET!” Elmer Fudd [12]

These are the bread and butter of the fantasy genre, and putting them all into one sub-heading covers a lot of ground. If we begin by considering the function of the item, then we can decide if it is simply a superior form of technology. Some items may adhere to the ‘natural’ chemical properties of the world (there’s that problem with dualism again), like a ‘magic’ sword that is really just made of an unknown alloy that resists being dulled, or releases energy when it is bent or bruised. Other items may be constructed in such a way that they act as conduits or antennae for exterior sources of energy. In any case, a deeper explanation may include several of the previously discussed sub-headings, and the details would need to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

in conclusion

There are other genres of magic that could be addressed here, but you get the idea: however you include magic in your writing, ask yourself where the power comes from, whether or not it is in endless supply, how that power achieves the function being asked of it, and why the steps that harness or release that power make sense. If you can answer all of these questions, you will find your fantasy milieu to be much richer for it and your readers will take notice.

[i] There are serious professionals who spend their careers studying magical thinking throughout the world – be aware that I am not one of them. I only want to look at the topic from, apparently, a new angle (though this angle is not new with regard to the categorization of prayer). If you are creating a reasonably detailed magical system for your story, I recommend that you read other sources after finishing this blog post.
[ii] In the 1970’s, Gary Gygax subcategorized spells via simplistic ‘schools’: Divination, Conjuration, Abjuration, etc. Though these were not explained in the original AD&D system [13] [14], subsequent versions expanded on them in some detail.
[iii] Even The Golden Bough [11], one of the most seminal and encyclopaedic works on magic, neglects this topic (though I have to admit that I have only read the summarized version, not the full eleven-volume set).
[iv] Brandon Sanderson has some good advice regarding when to explain the rules of your magic system and when to keep your protagonists (and your readers) in the dark so as not to lose a sense of mystical mystery.    
[v] It is hard to imagine other possibilities, though some might suggest that information itself (and/or emergent complexity) is a third possible form of ‘energy’. Many of these ideas are poorly reasoned, such as the Omega Point and the Specified Complexity argument for Intelligent Design but, perhaps, well-recognized concepts such as consciousness could be backed into this corner if they are not already attributed to a the ‘spiritual’ concept of a soul).
[vi] In my own fantasy setting, I started with the standard Theory of Cosmic Inflation and simply posited four spiritual forces that formed alongside (and entangled with) four physical ones, giving rise to a spiritual chemistry. This allowed for the naturalistic formation of gods in a manner parallel to the coalescence of material into stars. All other spiritual concepts then fall out by analogy with the physics and chemistry of the real world (I assume that no real-world ancient religions used this idea because they preceded our current scientific understanding of creation, which was highly influential on my thinking, and that no new religions (such as the ironically-named Scientology) use the idea because people who seek logical explanations for the world do not turn to them, so these religions have no need to be logic-based).
[vii] Unlike other genres of magic, Wikipedia actually does organize this category based on its supposed mechanisms.
[viii] However, I have to admit that the idea that words literally have power (in a universal physics sense, not even with regard to changing peoples’ attitudes) permeates our culture deeply. It may not be scientifically sensible, but it resonates with virtually all of us. As an interesting exercise on this point, ask yourself and/or the most rational people you know to write out this sentence ten times on a piece of paper: “I wish for [fill in name of loved one(s) here] to die in a tragic card accident”. Very few people are willing to do it and even if they do, few feel comfortable doing so.
[ix] To describe the mechanisms for such linkages as “principles”, however, is extremely generous, as there really are no sensible or consistent rules.
[x] As I state in my first endnote, I am no expert on this, so you may want to search further to find a better definition.
[xi] Another example of the Clarke Principal that sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic.
[xii] During World War II, the Allies built airfields on some islands that had technologically primitive societies. When these groups subsequently saw valuable cargo being delivered literally “out of the blue”, they assumed that the items arrived as a result of the military drills (rituals) that the allied troops performed on a regular basis. Long after the allies departed, groups of islanders attempted to summon cargo deliveries by imitating the allied troops’ behaviour, dress, and equipment, including the setting of an appropriate summoning site by building facsimiles of planes and radios out of plant materials.

