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AJ
ann_leckie
So, that'll teach me not to post 1,000 word essays and just toss off thoughts.

I kind of feel like I need to clarify my last post about Clarke's Law. Before I even start on that, I want to say that it is my firm belief that every writer ought to write whatever sort of story she feels the desire or need to write, and that there is no genre or sub-genre that is automatically bad or inferior to any other. By and large, it's not what kind of story you're writing that matters--it's the execution of it. I even think this is the case for ideas and subgenres that I don't personally like or that I have nitpicky philosophical issues with.

That said. Some ideas are so profoundly foolish that it takes an unusual amount of work--handwaving, scaffolding, whatever--to make them work. And one of those is the idea that, assuming we're in a universe where "magic" works, science and technology are something different in nature from "magic."



I'm talking, by the way, about this issue on a worldbuilding level, not at the level of the characters in the story (though the one does affect the other, to a greater or lesser degree).

There was a time when "magic" in our world meant "stuff that works but we don't know how" and/or "stuff that works because the gods cause it to." We've increased our store of information about how the world works--largely through science, which is essentially a way of finding things out about the world--and now "magic" means "stuff that breaks the rules of the universe" or "stuff that doesn't actually work." But only the second sort of magic--the kind that doesn't work--can exist. The first kind can't. Not just in our universe, but in any universe.

If something works that contradicts your current model of the universe, then your model of the universe has to change to account for that. Anything that works, works because the structure of the universe allows or demands that it work. Nothing works over and above, or outside, the laws of the universe. "Magic" that works isn't magic, it's just the way the world works, no more mystical than levers or inclined planes or wheels. And the way it works will have implications for the way other things in that universe work. The "rules" of the universe are not handed down from some Physics Authority--they're a description of the universe, and if that universe includes, say, the ability to make it rain by pouring water onto a stone and saying the right words, then that's part of the description of the universe. It can't break the rules, because the rules are a description of what's possible to begin with. If sympathetic magic is possible, that's got to be in any accurate description of the universe in question, or your "rules" are in error.

The upshot of this is, as I said yesterday, that sufficiently comprehensible magic is indistinguishable from technology. That is, in a universe where magic is possible, magic is susceptible to scientific investigation, and use as technology. And once a given "magic" has been investigated, say, to use marycatelli's example, willow bark tea for pain relief, and found to actually be reliable, it will no longer be considered "magic." It'll be aspirin you buy at the drugstore. Any "magic" that didn't prove actually effective will remain "magic"--a category filled with things that don't actually work or haven't been investigated yet. (But mostly things that don't actually work, because most of the "things that haven't been investigated yet" will be things that do work but the mechanism isn't fully understood--and hence categorized as "not magic.")

As I said, this poses a problem for fantasy--or more accurately, for a certain sort of secondary world fantasy. Because if magic works, it won't act like what we call "magic," it'll act like, you know, stuff that works--steam engines or aspirin. Even if your characters don't understand why or how it works, it will work, and it will work according to rules that investigation will be able to determine, and at some point in your fantasy culture's history it will become "technology." Because magic that works isn't magic.

It poses a problem--but not an insurmountable one. It's not an accident, I think, that so many secondary world fantasies take place in worlds where scientific investigation doesn't exist on the scale we're used to, where the fantasy culture's knowledge about the natural world is lacking in places that would reveal the "unmagicness" of magic.

Even then there's a problem--magic-users summoning power from nowhere imply a universe in which matter and energy can, in fact, be created or destroyed. But I think that's fairly rare in published work. Most writers that spring to mind at least require some sort of source or payment for such things, at least gesture at balancing that out. And in the end, of course, if it's pretty enough I don’t care much how the logic works.

But there's no way for a universe to allow "magic" and not allow "technology" or "science" or "machines."

The conversation I mentioned in the other post happened years ago on a message board full of unpublished writers. The person in question described the world as one pretty much just like our own only, for instance, our kind of airplanes or cars or --for some reason my brain is kicking up vacuum cleaners, but I can't swear that was actually part of the post, we're talking half a decade ago I read this--anyway, airplanes, cars, or vacuum cleaners powered by mechanical, technological means won't work, but magically powered cars or airplanes or vacuum cleaners would work just fine. Which, you know, not possible. Because any condition that would cause all car engines not to work would also cause the human body not to work--it could only be true in a universe so incredibly different from our present one that the rest of the premise (that humans or vehicles, let alone vacuum cleaners, might exist at all) couldn't possibly make sense.

