Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Fantasy Mass Transit - A Technology Too Far?

A warforged hangs from the gondola of an airship as a
Lightning Rail loco passes below (artist unknown)
In his recent article, The Architect DM: Seven Wonders of Your World, Danny Rupp highlights the Lightning Rail from the Eberron setting as an example of a World Wonder.  As I was largely ignorant of the detail of the Eberron setting I did a little more research and was both intrigued and horrified in equal measure by this concept.

As I've written before, in a quasi-medieval fantasy setting personal mobility is generally restricted to a couple of days walk and even those who own horses don't tend to travel long distances unless they have a pressing need.    Long arduous journeys or quests to find this artifact or that magical location are the stock-in-trade of the fantasy novel and it is often the journey itself, not the final destination that defines the hero.

In Charlie Jane Ander's round-up of the 10 worst mistakes that Alternate History Authors Make, author Terry Bisson states that "if you don't bring your alternate history up to the reader's present, then you leave out half the fun".  Whilst I agree that this often the case with Sci-Fi and especially with the alternate history subgenre, it is not the case with fantasy literature.  In fact introducing some relatively mudane modern day solutions into a medieval setting can have disastrous effects.  

Although attractive as both a plot generator and as a mechanism for swiftly moving PCs from one location to the next, a system like The Lightning Rail (even if access to it is heavily controlled) opens up a whole new can of worms in that it also ushers in an age of mass transit in the same way that the real railways did in the 1830s.  With mass transit comes huge socio-economic upheaval as people inevitably migrate towards cities and goods suddenly become cheaper as transport costs are reduced.  Consequently cities will gradually expand in size, usurping nearby land which no longer needs to be used as farm land because produce can be brought in just as cheaply from further afield.  This is just the start. 

As always there is the "exception that proves the rule" and in this case it would be a setting which has suffered some form of technological regression.  There are often pieces of working ancient technology to which access is heavily controlled and the knowledge of its operation is usually forbidden by some form of techno-priesthood and the population will often rationalise this as being magical or divine.

A couple of good examples of this being:

Orson Scott Card's Memory of Earth features an Artificial Intelligence (which the population call the Oversoul) which uses mind control to prohibit access to ideas which will ultimately lead to the development of self destructive technologies.  In this way he allows access to things like electricity and magnetism but avoids the wheel and the industrial revolution arguing that they ultimately lead to the development of war machines.

In his novel Cat Karina, Michael G Coney uses a sail driven monorail concept, which utilises the remnants of technology left behind by a previous human civilisation.  A religious belief system prohibits the use of manufacturing and power systems which would ultimately lead to the development of faster, better "trains" and stems the onset of any transport revolution that might ensue.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed, setting up mass transportation system ruins the set-up.

    If you go that route and allow these kind of technology you might as well setup some mega-companies that would mass market magic-items such as home appliances, cleaning-devices and so on.

    What we want in fantasy is dreams and adventures, not day to day reminders.

    Setup for trains work great in steam-punk and post-apocalyptic settings.

    Example :