Works Cited
B. Hughart, Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was, St. Martin's Press, 1984.
"Substance Dualism [part 1]," Qualia Soup, 7 October 2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 29 June 2014].
J. Danaher, "Substance Dualism (part 4): The Problem of Interaction," Philosophical Disquisitions, 2 June 2011. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 29 June 2014].
T. J. Terry Gilliam, Director, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. [Film]. UK: Monty Python, 1975.
J. Milius, Director, Conan the Barbarian. [Film]. USA: Universal Pictures, 1982.
C. J. a. M. Noble, Director, Transylvania 6-5000. [Film]. USA: Warner Brothers, 1963.
J. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, UK: Bloomsbury, 2000.
Sophocles, Writer, Oedipus the King. [Performance]. c. 429 BC.
G. Lucas, Director, Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope). [Film]. USA: Lucasfilm, 1977.
W. Shakespeare, Writer, Macbeth. [Performance]. 1623.
S. J. G. F. (. b. R. Temple), The Illustrated Golden Bough, London: Labyrinth Printing, 1996.
C. Jones, Director, What's Opera Doc?. [Film]. USA: Warner Bros., 1957.
G. Gygax, Players Handbook, Lake Geneva: TSR Games, 1978.
G. Gygax, Dungeon Masters Guide, Lake Geneva: TSR Games, 1978.
Random House Inc., ", "ritual"," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 5 October 2014].

Post-Apocalypse Issues: Part II – Specific Issues for Specific Scenarios:

This post follows from an earlier one in which I discuss general issues of resource scarcity and the lack of danger from decomposing bodies (unless, of course, they are zombies...). Here, I focus on issues specific to common apocalypse scenarios.


As mentioned in the general issues post (i.e. Part I), bodies would cease to be contagious pretty quickly. Authors have a lot of room here, however, to make interesting scenarios in which diseases caused by retroviruses (for example), remain undetectable in a living host for long periods of time. This sets up dramatic possibilities with regard to survivors being xenophobic. In addition to supplying a canvas for conflict, it shatters the idea that large groups would form to reorganize society. If you want dwindling resources, city-states, and tribal conflict, this seems like a good way to go in a pandemic scenario.

zombie apocalypse

What Anne Rice did for vampires, Max Brooks did for zombies (in my mind, he modernized the genre). If you are writing a zombie story and you have not yet read The Zombie Survival Guide or World War Z, you are shooting yourself in the foot. While Brooks’ zombies violate all biological and thermodynamic principles, even I (who gets hung up on such things) was able to put those matters aside to enjoy the extent of his thinking. Really – go and get these books (the movie doesn’t do them justice, though I have been told that The Walking Dead television series does bring Brooks’ contribution to the screen).

nuclear holocaust

Wm. Robert Johnston, a researcher in space-physics, wrote a well-considered seminar piece in which he detailed the likely effects of a fictional nuclear holocaust in 1988. While the conclusions are surprising to me, they confirm what the majority of experts claim: that much (perhaps half) of the world’s population would survive [1]. I recommend the report for its straight-forward usefulness. Another good, albeit earlier, paper is “The global health effects of nuclear war” by physicist Brian Martin [2].

Johnston estimates 45 million US survivors (around 16%, or 1 in 6), so there will be plenty of people to build up local governments that can oversee production and distribution of resources and labor. An interesting consideration is that, even though the nuclear destruction will be targeted at a limited number of countries, it is likely that several smaller conflicts will erupt as the world’s power balance is reassessed.

Cities, of course, will be the primary target of most attacks. Therefore, most of the amenities of infrastructure (industry, bureaucracy, communication, etc.) will be gone, making this scenario very different from the pandemic apocalypse. Yet, scavenging in areas outside of the epicentres will still provide a largess food that will keep people alive until they can reorganize (packaged or tinned foods will be safe so long as the radioactive dust has not mixed into the contents).