I'm not trying to call that poster out. I don't remember their name, and I suspect the post itself has disappeared into the aether. It was at least five years ago, possibly more, and likely they've thought more about things, or given up writing. They may well have been quite young--it's impossible for me to know. Doubtless they are a kind and generous person and well-liked by their family and associates. The fact remains, the idea that a world might be pretty much like our own only "magic works instead of science" is extraordinarily foolish.

And that post, my reading it and thinking, "Wait a minute..." was the place where I first picked up Clarke's Law and turned it around, and realized that it was true backwards as well as forwards, and on further consideration realized that the implication of that was that there was no such thing as magic that worked and never could be, no matter what the rules of your alternate universe were. Which is why I free-associated it into the conversation rachel_swirsky and I were having about a secondary world fantasy with routinely available magic.

As I said, there are implications for how your characters think about what you're calling "magic." If you've got, say, a late European medieval or European renaissance sort of setting, where quite a lot of technologies are considered mundane tech and not mystical or magical, and you've got a school for wizards, where dozens of wizard candidates come to study and learn spells--you might want to reconsider whether anyone in that society considers what those wizards do to be "magic" at all.

I personally think that's something you have to consider. It's not, however, something I think you have to come to the same conclusion about as I would.

One of the things I've noticed in slush is that I have problems with submissions that appear not to have thought any of the issues through that the story raises, but instead just grabbed bits of this and that and pasted them onto this other standard plot. I'm much more likely to enjoy--and pass up to the actual editors--a story that doesn't go along with my personal ideas about plausible worlds or whatever, but that is well thought-out, carefully considered. Or in which apparent incoherence is a deliberately chosen strategy, used intelligently.

Or, you know, I'll go with it if it's gorgeous, too. But I've found that gorgeous is nearly always coupled with intelligent and carefully considered.

This is just my opinion. (I have some opinions, y'all may have noticed.) This is not a slam on secondary world fantasy--hell, I write the stuff--nor am I saying anyone should or shouldn't write any variety of fantasy they want, or that any sort of fantasy is better or worse than any other. I'm just saying, if you write this particular sort of secondary world fantasy, I personally think it's necessary to think this issue through and decide what you think about it and what you're going to do about your conclusion.

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Err -- there's no underscore in my user name.

You could have the cars, etc. not work if you had a spell in place to do it. One thing that fantasy magic is fairly reliable about that science isn't is sorting things out by intent.

Ooo. This looks interesting.

Will read when I have a child-free moment.

May I suggest applying the science called semantics?

I've forgotten the terms, but imo we need to distinguish 'systemic' meaning from 'referent.' For a simple example, if someone points and says "Hey, there's a monkey getting into your car", the referent is the animal in view. To answer, "That's not a monkey that's an ape" uses the 'systemic' meaning: how the word 'monkey' fits into a system of taxonomy.

There's an old political saying, "Treason never succeeds; for when it does succeed, none dare call it treason."

Right, but that sword cuts two ways. And it doesn't change the fact that the ape is a monkey--and I'm arguing, I think, that someone who says that monkeys are different from other apes aren't correct--in fact, they are apes. Someone saying magic is ineluctably different from science or technology is trying to say that monkeys aren't really apes, but something else, more special than that.

"If something works that contradicts your current model of the universe, then your model of the universe has to change to account for that. Anything that works, works because the structure of the universe allows or demands that it work. Nothing works over and above, or outside, the laws of the universe. 'Magic' that works isn't magic, it's just the way the world works, no more mystical than levers or inclined planes or wheels."

This doesn't seem to recognize the possibility of the miraculous or numinous, though, which is a big part of magic. Magic calls spirits from the vasty deep--but will they answer it? It depends, and it doesn't depend on a system. Miracles can't be systematized without being made unmiraculous.

Her argument never claimed to account for miracles. Miracles are neither 'sufficiently comprehensible magic" nor a repeatable phenomenon.

Yes, I think if magic works and is understood, then it is just another technology. However - going by the historical prototypes - it's different in feel from other technologies such as, e.g., steam power, so is still distinct. If you look at a rune-bearing-sword, you can tell which bit is black smithing, and which bit is magic. If that distinction isn't clear, then there's not much point in having magic in the story.

This makes a lot of sense.

What I'm getting from your post is that you want magic clarified. Magic without rules that create a "system," what I think of as technology, doesn't work for you.

