Any idiot can turn on a light switch (OR, Magic vs. Science) (#SFWApro)

Almost a year ago, I discussed how Tim Powers said at the 2013 Illogicon that he liked putting a scientific rationale on his magic (I think I heard Laura Anne Gilman say something similar at Dragoncon last year).
While there’s a long tradition of that (as I noted at the link), I must admit I prefer my magic to be well, more magical. So I really enjoyed Lisa Goldstein’s comment in her TRAVELLERS IN MAGIC short story collection that she doesn’t at at all agree with Arthur C. Clarke’s line that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” As she puts it, “a magician is part scholar, part poet, part warrior, part priest or priestess … any idiot can turn on a light switch.”
(The stories by the way are good, though I prefer Goldstein at novel length).
I’m inclined to agree. In my post of last year I mentioned Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, Tim Powers’ novels and A. Merritt’s work as examples of “science fantasy.” One reason they work for me is that none of them really reduce magic to science.
Powers’ work, for example, explains a lot of stuff with quantum mechanics or other physics concepts, but the protagonist and antagonist of Last Call are definitely not just super-scientists. The role of the Fisher King is something cosmic and magical and far more than sufficiently advanced physics.
Conjure Wife clearly establishes that we can analyze magic with logic. Norman, the protagonist, analyzes his wife’s magical arts and discovers logical connections that make magic much more effective and simple. But it’s still magic, still defying all the laws of physics. Coming up with a logical explanation does not make it a scientific one.
A. Merritt in most of his novels relies on pure pseudoscience (alien dimensions, race memory, ultrasonic vibrations) but his stories feel so much like fantasy it doesn’t really matter. It’s hard to read Face in the Abyss, for instance, and think of Nimmr and the Snake Mother as anything but supernatural.
I remember a few years ago, I got into an argument online with someone who insisted that magic was so just another form of science. I pointed out that it violates everything we know as science: any idiot (as Goldstein puts it) can flick a light switch and get the same result, but magic performed by a non-initiate was useless. The other party’s response was fine, then we’ll just change the definition of science.
Fair enough. But it seems to me there’s some value in defining science as the science we know and magic as the other stuff. The seemingly impossible. The stuff that isn’t science we know or a more super-advanced version of it.
He seemed to have a visceral distaste for the word magic, so he didn’t agree. Of course, I have a visceral fondness for the word, so I didn’t concede his view either.
(Cover art by Virgil Finlay, all rights with current holder)
I’m fine with magic being used as a substitute for advanced science, as in Randall Garrett’s excellent Lord Darcy stories. But I definitely like fantasy best when magic and science do not feel the same.


Filed under Reading, Science vs. Sorcery, Writing

6 responses to “Any idiot can turn on a light switch (OR, Magic vs. Science) (#SFWApro)

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