The ramifications of a nuclear holocaust are vast and complicated. I recommend that writers hoping to do justice to their speculative world draw on multiple sources before considering the scale at which they want their fabula to take place. The scale will determine what details need to be considered and which can be glossed over with hand-wavey vagaries.

alien invasion

If you are looking for realism, this one is most certainly a punt. If a race of creatures has the ability to cross the galaxy, then there is no good reason for them to dominate Earth. We have virtually nothing here that is not available elsewhere, especially water (in his book, The Eerie Silence [3], Paul Davies does such a good job tackling the search for alien intelligence that I abandoned my plans to write such a book after reading his). Furthermore, a race that has the technology for interstellar travel could probably make anything that it needs from scratch, would likely find human slave-labor to be more trouble than it’s worth and, because it did not co-evolve with us, would probably not find us to be suitable hosts for their young or for hybridization.

The invasion could be a less-insidious wave of spores spreading out through the galaxy to colonize new planets, but that has a few evolutionary issues. The first is that the critters would have needed to evolve on a planet whose conditions selected for (i.e. rewarded) those variants that were somehow cast out into space. Perhaps they evolved on an asteroid, but complex beings are complex because they evolve in multi-faceted relationships with their ecology (i.e. other critters that evolved next to them). If they are good at colonizing and competing with local flora and fauna, it implies that they got good at it over millions of years of interactions with their shipmates (or asteroid-mates). The take-home message is that, to evolve a highly-capable colonising creature, you need a complex ecology (not teh kind usually depicted on asteroids).

The second issue is that, when something evolves to live on a planet, it is rewarded for being really good at exploiting that planet. Even on our own planet, only around 10% of introduced species take hold in their new environments, and only 1% become problematic pests [4]. What would the chances be if they came from an alien climate and atmosphere?
As always, I am not suggesting that alien-invasion plots be abandoned; I am only suggesting that authors patch up the obvious holes before their readers point them out on a forum site.

Lovecraftian horrors and their ilk

Who doesn’t love a good Cthulhu-esque tale? Sentient, terrible forces conquering our world from within the shadows. Perhaps without Lovecraft, there would have never been an X-Files. The big problem is that these stories usually rely on unbelievably competent conspiracies and an equally incompetent scientific community. Having been a biologist for years, I know how quickly good evidence is disseminated and taken seriously. When a tentacled, vampiric, flying werewolf ate the local sheriff, did that really go unnoticed by everyone except for the local high school heroes and the stodgy librarian? Especially with the aid of current global communication, it only takes the stodgy librarian sending a photo attachment of the creature before interests would be piqued. Maybe the poor old dear would be eaten before others began to take him seriously, but information gets around and, once it is confirmed as being something new, the entire global scientific community goes ape (if discovery of a new species of frog got a 839 words in the New York Times [5], then the discovery of said werewolf would not be tucked away in a file). This is my usual first filter for conspiracy stories in real life. If an average citizen can find evidence that they are using to demonstrate an incredible cover-up, then I regard it as just that: in-credible. Why is the entire astrophysics community ignoring the webpage that clearly presents evidence of an alien in a ‘government’ freezer? Because they know better.

Act of god(s)

Knock yourselves out, folks -- it’s hard to make less sense than what many religious readers actually believe to be the final fate of the world.

W. Johnston, "The effects of a global thermonuclear war.," in Dean's Scholars seminar, University of Texas at Austin, 2003.
B. Martin, "The global health effects of nuclear war," Current Affairs Bulletin, vol. 59, no. 7, pp. 14-26, 1982.
P. Davies, The Eerie Silence, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
J. Reece, Campbell Biology, Pearson, 2011.
L. Foderaro, "New leopard frog species is discovered in NYC.," NYT, 13 March 2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 10 March 2014].

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Post-Apocalypse Issues: Part I – General Issues

Post-apocalypse scenarios are cool.  Really cool. They appear repeatedly in speculative fiction. But why? Shouldn’t we be horrified by them, as they are often reasonably plausible? I think that’s the hook, actually. Their closeness to a potential reality places them (for me) in the speculative rather than fantasy category, and my interest in such fiction is that I can learn from it. I will even go out on a limb here to suggest that post-apocalypse fiction belongs somewhat near historic fiction (even though it occurs in the future) because it focuses on asking “what if” questions about a world nearly identical to our own, but with some differences in the events that have occurred. I hate being able to out-think an author when it comes to “what if” questions (I’ve put in the time reading the book, dammit, and the author should have put in the time researching and critiquing his or her conclusions) so, for me, it is critically important that the speculation be at least as good as the fiction if it is going to get my vote (I recommend S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire series). In this post I present some issues that you may want to consider if your story takes place in the aftermath.

