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The Magic of Science of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” thereby wedging open the door between two things that are often viewed as being diametrically opposed: magic and science.

Trying to define science in the modern sense of the word would probably provoke a lot of hair-splitting arguments, but any reasonable definition would have to involve a description of the scientific method, which Websters defines as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.” Magic, on the other hand, is defined as “the use of means believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.” In reductive terms, science attempts to understand the natural world while magic operates outside of it—even above it, as the prefix super- suggests.

My interest here isn’t really in semantics or even the scientific method, so much as the way the two are presented in two genres of speculative fiction: science fiction and fantasy.

Superficially, the two genres seem to be at odds. The former traffics in spaceships and rayguns, the latter in dragons and magic wands. But even on a deeper level, there is a fundamental difference: while both present events and processes that might seem impossible or unexplainable, sci fi works from the premise that such things will be possible and explainable in the future, while fantasy tends to ignore the whole question by labeling the extraordinary as supernatural: magic.

I know, this is simplistic, so lets dive in a little deeper by looking at some examples:

One)  The Enterprise is about to blow up. Never mind how or why or which Enterprise. Maybe it’s a subspace inversion or an innerspace subversion or a race of telepathic protozoa, but either way, they need a fix and fast.  Cue the Science Officer or Engineer: “Captain, if we depolarize the ophion emitter and detonate a platonic charge in the region of 25 thousand gigahertz, it might create a plasma shock. The resulting discontinuity would only a last a few seconds, but it might give us time to warp the hell out of here. It’s so crazy, it just might work.” (Spoiler alert: It works.)

Two)  Harry, Ron and Hermione are in transfiguration class. “Bloody hell!” Ron exclaims, slashing the air in an ungainly fashion. “This stupid spell doesn’t work. Portipot Vertigo! Portipot Vertigo!” A column of blue smoke rises from the thoroughly untransfigured toad, which croaks dismally. “Ron, you insufferable pillock,” Hermione huffs. “First off, it’s Proteo Fortissimo. And don’t swing your wand so. You aren’t beating a rug.”

Okay. I admit I’ve just made fun of two venerable franchises that I’ve always enjoyed (it was done with love, people!). But let’s examine each. In the first, we have what seems to be a science-based solution to a science-based problem. Scientific investigation gives us the parameters of the problem, and our advanced technology provides the means for solving it. But it isn’t real. I mean, some of the words might be real, and maybe the tech has at least SOME connection to real technology  (or at least the concept behind it)  but it’s only the trappings of science. The context—spaceship, computers, beams and rays, big numbers—gives the impression that this is science in action, but the mechanism itself is every bit as opaque as a magic spell. It works because it works. It might as well be magic.

In the second, we have the same thing in reverse. The spell they’re trying to learn involves saying particular words and making particular gestures. If you do it right, it works. Presumably, if you do it the same way each time, the results will be consistent and repeatable, which sounds suspiciously like science. The mechanism for how it works remains unknown, but as long as you know the recipe, you can make the dish.

Now before anyone thinks I’m bashing Harry Potter, I am not. I admire Rowling’s series a lot, and though I have occasional issues with her writing, the story is fantastic. I use it here only because it is surely the best known series of its type, and because it does typify some of the challenges faced by the average writer of magical fantasy.

Rowling does play with the notion that there are deeper, more arcane magics in the world. The protection that Harry experiences in the Dursley’s house, for example, is less the result of a spell and more the product of Lily’s self-sacrifice. (These deeper magics, it should be noted—the magic of family, of love, of loyalty—could be just as applicable in a story that didn’t involve any fantasy magic at all.)

But for the most part, these are not the kind of day-today magics that occupy the story. Mostly we see very specific spells with specific names and formulas for operation and we rarely get into theory. In fact, the actual learning of magic looks pretty rote most of the time. In the Deathly Hallows Harry casts the imperious curse without any difficulty at all, even though we know he has never performed it before. We’re told it’s a high level spell (as well as an illegal one) yet use seems to be as simple as pointing your wand and saying imperio. There are similar issues with the patronus charm, which, we are told, is very advanced, yet Harry has no trouble teaching the callow kids in Dumbledore’s Army to use it. Again, it seems pretty simple. Get in the right mind set, then say the words. No problem.

I don’t want to dump on Harry Potter too much. It really is a great story, and the ambiguity about magic that JK Rowling (eventually) develops and sustains for its duration is both intriguing and enjoyable. But I think it highlights a problem that writers of science fiction and writers of fantasy must face (in different ways). Sci fi can’t explain the science because—even if it is genuine—most readers would find it incomprehensible or boring. Fantasy can’t explain the magic because there is no explanation. That’s why we often end up with science that might as well be magic, and magic that is as mundane as science.

