Space magic: the popularity and plausibility of the Future Mythic

by Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Space magic: the popularity and plausibility of the Future Mythic
May 9, 2020 Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Warframe, Destiny, Warhammer 40,000, Outriders, Equinox, and of course Star Wars. What do they all have in common? 

The traditional settings for escapist fiction were medieval fantasy, with its axes, orcs and bows; and science fiction, with its blasters and warp drives. However, in recent years a new template has emerged: visions of humanity’s far future, but with many of the trappings of fantasy. Enter the future mythic. 

 

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The

third of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws is difficult to argue with; compare the technology of today with the legends of a thousand years ago. The sword in the stone, for instance, would lose a degree of mystique if it had fingerprint recognition built into the hilt. Similarly, it would be hard to explain the internet to a Viking without saying ‘harnessed lightning.’

It follows that the same will hold true for our far future. We have no way of knowing where humanity might be in a thousand years, and — based on our history — it is reasonable to assume that it will be literally beyond our current imagining. 

Warframe (2013) takes this philosophy to heart. Digital Extremes’ third-person looter shooter is set in an unspecified but distant future, in which all trace of the modern day has been lost to time. What history is known is that humanity managed to colonise and terraform all the other planets in the solar system, during a period of extreme technological progress called the Orokin Era. We can assume that the Orokin were an empire of humans or transhumans far enough in Earth’s future to be unrecognisable to us today. 

The Orokin’s own prowess eventually proved their downfall, as their empire fell almost overnight to their own creations, the Sentients. In some ways, the fall of the Orokin and the resulting loss of knowledge is similar to the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages. What Orokin technology remains in Warframe is often incomprehensible, valuable, and powerful. While externally a fusion of white or grey ceramics and golden trim, the internals of Orokin devices are usually organic, including the titular warframes controlled by the players.

The Sentients are present in the game, as a species of ‘sentient machines’. Created by the Orokin to terraform the Tau system, they ultimately rebelled against their creators when they gained a degree of independence. Despite being completely artificial, the Sentients display several traits unusually similar to those of living creatures: they appear organic, as if their symmetrical, geometric bodies were grown rather than built. Their remains appear to fossilise; the huge ‘bones’ of a massive Sentient have been excavated all across the Plains of Eidolon area on Earth. Fragments of this Sentient are still operational but behave like wild animals, only emerging at night and communicating through roars and hisses. 

All these factors, from the warframes and towers to the Sentients and Infested, lead to a vision of the Orokin as masters of reality, able to manipulate the fabric of the universe on a whim. Under their rule, the volatile wasteland of Venus was terraformed into a freezing ice planet. Even their art is impossibly advanced, consisting of small sculptures of floating, moving, metallic components, powered by devices called Ayatan stars. Beautiful when inert, they are almost hypnotic in motion, and seem, well, magical. And that is true with all aspects of Orokin technology; they all seem like magic. Whether it is the horrors of a virus that can spread through the inanimate, or the ability of a simple key to bring back the dead, the remnants of the Orokin bend what we know in our time as ‘reality’.

Warframe is far from the only science fiction to follow Clarke’s law. The universe of Warhammer 40,000 is set in our far future, and as such has its fair share of advanced civilisations. The Aeldari, a race of elf-like humanoids, can manipulate an extremely light and resilient material called ‘wraithbone’. Almost all their structures are grown from this wraithbone by a caste of builder-musicians known as bonesingers. Through specially designed instruments, bonesingers can shape wraithbone using music and song, the material responding to the sounds like a dancer. Meanwhile, humanity in Warhammer 40,000 has an interesting relationship with technology, one that takes Clarke’s law almost literally. The Imperium is experiencing something of a technological dark age, with vast amounts of knowledge lost to fear and violence. As such, any technology from a time before the Imperium is considered advanced and sacred. The tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus practically worship such old technology, and their understanding of how to operate and maintain devices old and new is bound up in dogmatic rituals and tradition. If a gun jams or a vehicle breaks down, they set about appeasing its ‘machine-spirit’ through chants and rites. In truth, the actions a tech-priest takes are simple maintenance, such as oiling joints or tightening screws, but even they do not know this. To them, the machine-spirit is fickle, and its wishes must be fulfilled to ensure that their sacred technology continues to function.

