And now we take a moment to note seemingly minor things that piss us off. Let me start with the single thing that annoys me most about the medieval fantasy genre, if you set aside Tolkien’s British Empire-era manichean racial determinism*: just about every fantasy series seems trapped in a 13th-century time warp where nothing new gets invented after the crossbow. In fact both cannons and crossbow showed up in Europe in the 14th century. If there was a time in history when people pecked at each other with crossbows but never heard of shooting things from a metal tube with fire, it lasted about twenty years.
Tolkien at least addressed this plot device of his. He had one guy named Saruman take charge of basically all of modernization, inventing gunpowder and the petard bomb while laying down the first draft of the industrial age. Saruman was bad and his people were evil (and dark and ugly) so the good people killed him and planted grass over his dirty industrial business and went back to a Fourth Age of wiping their ass with pine cones. While G.R.R. Martin brilliantly subverted Tolkien’s dichotomized racial moralizing, he just takes it for granted that you can have a thousand years go by without any meaningful advances in science or engineering.
Ok, so Tolkien clearly framed his story the way he did because he liked gardens and thought the industrial age smelled bad and ground people into cogs. And yes, it did that. You could also make the reasonable point that a wizard who shoots fireballs has less cachet when you could bring artillery.
Jalopnik proposed an idea that I kind of like: basically, maybe the presence of magic makes people stupid. Look at it this way. When a wood elf can tweak the laws of nature by twitching her ears, Gregor Mendel would feel silly to spend decades to tease out the laws of heredity in peas when a wood elf could walk by and throw his Punnett squares to hell.
Speaking as a scientist I sometimes stand in awe of the people who made those early leaps of logic. That business was almost impossibly hard, and it would not take much to discourage someone. Let’s also stipulate that these fantasy planets never had a carboniferous geologic period. In that case the most energy-dense fuel source is wood. I could easily imagine a world like that reaching the medieval era, maybe, and then then just waxing and waning around it indefinitely.
That sounds crazy of course, but we might not even have to imagine it! Let’s say that some event sets back our global civilization even a little. It doesn’t need to be a great war, just anything that disrupts the complex international traffic of fuel, machines and food. There are way too many people in most places for locovorism. By the time we reach locally sustainable population levels it stands to reason that most places will have landed somewhere between the medieval era and the stone age. Of course lot of our old stuff will still be around, and people who still know how to use it would be practicing something like magic. Also like magic, odds are small that many of those would understand it. Fossil fuels will still be where we left them but they might seem hard to get for people whose idea of deep-sea drilling is a raft and a long clam rake.
So there you have a practical way to get to a fantasy scenario complete with crazy magic, mutants, irradiated no-go zones and a medievalish technology level that never ends. And you wonder why people worry about disruptive problems like global warming.
(*) Short version: dark and/or ugly means evil.
Speaking of pet peeves, someone on another blog mentioned developing the F-35 to replace our A-10 for ground support. As readers might guess I had an opinion, and since you read this blog you get to hear it.
…because we want to spend ten times as much money on a less capable close support aircraft? The A-10 is dirt cheap. It can fly with half a wing shot off. All of its major systems are redundant. Teenagers can fix it. Its main gun makes tankers shit their pants. For a plane whose main job puts it in range of small arms fire, crossbows, flamethrowers and thrown rocks, it helps that the pilot sits in a titanium bathtub.
I hate that the Air Force keeps trying to replace the A-10 with something sexier. This stupid air jock culture is exactly why they should just fold the AF back into the Army where it came from. Ground support isn’t sexy. To do it well you need something slow, simple and very reliable which can take a lot of hits without blowing up and doesn’t cost too much to replace if it does. Instead of some ludicrously expensive A-10 replacement, what we need is more A-10s.