It’s interesting to consider how some of Rowling’s predecessors tried to account for the mechanism of magic. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings features surprisingly little magic, at least in the sense of spells and incantations. Certain objects have magical properties, obvously, but the powers are often vague. The one ring allows domination of all of the other rings, but aside from invisibility, it conveys no other definable powers. Neither does Gandalf wield much in the way of curses or conjuring. He stands off the balrog by literally standing in the way and forbidding it passage. He starts a magical fire at one point, but even there, he mostly seems to be calling fire forth by force of will and knowledge of the elvish language. It is not, in the way we normally think of them, and incantation.

Possibly, Tolkien’s use of magic is closer to Ursula Leguin’s in A Wizard of Earthsea. Earthsea wizards attend an academy (of sorts) and learn spells, but underlying all of the magic is the knowledge of the names of things. Knowing the true name of anything gives you power over it.

My own relationship with and presentation of magic has varied from book to book. In Flight of the Wren, the magic was in the magic carpets themselves. and a rider’s proficiency with various related spells mostly depended on how well they connected with their nearly sentient carpets. In Whisper Blue, the manifestation of Wysteria is given a plausible science fiction style explanation, but that is as much a quirk of the character of Miles Faber as anything else. Miles needs an explanation for the unsettling events of the story, but there’s no textual reason to assume that he actually got it right (or wrong, for that matter.) In Spark, the nature of the eponymous fleck of light remains conjectural right up until the end (though I plump for the shard-of-divine-entity explanation.) Does it matter? Only, I suppose, to the rare reader who cares to read beyond the surface events of the story. Hopefully the mystery is at least a little intriguing, a small source of wonderment. I’m not sure we can, or should, hope for more than that.

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24 thoughts on “The Magic of Science of Magic

  1. GD Deckard says:

    A wonder-full look at the science fiction and fantasy genres, Atthys!

    To me, hard sci-fi adds fiction to what we know to be true. (And yes, we can know: what’s true is what happens.) Fantasy is imagination unbound by reality. Cast a death spell in real life and nothing happens. But shoot the victim with a gun and something happens.

    Both are terrific genres. I love the awe of sci-fi and the wonders of fantasy. Both offer us worlds beyond our own that may become true. Remember movie scenes where the witch sees events happening far away in her scrying bowl? That was just a fantasy centuries before we invented video cams.

    Liked by 3 people

    • atthysgage says:

      That’s a good way of looking at it. Personally, I don’t worry too much about explainations. I think the best fiction leaves some ends untied (even mystery. As Raymond Chandler famously said, a good mystery novel would be one people would read even if the last page was missing.) It’s funny looking at Harry Potter 20 years later. Technology is already catching up. It was an appealing and whimsical idea that photographs would move. Now we all have machines in our pockets that can take moving pictures, and it’s nothing.

      For the most part, high fantasy with wizards and dragons is not a big favorite of mine. (though it was clever of Rowling—and Diane Duane before her—to nest the magical world inside our own modern day world.) I tend to prefer my magic obscure and untraditional. But it’s harder to sell. Readers tend to be suspicious of stuff they haven’t seen before. To be honest, I always thought Flight of the Wren might have some breakthrough appeal because everybody knows about flying carpets. It hasn’t worked out that way.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    I have nothing to say about magic. I have no magic in my book.

    I explain in great detail how Sly taught himself to talk, and to read and write. He had gifts, a good brain and a talented tongue, a gift for mimicry, and a great desire to push himself to his limits. Simple as that.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Mr. Atthys,

    I whole heartily enjoyed your explanation of how magic and science are the same but different. I have always thought about it in terms of physics. If the theory of physics can be applied then it is science. If it goes contrary to a theory of physics then it is magic.

    But in writing, I really don’t care if the author uses science or magic to reach the conclusion because I consider all that back story. I care greatly if the author uses that science or magic to take the easy way out and cheat the story/ending. I always tolerated when Star Trek did it like the example you explored but I shouldn’t have because I should expect more even though the Enterprise is a cool looking ship. I never have felt any desire to read Harry Potter (not my thing) but I would be very critical if Mrs. Rowling ended a book just because of PFM (Pure…Magic).

    Give me a great story, weave in as much or little science/magic as you like and then have the characters find their way into and out of the plot using their wits, brains and physical powers and not by authors trickery.

    rob

    Liked by 4 people

    • atthysgage says:

      That’s nicely said Rob. Personally, I give Rowling credit. She didn’t too often use magic as a copout, at least when it mattered. There are likely dozens of plot holes that can only be reconciled by…er, it’s magic. (Like where do animagi keep put their wands while they are transformed, hm?) But you have to excuse some plot holes I think, espeicially in such a massive work. (LOTR certainly has them too.) Her bigger story is actually well conceived, and there are a lot of good characters, so I gvie her a pass. (I’m sure she was pretty worried about my final verdict.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Like I said, I have never read anything she has written so I not making any judgements on her. If I have to say anything about her, it is this. She is doing something right because she has a couple of extra nickles, everyone knows her name and very few people could pick her out of a line-up. All in all, she has earned everything.

