August 10, 2007

Unusual architecture

I'm rewatching Petite Princess Yucie, and thought again about the question of the way that architecture is strongly driven not just by our materials and our building techniques, but also by our physical abilities.

For instance, we build stairs because we have legs. Stairs are far apart because our legs are long. What if we rolled instead of walked? Then we'd be using ramps instead of stairs, right? but what of the problem of rolling out of control? They couldn't be simple slopes, so what would they be?

In PPY the inhabitants of Tenkai live in unusual cities. It seems that the direction of gravity in Tenkai is a local matter, because the cities look like they were designed by Escher. There are stairs, oddly enough. You have to wonder why they use them, though.

Arthur C. Clarke considered this a bit in his book Childhood's End. Without getting too deeply into what the story is about, at one point a human visits the home world of an alien race, all of whom have wings and can fly in the atmosphere and gravity of the planet. And their cities are a lot different than ours, because they fly from place to place where we'd expect to walk. He sometimes found himself walking down a corridor only to encouter an opening and a sheer drop of a hundred feet. For one of the natives, that would be a place to take off from. For a human, it was a risk of death.

In a flying world there would be no handrails. No one would need them.

No one? How about kids? How old do kids have to be before they gain the ability to fly? Would they walk and run until then? Perhaps that's the situation in Tenkai, given that Elmina has legs and does walk without difficulty. And perhaps that's the reason there are stairs in Tenkai: they're for pre-flight children.

How about the spirit world? Cocoloo can dematerialize and can walk through walls, and so can Chawoo. Presumably that's a common ability of spirits.

Why would houses in the spirit world have any doors? Perhaps there would be reasons to divide a house into multiple rooms, but why bother with doors when you can walk through walls?

I think the answer is that if you can walk through the walls of your own home, so can anyone else. That means you have no security. The presumption is that in the spirit world they've figured out how to make walls that spirits themselves cannot walk through -- for security reasons -- and that means that even spirits would need doors in their houses.

There are a lot of other things in our society which rely on specific characteristics of our lives. What if they changed? Chawoo, Cocoloo's steward, is a shape changer. He only attempts to use that ability once to try to fool someone -- and fails miserably -- but if you have a society in which there were lots of adept shape changers, or perhaps in which everyone was a shape changer, then how do you confirm identity? How do you know whether you're really talking to who you think you are talking to?

Presumably it would be considered rude to try to fool someone like that, but surely it would happen. Harry and Ron do it by magic in the second Harry Potter book, but that took an elaborate spell and physical contact with the two guys they ended up impersonating. What if it was a natural ability, requiring nothing more than will and experience? It seems like that would have very widespread effects.

As I watch PPY, it sometimes seems to me that the world I'm viewing really doesn't make much sense as a recreation of Europe in the middle ages. In particular, the city there is much too clean and everything seems to work much too well.

Then it occurred to me that I am not really seeing that. What I'm seeing is a middle ages European town where magic works really well and is common -- and that changes everything. Streets paved with cobble stones? Sure, especially if you can contract with dwarven engineers to build everything for you.

How about running an elite academy to teach the daughters of every monarch in the world?

In 1320, say, the people of Europe didn't even know about most of the rest of the world. Much of what they did know was just rumor and myth; much of it was completely unknown. But magic is a great time saver; people can travel great distances easily with magic, and sending messages is even easier. The world of PPY is fully explored and the academy run by Queen Ercell does indeed draw from every kingdom on the planet -- and a few other realms, as well.

Some kinds of magic could make economic activity very problematic. Duplication magic, for instance: what if magicians could create things out of nothing? Could be really valuable, don't you think?

What if they produce currency? That could destabilize the economy of the nation. (Someday's Dreamers dealt with that one in the second episode.) And in general, if magic is too easy, what happens to the work ethic? (Kamichu taked about that one.)

Actually, if magic is really easy, would you even need a work ethic?

Oddly enough, that one comes up in PPY, too. The inhabitants of the fairy world don't seem to have a work ethic, a fact which becomes a major plot point (for reasons I won't go into). The fairy world is something like the legendary Garden of Eden, so when it eventually becomes necessary for the inhabitants to come together to work for the common good, they don't know how to do it.

The inhabitants of each of the five worlds are different, and it turns out that the cultures of each place are different too.

But I have to confess that I was a bit surprised by the way that the Spirit World looked. Except for the inhabitants, it looked just like the human word. The houses were normal and everything had doors.

Maybe another reason for doors in the spirit word is hospitality, in case someone from one of the other realms comes to visit.

UPDATE: Actually, in episode 13 of PPY we get to see both magical long distance communication and magical long distance travel.

