Magic in the Ruins

A staple of science fiction set after the Collapse of All Human Civilization is the use of remnant advanced technology as "magic" (by Clarke's Law); sadly, this is not usually very well done. The case in point is the RPG Shattered Sky (Propaganda Publishing, probably now defunct). SS is set so far in the future that humanity, having failed to find an economically feasible method of interstellar travel, has built a solid Dyson sphere, had it trashed by aliens, and lived on the fragments that still support a biosystem for long enough to work back up to a late Steel Age level of technology and begin exploring. "Magic" in SS is based on the manipulation of the maintenance nanodevices which infest every solid object, using the brain-based programming language painstakingly reconstructed by generations of mages. Although the SS system has many of the trappings of highly advanced technology, the idea that to do anything with a computer requires personally writing a system-level program each time you want to do it (or so I gather from the "casting times") is hopelessly 70s. Herein I will propose some ideas that achieve a similar effect but in a hopelessly 90s way.

"No, cast me!"

Although it's implausible that Steel Age barbarians could figure out a systems programming language many tech levels in advance of their own, there is one class of software that wants to be as easy as possible to run, and to be run as often as possible, which is a strong selective pressure for aggressively simple interfaces.

Should a user manage to convey a desire to accomplish some task to the local network, she will immediately be swarmed by marketing software, each piece of which touts its own product for accomplishing that task and offers a free demo. All the user then needs to do is select the one with the best animated GIF of singing, dancing tensor fields, read the quickstart manual, and away she goes.

Sadly, the users this system was intended for easy use by have long since gone the way of the dodo and the patent lawyer. A mage can still call up and clumsily use the applications, but to do so she needs to express her needs in Esperanto++ or Non-Linear Japanese rather than the degenerate mongrel vernacular, correctly select the application whose manual has been passed down to her through oral tradition (possibly navigating a direct neural induction multimedia lightshow to do so), and then use what she knows of the interface (which may also be bizarre and disorienting) to accomplish her task.

Even if the mage manages to "cast her spell", the nature of the software she's using requires that it be of limited functionality, reach, and duration (although the frighteningly advanced society which produced this software may have had strange notions as to where such limits should lie), and almost certainly that it have stringent safety measures that keep it from being useful for smiting foes. Some lineages of "magic" may have knowledge of one or two black market products that lack safety features or are even intended to hurt people, but since such software rarely advertises itself and was never intended for general use, it is very rare and difficult (and perhaps dangerous) to use.

The meek shall inherit the software license

Not all software is so promiscuous; you need a license for the good stuff. Software resident in the utility dirt distributed throughout the environment is not tied to any piece of hardware, though, so it has to identify the authorized user directly, by (for example) biometrics. Now, in the longago time when this software was written, people didn't die much, and when they did, they had executors to eventually clean up the legal details (and in the meantime, they weren't using the software, so no problem).

In this degenerate age, however, people die all the time, which can be quite a problem for a license verification routine. At first, the former authorized user is just not issuing orders (and has distressing vital signs), but eventually becomes clearly not the same entity specified in the license. But wait! Here's someone who has 50% of the same genes, and many of the same anatomical and metabolic signatures! Not really a good match, but it'll have to do...

In this way, "magical powers" could be passed down the generations within a family descended from the original licensee. As each holder dies, or perhaps just ages enough to become a worse match than some member of the younger generation (after all, the original licensee didn't get grey and wrinkled), the license transfers; hopefully the instructions for using the "powers" are also passed along. Mages who have some understanding of this process might engage in judicious inbreeding to keep the license from wandering off into a cadet branch of the family.

Nanotech-based physical modifications might also transfer in this way, although probably only upon death of the previous owner (at which the self-repair system concludes it should abandon this discarded flesh and work on rebuilding itself in the living licensee).

Licenses other than individual ones could also exist, like a corporate license that works for the 1000 people who have had a certain tag in their genome the longest.

"Mom, you never let me use the powered armor!"

Possession of some ancient artifact is the staple of post-collapse "magic"; I mention it here only because the artifacts might have security features that produce some of the same results mentioned above.


This file was last modified at 1025 on 22Aug00 by trip@idiom.com.