Way back in the 60s and 70s, British author Arthur C. Clarke wrote some laws about predicting future developments. The third and by far the most well-known of these laws states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In short, if you took a lighter back to the Stone Ages, you’d probably be thought of as a magician. While the law doesn’t take into account many more fantastical stories, like Harry Potter, where magic is the result of a bloodline, it does bring up the interesting question of what we consider magic—and how we react when confronted with something we don’t understand. Spoilers for most of The Dragonriders of Pern below.
The Dragonriders of Pern is a series that spans twenty-three books and counting, and much of that length is because the series involves a great deal of timeline shenanigans. Pern starts far in our future, when Earth settlers have traveled all over the universe in search of new places to live. One of the new planets is Pern, which at first seems like a great little planet, until the settlers realize that every hundred and fifty years, Pern is attacked by Thread—spores that fall from the sky and eat any organic matter they find. To defend themselves, they genetically engineer fire-breathing dragons that can attack Thread as a planetary defense mechanism. This works so well that as time goes on, dragons and dragonriders become the norm, and much of the other skills the settlers have are lost or forgotten. Over thousands of years, the planet falls into a medieval mindset revolving around the dragon Weyrs.
The interesting thing about the Pern series is its “magic” is never explicitly stated to be “magic”, per se. Despite the series’ generally medieval setting, McCaffrey sticks to science and scientific facts, claiming that all of the worldbuilding and advancements on Pern are due to rational, explained facts. This applies to things that both we, current Earth readers, might think of as magic, and things that the Pernese characters might think of as magic. However, despite the scientific explanations, the attitudes toward technology doesn’t change—if the people understand the science (or are at least reasonably used to it), then it’s just tech. If the people don’t understand the science and aren’t used to it, it’s witchcraft.
The Earth settlers of the future have with them a galaxy-renowned geneticist, Kitti Ping Yung, who knows how to breed creatures with mentasynth—that is to say, creatures that are empathetic and can transmit feelings and thoughts to a human partner. We Earthlings would definitely think of this as magic, because it’s not something that we can conceive of doing in 2015, but for the Pern settlers, this is the norm. When the settlers land on Pern and discover fire lizards, Kitti Ping Yung breeds them into the dragons that will be the ancestors to present-day Pernese dragons, and no one is particularly shocked that the dragons can talk with their human partners. The technology and its results are expected. Even if the other settlers can’t reproduce Yung’s work, her expertise is so respected, and mentasynth so common, that genetically engineering a whole new species is nothing new.
Contrast this with present-day Pern, with its medieval technology and ideas. When the Lord of Ruatha Hold, Jaxom, discovers what’s left of the settlers’ first settlements, he finds a lot of stuff that he doesn’t have the words to comprehend. Building materials are different, paper is different, clothes are different, and most importantly, there’s Aivas (A.I.V.A.S. — Artificial Intelligence Voice-Address System), an artificial intelligence system abandoned by the ancient settlers. Now, Jaxom and his generation have never seen anything even remotely resembling a computer, so Aivas is a huge shock. One of the other Lord Holders even calls it “a talking wall”. Aivas has all the knowledge of the ancient settlers and quickly starts teaching the current Pernese people how to improve upon their manufacturing of things like glass and paper, as well as broader areas of study like chemistry and biology. We readers obviously know that these things are not magic, but to the Pernese people, they might as well be.
When Aivas starts talking about space suits and ending the threat of Thread using dragons in space, he sets off a cultural upheaval throughout Pern. Rumors start spreading about how Aivas can control people’s minds and how he’s teaching doctors to rip out organs (well, surgery by any other name…) and how all the new technologies, which very few Pernese fully understand, are evil and are ruining Pern’s way of life. This results in a sizable faction of people, known as the Abominators, teaming up to destroy what they call “the Abomination” (Aivas). Though Aivas’s knowledge is available to anyone who wants to learn, the Abominators fully embrace conspiracy theories, like the one that says Aivas used his great powers to kill the popular Pern Masterharper. They refuse to learn anything that might disprove their theory that Aivas is, you know, evil black magic spawned by the Pern-equivalent of Satan, and spend all their time destroying things created by the new technologies Aivas has introduced.
Meanwhile, the dragonriders are also discovering new things. In one of the later books, The Skies of Pern, the dragonriders find that their dragons are also capable of telekinesis (moving things from one place to another). Since it’s already well-known that dragons are capable of teleportation (jumping from one place to another) and telepathy (communicating mentally with humans and each other), this new draconic skill doesn’t shock anyone. Though it’s new, no one treats dragon telekinesis with suspicion. It’s a very different reaction from that of the Abominators—as one dragonrider says of them, “Such people are afraid of what they don’t understand, won’t understand. So they pretend to despise and reject it since they can’t and won’t understand. They retaliate by defiance and witless destruction. And claim they’re acting on behalf of people and for reasons those people don’t understand either.”
While what we perceive as scientifically impossible changes over time, some lines of thought always remain the same. People can either be willing to adapt to the times, or they can instead loudly disparage any technological advancements they don’t understand. We can see from the Pern series that as awesome and as creepy as some of our technological advancements are, people only fear the advances they don’t understand, because without knowing how something works, they don’t know if it will be dangerous to them or not. As Clarke’s Third Law says, any technology we don’t understand might as well be magic, but what effects might fear of magic have on a culture? Pern is an interesting case study of this question, but it’s one that is equally as applicable to our real-life technology and privacy discussions and Hollywood misrepresentations, and it’s an important issue to keep in mind as current technology hurtles forward.