Scribbler’s Saga #11 – Spells and Skyscrapers

Posted: October 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

© 2016 G.N. Jacobs

Grendar the Magnificent kneels in the rat-infested alley behind the 70-story glass and steel spire occupied by ACME Comsumer Products. Eyes rolled back into his head, his heaving body twitches signal preparation for the Herculean task ahead: burglary for evidence of nefarious corporate citizenship. The intersection of chi and magic locks in a list of ready at hand burglary spells behind his gray eyes: Open Locks, Climb and Silence. Standing upon feeling himself ready, Grendar scratched Mr. Wiggles’ chin. The calico cat vocalized a soft me-row perhaps expressing the basic truth that free climbing a skyscraper, even with spells, still lit up as part of the Seattle skyline might just define stupid…

Mind you, my world building comments about the intersection of magic and modern society don’t apply as much to the residual, hidden or found magic common to horror, supernatural thrillers or anything featuring a certain fedora wearing archeologist. In those stories, the magic went away except for the tiny and deadly remainder the protagonist will trip over like a serious minefield for any number of perfectly acceptable narrative reasons. Maybe the Catholic Church and other allies killed off all the old practitioners and their knowledge guiding humanity to a DIY technology driven society? Maybe magic is a metaphor for petroleum and other resources that Homo sapiens foolishly used up during the Ice Age or the presumably mythical Alantean or Hyperborean Ages?

Pretty much, in these tales the magic is a secret thing husbanded by practitioners described as the Last of the Line. The protagonist trips the trap and bad things result driving the narrative. However, there is another type of modern magic story that really needs careful thought on the part of the author, for lack of a better label we’ll call the sub-genre Spells and Skyscrapers.

This class of fiction relies on the visual tropes of combining the classic fantasy themes encapsulated in the Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party with the glass canyons, guns, hard edged politics and overall emotional grit and grime of Noir, Espionage or, more to the point, Cyberpunk. The tabletop RPG Shadowrun has spent nearly thirty years defining the standard for the sub-genre; probably the result of developers looking at trends like the popularity of fantasy RPGs and William Gibson’s body of work leading to do both coming from on high in the latest memo.

Buried in the coolness of running around near-future Seattle with a mixed species party intent on trashing the plots of mega-corporations as they wring Earth’s global economy like a turnip for the last pennies before we all bug out for Kepler 18b is a huge contradiction. In fact, how Shadowrun handled the contradiction is part of why the game system has become the standard reference for authors intent on writing similar stories. Full disclosure here, I did say reference, not game you might actually play. I found playing the game to be about fulfilling as trying to play Monopoly while hanging from a gravity boot rig. If you survive the aneurism, you’re definitely ahead of the game and you might start talking to your spirit animal. Enough of that, I’m not actually writing for my currently dormant Dungeoneer’s Diary column.

What is this huge contradiction between spells and skyscrapers? The modernity we see around us is the result of incremental decisions made in response to sociological, economic and political needs that when the author/world builder injects magic into the system deprives the literary creation of the very reason the City of Seattle would build skyscrapers. Under most circumstances a society with an ongoing element of openly acknowledged magic likely wouldn’t build cities that look like Seattle or New York, but would build places that look like Minas Tirith or medieval Paris with walls and narrow pedestrian and horse cart sized streets.

Let’s look at what Wikipedia or even actual books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel might tell us about New York’s lifecycle from founding to now. In 1624, a bunch of Dutch explorers wanting their tiny piece of the New World to keep up with Britain, Spain and Portugal paid the local First Nations tribe a pittance in beads, blankets and trinkets for the right to build a fort/settlement near the mouth of the later named Hudson River. By 1665, Britain owned the place. In 1776, George Washington and the Continental Army got repeatedly run out of the many rural communities that would later merge into New York City. Suddenly, with the turn into the early 19th Century massive waves of immigrants mostly cleared from farms in Great Britain washed up on New York’s docks.

Building on the infrastructure created by earlier waves of slaves and immigrants, these new Americans took largely industrial jobs crowding areas of the city the elites didn’t want to live in. Demand for housing eventually drives the supply of housing. In time, the people with investment capital built tenements that first encroached the farmland moving laterally. Later, as the immigrants continued showing up with a suitcase and five dollars, the need for more housing, office space, hospitals and water projects created the need to knock down structures and go vertical.

Going vertical creates conditions that greatly advances materials science. By 1850 or so, the average civil engineer could do the math and tell the prospective property developer how high the structure could go using the stone of gothic cathedrals, locally sourced wood or the recently popularized reinvention of Roman concrete. But, the population of potential Shirtwaist Fire victims kept coming. Someone had to sell them shirts, steak knives and provide housing that is either close to the factory or pony up for the subway system.

Wood, stone and regular concrete quickly maxed out as materials for safe structures. The elites didn’t want the bad PR of too many Triangle Shirtwaist fires, or may even felt some sympathy for other humans (opinions vary). Safer meant experimenting with putting wrought iron or steel reinforcement into the concrete. Probably derived from ancient Biblical stories of bricks being made from clay and straw as a stiffener, concrete rebar served as an awesome first solution. And then, American society extracted all kinds of iron and coal to make steel in quantities to skip the concrete in favor of the average denizen of a modern cityscape, the skyscraper.

I maintain that magic would act as an impediment against this process of humans clustering into large cities driving vertical construction and concurrent population increases. If a spellcaster can take some money to perform a variation of the Sorceror’s Apprentice spell to run the looms for a weaving business said operation doesn’t need 500 immigrants and their children running the machines. These now nonexistent employees don’t cluster together in various tenements. They don’t cry over their children losing fingers in the machines, thus never developing the social outcry against child labor.

If there aren’t very many jobs in the city, people will tend to remain on the farm treating the nearby city for its original purpose, a marketplace and defensive rally point to be visited sporadically. This version of New York would maintain the Dutch walls around what is now Wall Street, not expand into an economic behemoth that sprawls across five boroughs that share borders with five separate counties of New York State, one of the few instances in America where city government is superior to county government.

Now, the trick Shadowrun pulled off in creating the modern Spells and Skyscrapers sub-genre was to say that the magic went away for many thousands of years allowing society as we know it to develop and then magic came back creating a new normal that incorporated both. The game, originally developed in the mid-80’s, hit on exploiting the long simmering social tizzy over the end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar in 2012 (it’s a pity the actual event was such a boring non-thing). The various demihuman species re-emerged from their long slumber buried in the Homo sapiens gene pool. And every writer seeking to invent verisimilitude has gone with a variation of this process ever since.

What is mine, you ask knowing I generally don’t write essays about concepts I have no intention of using? Nerth (New Earth) results when an asteroid filled with high potency magic rocks wipes out St. Louis and the Government thoughtfully sprays around nano-machines to modify the magic for safe consumption that has the unintended side effect of making electricity a troublesome service with random (dramatically convenient) blackouts. Pitched as Shadowrun meets Revolution with healthy doses of Road Warrior. It would be interesting to read the details of how other writers get to the same place.

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