Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

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Industrialism in Fantasy

Fantasy worlds are usually portrayed as being somewhat parallel to our own (notably western) historical development. This has largely to do with the ease of creating reference imagery with little explanation needed. We know what castles and kings are, and generally how they are supposed to operate, and therefore we don’t need a ton of explanation.

And because we compare worlds of typically medieval fantasy to our own history, we then have to ask: where will this world end up? When all the Balrogs are slain, when the printing press has introduced mass literacy, when the ever-advancing methods of manufacture have reached a certain point, what will this world of myth and legends look like?

How would an industrial world reconcile giant skeletons littering the landscape, or how would the forest goblins change their methods of operation in a world which transports goods over oceans in giant steamships?

Industrial revolutions (and all they bring with them) are a drastic change in the way a society orders itself and foresees its own future. It also serves as a means of comparison with other societies at the time: If others are becoming industrial giants, then perhaps one’s own nation should consider embracing new developments so as to not see backward or ignorant.

And who sets the standards for who is “ignorant” and who is “enlightened?” Well, if we go by our own history, it’s the ones who created the advancements in the first place, and use them to exert control and domination over others. In other words, it all comes down to colonialism, like most works of fantasy and science fiction. It’s got one hell of a legacy, but we’re not here to discuss that today.

“Unrelated image”

This is of particular interest to me, as fantasy (especially High Fantasy), usually ends up in a place of hyper-industrialism anyway. Settings such as Strixhaven take place in a world of wonders, where magic has taken the place of most mundane functions. It resembles industrialism in all but the methods.

Replace the magic with lasers or bullets, and you’ve got a suitable sci-fi setting as well, with little need for changes.

Usually, this involves slapping some “arcane-powered flintlocks” into the setting and calling it good. Some put in more work, going so far as to ask “where did these guns come from? Who designed them? How are they mass-produced?” Though not everyone puts in the effort.

Notably, Band of Blades (so recently derided on this very blog), did a good job of creating a fantasy world which has an edge of science to it, allowing for the logical coexistence of horrific undead as well as firearms.

“Thank the Gods we have milling machines and factories!”

But with a few rare exceptions (Dungeon Siege III springs to mind), you don’t often see High Fantasy (e.g. Strixhaven, some Dungeons and Dragons settings) or True Fantasy (e.g. Dark Crystal) mixing with industrial themes. And if they do eventually advance to scientific levels similar to ours, it tends to end up looking “ArcanePunk” anyway. Check what Warhammer Fantasy has been looking like for a while, and you’ll get what I mean.

I think part of this is that there is a certain cynicism which comes with a world increasingly dominated by science and logic. A mile-high giant with a magical sword arm? How’s he staying upright, then? How’s his magic arm holding it’s shape? What is magic, anyway?” And this can often result in the collapsing of most fantasy concepts under the weight of their own logic.

Fantasy is, even if we try to make it no be so, still a reflection of our own times. The priorities and technological trajectories of those worlds are modelled on our own, and everyone from George MacDonald to George R. R. Martin has done it.

For example, the attached image here has a lot of little shorthand tricks which are evocative of our own world and history.

The helmets which resemble German pickelhaube, the outfits which evoke policemen of Victorian England, the beast which is presented like a watchdog; all of this reminds us of things we have seen before, so you get an idea of this world without any exposition.

So do industrial revolutions conflict inherently with the idea of fantasy? Well, to a certain extent I would say yes. If you explain too many fantasy elements away (i.e. “What are ghosts?” “How does Immortal Elf biology work?” “How did gelatinous cubes evolve?”), then I would say there is a definite argument to be made that you are no longer dealing with a fantasy world; you are now a science-fiction world, just with the aliens looking like elves and dwarves.

If you want a really great look at a fantasy world which is grappling with industrialism, I would highly recommend Perdido Street Station (or the entire Bas Lag cycle) by China Mieville. He does a fantastic job of presenting a truly new and phantasmagoric world where magic and science are coexisting side by side (albeit uneasily).

But who’s to say? It’s all fantasy in the end.

“Crikey! It’s the Militia!”

Published by Joe Erwin

I am an independent creator and GM with a deep love of storytelling and adventure! I desire most to share these things with others, and I hope to do that through my work and my writing.

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