There are many pivotal points in history. Events or inventions that changed the world forever: the battle of Hastings, the invention of the printing press, and the bombing of Hiroshima. In stories, however, such world-shattering things sometimes affect… nothing. This is a smell that the setting of a story can suffer from, and it is good to be aware of.
What is it?
The unfazed world is what happens when something that should affect the world greatly, doesn’t affect the world at all. Science fiction and fantasy are the natural victims of this smell. These types of stories have a lot of made up setting. A lot of world or even universe that can be broken.
A world is always shaped by monumental battles, charismatic leaders, and technological innovations. Alternate history stories are an exploration of just how this works: what if World War 2 was won by the Nazis? What if Columbus never perished on his journey to America?
If something happens that fundamentally changes a world, that world can not continue on as if it hadn’t happened. If magic was discovered and easy to use, without a down side, half the world would soon be using it.
Of course, this does not just affect fantasy and science fiction. There are books that show countries or villains having very powerful secret weapons that would alter the nature of war… except they don’t.
There is a serious flaw in the vampire society in the Twilight saga. There are vampires in that story with no natural enemies, and none of the weaknesses that normally affect them. They are so mighty that they should have no trouble taking over the world. Some of the vampires are clearly not opposed to hunting humans and using their powers for personal gain. This should have led to immortal dictators leading their own countries; vampire warlords that fight each other for supremacy. That or the world of Daybreakers, where humans are held as cattle. That this does not happen is -in my opinion- a serious flaw in the Twilight world. The vampires blending in with humans as they do is like humans pretending to be cows and occasionally eating one, instead of creating farms.
I’m an avid Dungeons & Dragons player. Somebody on the internet – I forget who – once pointed out that the effect of magic on the D&D world is highly understated – by D&D world, I mean the default setting of the game, which is a medieval setting with magic. Magic abounds in the form of wizards and priests; any ailment could be healed remarkably easily, at far less cost than our modern healthcare.
Magic violates the laws of energy conservation, making it more powerful than nuclear weaponry. These things -and more- should lead to a very different society than the medieval one that D&D is in. Population would explode even more rapidly than in our own society, although this might be counter-balanced by cataclysmic magic wars. That all this doesn’t happen is a bit of a smell of the D&D world.
How to fix it
There are three approaches to solving this: change your world, counter-balance your world-changing effects, or simply ignore the problem.
I’ll start with the last one, simply ignoring the problem. I don’t like it, but this smell is less debilitating to your story than some other smells. I pointed out examples in the Twilight Saga and the D&D world, both of which are extremely popular. Simply saying ‘screw this, I’m doing this my way’ is a valid solution. Still, I think you should be aware of the problem, and you should know that solving these issues can lead to a far more interesting world, with often only minor changes.
The second option is to change your story world. The Twilight saga might not have been that different if the world were ruled by vampires. The world could be much the same as it is now, only with vampires as the heads of states. There is a D&D setting that treats magic differently, the Eberron setting. Magic has been industrialized there, and I find it a very interesting setting to play in.
The third option is the hardest; you can try to counter-balance the world-changing effect. In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the ark is dumped in a way-too-full warehouse of the US government, so nobody will learn of it.
In the Laundry files by Charless Stross, there is a government agency actively keeping supernatural events secret from the public using -among other things – magic means.
Another approach is making the world-changing event less world-changing. If you’re writing a story about super heroes in New York, you can’t really expect nobody to notice, but if it takes place in New York right before hurricane Sandy hit, then suddenly all evidence of what happened can be erased by the storm.
When world-shattering events lead to no effects, you’re talking about the unfazed world smell. That need not be a problem, but if left alone, an opportunity for story-telling is wasted.