Middle Ages, Dark Ages and pre-modern "straight" fantasy

Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk
Mon Aug 14 12:58:33 EDT 2000

I think I have to start with Paul's reply - although many other people said very
interesting things...

> On Fri, 11 Aug 2000 Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk wrote:
>> To start with the "straight" fantasy - an alternative world,
>> pre-modern, with magic.  DWJ works a lot of elements of this into
>> her multiverse books - SWM, DS and most of the Chrestomanci books.
>> But Magicians of Caprona is straight fantasy.  An alternative world.
>> Pre-modern - about 80 years behind ours, I think, though this is not
>> the same in all aspects of life.  And magical.
> When you say "80 years behind ours", do you mean that the *world* is
> 80 years behind ours, or only the technology? Because it's fairly
> clear that the Chrestomanci novels are contemporary.

No I don't mean just the technology - the culture also seems to be more 1890s
than 1970s.  The adjective "Victorian" is used somewhere by DWJ - introduction
to Magicians of Caprona, perhaps?

But "World is 80 years behind ours" is not what I mean either.  I think the same
number of years have elapsed in worlds 12A and 12B (assuming 12B to be ours)
since they split, and similarly in 12B and the Witch Week variant of 12B.   In
Witch Week, they are stated to be in October-November 1983, IIRC.  In Magicians,
come to think of it, they are stated to be in 1979, aren't they?  (Date on the
FR3 form calling up the final reserve).  (Does this also answer Anita's

On the other hand the technology is not always that far behind - there were
typewriters in Lives of CC, presumably in the early 1950s (although I got the
impression that there weren't in CL).  You have to look at culture as well...

>> One thing I like about the Chrestomanci books is the way the fantasy
>> world is so close to ours technologically.  I have always disliked
>> the convention that fantasy worlds should be medieval, or at best
>> Elizabethan, simply because it is a convention for which I could see
>> no fundamental reason.
> If we're talking about fundamental reasons, we might look at
> fundamental fantasy stories: a lot of fairytales seem to have settled
> themselves in an idealised version of the middle ages. Ditto the whole
> business with King Arthur and the Age Of Chivalry.
> People tend to be influenced by what they grew up with.

Yes, people do tend to be influenced that way.  I like to question the
assumptions that arise out of this, though.  I don't think the reasons here are
really fundamental.  I also don't belong to the idealise-the-middle-ages school!

> And, of course, some people actually have *reasons* for setting the
> stories where and when they do.

And with those people I have no quarrel at all.

>> I'd like to see some straight fantasy with a world technologically
>> and culturally at least as modern as ours.
> How do you measure modernity of technology and culture, though?

With difficulty, I admit, especially if the influences on their evolution are
different.  The glimpse of a modern setting in Crown of Dalemark is an example
of what I had in mind, though.

> It's fairly obvious that the magical world in which, say, Piers
> Anthony's Incarnations series is set is modern. This is because
> socially and technologically it is, apart from some basically cosmetic
> changes, an exact copy of our world at the time the series was
> written.
> And it's really dumb, when you think about it.
> It's a world where magic has been sloshing around for centuries, where
> beings exist who can prevent a world war in the time it takes a man to
> walk home; a world where everyone knows God and the Devil exist,
> because of the television advertising campaigns. And none of this has
> made any difference to their cultural and technological development?

An example of how not to do it shouldn't condemn the genre!  I only ever managed
to read one of these (Green Mother, I think)

> On the other hand, we could look at, say, Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy
> stories. These, too, are set in the late twentieth century of a world
> much like ours only with magic. But this isn't obvious to the casual
> glance, because having magic has made a difference. Their level of
> what we would call technology is decades behind ours; nobody's
> invented the internal combustion engine, or the telephone, or the
> discovered how to send messages by radio waves, or...
> But their technology isn't any less advanced than ours; it's just
> different. With magic to study as well as all the physical sciences,
> they've found better ways to do many things, or just different ways.

Likewise, I've only ever encountered one of these stories.  I enjoyed it
immensely.  It is a very good example of the sort of thing I'd like more of.

> Same with the Chrestomanci stories, although obviously with
> differences of opinion about precisely what differences magic would
> make. :)

Well, yes, up to a point.  But let's see more of series 1!  Another example of
the sort of setting I had in mind.  (Hey!  Could you set an epic fantasy in
that??)  Also, what about the other DWJ modern-with-magic settings, glimpsed
through multiverses:  The Pentarchy, and the Koryfonic Empire...

Finally, it occurs to me: Urban fantasy is what Homeward Bounders looks as if it
is going to be, right at the start.  And that's a 19th century setting.  Modern
enough to carry the taint of the city, long enough ago to feel different.

And this, at last, profides the first _fundamental_ reason why so much straight
fantasy is set in pre-industrial worlds.  To a modern readership, such an
obviously different level of technology contributes to the feel of
other-worldliness.  Many authors rely too heavily on this; DWJ has shown she is
quite capable of providing as much or as little other-worldliness as required
without having to rely on artificially de-technologised settings!

And with that I'll bid you all good night.


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