Nothing quite spices up a universe like some kind of cataclysmic event. Luce has written at length recently about the Dragonriders of Pern series, and it’s a perfect example of the plot device I want to discuss. In this series, a colonizing expedition to a new planet is unexpectedly overwhelmed by an indigenous threat: rain-like silvery spores called Thread that threaten their survival on their new home. The settlers use their highly advanced technology to bioengineer dragons that can withstand and destroy Thread, but as time—entire centuries—goes by, knowledge of the technology is lost.
When we’re introduced to the world in the first Dragonriders book, it’s reverted to a more prototypical fantasy world with medieval levels of scientific advancement and an understanding that the dragons and their powers are the result of magic rather than science. This sort of genre-switching destruction of civilization can be a powerful storytelling device, but it has to be used well to be effective.
Vague, minor spoilers for the new Star Wars movie after the jump.
In the Wheel of Time series, civilization was once a highly advanced, peaceful, scientific affair. While magic did exist, it was never used in anger or cruelty, and those who could wield it called themselves Aes Sedai, servants of the people. However, the One Power, the source from which they drew this magic ability, was incontrovertibly divided by gender; women could only draw from its female aspect, saidar, while men could only channel saidin, its male side. When scientists discovered what appeared to be a yet-untapped source of power that could be tapped by women and men equally, they used their technology and magic to bore a hole through the fabric of space-time and set this power free.
Unfortunately, this massive source of power turned out to be the Dark One, a cosmically powerful evil force whose release threw the world into war and chaos for hundred of years. (In fairness, men and women can use the Dark One’s power equally, so they weren’t wrong.) Society as those people knew it crumbled, and almost everything they had taken for granted before they released the Dark One was lost, as even the continents changed shape. Fast forward thousands of years after the Breaking, as it was called, to the modern setting of the actual story: a traditional medieval-based fantasy society where the Aes Sedai cloister themselves away from other people, pulling political strings from the shadows and rarely getting their hands dirty amongst the common people. The series’s protagonist doesn’t even believe Aes Sedai really exist until he witnesses one channeling in person. It’s fascinating to look at the way society has changed and how the characters interact with the once-lost technology they’re rediscovering as the series progresses. It’s an especially interesting juxtaposition because, since actual magic is comparatively commonplace, the technology that doesn’t require the One Power to work is what seems magical to them.
Destroying an entire society to contrast past with present more dramatically isn’t always the best idea, though. When it doesn’t have enough weight to really affect the entire scope of the world, it can fall really flat. Look no further than the Star Wars universe for this. I spent most of last week marathoning all six movies in preparation for seeing Episode VII, and while both the original trilogy and the prequels are arguably sci-fi by dint of containing things like hyperspace intragalactic travel, the prequels tend to have more of a science-and-technology bent while the originals lean more toward what could be called science fantasy. Look at the idea of midichlorians and consider for a second that they’re not some bullshit thing. In the space of maybe forty years, the entire galaxy went from not only having a ton of Jedi but also having a concrete scientific way to measure their aptitude in the Force, to most of the galaxy not even believing Jedi exist.
The problem for me here is twofold. First of all, do you know how big a galaxy is? Even with faster-than-light space travel, a galaxy is fucking huge! Hundred of millions of planets, and even if only 1% of them contained intelligent life, it’d still take two weeks just to call roll at the Galactic Senate. While the Empire can certainly be blamed in part, it’s hard to believe that in just the twenty years from Luke’s birth to the beginning of A New Hope that the entire galaxy forgot that there had been pretty visible organizations called the Jedi Council and Academy fewer than two decades previous. I’d think it would take that long just for some Outer Rim planets to really believe that the Galactic Republic had even fallen.
While the story necessarily must take place over this comparatively short time period, trying to play the sci-fi-to-fantasy switch card here falls flat because of it. In the newest movie, after another twenty years, Rey doesn’t even believe that Luke Skywalker is a real person when she hears someone mention him. Wasn’t he a pretty visible figure? It’d be one thing if she hadn’t heard of him at all—that might make sense in a “the galaxy is big and news travels slowly” way, but the fact that she’s heard of him only as a mythical Space Paul Bunyan or something is harder to swallow.
When used correctly, a switch from sci-fi to fantasy setting because of some terrible catastrophe can really drive home what was lost in said catastrophe. It’s one thing to set your story in a post-apocalyptic setting that’s not that far in the future. While that has its own value to a reader, that move is more about warning about the potential dangers of humanity to itself—look at the messages behind series like The Hunger Games or Divergent. Taking a risk like the trope I’m talking about and dealing such a significant blow to your world that it switches the genre is a powerful move because it forces the reader to consider how terrible it would be to go from effortless space travel to not even having antibiotics, or even knowing what antibiotics are. If you don’t give the change enough time to settle in, it can come off as ineffective and contrived, but it’s tremendous worldbuilding if done well.