One of my favorite elements of the Japanese science-fiction/fantasy tradition is the connection between magic and technology.*
In the Euro-American tradition, magic is almost always characterized as the romantic opposite of cold technology.** Technology represents the mechanized world, facts, logic, and objectivity. Magic, in contrast, represents human will, creativity, mother nature, and subjectivity. This dichotomy seems natural to many Westerners, but the particular tropes of any genre are, of course, part of broader historical developments.
The birth of modern science-fiction in Euro-America is tied to the Industrial Revolution. Mary Shelley was writing under the influence of Romantic philosophy and in reaction to drastic changes sweeping across Europe at the time. Industrial technology struck Europe like a hot iron, and the binary of Nature vs. Technology took root. Emerging alongside humanist philosophy, literacy, and print capitalism, science-fiction fit a particular niche it has done little to change in almost two hundred years. J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis continued this trajectory with the rebirth of fantasy literature in the Anglophone world. Long before fairies fought against industrial loggers in Fern Gully or the Na’vi fought off corrupt humans in Avatar, technology had already become the universal “bad guy” in European science-fiction. William Gibson, Ridley Scott, and Captain Planet all (sadly) follow this trope.***
When the human triumphs at the end of all these stories (and, yes, humans are the winners in Avatar also) it is never because of technology. What wins the day is the human heart, the human will, that specifically human kind of determination, our indomitable human spirit. HAL loses to Dave Bowman. The Architect loses to The Oracle and Neo. Ma-Ti is needed to summon Captain Planet. It is no surprise that the villains in the recent Avengers film are mechanical and technological as well. And, in the end, it is not Iron Man but Tony Stark (finally learning the human lesson of self-sacrifice) who saves the day. And what do we hear at the end? Humans are praised for being some kind of exceptional being, unlike any other species in the cosmos. We are just, despite ourselves… special.
There was a phase of American science fiction, the “Big Three,” that marked a unique and temporary break from this trajectory. Isaac Asimov, in particular, demonstrates an important moment between Mary Shelley and William Gibson, that high modernist moment when machines were considered perfect and flawless and humans somehow incomplete without them. The AI of Asimov’s fiction are not traditional “bad guys” but still represent some kind of antagonistic opposite to human imperfection. Arthur C. Clarke was British and his writings much more mystical than Asimov’s. Clarke could be seen as the one to diverge the most from this Magic vs. Technology tradition I’m contemplating (though not quite in his work on the movie adaptation of The Sentinel). In the end, however, I think all these writers still see Technology as something unnatural or inhuman that must be grappled with. Technology, often as a stand in for the the human in general, is something that doesn’t quite fit in the natural world and must be subdued.
The Japanese tradition, however, does not often put Magic and Technology at two ends of a naturalist spectrum. And humans are generally seen as just another part of the natural world, not semi-divine stewards above it. Technology is generally one form of magic, or vice versa. The two go hand-in-hand as often as not. One has to look no further than any Final Fantasy title to see this. Sometimes it is almost impossible to figure out which elements–or even which objects–are technological and which magical in nature. Horror movies that blend technology and magic are common as well, and human characters are often penetrated by technology, becoming hybrids of the natural and mechanical. Accounting for exceptions, it is even fitting that Princess Mononoke, of all projects, was picked up in the United States as it was.
This relationship of magic to technology is not some mysterious, innate part of a so-called East Asian psyche. The relationship, again, relates to specific historical moments in the development of Japanese culture in general and Japanese science-fiction in particular. And plenty of exceptions exist, I’m sure. It might be more accurate to say that the categories of “magic” and “technology” are so dissimilar to the Anglophone understanding that no real “relationship” between the two need be figured out or philosophized. Borrowing a poor metaphor, the fight between organic apples and genetically-modified apples in the West becomes a comparison of strawberries to bananas elsewhere. And, as we all know, strawberries and bananas go pretty well together.
I’m now wondering how this plays out in South Asian science-fiction, which I am less familiar with. Hmm. And, I’m sure there are vast differences within the many Euro-American strands of sci-fi. Time to order some books. In our upcoming games, we hope to cut against the binary of Magic vs. Technology as well. Any tips, dreams, or suggestions would be appreciated.
* – Just to be clear: I am not a fan boy, or an otaku, who thinks all things Japanese are cool and all things American lame by comparison. And, notably, this post highlights what could be considered “mainstream sci-fi” in both traditions, not the fringe (actually progressive) stuff.
** – Significantly, Philip K. Dick is an exception. But, even after years of research on the matter, the cultural distinction is striking.
*** – Looking at magical realism in Central and South America seems to fit this trope as well, but I haven’t really studied that responsibly yet. I’d be interested on opinions or suggestions.