If you think about it, the flower farm in episode 5 wouldn't be economically viable without the ability to ship the flowers long distance. When the flowers bloom, there'd just be too many to sell on a local market. The price would collapse. The only way he could make a decent income would be by shipping his flowers to a very large number of destinations, so that he didn't send very many to any of them.

I wonder if there are magical shipping firms in the business of moving bulk cargo around? Must be.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Engineer's Disease at 09:30 PM | Comments (9) | Add Comment
Post contains 1166 words, total size 7 kb.

1 Some kinds of magic could make economic activity very problematic. Duplication magic, for instance: what if magicians could create things out of nothing? Could be really valuable, don't you think?

Actually, if magic is really easy, would you even
need a work ethic?

You can use Clarke's law to extend this to sufficiently-advanced technology.  Neil Stephenson looks at the social effects of ready-made access to "duplication magic" in the form of household nanotech fabrication in his book The Diamond Age.

I think that magic represents a singularity, a point where we can't say what social effects it would have.  We have to imagine it based on our own experiences, and what we create in fantasy is necessarily colored by being based on our own world.  This has become a trap for many authors who have imagined magic in a modern technology setting.  You invariably end up with magic-wielders casting fireballs versus mundanes with guns.  While that passes the refrigerator test in that there are cases where I could come up with an explanation for why that would happen, it doesn't make sense to me as what I would do if I had access to magic.  If I have access to the non-magic "0 level fireball spell" (material component: hand grenade) then studying a magical version is not as useful as studying magic that is not yet duplicated by technology.  If I can magically sense the presence of all enemies within 100 feet, regardless of concealment, magic combat spells are probably superfluous if I have a gun.  But everyone can imagine the power of being able to throw a ball of fire at one's enemies, and it something that can be impressively visualized.

Posted by: Civilis at August 11, 2007 04:06 AM (qCWoW)

2 Both are good points.  We have never had magic per se, so we don't really know how it would work or what we would do with it, and we tend to think of uses for magic that would help *us* in our daily lives.  But if our world had had magic from the beginning, civilization would have developed down completely different paths.  Perhaps today, people would be struggling with the concept of magical mirrors or walls that allowed one person to affix a note that others with similar items could see on the other side of the planet.  Perhaps inventors would be struggling to create a spell or device which would record sights and sounds so that people who were not present could witness them later, without violating the privacy of the minds of those who were present.

But, it's incredibly hard to extrapolate that out, develop a complete, coherent model for how civilization would work, and then explain that to readers.  It's even harder to do so in a movie or series, which can only relay visual and aural information, and cannot really begin to describe things like telepathy or magical senses, so magical civilizations tend to look even more like simple copies of ours with magical elements tacked on.

Posted by: BigD at August 11, 2007 05:57 AM (JJ4vV)

3 Another examination of this (not as good, for reasons I'll explain) is in the Hell's Gate series by David Weber and Linda Evans.  In it, a magic-wielding society with technology about 1200's A.D. (crossbows) ends up in a cross-universal war with a psionic society of about 1900 A.D. technology (trains & early machine guns).  Both sides find the other's abilities to be strange and frightening.  The story is told mostly from the psionic side, and it becomes evident that many of the roles we give to technology, they substitute psionics.  As such, their society does not come across as convincingly alien; in that regard, it's rather disappointing.

If I had to make one complaint about todays crop of prolific sf-fantasy writers, its that they lack imagination.  They steal a plot or idea from history, change the details, and run with it.  It makes for entertaining, but not thought-provoking, reading.

It does sell books, though.  That makes publishers happy.

Posted by: ubu at August 11, 2007 08:03 AM (maFgw)

4 I remember when I started watching anime 25 years ago (oy), I thought Lum looked awfully trim for someone who could fly everywhere she went....

Posted by: Toren at August 11, 2007 11:08 PM (IUaD6)

5 Flying uses a lot of calories!

Posted by: Pixy Misa at August 12, 2007 12:46 AM (PiXy!)


(smacks forehead)

Duhh!  Of course.

Posted by: Toren at August 12, 2007 12:37 PM (IUaD6)

7 Assuming angels burn calories. . .

( hey, dragons often don't seem to )

Posted by: metaphysician at August 12, 2007 01:22 PM (dkszP)

8 For instance, we build stairs because we have legs. Stairs are far apart because our legs are long. What if we rolled instead of walked? Then we'd be using ramps instead of stairs, right? but what of the problem of rolling out of control? They couldn't be simple slopes, so what would they be?

Well, staircases don't have anything to prevent us from "walking" out of control, do they? Staircases assume the user is competent enough to use them, which is why we have things like baby gates. But I think I understand what you mean, anyway.

Posted by: atomic_fungus at August 15, 2007 11:49 AM (7YxzV)

9 Staircases have landings every once in a while. Presumably ramps would have something similar.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 15, 2007 01:40 PM (+rSRq)

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