How does the landscape decay?

I recommend the pilot episode of a television series called “Life After People,” (subsequent episodes might be good, but I have not seen them).  For more detail, you may want to read The World Without Us. Both pieces attempt to answer the question, ‘What if all humans suddenly disappeared?’ Many of the consequences are not obvious, and that makes them interesting. So much so, in fact, that even without the fiction element to give it a boost, the book reached #6 on the NYT Best Sellers list [1]. If you are looking for a more concise version of World, consider the original two-page Discovery Magazine article from which it sprang. I have included the last bit of the article here, which describes the fate of New York City:

10 years: Sidewalks crack and weeds invade. Hawks and falcons flourish, as do feral cats and dogs. The rat population, deprived of human garbage, crashes. Cockroaches, which thrive in warm buildings, disappear. Cultivated carrots, cabbages, broccoli, and brussels sprouts revert to their wild ancestors.

20 years: Water-soaked steel columns supporting subway tunnels corrode and buckle. Bears and wolves invade Central Park.

50 years: Concrete chunks tumble from buildings, whose steel foundations begin to crumble. Indian Point nuclear reactors leak radioactivity into the Hudson River.

100 years: Oaks and maples re-cover the land.

300 years: Most bridges collapse.

1,000 years: Hell Gate Bridge, built to bring the railroad across the East River, finally falls.

10,000 years: Indian Point nuclear reactors continue to leak radioactivity into the Hudson River.

20,000 years: Glaciers move relentlessly across the island of Manhattan and its environs, scraping the landscape clean.” [2]

Waterworks present an interesting situation for years to come.  NYC’s subways would flood completely within days and streams would quickly form in the streets as sewers backed up with debris.  Across the globe, sewers, reservoirs, dams, locks, and dykes would eventually fail (surprisingly, the Hoover Dam would continue to generate power for a few years).  Living near water would present flooding issues and the water may be contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive material.

Fires would, of course, eventually occur in nearly every city and would leave most structures dramatically altered.

All of those rotting bodies

While it makes intuitive sense that rotting bodies will infect the survivors, they won’t. Recent analyses of catastrophic events such as earthquakes suggest that dead bodies may traumatize the living, but they do not spread disease [3] [4]. The simple reason is that infectious diseases need a live host to propagate. Yes, a rotting body will pollute a water supply, but that issue can be easily solved by boiling and/or distilling. So long as the survivors keep their food and drink cadaver-free, they will be fine until scavengers (including insects and bacteria) consume the remains, which should take weeks to months (or even more) depending on the conditions [5]. Interestingly, some diseases will run rampant through animal populations, including rabies [6], and bubonic plague may resurge [7].

Scarcity of resources

How many people are left in your scenario? Perhaps the percentage of survivors should best be determined by what kind of social dynamics you want to tackle, as a writer. Kansas City has nearly half a million people [8]. Do you want the survivors to be a small band of ten characters who can become known to the reader (i.e. 1/50,000) or do you want to tackle the administrative dynamics of a tribe of 500 survivors (1/1000)? What you decide will have a dramatic impact on what is available to scavenge though, as always, you can make any scenario work if you rationalize enough, so don’t let the numbers rule your vision, just account for those figures to let the reader know that you are paying attention.

If your world is left intact after most of the people perish, then I contend that basic resources such as food would not (indeed, could not) be scarce. Let’s start with the extreme case of very few survivors (say, only 1 out of 100,000 people are left). If every residential household (2.5 people [9]) had only enough canned and dried goods to provide one day’s worth of nutrients for one survivor (check your shelves to prove me wrong), then each survivor could raid 999,999/2.5 pantries, providing more than 1000 years worth of stored food per person (I also accounted for 10 feasting days to make their holidays a bit happier, and none of this accounts for all of the game that would become prevalent, as well as all of the fruits and veg that could be gathered or grown). The same principles would apply to gasoline, clothing, tools, weapons, etc. Very few people means a lot of left-over goodies.

