Discussing magic in fantasy fiction

If any sufficiently advanced technology, as the quote goes, is indistinguishable from magic, then it is also possible that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from a religion.
-Alma Alexander from a Book View Café blog post On Magic on August 5, 2016

Any fantasy that is sufficiently internally consistent is indistinguishable from science fiction.
-Jennifer Stevenson

Alma’s post was about magic and religion. This post is about magic, science, and technology.

The path via which magic evolved into technology is well-documented by historians. Frances Yates, Mary Carruthers, Ioan P. Couliano, and Evelyn Fox Keller, for example, all give interesting accounts of the centuries-long process by which magic became demonized, and magicians invented a new way of thinking about how the world worked that wouldn’t get them burnt at the stake.

The fear of fire led the new scientists into a frantic differentiation between their practice and the old magical practices. Scientists are still phobic about being associated with all those old magicians’ flammable terms, values, and even their findings. Science fiction has developed a parallel phobia of all things magical. In order to distinguish itself from fantasy, SF has defined and redefined magic, which strikes me as being like a raindrop trying to define water in such a way as to divorce itself from the ocean.

Hence Clarke’s Third Law, which Alma quoted:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Esther Inglis-Arkell at i09 wrote in 2013 in a blog post called Technlogy isn’t magic: why Clarke’s Third Law always bugged me:
“…unlike technology, we aren’t ever supposed to be able to do it. And, intuitively, we understand that. This tracks with what, traditionally, we read about magic. In science fiction, anyone can fly a space ship or upload their brain to the internet. Sure, people have different aptitudes, but it’s all possible. Technology is egalitarian. In fantasy, magic is largely an aristocracy. …even Rowling sees magic as something largely inborn. You either have it or you don’t.”

Inglis-Arkell concludes:
“When it comes to technology versus magic, the point isn’t the advanced state of the technology, the point is the exclusivity of the trick.”

Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Agatha Heterodyne says, a sufficiently analysed magic is indistinguishable from science. Which argues that scientists’ phobia is all that stands in the way of their understanding of magic, which then erases the word magic.

Evelyn Fox Keller, in her article on Roger Bacon’s invention of science, suggests why magic still retains its fire-phobia powers. The talking points used by Roger Bacon and his fellow proto-scientists, when trying to avert the torches, were (condensed and rephrased in American):

  • “We’re unemotional.”
  • “We don’t love nature. We exploit her.”
  • “God gave us nature, so back off, man, we’re scientists,” which can be interpreted as “We are the top of the food chain so you can’t argue with us” or, a later and popular interpretation, “Our technology can destroy you, so we’re in charge.”

There is not one word about the scientific method in these talking points. But that’s a very common pattern seen in science: the moment of inspiration is followed by months and years of toil to produce a rational (sounding) explanation for why the inspiration works. Often the explanation falls apart upon scrutiny, even while the inspiration still stands, maddeningly, patently correct.

A long time ago at a convention far away, I was pilloried for saying that magic in current fantasy novels was way too much like technology; that it didn’t resemble real magic at all. Everyone else insisted that magic in fantasy was “acceptable” only if it was “sufficiently internally consistent.” They burnt me at the stake as a woo-woo merchant for mentioning “real magic,” an expression which apparently set off their torch phobia, and ignored my pointing to the millennia of real, historical magicians on whose work science was based.

When I wrote Trash Sex Magic, I was doing, as a lot of first novelists are doing, a lot of things all at once. Most readers noticed the sex. Some found it funny. A very few noticed the class issues raised. No one connected the dots between the kind of magic being done and the class stuff. Since then I’ve published fourteen more novels illustrating where I think magic and internal consistency and technology connect, and where they don’t.

