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.



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