        By the way, I just spoke to her on the phone. She is very worried about what you were going to say about her. She is very relieved to know that you get it.

        Liked by 3 people

    • mimispeike says:

      In the original version of my Ferd episode, my frog was an enchanted prince. I was not happy with that, but wasn’t sure what to do about it. It finally came to me. My fatuous froggie is a mentally unbalanced frog. He only thinks he’s an enchanted prince. Much, much funnier, and more in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the story.

      There may be a way around magic. (And it may be much better than magic.) You just have to think on it a while.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Good topic, Atthys!

    To me the distinction to be made between magic and science is this: magic allows for anything to happen within a story; science sets limits. I would hasten to add though: the wise writer who wishes to sustain narrative tension in their text must communicate to the reader some idea of the limitations of magic in their world, else—the protagonist falls into a hole and—Abracadabra!—jumps right out again.

    Half the fun of inventing a system of magic is deciding the how, what, where, when and why of its functioning in a particular world. (True, in most swords-&-sorcery the magic goes unexplained and ill-defined, albeit luridly described. It seems to permeate the text for purposes of color and atmosphere. You can get away with that in this sub-genre of fantasy. All rules and admonitions were made to be broken, eh?)

    I’ve always thought it would be interesting to posit a school/system of magic that drained the user of his or her life force over time: the more powerful the spell, the more years crossed off their life. A truly elderly wizard in this world would be a rare creature indeed! Either someone who almost never used the magic they knew–or claimed to know– (:::cough-cough::: Gandalf!) and/or blessed with a combination of natural occult ability and good genetics. Or mayhap a system of magic that wipes a bit of your memory with every use, so that wizards gradually lose their humanity as they cast spells and wield occult artifacts, growing over time into those cold, aloof, humorless yet terrible and terrifying masters of the mystic arts that populate many an old fairy tale or modern fantasy novel. . . .

    Liked by 4 people

  5. victoracquista says:

    Excellent post. Makes me think of this article about the new Star Trek series that was posted on a sci-fi FB group I participate in. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2017/10/30/new-star-trek-series-makes-massive-science-blunder/#9a9dead1b377
    I object when putative science fiction completely ignores the boundaries of plausibility. As this article demonstrates:

    “The idea of using horizontally transferred DNA for space travel is so nutty, so bad, that it’s not even wrong. Even if tardigrades could absorb foreign DNA (they can’t), how the heck is this supposed to give them the ability to tap into the (wildly implausible) intergalactic spore network? DNA that’s been taken up through HGT isn’t connected to the source any longer. This is no more plausible than asserting that people could connect to the mushroom network by eating a plate of mushrooms. And how would the space-traveling tardigrade take the entire ship with it? Are we supposed to assume it’s creating some kind of mushroom-DNA field?

    Star Trek has had faster-than-light warp drives for 50 years. Although physically implausible, warp drive isn’t laughably ridiculous. The DASH drive is.

    And now the entire series seems to be based on a combination of magic (an intergalactic mushroom network in subspace) and scientific errors (horizontal gene transfer by tardigrades).

    I can’t watch this nonsense. I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story (warp drive!), but I can’t accept obviously bogus claims.”