On the other extreme, if the survivors were plentiful (say, 5% of the original population), there would only be 20 days of free stored food, but there would be loads of survivors (in a city of a million people, there would be 50,000). They would have 20 days to organize and start farming, herding, etc. With all of the newly available space, that wouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps many of them would be former pencil-pushers, but some would know how to farm, even if it were at a crude level. In fact, I would posit that, if 1/20 people were left, they would still be able to keep some trains running and radio stations broadcasting messages to other survivors.

If we set an example in the middle (let’s say 1/1000 people remaining), we still get more than a year of free food per capita and 1000 survivors in a small city of 1 million. Those survivors would figure out pretty quickly how to contact each other (remember that vehicles are freely available and partially fuelled) and how to provide for their future. In short, there is an inverse relationship between free stuff lying around and the survivors’ ability to regroup and provide from themselves but, in any event, there are always enough resources or survivors to provide for the future.

The picture gets trickier when we consider resources that need high levels of skill and/or industrial infrastructure to produce, especially those goods that need special storage conditions. I am proposing a list of items below (1/10,000 survivor milieu) but I am, quite frankly, winging it. It would be interesting if industries closed down, but keep in mind that many survivors would seek the safety of others and global gathering points would form with enough people to get things running again (in my 1/10,000 scenario, there would be around 27,000 people in the US, and they all have maps, cars, and time to get to major gathering points full of civil engineers, doctors, IT workers, pilots, etc., etc.
Please comment on those that are here, or should be; I can alter them as per discussions.

­ not scarce for many years: food, alcohol, cigarettes, gasoline, vehicles of all sorts, tools (including hefty ones like welding rigs), weapons, ammunition, non-perishable medical supplies and medicine such as mild painkillers, safe buildings, construction materials, batteries (car and other), electric generators (gasoline powered), solar cells and solar-powered devices such as lights, formerly precious metals

­ scarce: sophisticated medicines (insulin [self life 2.5 yrs] [10], morphine [3 yrs] [10]), antibiotics [2-5 yrs -- though drugs can often be used long after expiration date with reduced efficacy] [11]), certain recreational drugs, vaccines

­ hard to replenish without industrial infrastructure: gasoline, plastics, medicines, motors, electronics, guns, ammunition, electric generators (gasoline powered), solar cells and solar-powered devices such as lights, formerly precious metals, birth control (?), everything in the ‘scarce’ category

Questions that I still have, but am too stupid to answer – readers, please help me out here!
­ Do communications satellites still function without our input?
­ How many servers need to be powered-up to have a reasonable internet?
­ How easy is it to fire up a radio transmitter?

Works Cited

New York Times, “Best Sellers: Hardcover Nonfiction,” 9 September 2007. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 1 March 2014].
A. Weisman, “Earth Without People,” Discover, 6 February 2005.
S. Gottlieb, “Dead bodies do not pose health risk in natural disasters,” BMJ, vol. 328, no. 7452, p. 1336, 2004.
Relief Web, “Mass burials do more harm than good-experts,” 30 December 2003. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 28 February 2014].
W. H. a. M. S. (eds), Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains, Bocan Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997.
D. d. Vries, Director, Life After People. [Film]. United States: Flight 33 Productions, 2008.
W. Johnston, “The effects of a global thermonuclear war.,” in Dean's Scholars seminar, University of Texas at Austin, 2003.
Statistical Abstract of the United States, “Incorporated Places With 175,000 or More Inhabitants in 2010—Population: 1970 to 2010,” United States Census Bureau.
Marketing Charts staff, “American Households Are Getting Smaller – And Headed by Older Adults,” 27 November 2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 28 February 2014].
eMC, “emc,” Datapharm Communications Ltd., 23 8 2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 4 3 2014].
US Army, “slep info paper,” US Army, 1 2006. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 4 3 2014].
Wiktionary, “apocalypses,” Wikimedia, 10 January 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 1 March 2014].
B. Martin, “The global health effects of nuclear war,” Current Affairs Bulletin, vol. 59, no. 7, pp. 14-26, 1982.