In Trash Sex Magic, a family of trailer trash sex magicians live near a tree that used to be a man and is now a god. Then the tree is cut down, sex miracles spray all over the landscape, and a new man must immediately be found to take his place. It becomes apparent that sex in sufficiently intense quantities is magic, but it doesn’t always “act sexy.” My premise was that sex itself is so transcendent that we instinctively seek to reduce it to something lesser, something definable and controllable, in other words, less magical. My second premise was that many people can and do work magic all the time. My third premise was that the people who are best at such magic don’t have much clue how they’re doing it, having no vocabulary or training, and sometimes considerable shame about their powers. They make messes, but no worse than the messes people make using other methods. This is animistic magic.

In Hinky Chicago, five soon-to-be-six novels about an alternate contemporary world overrun with random irruptions of magic in large population centers, my protagonists discover that the spread of magic is caused by individual curses placed on various people by a single sorceress, herself cursed. Then they think it’s coming from the work of a magician, himself cursed by that sorceress, who has been trying to undo her curse on him by giving away his own magic. Every curse is calculated according to Jeeves’s “psychology of the individual” so that the victim’s deepest desires and their ruling character flaw work together to get them to curse themselves. This is ceremonial magic, which is ninety percent psychology and ninety percent meticulous scholarship. (Ceremonial magicians always overthink.)

In Slacker Demons, four novels about a bunch of retired gods now working for the Christian hell as sex demons in an increasingly magical Chicago, we learn that the pigeons from Hinky Chicago acquired a taste for smoking cigarettes when some of them flew through a magical flame generated when two love gods kissed. In general, anyone who has sex repeatedly with one of these incubi is liable to develop demonic powers, themselves. This is contagious magic, a form of magic older than medicine and possibly older than fire.

Coed Demon Sluts is a series of five novels about women with ordinary problems try to solve these problems by becoming succubi. The ladies find that, while their bodies were engineered by demons with the intention of making them infinitely adaptable to (men’s) desires, and endowed with powers aimed at working on those desires, there’s a lot more they can do with those bodies if their imagination is up to it. This argues that magic works like gleepsite, a term invented at MIT to represent a substance that can do anything you want it to, and illustrated by Joanna Russ in her story “Gleepsite” from her collection The Zanzibar Cat. In other words, this magic fulfills wishes without hinting at any explanation at all for how it fulfills them. This is magic as defined by the torch-flourishing portion of science fiction thinkers, i.e., irrational magic.

To me, these varied representations of “what magic is” in these fantasies are the same. They are invented forms or matrices applied to our world in an attempt to make sense of it. (Such could be a definition of “story” as well.) Each form works better for one person than for another. That is all.

Back to technology, science, and magic: I don’t see a conflict between magic and science. I see a continuity of historical ideas punctuated by socio-political violence. Once, thinkers called themselves magicians who claimed to practice scientia and ars magica interchangeably. Modern technology is a practice often so divorced from science that those practicing it are unaware of the science that (sometimes) gave birth to their technology…and also, they are unaware of the magic that preceded that science. (For a comical example of how muddled one’s thinking can become about the difference between science and technology, see Neal Stephenson’s nam shub for baking bread in Snow Crash.) When one considers that historical magic gave birth to science, one must conclude that many technological applications predate science.




Discussing magic in fantasy fiction — 10 Comments

  1. Fascinating insights into your own books, Jen.

    I’ve seen so many different magic systems in my reading that I can both nod and shake my head at your observations.

  2. The first thing I thought of was how writer Warren Norwood loved to toss a firebomb into any discussion about fantasy versus science fiction by saying “Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Nine Billion Names of God.'” Then he’d sit back and watch the audience explode.

    Do younger readers even know that story, and can it still have power for them, since that much computing power might be sitting in their laptop?

  3. But there’s different KINDS of magic. People have been arguing somewhere recently about the differences between “mage”, “Wizard” and “Sorcerer” – and even that was fraught because it quickly went off the rails because people posited that there was a kind of magic that is “inborn” and a kind of magic that was more “book learned” but couldn’t agree on which was which (there was a school of thought that had wizards as the instinctive inborn group and sorcerers as the book-learned one and there was a school of thought that reversed that and they couldn’t come to terms…) There’s the true wild magic which literally does what it pleases – but there’s also a question which I always ask when writing about this stuff and that is, what is the price that is being paid. ANd there is ALWAYS a price. Which means there is a value system. Which means there is a system 🙂 And if so then that system has to be “internally consistent”.

