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New Worlds Theory Post: The Personal Touch

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We’ve probably all heard the famous Arthur C. Clarke adage: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I say, nonsense.

I mean, I do understand the point he was making. If you don’t understand how a thing works, it might as well be magic, for all you can control it. But some years ago — I think as a result of something Ted Chiang said about alchemy on a convention panel — I realized that there’s something common to many of our ideas about magic, which distinctly separates it from science and technology:

Who is doing the magic matters.

There’s a personal element involved. Science is supposed to be replicable by anybody who follows the same steps under the same conditions; magic, on the other hand, might not be. And there are a number of ways that personal element might come into play.

One of the most common approaches says that magic is in some fashion inborn. That subdivides into two strands, one which has it inherited through certain family lines, and one which says it can crop up anywhere without warning; they share the notion that you either have it or you don’t. And possibly you have it in either greater or lesser degree: you may still need training to reach your full potential, but the limits of that potential were set from the start.

What gets to me is how few authors think about the implications of this. Especially when the magic is pluripotent, i.e. capable of many different effects, I suspect the most plausible outcomes of inherited magic potential are that you wind up with either an aristocracy or a slave population. Real-world aristocracies claimed inherent superiority even without magical gifts to back them up; surely that would be even more likely with abilities the rest of the populace doesn’t have. Unless, of course, there are easy ways to control such people — at which point there is significant power in forcing them to work on your behalf. I’m not saying you can’t design your world to avoid those outcomes; I’m only saying that I’ve lost count of the stories I’ve read which don’t bother to try. In their worlds, magic is powerful and can be bred for, and yet it occupies the same social role as any mundane trade.

Or if it’s not inherited, but it’s still inborn . . . do you remember the advice for mothers to listen to Mozart while they were pregnant in order to make their children smarter? It didn’t work — but good luck convincing me that people wouldn’t take all kinds of absurd measures in the hopes of imbuing their future kid with magical ability. Maybe you wouldn’t risk it in a universe like that of the X-Men, where the power your kid develops might be useless or dangerous and there’s widespread prejudice against mutation. But with other forms of magic, why not? Depending on what you want for your story, maybe there really is a way to encourage it to happen. Even if no such way exists, though, people will still try. They’ll pray and make offerings, buy expensive pills, eat certain foods, have sex in certain ways — all the things people have done and still do in the belief that it will help ensure their next child is a girl or a boy. If we’re willing to do that for gender, we’ll certainly do it for magic.

Innate magic isn’t the only route to a personal element, though. Sometimes magic has to be learned through long, arduous years of study. Is that different from the long, arduous years of study undertaken by (say) doctors? I think so, given how it’s often represented in fiction. It isn’t merely that you have to learn the names of demons and their associated symbols or memorize long spells in a foreign language: even if I recite the spell with perfect pronunciation, it might still not work, because there’s a difference between knowing the spell and mastering it. The latter has an internal element, some focusing of will, without which the spell is reduced to mere syllables.

Or in a different setting, the study is merely the thing that prepares you to pass an initiation, and the latter is the part that really matters. A doctor who learns all the things they should but never earns their M.D. still has functional skills, even if they might get in trouble with the law for using them unlicensed. But a mage who ditches their academy after passing only two of three initiatory rites might not be able to use the most powerful level of magic, even if they know how it goes. This approach also opens up the possibility that initiation can be revoked, thereby stripping someone of their power.

Alternatively, that state of readiness could be ephemeral rather than one-and-done. This is particularly suited, I think, to magic that calls on external forces, who might demand certain preparatory steps before they’ll respond. Maybe you need to purify yourself first, because the gods won’t listen to anyone who’s defiled. Maybe it’s a focusing ritual, bringing yourself into attunement with the cosmos, and anybody who attempts the same effect without that attunement will accomplish nothing. Or you’ve got to be high as a kite on a special drug. There are many possibilities, and each brings a different flavor. Even variables like “you need blood, but it matters whether you’re using your own blood, that of an animal, or that of another human taken against their will” can make a difference.

The ultimate effect of this is, in a sense, that magic — unlike scientific processes — cannot be outsourced to machines. Which is a strong statement, I know, and there’s wiggle room in it: maybe the personal element is involved in making the machines, and once that’s done, you have something anybody can use. But the more you divorce the action from the actor, the less magical it will feel.

To me, anyway. I’m not claiming there aren’t books which feature magic of a highly non-personal sort, even of a mechanized sort. But that’s not my preferred cup of tea, and I started this particular spate of theory essays by pushing back against the current dominance of the rules-bound, science-like approach in favor of something that has the potential to be more numinous. Because after a while . . . any sufficiently mechanized magic is indistinguishable from technology.

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7 thoughts on “New Worlds Theory Post: The Personal Touch”

  1. Aren’t magical charms and magical weapons a form of simple machines, or at least tools?
    Those charms that are good for 1 use, then need to be recharged by a magician or you need to buy a new one may be seen as an extension of the human mage’s power, extruded into a tradeable object, so not an ‘independently magical’ tool.
    If the spell works as long as the maker lives, that means it is still connected to or siphoning off the magic running it from the maker, so not an independently magical tool/machine.
    The same goes for magical weapons that require their wielder to hold some kind of special/magical power in and of themselves before they can wield it: the power in the weapon then is an extension of the wielder’s power.

