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.