sci-fi

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.

Cheers!

—Ben

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Friday Fiction Freebies!

The weekend is almost here! Time to grab a good book and a cup of tea (or coffee, or, as the case may be, whiskey) and settle in. To assist, here are some free books I want to share with you.

Cheers!

—Ben

The Dream World Collective

The Dream World Collective

Five friends quit their jobs to change the world. Sort of like Friends, but with more art, geekery, and tea.

Chapters 1-8: PDF | Kindle (Mobi) | ePub

Chapters 9-14: PDF | Kindle (Mobi) | ePub

Chapters 15-18: PDF | Kindle (Mobi) | ePub

More FREE episodes posted regularly at: http://bit.ly/latestdwc


argentstar1_2cover

The Argent Star

What if your decisions affected an entire universe?

FREE on Amazon today and tomorrow!

Learn more | Get it now at Amazon

Living on the last surviving island on Earth, Ren has put herself on the path to become an archaeologist. She’s defied her father’s wishes and gone out on her own, barely keeping in contact with him as he commands an army somewhere across the universe. And it was all going well until her brother Elian discovered a planet.

Lost for centuries, Novae was thought to be a legend. It vanished years ago and since being rediscovered the Monarchy has stepped in to take over. What Ren didn’t realize was that she and Elian and their father are the chosen leaders of Novae, thanks to a scorched piece of paper that claimed her ancestor named the star Novae orbits.

With suspicion and doubt, Ren is forced leave her life on Earth to go to Novae with her estranged father and rule over the planet she doesn’t think wants her there. Her suspicions are confirmed when she learns there are insurgents hiding in the darkened forests, and her father assigns her a guardian, Sheridan; a woman with a threatening gaze and silent steps.

Now Ren is just trying to stay alive long enough to figure out what the Monarchy is planning for the planet, because she doesn’t believe that they’re on Novae for the good of the people. But going against the Monarchy means going against a government that spans across galaxies, and Ren doesn’t know if she’ll be enough.

Novae is already at civil war that gets worse with each passing day. Ren doesn’t have long before the Monarchy decides to “neutralize” the threat. Will she be able to stop the hostile takeover? Or will her actions ignite a rebellion across the universe?

Learn more | Get it now at Amazon

If You Could Request One Favor From Your Favorite Author…

Ok, everyone, pick one of your favorite authors. I know, it’s impossible to pick just one. You can do this a few times if you really have to. But one author at a time. Ready with your first one?

Now imagine that author is willing to create, reveal, write, or do something special for you and your fellow readers and you get to pick what it is. What would you ask for? (And, out of curiosity, who’s the author?)

Personally, I’d ask P. G. Wodehouse to develop a board or card game that captures the fun and hijinks of Jeeves & Wooster. I’d ask Terry Pratchett for a sort of travel guide to Ankh-Morpork, complete with descriptions of notable shops and guilds and what you would find there. And, while it’s technically not scalable and would do my fellow readers no good, I’d ask C. S. Lewis for a long chat in a pub with a few good friends.

What about you? Leave me a comment below.

Cheers!

—Ben