This past weekend, I was delighted to spend at Readercon in their new location in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Here is the description of one of the panels that got me thinking:
If Thor Can Hang Out with Iron Man, Why Can’t Harry Dresden Use a Computer? . Gillian Daniels, Elaine Isaak, Andrea Phillips, Alex Shvartsman, E.J. Stevens. In a series of tweets in 2015, Jared Axelrod pondered “the inherent weirdness of a superhero universe… where magic and science hold hands, where monsters stride over cities.” This is only weird from the perspective of fantasy stories that set up magic and technology as incompatible, an opposition that parallels Western cultural splits between religion and science and between nature and industry. Harry Dresden’s inability to touch a computer without damaging it is a direct descendant of the Ents destroying the “pits and forges” of Isengard, and a far cry from Thor, Iron Man, and the Scarlet Witch keeping company. What are the story benefits of setting up magic/nature/religion and technology/industry/science as either conflicting or complementary? What cultural anxieties are addressed by each choice? How are these elements handled in stories from various cultures and eras?
The ending of The Lord of the Rings, in which the hobbits reclaim the Shire and take down the mills is often cited as one reason that fantasy novels often ignore or even reject technology. However, another title that came up was Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889. The work is often viewed as a satire of the chivalric ideal, and thus related to the idea of the Southern gentlemen who drove the Civil War. Twain apparently blamed Sir Walter Scott and his medievalist romances for resurrecting knighthood as a worthy goal for contemporary men.
But it is hard to read the final battle, where thousands of knights cast themselves upon the Yankee’s electric fence and die under the fire of his Gatling guns, without feeling some dismay. This is not the satisfying come-uppance of a backward society, it is the wholesale destruction of a generation of nobility.
Even as I read that line, the echo is clear, and some commentators have noted that Twain’s battle prefigures the catastrophic effect of the battles of World War I. The Lord of the Rings, published in shows the heavy influence of Tolkien’s battle experiences–the loss of his friends, and the devastating effects, in particular, of new technologies for slaughter. He served in the army from 1915 until 1919, though much of the latter portion he spent recuperating from Trench Fever and declared unfit for active duty. His service included front-line duty at the notorious Battle of the Somme, where the total losses are close to 1 million soldiers.
Mark Twain himself was only a soldier (in a Confederate militia) for two weeks, but his anti-war stance became increasingly set. Twain’s “War Prayer” (1904) says, in part:
O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;
A sentiment which covers both the killing of people, and the destruction of their idyllic setting, their “smiling fields”.
It got me thinking about how these seminal works in the fantasy genre suggest a link between their authors’ understanding and experience of war, and their anti-technology conclusions. The advance of technology is often seen as an inevitable course, usually providing people with more and better and less expensive goods and services–but always tinged with the knowledge that this technology often degrades the land and lends itself to applications that will forward the cause of war.
Better, then, to remove the technology all together. No mills mucking up the Shire, no Gatling guns to mow down the flower of chivalry. The technology in these works may be seen as a frightful enemy which it is hard for man to stand or strive against. Interestingly, the armored knights did not succeed, but the angry ents and the plucky hobbits did, striding into the fray armored with courage if little else, standing in for all of us who are, as the panel description suggests, a little fearful of what technology might bring.