    By definition this is not something we do “from experience” (I don’t see many muggles waving wands and really expecting things to happen when they do so) and so the only corrals around the thing have to come from our own inner constraints and boundaries as experienced second hand at a remove as it were – a culitvated sense of what magic OUGHT to be. There’s an interesting thread of that in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar books – there is magic which comes as a result of ritual, and there is the wild magic which basically just happens to be a gift and a birthright and a destiny. Have you read those books? I’d be interested to know what you thought about the magic users in them…

    • Alma, I remain firmly convinced that a major difference between fantasy and SF is, what is the metaphor for power? Who wants it, who fears it, what do you do to get it–or avoid it? What is the price, and is it the same for all, and so on.

      A lot of people think that’s bunk, but it works for me.

  4. Another great one might be ROOTED, by Naomi Novik. Two quite different systems of magic going on there, nearly mutually incomprehensible to the practitioners. (Who, of course then have to have sex…)

  5. See, I think of “magic” as being an artificial term that our cultural discourse uses to fence off a section of the unknown universe. During the Reformation, when churches warred against each other and squished thinkers between their armies and between their ideologies, the fence was there to protect the thinkers’ lives. Before that long, long war, thinkers called themselves “scientists” and “magicians” interchangeably.

    If, viewing it this way, some part of “magic” is “inborn” and some is “learned,” then is magic a form of technology or practice, or a form of study? If it’s a technology or practice, then it may merely not be documented–just something you do because it works, or because it makes sense, or maybe because you were taught by someone who doesn’t have a pointy hat (grandma, village shaman, other small boys). If it’s a form of study, it is always documented.

    Agree about the price. But I’m choking on “value” system. That doesn’t follow for me. System could refer to a system of beliefs about how the world works, in which case the price is the same price you pay for jumping off the barn roof, without the same amount of “values,” i.e. none. Only if system refers to a system of ethical or religious beliefs do “values” enter into it. And as we know, in the real world, moral frame of reference has never stopped a determined person from using technology or practice or even study when they wanted to. I.e., morals don’t enter into the price paid for using them. It’s generally people with laws, or just with pitchforks, stopping them and exacting the price.

    “Internally consistent” is the thing that’s making a mess of this picture, IMO. That phrase is a value judgment of its own. One man’s internal consistency is another’s illogical chaos. It all depends on one’s education and training. My audience at that long-ago panel had zero scholarship in the history of magic as actually practiced and studied by people who took magic seriously in earlier centuries. So they flipped out at the phrase “real magic.”

    • The last twenty years have taught me that magic as the ancients looked at it may be a true force–something not understood but real for some people. And what those forces may be vary wildly. And are either disbelieved or misunderstood by those who don’t have the abilities/understanding/gifts.

      A huge surprise for me was understanding that the men who attempted “ritual” magic pretty much wanted what every privileged male has ever wanted–power over others, wealth, and somebody else’s woman or women.

  6. Catching up.

    I haven’t read Kay or Novik. But here is Evelyn Fox Keller, from her introduction to her book of essays, Reflections on Gender and Science:

    “An objectivist ideology, prematurely proclaiming anonymity, disinterest, and impersonality and radically excluding the subject, imposes a veil over [those social and linguistic practices that help determine, within the scientific community, the priority of interests and the criteria of success], a veil not so much of secrecy as of tautology. Apparent self-evidence renders them invisible and hence inaccessible to criticism. The effort toward universality closes in on itself, and parochiality is protected. In this way the ideology of scientific objectivity belies its own aims, subverting both the meaning and the potential of objective inquiry.”

    Crudely translated, that means, One’s unexamined assumptions will bite one in the ass, even if one thinks one is a scientist and above such error.