Imaginary Atlas 4

The quanta of culture | Imaginary Atlas: Part 4

When I was a kid, my dad gave me a pint jar filled with coins.

Most of the coins were old, some dating back to the 1910s. The best coin in the bunch was a 1932 silver Mercury-head dime in pretty decent condition. Most of the coins, though were old and worn, some little more than smooth metal disks.

I was fascinated with them, though, because while they were similar to the currency with which I was familiar, they were different, and so exotic, relics of a different, distant culture.

In the late 1980s, I was in a friend’s wedding party. As a gift, my friend — a huge anglophile — gave everyone a newly minted UK pound coin. If you’ve never seen one of these, they are fabulous — roughly the size of a quarter, but at least twice as thick, with writing engraved around the outer rim.

Over the years, I’ve been fascinated by the currency of foreign lands, both historic and contemporary. When the euro was introduced, I followed reports of it closely — not about the economics of the currency change, but the design and manufacture of the new currency itself, the physical notes and coins.

In our digital age, certain cultural objects have lost much of their relevance. Most of the world’s money actually doesn’t exist physically, just as bytes of information. We still mail physical things sometimes, but stamps aren’t the miniature works of art that they used to be. Pens are disposable. Razors are disposable. The electronic device on which you’re viewing this post is disposable.

Much of our culture is disposable.

That didn’t used to be the case, of course. Before the Industrial Revolution, pretty much everything — every artifact ever created — was created by hand. Even using factory methods, items were often individual, or became so with use. Items took on wear and tear, put on a patina, faded, tore. They became individual things that were recognized and often valued.

This was true even after the Industrial Revolution for quite a while. Items may have been built in factories, but the best items, at least, were built to last as long as they could. Cars, refrigerators, what have you. It was only the advent of consumer society that mass-produced goods were deliberately designed to last only so long. Things fall apart now because people want new things every so often. We want new cars, new cellphones, new computers, new clothes. Our entire economic system is built around the idea that things, manufactured objects, are only intended to last until the novelty wears off.

I’m not condemning or endorsing consumer society — OK, I’m condemning it a little bit — but simply recognizing that that’s how things are done today. It’s the world in which we live.

So, if one were, I don’t know, building a fantasy world up from scratch, what could one do to make things different? Hmm… hey, I know. Why not set one’s fantasy world in an industrial society, but at an era in that society in which it’s still dependent on physical objects being the quanta of culture?

Initially, I had planned on the world of Imaginary Atlas to be much more similar to our modern world, even more advanced technologically in many ways, but the more I thought about it, the more I was attracted to mimicking a past era. Ultimately, what I decided was that the era I wanted to visit and play with on this project was comparable to the 1930s.

Why the 1930s, you ask? The 1930s was pretty much the last pre-electronics decade. Sure, proto-electronics and vacuum tubes existed. Radio was the medium of the era, and the first working prototypes of television were created then. For the most part, though, the 1930s were an area of mechanical machines and electricity, gears and wires.

Another question that comes up, of course, concerns magic — or, as I prefer to think of it, magick. If you have magick — real magick, not stage magick — why would technology evolve? Why would there be an industrial revolution?

I think that comes from the nature of magick in this world. In my fantasy worlds, I’ve always viewed magick as one of the fundamental forces of the universe, just like gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and the weak nuclear forces. The difference is that, unlike those other forces, magick can be manipulated and controlled by nothing more than the human mind. If you can learn how to master magick, you can be a mage.

The thing about that is, of course, that magick cannot easily be industrialized or commodified. If magick must be done by a sentient being, and that person must spend years, even decades, mastering the art of magick, and in doing so even the effects a mage may create aren’t that powerful, then there’s an incentive to pursue technology in order to gain the power needed to transform the world.

So, magick exists, but it’s rare and difficult and, entirely likely, dangerous. (Magick should always be dangerous.) The work horse of culture, though, is technology, as ironic as that may sound.

Next time, I’ll go into detail about the core of technology in this imaginary world.

To be continued….

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