What Counts as Magic?

The more I think about it, the more I’m having trouble defining ‘magic’ in the context of fictional worlds. You could say it’s performing unpredictable, incomprehensible, or impossible acts, but the most satisfying fictional magic has a system behind it, sometimes a whole science. It’s not inexplicable or arbitrary, though it may be difficult.

But engineering is difficult. If you have a world where a small class of people can, through their arcane arts, create a pile of stones that hold each other up in midair over a rushing river, such that people and even whole cartloads can pass over them dry as a bone, is that magic? No. It’s a bridge.

At least, I don’t think that counts as magic.

Let’s get a couple red herrings out of the way early on:

  • Illusions don’t count; if it’s just a clever use of curtains and trap doors, that’s not magic for our purposes.
  • I think we can also exclude the purely arbitrary; call it chaos. If it’s fundamentally, inherently inexplicable (not just obscure or difficult), it’s more tautological than magical. A whale appeared because a whale appeared. Poof.

Ok, I’ve been trying, but I can’t seem to get away from Clarke’s Third Law here. The tricky one is technology. Broadly speaking, we could define a technology as something that systematically harnesses natural forces in order to carry out a process with greater power and/or efficiency. That’s off the top of my head, but I think it’s a decent start.

So why is a laser gun technology and a staff of lightning magic? They’re both tools that use knowable (if obscure) systems to harness natural forces to accomplish something with more power or efficiency.

It’s not about a visible causal chain, chanting spells instead of yanking a lever. Plenty of technology uses invisible, mysterious forces. Like a radio. Or an airplane.

It’s not about complexity, or simplicity, or incomprehensibility, or difficulty. It’s not that science is systematic and magic is fuzzy; some of the best magic systems ever written are the most rigorously systematic. (Why else are schools or universities of magic such a common trope?)

It’s not that science is more egalitarian than magic; you could (and many stories do) have a technological or scientific elite working as a secretive ruling class. It doesn’t make them magicians; in fact it’s often a running tension that the ignorant populace thinks they’re sorcerers even though they’re not.

And what about the fuzzy boundary? Is teleportation magic or sci-fi technology? What if you call it apparition? Is alchemy science or magic? (Or both? Neither?) Is Asimov’s Second Foundation advanced technology or rudimentary magic?

But if there’s no clear difference, why are the categories so persistent? Even if we can’t pin down the definitions, most of us can easily categorize a list of tools or actions into magical or non-magical. Fireball. Dynamite. Resurrecting Aslan. Destroying Alderaan. Summoning demons. Warp drive.

Easy, right?

The closest I’ve come to making sense of it is that magic involves crossing a boundary between worlds. Depending on the story this could mean drawing on metaphysical energies, crossing into a fae/interplanar/supernatural realm, seeking divine power, or whatever.

Next project, of course, is to define ‘worlds’ more rigorously in this sense of it, but it seems that as long as something is explicable entirely in terms of one world, it’s scientific/technological (or natural), but when it involves crossing boundaries, it’s magical.

What do you guys think? Leave me a comment and let me know.