T: Technology and Fantasy, or, the story of the flashbulb camera

Today I’m just going to tell a little story about something that happened to me while I was writing my debut novel, The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, and how it relates to figuring out the level of technology your fantasy novel can have.

I was writing a scene where reporters are trying to get a statement on a major event. Newspapers have been around since long before the Edwardian era, and they’re a major background presence in my books. But I got wondering about illustrations, and decided to do some research about the history of photography.

As it turns out, the earliest use of what we’d consider a camera, with film and flashes of light, was invented in the latter half of the 19th century. But photography’s development was stymied by the methods that had to be used to get the bright flash of light required. The theory of photography has been around since ancient China and Greece. However, it was only with the advent of gunpowder that the ability to create a burst of light bright enough on command became possible. And my society never discovered gunpowder! Suffice to say, I couldn’t just use our history of the camera. I had to trace and conceptualize an alternate history.

As it turns out, that wasn’t very hard. In my world, technology is mostly achieved by spiritbinders, mages who summon elementals from another plane and bind them into objects, creating enchanted power sources for them. One of those elements rules light and darkness. It would have been beyond easy for my spiritbinders to have developed the camera flash a lot earlier than ever happened in our world.

it just screams
it just screams “old school.”

Enter the iconic flashbulb camera. It wasn’t invented until decades after the era I was aiming for, but it fit with aesthetic regardless. Who doesn’t feel a burst of early 20th century nostalgia at the sight of a flashbulb? And moreover: using the flashbulb actually made more sense. If spiritbinders had developed a method of reliably creating a flash earlier than photographers in our world did, their tech would be more advanced than ours in the same era.

And so I just used it! I think the image of all those camera flashing and popping gives the scene it’s used in a lot of life and character, and I actually ended up working elements of its unconventional tech into the plot instead of just using it for set dressing!

The moral of the story is that good fantasy tech should feel organic to the world. Don’t just think about what year you’re going for and check what year X or Y was invented in. Look into how it was invented, and see if and how your society could produce it! Those little touches add a lot of realism.

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