Edited at 2010-03-25 11:46 pm (UTC)

Not exactly. I don't want any given writer to explain the rules to me, or take time out to demonstrate that they're logical, or whatever.

What I do want is for a writer to make her choices about how to handle their magic system in a considered way. If she builds a logically impossible universe--one where wizards pull fire or water out of nowhere at no cost to themselves, effectively creating energy or matter, defying the laws of thermodynamics, I don't need an explanation for how this is possible. But I do need something that will distract or convince me, something that will keep me reading without tumbling me out of the story.

That something could be several things--but if the writer isn't even aware that she's produced a logical impossibility that will need extra bolstering, or extra-pretty handwaving, her chances of choosing a strategy that will work for me are much reduced.

If she does know where the holes are, she has a much better chance of knowing just where to hang that length of silk brocade so it will cover the holes and really pull the room together. So I counsel awareness of the holes.

And there are all sorts of ways to present magic that don't require subjecting it to logic--one could, for instance, avoid the whole "realistic" secondary world fantasy setup and go with surreality, or imagistic or poetic logic instead of a plot and characters that worked by a logical progression of events. Such a story does not require a magic system, and would not run afoul of Clarke's Law, IMO.


I like your version much better than Clarke's, but some sufficiently comprehensible magic is probably just stuff, not even technology. Like, if (like many people used to believe) statues sometimes wander around, without any gears or what have you, just cause they were bored -- well, that's not technology exactly, it's just a thing.

Suppose you want to deal with the wandering statues, like keeping them from trampling the flowerbeds.

If you do it with iron fences and chaining the statues in place, or cutting off their feet or something -- that's technology.

If you do it by treating them like people, by creating beauty to attract them elsewhere -- that's magic.

*brain explodes*

Thank you so much for this seductively addictive brain-worm. I haven't yet figured out my own thoughts on this because they keep overflowing the designated container in explosions of complexity. *This* is what the phrase 'shut up, I'm thinking' was designed for.

*grumble* damn slippery evasive chameleonic strands of mental ambiguity ... *mumble*

I haven't read all the comments, but this strikes me as a discussion of the "Day Magic vs. Night Magic" dichotomy. (This is something I hadn't thought too much about until Stan Robinson sketched it out for us last summer, although I realized later that I'd been unconsciously following its precepts.)

Magic that follows logical rules, "Day Magic", indeed can often be reduced to a form of technology (although not science, since science implies a particular method of acquring knowledge that is of comparatively recent vintage, at least in its rigorous form). Heinlein had a lot of fun with this in Glory Road, in which the accomplished witch turns out to be simply an especially gifted mathemetician; de Camp did something similar in the Incompleat Enchanter tales, in which living in a magical world (i.e., the world of the Norse myths) was simply a matter of altering your assumptions about the fundamental logic of the world.

In such stories, one need not go so far as to say that the human body would not work -- one simply has to assume that it works for different reasons, reasons that coincide with the magical logic of the underlying world. True, this would not bear close (i.e., microscopic) examination, but that hardly seems an obstacle unless one's protagonist is prone to such investigations, i.e., in Garrett's Lord Darcy stories.

In my own writing, I find that my own technocratic and scientific tendencies lead me to highly rigid, diagnostic attitudes toward magic in worlds that have such "Day Magic." That can be fun, but it means that the magic is simply SF without the S. ...Basically I want a story to operate by a certain set of rules which, inconveniently, are forbidden by either the structure of the cerebral cortex or the Pauli Exclusion Principle or some other pesky discovery. So I invent my own rules to make the story happen. In order to avoid the apperance of "hand-waving", I put a lot of work into the internal consistency of the logic of the magical world, but only enough to avoid making a fool of myself.

But "Night Magic," stories in which the uncanny (miraculous?) happens, need not follow any such logic. The whole point of such stories is to highlight the inexplicable, the wonder and terror of a world no one truly understands. Here lies slipstream, as well as much urban fantasy. It is not internally consistent, and it doesn't care. (My own story "The Never Fair" probably fits into this category. I'm not sure about "Lineage.")

I love magic with a 'right-brained' sort of structure. Like a non-musician hearing classical music, I can feel a structure and pattern shaping up, without being able to analyse it.

Then when just enough, a suggestive amount, of analysis and naming is given (as in SILVERLOCK), all the better!

Istr some Niven having this quality, in THE FLYING SORCERERS and DREAM PARK.

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