Bungie’s Destiny (2014) and its 2017 sequel retain a similar idea of worshipping machines as deities. The mysterious Traveler is a spacefaring, city-sized device known to drift between planets, stopping to nurture species and grant them wondrous knowledge and abilities. It embodies and produces an otherworldly force known as Light, which is in direct opposition to the equally mysterious and ancient Darkness. Many enemies in the Destiny games are in some way corrupted by the Darkness, most notably the skeletal Hive, which go so far as to worship it and despise the Traveler. Meanwhile, the Guardians (player characters) are given almost magical abilities by the Traveler to protect it from the Darkness. This idea of a cosmic conflict between Light and Dark is a theme usually far more prevalent in fantasy than science fiction.

The Awoken, a subspecies of human, are a throwback to the Collapse, in which some attempting to flee the war between Light and Dark were caught in the crossfire and transformed into something else. Their ethereal looks and isolationist nature hold similarities to elves common in fantasy, and such creatures were part of the developers’ inspiration for the Awoken.

Destiny shares another theme with Warframe: that of humanity experiencing a fall from grace. In Destiny’s case, the time when the Traveler helped humanity spread across the solar system is known as the Golden Age, but it ended abruptly during the Collapse. Remnants from the Golden Age still exist, but are a mystery to most; including the Guardians themselves, who have been returned from the dead to protect the Traveler in its time of need. The robotic Exos, for instance, are fully sapient combat machines who were created during the Golden Age, but now even they know nothing of their origins.

This view of a future which has regressed, and thus views older technology with superstition, can also be found in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns (2012) and its sequels in the Broken Empire trilogy. These books are set in a future Europe which has returned to a medieval political and technological state following a nuclear apocalypse. The protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, through exploring some of the most dangerous and forgotten areas of this world, finds tribes of monsters which are actually mutants from the radioactive fallout, able to call upon and resist devastating levels of fire. He meets necromancers, dream-witches, and other such sorcerers, who are able to manipulate reality to their whims due to some catastrophic alteration of reality by the ancient ‘Builders’ — the term given to what the reader knows as modern people. Jorg even meets a ghost of a Builder, a hologram of a man whose mind was transferred into a computer. As in Warframe, every aspect of this world is shaped by the shadows of greatness left by the Builders, with even stainless steel taking on a mythical quality as ‘Builder-steel’, one of the finest and rarest materials a sword can be forged from.

Video games aren’t the only medium through which we can explore the future mythic. Paper and pencil roleplaying games (RPGs) have been set in ‘science fantasy’ worlds for years. FASA’s ShadowRun is set in a world subject to tides of magical energy following the Mayan cycles. As the new cycle begins, the arrival of mana actively transforms our world into a neo-fantasyscape with cyberpunk technology. The RPG Equinox draws upon similar mythology, allowing technological generation of magical effects.

One of the greatest future fantasy RPGs is Fading Suns, a futuristic passion play set in the far future where the civilisation of the Second Republic has fallen, leaving the lordship of whole worlds in the hands of a bickering nobility. Reminiscent of medieval Europe, with a powerful church, it also has aliens, psychic powers, starships, and unfathomable ‘ultra-tech’. The legacy of an ancient builder race known as the Ur includes both the jumpgates that connect human space as well as the enigmatic stone guardians that are said to bestow strange visions and quests upon those who encounter them.

The RPG Sufficiently Advanced is even named after Clarke’s law. It looks into the far future of mankind and asks what a future humanity might look like when the heart’s desire can be achieved by simply wishing it. Revolving around a true knowledge economy, the player characters take on roles as investigators hunting copyright infringements. You can make your heart’s desire come true with a thought — but that doesn’t give you the right to summon someone else’s design into being. In many ways it’s a utopian vision, where anything can be made through matter energy replication.

Rather than creating their own mythology, some works of fiction simply use existing mythology and bring it into a science fiction setting. Marvel’s Thor (2011) takes the Norse pantheon and sets them up as a species of superhumanly powerful and long-lived aliens called Asgardians. While extremely technologically advanced, they view their own science as magic. During Thor: The Dark World (2013), human physicist Jane Foster talks with an Asgardian doctor about a medical device. The Asgardian calls it a ‘soul forge’, while Foster terms it a ‘quantum field generator’, though their descriptions of its function are identical. Asura’s Wrath (2012) by CyberConnect2, uses elements of Hindu and Buddhist mythologies and sets up gods, demigods, and the like as aliens travelling in great fleets of spacecraft. These approaches both align quite well with Clarke’s law; they take things once considered to be magic and turn them into ‘sufficiently advanced technology’.

Some science fiction can bind itself in a desire to seem accurate or realistic according to contemporary scientific knowledge. But more and more games and books are remembering that, simply, we don’t know what we don’t know. As well as following Clarke’s third law, they seem to remember his first: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”