Way With Worlds: The Differences Between Magic And Technology


[Way With Worlds appears at Seventh Sanctum and at MuseHack]

Last column, I looked at writing magic and technology for your setting – and noted that in many ways for the sake of world building they could be treated the same.  I still believe that, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out the differences as well.  Or perhaps  I should say “areas of variance,” as it gets complicated, but more on that shortly.

I believe it’s important to loo at differences, as in too many cases creating the magic and/or technology for a setting treats them as the same for all the wrong reason – as opposed to the right ones.  Technology easily becomes hand-woven neutron particle miracle rays, a mythology with lab tools and circuit boards.  Magic can get systematized or explained in such a way it either is technology, or is really just magic wearing technologies clothes and wandering around looking out of place.

So, having suggested that you have to look at them as similar for the sake of worldbuilding, I now want to deal with when you have to look at them differently.  Yes, this may produce writing whiplash, but who said worldbuilding was going to be boring and straightforward?  I certainly didn’t promise that.

Think of it as general and specifics.  In general, they’re the ways people change and affect the world.  In specifics, well . . .

The Magic-Technology Continuum

When it comes to writing magic and technology I find we can think of it a continuum.  On one end is pure magic where the laws we know in real life don’t really matter or exist, and on the other is essentially fiction so realistic it comes with a bibliography and  a list of reference papers.  Most writing is somewhere in that wide, wide area in the middle, though usually near one end or another.

It’s important to remember this to know where you stand in making your world.  If you’re writing a scientific thriller, you’d better be doing your research.  If you’re writing a magical world you may kind of screw it up by giving us sixteen pages of systematic description that sounds like an engineering manual with runes.  If you’re doing Space Opera it’s a bit more muddled, with recognizable technology that often serves to get things to happen, much as doing a steampunk magical world wanders in the middle ground happily.

In turn, your world will vary greatly in several factors.  In fact, for the rest of the column I’m going to call out these factors to note how magic and technology differ.  These are not just ways “more science” and “more magical” worlds vary, but are areas your world will vary in despite how you defined them.

After all a magical world with alchemy may have it’s “scientific” elements, and an SF world with psychic powers is going to verge into magical territory.  In a few cases a setting really is just cosplaying as another or is meant to ape another, such as post-apocalyptic stories with a fantasy feel.  Sometimes Magic or Technology is a viewpoint (which you know if you ever tried to explain to the technologically-uninformed), which could lend all sorts of richness to your worldbuilding.

Easy?  Not always.  But the challenge is worth it, and let’s face it, most writers just can’t stop anyway . . .

Magic And Technology: The Differences

So let’s look at where magic and technology differ.  For your setting, you’ll not only want to read the summarizes below, but ask if they fit your world.  Think of them not just as important areas of difference to consider, but questions to ask!

By the way if you look at technology and note at some point it seems almost magical, then I’ll refer you to Sir Clarke and my previous corollary.

Accessibility: Parallel to acquisition below, how available is the magic/technology/whatever of your universe?  How do people get ahold of it?

  • Technology: Is usually more accessible in settings.  Not being of an “outside” origin or needing a living channeler, it can be taught, expounded on, and created to some extent by anyone with the tools and training.  It also is something that is bound by known laws so is not odd or strange unless intentionally so so people can usually understand it easier.
  • Magic: Magic is usually mysterious and inaccessible, limited by rules that are not always of the material world, and not always accessible.  In a few cases because it is so powerful and such a force outside the normal world, it’s also very dangerous.


Acquisition: How do you actually get ahold of your technology or magic?  This affects your setting and thus the tales within it because when it comes down to it, these are resources no matter if it’s due to gears or magic crystals.

  • Technology: Technology is usually acquired by understandable means, some as mundane as “cash or charge?”  There may be little sense of wonder or thought about technology as after awhile it’s unremarkable, as is getting ahold of it.
  • Magic: Magic usually is harder to get ahold of because its more mystical and often there’s some “internal” personal element the user has to acquire, be born with, be touched by, etc.  This is not always the case in some settings, but usually there’s “something” special about the user that lets them use it.

Componentization: Can the components of one tool (be it magical or technical) be used or repurposed into another?  Can you easily break down and build something up – or even repair via replacement?

  • Technology: Technology is almost always componentizable.  Wether it’s putting a new head on an old spear or swapping out carburetors, technology is all about components.  It’s the ability to make regular components that allowed our mass production age – and we humans do like the convenience of standardization.
  • Magic: Magic is rarely componentizable.  It may require components to produce certain effects or items, but it’s rare in portrayals of magic to break it down again.  You don’t often see a wizard field stripping a spell and then giving it some new runes for an awesome extra flashy effect (though that is an amusing idea)


Evolution: How does technology or magic improve?  The two tend to differ in that it’s assumed technology is improved upon over time while with magic, it gets fuzzier.

  • Technology: Technology usually is developed and improved over time, and that may be a driving element of a world.  It’s development is often driven by its users – and if it achieves sentience, itself.
  • Magic: Magic usually does not evolve or improve, or improves slowly or based on outside forces.  There’s no hard and fast rule with magic, but I usually find magical settings do not have so much evolution as research, uncovering, or unleashing of power – but rarely is there anything new under the sun.


Independence: Does the technology exist and function independent of it’s user/wielder?  Can anyone just pick it up or is it more personal/personally bound?

  • Technology: Technology is usually impersonal unless specifically designed to be personal.  Someone can pickup a gun and fire it, ride a bicycle, etc.  Personalized technology or technology keyed to a certain individual exists, but that can often be cracked, transferred, and overridden.  The personalization is intentional.
  • Magic: Magic is often personal – in fact a major defining feature of magic seems to be you literally need a living/sentient being to do it (apologizes to all you litchis).  The living wielder is a necessity, and often the magical use is very personal – learned, practiced, and part of the magician.  This does change in the case of artifacts, but often those are highly personalized (just ask King Arthur).


Production: How is it made?  These important artifacts/spells/abilities have to come into being somehow, even if someone’s born with it because they were the seventh son of a seventh son.

  • Technology: Technology is usually manufactured by a mixture of skill, knowledge, and mechanization.  The element of mechanization, where technology makes technology, is a strong element of a lot of world building – technology’s ability to improve itself is a major difference from most ideas of magic.  This also leads technology to be, in many cases, kind of impersonal.
  • Magic: Magic is usually something relatively organic (magical energy in a living being, divine power), and often eternal (spirits of ancient days, old wisdom).  Magic is often not so much produces as researched – almost like it is extracted from the universe.  However when you get to artifacts and items,you’re entering more into a form of production, but those often have unique, almost personal origins – a sword made from the bone of a dead god, etc.  Magic’s production is personal.


Rules: Everything has rules.  We humans think in rules.  But Technology and Magic’s rules tend to be a bit different.

  • Technology: Technology’s rules are also the rules of the everyday world.  Your car and your pencil are of the same atoms, the laws of fluid dynamics define rivers and your bloodstream.  Technology’s rules tend to be omnipresent, even if they get a mite funky in quantum physics.
  • Magic: Magic has rules, but in many cases they are rules that don’t run like those of the everyday world, even if they work within them.  In some cases this is just the way it is, in other cases magic comes from an other reality or a super-reality.  Magic’s rules and the world it is used in may be radically different – which may be a major theme of your setting.


Magic and Technology are often the same from a worldbuilding standpoint as noted earlier – but when you get into defining them then there’s distinct, if often fuzzy differences.  Looking these over, asking questions, helps you better know what you’re aiming for, what you’ve created – and what you can create.

– Steven Savage