Technology and the Fair Folk

When I first decided to have Fair Folk in my Into the Wonder series fire elf shot from shotguns, it was purely in service of a pun. Mortals may have buckshot and birdshot, but the fae have elf shot! This one decision, however, ultimately exerted a good bit of influence over how I imagined the Fair Folk interacting with technology. Suddenly, they were not mired in medieval stasis but open—at least at some level—to later technological innovations. This was fine, of course, because much of northern European faery lore comes from a later (though still pre-industrial) stage of history, and that was where I had started in working out the “rules” for my fictional world. But shotguns strongly implied machine tooling, and that set me to thinking about other ways modern technology might impinge upon the lives of elves, pookas, goblins, and the daoine sídhe. Here, then, are some of my semi-random thoughts on the matter.

Technological innovation in the Wonder has moved more slowly than it has on human earth. In general, Wonderling society in North America operates at technological level comparable to that of late in the Age of Exploration or the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution (roughly AD 1700–1800).

The Relative Rarity of Tech

Wonderling tech is not as prevalent in their society as it was in ours in the late 1700s, however, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, inhabitants of the Wonder are able to use magic to accomplish many of the goals for which Topsiders must rely on technology. There is little incentive to develop technological ways to enhance a farm’s yield when all one needs to do is turn a few friendly pookas or poleviks loose in the fields! Why develop technological means of transportation and long-distance communication when the ring network and a good Seeing Stone can work at least as adequately as anything mortals have devised—if not far better?

Another limiting factor is the widespread aversion to iron and steel among the true fae. (This is not a significant factor for other denizens of the Wonder such as dwarves, little folk, trolls, etc. It does, however, limit the overall demand for products made of iron or steel.)

Add to this that many inhabitants of the Wonder have a deep connection to and appreciation for the natural world. Beings who have lived for centuries in harmony with springs, fields, forests, and trees are not likely to forsake these things for technological advances that, left unchecked, may threaten to mar or even destroy them.

Furthermore, the Wonder in general lacks an economic system conducive to widespread industrialization. Inhabitants of the Wonder engage in barter with strangers or outsiders and cultivate complex networks of patronage with their associates in an intricate social hierarchy. In such an arrangement, there is little to no incentive for a young sprite to leave the farm in order to work in large urban factories. Therefore, whatever technology is available is still almost exclusively the product of small cottage industries.

The final limiting factor is purely cultural. Although the inhabitants of the Wonder benefit from eighteenth-century technology, their clothing, values, and other aspects of culture are generally closer to fifteenth–sixteenth century. Many in the Wonder are wary of technological innovations beyond this Renaissance-era horizon.

Technological Diffusion from Topside

It should be noted, however, that some Wonderlings are quite acquainted with the Topside world, both in historical times (Mara Hellebore knows of Shakespeare and Spenser) and more recent decades (Danny Underhill is familiar with Walt Disney, Janis Joplin, and Michael Jordan). It is quite possible that a well-read fae could be the equal of any Topside scientist or engineer in terms of the underlying principles of modern technology even if his or her society has not produced all the intermediate steps needed to reproduce it. Algebra and calculus, the germ theory of disease, modern genetics, atomic theory, and other advances are easily comprehended by astute Wonderlings.

Furthermore, many inhabitants of the Wonder are known to enter patronage relationships with Topsiders (“Friendlies”) which might result in the Topside client trading technological trinkets for magical favors.

I have left a number of hints about Wonderling technological capabilities here and there in the Into the Wonder series, however. Moe Fountain’s home has indoor plumbing, including a heated shower (steam pump?). A guard reads a periodical magazine (printing press), there is a clock in the dining hall of Dunhoughkey (clockworks, machine tools?), and various characters deliver elf-shot using blunderbusses, muskets, and shotguns (gunpowder, machine tools). All of these fit very well within eighteenth-century parameters.

Two Borderline Cases

There are two instances of technology more clearly associated with the early nineteenth century. In The Devil’s Due, Lawdwick Vesper carries canned foodstuffs in his pack (c. 1810), and in Children of Pride, Shanna Hellebore’s cell at Dunhoughkey is adorned with photographs (1839). I’ll admit I hadn’t nailed down the tech level in the Wonder as precisely as I since have when writing these details, so what follows may be something along the lines of a writer’s saving throw. Be that as it may, here is how I might be tempted to justify these details.

In the case of Vesper’s canned rations, (1) this innovation is so close to the AD 1800 cut-off as to be virtually negligible, and (2) Nicolas Appert first began working on his food preservation method after a chance observance that food cooked inside a jar didn’t spoil unless the seals leaked. Had the same observation been made fifty to a hundred years prior, canning would be an eighteenth-century invention. Furthermore, (3) since some inhabitants of the Wonder are aware of mortal innovations, there is nothing inherently implausible about canning foods using eighteenth-century technology—all that is really needed is a suitable canister, a pressure cooker, and a heat source.

In the case of photography, Shanna’s cell décor is perhaps best explained by appeal interactions between Wonderlings and Topsiders. Well-read inhabitants of the Wonder would know the basics of photography as it is practiced on human earth—in fact, many of the necessary technical innovations are pre-nineteenth century: the camera obscura, silver nitrate, silver chloride, and the photochemical effect. Indeed, a passage in the novel Giphantie by Tiphaigne de la Roche (1760) anticipates photography.

The first attempt to capture the image in a camera obscura on a light-sensitive substance was made by Thomas Wedgwood around 1800, and it is not inconceivable for Wonderlings to have developed a process something along the lines of a daguerreotype (1839) or perhaps even the wet collodion process (c. 1850).

What do you think? Is there room in Faery Land for gunpowder, machine tools, steam engines, and the cotton gin? Or do you prefer your fantasy races to be strictly medieval?

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