    But there are plenty of stories where magiced charms, weapons, spells and objects keep working indefenitely (or until something happens to de-magic them) after having been made, and can be used by any non-magical person as well. At that point they are no longer personal or individualised forms of magic, as you mentioned, and I think that comes pretty close to the ‘mechanised’ or magic machines. It’s true that things like Sherwood Smith’s cleaning frames, the ubiquitous light stones or heat stones feel a lot more mechanical than magical: just a replacement for some of the modern technological comforts that the fictional society couldn’t have.
    But all the more quirky magical charms and objects tend to still be quite magical, at least to me.

    1. Hrm . . . my instinct is to say I feel a difference between a magical artifact and a machine, but I need to spend some time thinking about whether that difference holds up to examination! It’s entirely possible that it doesn’t.

  2. [ “… after a while . . . any sufficiently mechanized magic is indistinguishable from technology.” ]

    This was very much in mind while watching the APrime first season adaptation of Bill Gibson’s The Peripheral. The “jackpotted”, mostly depopulated, ruined reality ‘verse into which our South Carolina protagonists get transported via meta ‘game’ headsets is mostly cyber to begin with; when invoking more cyber, communication, alteration commands, it’s done with complicated hand gestures that one must know, or be shown-instructed as to how it is done. The more powerful the “coder” the more complex and powerful the lines of command are. This resembled more than a little the strange gestures making magic and spells and alternate world traveling done in the adaptation Netflix series of The Magicians.

    In fact just about the only ‘magic’ in fantasy that feels like magic and technology I ever experienced was in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, where the author never went into the hows and whys and wherefores of it, even to how Gandalf expels Sauruman from the order of wizards, by breaking his staff, and thus reducing his magical powers to nearly nothing.

    But mostly fantasy genre’s magic of the last 30 years doesn’t feel magical, as the emphasis is literally on the nuts and bolts of the system and how to learn the system, and / if the results are no different from what technology does and is used for.

    It particularly doesn’t feel magical when it invokes one of the first principles of science and technology: for every action there is a reaction, as in the books mentioned above, when all that magically removed horse shit is discovered to have gone somewhere with less than, shall we say, enchanting results (particularly in a non-tech world in which manure is essential fertilizer — one would deliberately want it to go Somewhere in Particular). This is not to say having every magical action having a reaction is ‘doing it wrong’, but it does not come through as magic — unless this becomes a, if not the theme of the narrative, which has been done so often in sf narratives — the consequence of technology upon the environment and universe. So, in the end, again, magic and tech seem the same.

    The most effective magical workings I’ve read in the last 30 years seem to involve healing powers. I have on occasion had the incredible benefit of being treated by someone whom I’d swear really does have “healing hands,” which has likely had an effect on my reading of that kind of magic.

    1. There are so many authors I’ve seen talk proudly about e.g. how their magic system pays attention to conservation of mass or whatever, and I just . . . don’t get why that’s a thing to brag about? I mean, insofar as the author may have come up with a clever explanation, sure, I guess. But the attitude in those cases seems to be that the best magic systems figure out how to work within conventional physics and so forth, and that is so not what I read about magic for.

  3. In pre-Enlightenment alchemy, “who did it” mattered, too. More to the point, “who trained the prospective alchemist” mattered to producing results, because unlike “modern science” there were no laboratory manuals, or truly regularized meaning of a lot of specialized terms. Instead, very much in a master/apprentice relationship, the apprentice had to be trained up to the point of doing anything (which could prove rather flammable when the master had been dead a couple centuries and the apprentice was working from a second-order translated tome). There are similar problems even today in other branches of the sciences, such as fingerprint lifting from delicate surfaces — in this instance, the “who” is admittedly “lab and field technique of a specific individual” as much as abstract questions of identity, but “unique skill” and “unique identity” get awfully hard to truly distinguish at times.

  4. An aristocracy of mages would be very different because its power is no longer social.
    As long as the king’s power is his ability to command soldiers, he can order the crown prince thrown in prison, bar some long undermining by the prince. When it’s the ability to throw fireballs, the crown prince can throw them as well.

  5. Robin McKinley has pretty numinous magic, probably because, like Tolkien, even her magical POV characters don’t know what they’re doing.

    Magic aristocracies: Darkover’s Comyn. (I don’t know what they did with commoners with laran.) McKinley’s Damar: the royals have a bit of kelar, the Gift; mages have a lot, and seem to be reclusive demi-gods because they can’t shut out your noisy thoughts. Parts of the Deryni world. Stasheff’s Gramarye, maybe? The Black Company world — not a hereditary aristocracy because wizards at that level are immortal. Saberhagen’s Empire of the East (ditto). Exalted RPG, with a mix of both hereditary and random magic rulers.

    Explicit attempts to avoid magic aristocracy: Discworld wizards and witches (in different ways.) Galactic Unity in the Pliocene Saga (those psychic powers are basically magic.)

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