I’ve been thinking some more about contemporary fantasy, and about what might be considered a science fiction-fantasy melange. Futuristic fantasy, we could call it: a fantasy story set in a future world, with projected advances in technology and speculation on the social and political changes that follow from them — along with fantasy elements. Classic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, futuristic fantasy — not a bad classification system!
How can futuristic fantasy work?
It’s been done to a degree, although to maintain a sense of consistency and realism magic becomes psychic power while gods and super-beings become anything from incredibly advanced alien races to psychic projections of the deep unconscious mind to personifications of cosmic principles. Which, of course, simply represents a changing of names for the same phenomena. Magic, gods, quasi-humans, and monsters can all be incorporated into a science fiction setting.
What about magical items, though?
Well, magical items can work, too, but one must recognize the implications of modern manufacturing techniques, which render some of the milieu surrounding the magical items of classic fantasy anachronistic.
Consider a magical weapon such as Excalibur. Excalibur was a marvelous sword gifted to King Arthur by the mysterious Lady of the Lake, a super-being or a goddess. The sword itself was a wonderful blade that would never break and could cut through heavy armor, but the scabbard was even more astounding, for as long as Arthur wore it he could lose no blood from any wound he took in battle. When Arthur was defeated, he returned the sword and scabbard to the Lady of the Lake (with some difficulty), who would keep it for the next champion, or for Arthur’s return.
This works fine in a classic fantasy context. From the time when people learned how to make steel until the gunpowder age, advances in military technology that made much difference in the way war was fought could be listed on a single sheet of paper. The stirrup and the longbow were significant, but despite this a match between a Roman legion (which had neither) and a fifteenth-century English army (with both) would be a difficult battle to call. Put either one up against a twenty-first century force with modern weapons, though, and the result would be a slaughter. If Arthur were to return today, bearing the wondrous Excalibur, he would be hopelessly outclassed.
In classical fantasy, a magical weapon that retains its usefulness for ages and can be preserved by mysterious entities, or lost in an ancient tomb, waiting for the hero to rediscover it and bear it to glory, makes some sense. In futuristic fantasy it makes none. Not only is the weapon sure to become obsolete in a few decades at most, but there’s also the change to the way things are manufactured in modern times and beyond. Modern weapons are mass-produced. There may be a lot of precision and care that goes into them; they may be finely-machined and expertly crafted; with nanotechnology or even highly computerized manufacturing they may even be individualized — but they are still made in large numbers for use by large numbers of warriors. But magic cannot be mass-produced. Bear in mind the meta-laws of magic: magic is an inborn talent, it requires training and education, it exacts a price, and it’s dangerous. If it doesn’t comply with these rules, then it isn’t magic. If it’s something the masses can make use of, it’s a form of technology instead.
For this reason, combined with the fact that in a high-tech world technology advances rapidly, there can never be an enchanted blaster. Oh, to be sure, a wielder of the magic arts could perform difficult and time-consuming rituals, risking life, blood, and soul by invoking dangerous cosmic powers, to create a high-tech weapon with enhanced accuracy, augmented destructive power, or an aura that instills unreasoning terror in foes, but what would be the point? Wouldn’t it make more sense to create an amulet with the same powers, which would then enhance one’s combat abilities with all weaponry — including the Mark IV blaster coming out from the labs next week, which is far superior to the Mark III currently in the enchanter’s possession?
Magic items can certainly exist in a contemporary or futuristic fantasy, but for reasons like the above they will necessarily be different in some respects from the magic items of classic fantasy.
This is just one of the things to consider when mingling fantasy elements with a science-fiction world, or even with the modern world.