A World of Wizards

- by E. C. Ambrose

No doubt many of you are familiar with Clarke’s law:  any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  It’s been speculated that one reason why science fiction as a genre has lost some ground to fantasy is that we seem to be living in an age of magic.  With all of the extraordinary technologies at our fingertips, we are, in some sense, all wizards now.

With the tap of a key or the “unpinch” of a window, we control space and time fly through archives more vast than any alternate realm, and conjure demons to assist us with our every desire.

While this overwhelming world of technology may be contributing to the loss of interest in science fiction, it has spurred the rise of new genres undoubtedly related.  Once, our SF was dominated by visions of space travel–using hard sciences to imagine the means to fly to other worlds–then, too, came visions of a new sort of person:  an advanced man to match his technology, an immortal given an android body or transferred into a computer matrix, never to worry about physical needs again.  Nowadays, with the demise of the NASA program and the grounding of the space shuttles, we fear we’ll never reach so far again.  In fact, we fear we may be alone in the universe, for all of our explorations have shown us no new life.

As for those android bodies. . .I remember when my grandfather, an old-fashioned, hands-on engineer had to give up his car for a new model.  With his usual enthusiasm for the future, he bought a Prius (then a brand-new thing)–but he mourned the fact that he could no longer understand so much of what went on under the hood.  This was no longer a vehicle he could easily patch up on his own.  Even his car had entered that realm of magic.  While advances in medical technology may be exciting and life-saving, many of us watch them with a worried gaze.  Do we want our own selves to transcend the familiar flesh, and become Other?

I think these concerns are spurring new directions in fiction and in life.  Steampunk, a genre in which authors extrapolate technologies based on steam-power, represents a return to an era when technology could be understood, and an engineer might emerge in a cloud of vapor, tools in hand, to tend whatever problems might arise.  Alongside this genre, we also find the expansion of Maker culture, both in literature and in a growing number of workshops springing up across the country.  Maker spaces take the place of those garage workshops so many of our grandfathers enjoyed, packed with equipment and materials for everything from bicycle repair to LED wiring.  Most makerspaces allow the creator to rent space and to take classes, learning to use a variety of tools to create new things–technologies once again commanded by humans.

In a fantasy sense, makerspaces allow us to move from an unconscious use of powers defined by others, layered with incomprehensibilities, back to the mastery of magics we understand–cranks, batteries, steam, the satisfaction of a tool in your hand, and a vision springing to life.

One comments

  1. I’m reading C. J. Cherryh’s FOREIGNER series and while it’s set on another planet, with stoic beings, the atevi, the story is focused on a human interpreter working to maintain peace. It’s a plot that could work just as well set on earth. It’s the story that draws people in, no matter what the genre.
    I saw Oblivion yesterday. The film has wonderful production values, but only the bare thread of a story. It could have been a great film if more energy had been given to the story first and the technology second.