Long before Arthur C Clarke coined the phrase “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” before Howard Taylor riffed on that claim to assert that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a big gun,” and probably even before Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, people, and especially writers, have been fascinated by this idea of an equivalency between science and magic, or perhaps in the juxtaposition of the two. It pervades out culture today: JK Rowling’s Harry Potter gives us soft magic juxtaposed onto a modern, technology world, as does Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, while Brandon Sanderson gives us magic systems that account for conservation of momentum and thermodynamics, or Frank Herbert gives us a universe in which technology has itself become a sort of magic, or Elder Race demonstrates both sides of the science/magic coin.
Why? Why are we so fascinated with this idea, with superimposing the mutually incompatible, with explaining the inexplicable, and obscuring the understood? I was doing what I generously refer to as “market research” (reading other web-based writings, in this case The Wandering Inn), and this question kept rattling around in my brain. If you haven’t read it, the concept is somewhat akin to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, featuring a cast of characters from our modern world who are transported via mysterious means to another world, one of magic. In this particular case, it happens to look a lot like a video game, but that is somewhat beside the point.
Even those franchise behemoths, Marvel movies and Star Wars, play on our fascination with these ideas. Star Wars is the story of space wizards with magic swords, but it is set in a place of starships and planets that have been built into cities, cities that mine the core of gas giants, and space stations the size of moons (although those have nothing on Dyson Spheres – I wonder if there are any Dyson Spheres in the Star Wars universe, to go along with the ringworld that was introduced in The Book of Boba Fett). The Marvel Cinematic Universe (as it calls itself) started out with a lot of “magic is actually science,” giving us superheroes whose powers come from advances in technology, and even magical gods who are actually just advanced aliens, only to introduce us to magic that is actually magic.
I’ve identified three reasons for our fascination with this concept. First, on the “science is magic” side, is sense of wonder, or maybe sense of power. By taking our technology and showcasing it in a context in which it appears to be magic, we make ourselves feel more powerful, because we did that, we built that thing, we understand these things about the world in which we live that not so long ago were unfathomable. It reminds us just how far we have come in a remarkably short time, and it is the same mindset that leads us to look down on those people who thought that bathing more than twice a year was bad for the health, or people who dare to think that not everything can be explained by the scientific method.
That scientific method is at the crux of the trend to have magic that is more like science, I think. We have come so far, the methods of rational investigation that have fueled the explosive expansion of human knowledge and understanding in the past five hundred years or so have allowed us to understand and explain (or at least think that we understand) so much about the universe, that we have become accustomed to answers, expectant of explanations. It’s why hard magic systems like those that Sanderson writes are so popular right now; they are explainable, they obey rules, they feel familiar in a way that is still fantastic. This is magic as science. There’s a scene in The Way of Kings when one of the characters talks about quantifying the magic system, and I think every scientifically minded person who reads fantasy was thrilled.
Third, because we’ve become so capable of developing rational explanations for that which we encounter, it is increasingly difficult to present something that is inexplicable. As much as we read speculative fiction in part for sense of wonder, we also want to be able to understand that about which we are wandering. Pushing magic more towards science, or giving it a scientific basis, helps with the suspension of disbelief intrinsic to good speculative fiction.
My own fiction struggles with this. Blood Magic’s magic system is based on a loophole to the conservation of energy that I created by introducing a spiritual plane, and the idea of balance, or symmetry, is drawn from theoretical physics of our real world. Fo’Fonas’s magic system is even more directly based on advanced science, and one of my struggles with writing that series has been how explicit to make the science behind the magic. Like in our discussion of miracles, I struggle with creating and implementing a truly soft magic system in a way that makes for good storytelling.
There is merit to the idea of magic as science and to that of science as magic, but it can go too far, and I am beginning to think that it might be limiting the fiction that is being written today. When every fantasy story has a rigorous magic system that appears like a parallel system of physics, akin to the interplay between quantum physics and relativity, they all start to be similar, or at least have certain resonances. I’ve seen this in my own writing, where too many of my magic systems somehow incorporate either energy from some other plane of existence, or the concept of equilibrium. It’s part of why I’ve been working recently on some stories involving soft magic systems and drawing from older pieces of writing. If you take it too far, though, it can become a crutch, and even a disadvantage, as people like me start trying to apply equations and deeper physics to stories, and end up getting thrown out of them as a result.
Yet, there remains something compelling about the idea. Even post-apocalyptic stories, or thought experiments like “Earth after people,” play into the idea of a wondrous aspect to science or a rigorous aspect to science. Maybe it goes back to alchemy, to priests and demigods, to a time when more people lived in a world inhabited by spirits, demons, miracles, and other things not readily explained. I have to admit that I’ve wondered what it would be like to find myself in such a position, the sole individual with knowledge of modern science and technology in a primeval setting. What is my idea for a story in which everyone has lost their memories but a riff on this same concept? And maybe that’s an inescapable part of writing in a modern context, but it’s one I intend to challenge in a new project.