    I am left feeling the same way. This is magic masquerading as SF and represents a violation of acceptability for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    Magic? I’m hoping for some marketing magic. I have a dozen ideas for attracting readers on my side hustle site. Will they get me thrown off? No one else is doing what I just did. Is it frowned on? If I get a warning, I’ll mend my wicked ways. Until then, I’ll continue to nurture connectivity, in an amusing way. No stone unturned, people.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello all, looking for a way to work myself back from self-imposed exile, and this topic seemed the perfect means.
    Science fiction versus magic? Unless the sci-fi story is absolutely based upon some scientific principle, the question is just semantics.
    An example of a true SCIENCE fiction story (better known as Hard Science Fiction) would be The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin (1954) originally a sort story, later an episode on the Twilight Zone . In it a pilot taking emergency supplies to a colony on another planet discovers a stowaway on his ship. It’s a young woman who has a very sympathetic story and deserves help, but no matter how hard the pilot tries he can’t figure a way to allow her to stay on board. Her extra weight will cause the ship to expend more fuel with the result they will never make it to their destination (hence, the title). Sadly (especially for her) he must “space” her (i.e., toss her out the airlock) if he is to survive and complete his mission.
    On the other hand, most sci-fi uses the science as props and stage design while the plot concerns adventure, or some examination of the human condition. My book Agony of the Gods is like that. So no, I don’t know how a super computer can create a world for any person who wants one (Mimi might remember we went around and around about this on either BookCountry or Bookkus.), but my interest lies in how people react to such a situation. An example I’ve used in the past is Frankenstein. Mary Shelly didn’t know how to create a human from a dead body, but the book was never intended to be a DIY manual.
    Keeping that in mind, what really is the difference between Harry Potter waving a wand and saying a magic word and me taking out my phone and saying “Siri, turn on the lights”? The difference is just perception on the part of the reader. In one case the reader says “Magic!”, in the other “Technology.” In neither case can I explain how it’s done.
    At the same time I think that explains why fantasy has taken off, and sci-fi seems to be in a bit of the doldrums. I can no longer write a story about going to Mars and finding the remains of a lost civilization – we’ve been there, no Martians. Nor can I get lost in the steaming jungles of Venus (ahem… 760 degrees Fahrenheit in the eternal shade). And I sure as hell can’t write a story about a bunch of plucky youngsters building a rocket ship in their back yard to fight off alien invaders! (Remember when the standard dress for spacemen was a leather jacket, good boots and army fatigue pants?) We’ve pushed the boundaries of science so far that science fiction is no longer easy.
    On the other hand fantasy has replaced the old sci-fi. The horizons of fantasy are now limitless (as was sci-fi years ago).I can create worlds of my choosing (unfortunately, the fact that so many of them look like Middle Earth smacks of a lack of imagination). Hey, and if you’re tired of elves, how about vampires! Vampires with teenage angst! Wow!
    Okay, I think you get the point. Good old rollicking sci-fi has been replaced by fantasy.
    Last thought: Star Trek. I have always loved the show (Deep Space Nine was my favorite – deliciously dark!). I have yet to watch the new series, but if it’s anything like the movies I know it will make no sense. The reboot movies, like most since the advent of CGI, is spectacle. The plot makes no sense at all because it’s not considered important. I saw the 2nd one (Into Darkness) in a big theater in Albany with the huge screen and massive sound system. Was sure I’d be deaf by the time it was over. ACTION, ACTION, ACTION, NOISE, NOISE, NOISE. Plot? Who cares? And the last one (Beyond)? How in hell did Idris Elba’s character turn into a blue meanie? The cameraman forgot to adjust the white balance? And where’d he get his minions from? Hey, who cares? It moved! (My opinion – yuck.) Look, pointing out flubs and holes in the plot Can be fun, but when the entire plot is one big hole, it loses it’s appeal.

    Liked by 4 people

    • mimispeike says:

      Long time no see, Tom. Welcome back. What ‘ja been up to? What’s going on with Bookkus?

      I wish William well but, when he said, I’m going to publish top books selected by the members, and wait for the money to roll in (he literally said that, it may have been in an email exchange), he lost me. I knew the odds were still very against money rolling (trickling, maybe) in.

      Has any money trickled your way?

      Liked by 2 people

    • Nice to hear from you, Tom, and with a science/magic explanation that clarifies much. As I write in neither genre, I find it difficult to chip in, but I guess sci-fi has parallels with mystery insofar as one wants a story not to be realistic but plausible. In that respect, each reader’s expectations can be different. I was amused to be taken to task by a reader of One Green Bottle about a point she judged implausible, but which was based on reality, while ignoring a point which she must have thought plausible but which was in fact contrary to reality. Personally, I don’t much mind how much reality is ignored as long as I derive something about what it means to be human.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mimispeike says:

        I missed this somehow.

        It’s always good to hear a new point of view. Your exploration of human nature, I like where it’s going, but it doesn’t go deep enough, for me.

        Like

  8. Hi Mimi. Not up to much, just working the day job and trying to work on a sequel to Agony of the Gods. Kinda crashed totally on social media – is there such a thing as Facebook block? Blogblock? If not I guess I’ll need a new diagnosis. 🙂

    I did spend some time visiting my son in Uganda back in May (he’s with the Peace Corps.). If anyone would like to see some neat animal and scenery pics you can find them on my Web Site tomwolosz.com

    Bookkus has been just about dead now for about two years. No updates, new book posts or anything else. I think William thought things were going to be a lot easier than they turned out to be. He e-mailed me recently saying he is seeking out new funding, so I guess I’ll wait and see. I’ve gotten some royalty payments, but to call it a trickle is akin to calling a faucet drip the Mississippi River.

    Curtis, I could not agree with you more. I like to try to explore what motivates the real aliens out there – other people. I find that a lot more interesting than writing another space opera.

    Liked by 3 people

    • mimispeike says:

      I worried about William’s misconceptions from the beginning. None of this is easy, even with a Big . . . Five (?) . . . publisher behind you.

      The fact that you are published is still something to celebrate. I read that Hugh Howey’s work was overlooked until Wool came along. Now people are reading everything he ever wrote. It can happen to you too.

      Like

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