I’m not sure which online discussion I was in (possibly more than one) when I heard someone make that argument. It’s one Isaac Asimov has made too: if there are rules on what can happen, then magic is merely a different kind of science. It’s only fantasy if anything can happen.
As both Jim Butcher and Lisa Goldstein have observed, this is wrong. Anyone can turn on a cellphone and activate their home security cameras, Google for information, communicate across the miles. It takes no special skill. Scrying in a crystal ball to do the same things takes intensive training; scrying in a palantir is a very bad idea. Which is another point of difference: magic reacts to whose using it. Magic has its own agency. Even a retina or handprint scanner that only lets in authorized people isn’t the same as a guardian spirit that judges your worth before letting you in.
Of course, lots of fantasy does provide a scientific rationale for what’s happening. A. Merritt used the technobabble of a century ago — ancestral memory, other dimensional entities, destructive supersonic vibrations — for stories that feel supernatural. Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think underpins magic with psi-power; Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife implies a sort of underlying symbolic logic. Randall Garrett makes magic an alternative science in his Lord Darcy stories.
Then there are books where the magic is magic but the rules are developed to the point that it feels like science. These are the books with the elaborate magic systems where everything is quantified and understood rationally. Systems like that usually don’t work for me. They lack the wild energy of Merritt or the cleverness of Garrett. But I know a lot of people are into them.
Then come the stories where magic works and has rules but non-logical rules. In Southern Discomfort I draw on bits and pieces from Celtic stories and don’t explain things like how Olwen McAlister can run over the tops of grass blades without bending them. Magic Robert E. Howard’s excellent People of the Black Circle has rules — the villain can’t kill someone with sorcery until the stars are right — but it’s not logical, and it’s a better story for that.
And then there are the stories where things simply … happen. Britt Schweitzer’s 1960s short story En Passant, for instance, has the protagonist’s head fall off his body because he stopped too suddenly. Now he has to find a way to climb back onto his neck. Or Walter Tevis’ “Rent Control,” where a couple discover as long as they’re together and not arguing, time stops. I suppose that is a rule, but at the same time it feels like an “anything can happen” story, one where the impossible is taking place with no attempt to rationalize it.
Outside of personal preference, none of these approaches are better than another. I’ve done magic with rules (I Think, Therefore I Die) and also “anything can happen” when a stockbroker wakes up and finds he’s literally turned into a clown—that’s Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Clown, available in Atlas Shagged.
So yes, you can have rules and still be fantasy. But the rules need to be good ones.
#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders. Lord Darcy cover by Gary Ruddell