Category Archives: Science vs. Sorcery

Magic in fantasy: use vs. works

Back last December on Camestros Felapton’s blog (I don’t remember the specific post) there was a comment about two ways of approaching magic in fiction: “it seems to me that some ways of thinking about magic are ontological/analytical, and some are teleological/practical. How does the magic “work” vs how the magic is used. Which is most important to you as a reader/reviewer/critic? Which is most important to the writers creating these systems? Which is most important to the people who live in the worlds created by the writers? There isn’t a single right answer.”

Stories about how magic works would include, of course, the many stories with magic systems: the Mistborn books, Alan Moore’s tedious Promethea comics (very much about his theories of magic), D&D novels. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry where wizards draw power from an individual’s life force. Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories. A. Merritt’s science fantasies.

The Silver Age Dr. Strange stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (who was probably the prime mover ont he project) are much more about how magic is used.  What’s important is that Stephen Strange uses magic to stand between us and the dark forces: Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Nightmare, Umar and Taboo, Tyrant of the Eighth Dimension.

Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books likewise focus on magic in action: the bad guys using it to hurt people, Harry using it to protect them, as in the first book in the series, Storm Front. In Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, what matters is Conan fighting the magic, not how it works.That doesn’t mean “magic has no rules” (the standard complaint by those science fiction fans who dislike fantasy). The Dresden books give us magic rules but the system isn’t the important thing; Ditko’s Dr. Strange stories use magic consistently, they just don’t spell them out. Conversely, stories that emphasize magic systems usually deal with how magic is used: the Lord Darcy stories are all about Darcy and his sidekick Sean using magic to solve crime.

Some stories are a mix of both. In Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, there’s a lot about the rules of magic; protagonist Norman wins because he’s able to analyze them logically and apply them more effectively than his adversaries. However it’s also about how magic is used: stay-at-home wives working sorcery covertly to advance their husband’s careers.

In Southern Discomfort I deal with the rules enough to keep things consistent but I’m much more interested in what magic does. In Questionable Minds, the rules governing psychic power are much more important. In Let No Man Put Asunder, it’s all about how it’s used: there are multiple character operating under different magic system so the rules are a free-for-all (though individual characters’ skills stay consistent).No real deep insights, I know, but I still find Camestros’ comment interesting.

#SFWApro. Images top to bottom by Rodney Matthews, Steve Ditko, Lee Macleod and Samantha Collins. All rights remain with current holders.

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If there are rules, it’s science, not magic? No, that’s wrong

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

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CL Moore and my love of pulp

Rereading THE BEST OF C.L. MOORE reminded me how good a writer she is. And like Leigh Brackett’s Sword of Rhiannon, it also reminded me how much I love a certain kind of pulp SF.

The book collects an excellent list of stories including her first story Shambleau, (I wish I’d been that good when I started) starring space adventurer Northwest Smith, and the sequel Black Thirst; the first Jirel of Joiry story, Black God’s Kiss; and several stand-alones including the very good love story Bright Illusion, the frustrating alternate futures yarn Greater Than Gods, her classic Vintage Season (way better than I remembered it) and my least favorite, No Woman Born. This story of a famous actor/singer/dancer transplanted into a metal body has some great ideas about what makes us human but they’re dealt with mostly in drawing-room SF style, with the characters sitting around and talking about them. And the emphasis on Deidre as some freak who can’t possibly feel human any more feels uncomfortably close to disability cliches.

Greater Than Gods has a great concept: a scientist deciding between marriage to another scientist and a socialite receives simultaneous cross-time messages from his descendants in both timelines. One is a sweet, wonderful young woman in a timeline where humanity has gone full Eloi; another is an idealistic young man in a militaristic totalitarian state. And it’s the scientist’s choice of partner that will bring one or the other future into existence … so out of the blue, he proposes to his assistant, guaranteeing a middle path. That made no sense on first reading, nor now.

But then we get Black God’s Kiss which sends Jirel, ruler of the province of Joiry, into Hell to get revenge on the man who conquered her kingdom. Moore’s Hell is both weird and creepy, like one scene where a herd of blind horses rushes by Jirel and one of them suddenly rears up and screams out a woman’s name, then rushes on. That stuck in my head for years (the ending of the story, though, is, as they say, problematic).

Black Thirst is the one that captures what appeals to me about some of the old stories (and I emphasize it’s a matter of appeal, not a claim they’re somehow better than modern stuff). On Venus, a woman named Vaudir leads Smith into the fortress of the Minga, a race of stunningly beautiful courtesans bred for centuries under the fortress’ hereditary leader, the Alendar. Vaudir wants Smith to kill her master, but that, of course, is tougher than it sounds. He’s (there’s never been more than one Alendar) the human form of some prehuman ooze creatures dwelling below the fortress. The Alendar captures them and his telepathic attack reveals his ancient racial secrets to Vaudir, leaving her traumatized. He reveals that beauty is a kind of energy, and his people feed on it, hence breeding the Minga (why they sell some of them isn’t explained, but I don’t think that’s a huge issue). Taking Smith and Vaudir deeper into the fortress he shows Smith women whose beauty is so heightened it’s almost beyond human comprehension.

While I generally prefer my magic to be magic, not science, this kind of thing is an exception. It’s fantasy in all but name, and the concepts no longer feel very scientific (I don’t know if they ever did): prehuman races, psychic abilities (another story refers to the energy of our brains leaving impressions on our homes), the beauty force — for me it hits the sweet spot between science and sorcery. It stirs me more than when people use contemporary tech as magic (“I turned that man into a frog by using nanotech to rebuild his body at the molecular level!”).

I’ll be reading more Moore and Brackett this year. Hopefully I’ll enjoy it all just as much.

#SFWApro. Cover by Hildebrandt brothers, all rights remain with current holder.


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Three Hearts, Three Lions, No Waiting (#SFWApro)

three-hearts-three-lionsPoul Anderson’s THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS (cover by Powers, all rights with current holder) is a fun romp in the school of “modern man transported to parallel world where different physical rules allow magic,” a la the Harold Shea adventures, Land of Unreason and the much later The Dragon and the George. Like Land of Unreason it’s a short magazine work expanded to novel length (’53 and ’62 respectively) but the seams don’t show.

The narrator explains that when WW II broke out, his Danish-immigrant buddy, engineer Holger Dansk, headed back to the Mother Country. In the middle of a doomed resistance battle, Dansk (what follows is how Danks told it to his friend) wakes up in a medieval landscape, with armor (that fits) and a horse nearby. He soon discovers he has all the knightly skills to ride, swing a sword, shield against an attack, etc. He also discovers that like our world, Chaos is waging an assault on Law and Order—Faerie in the new world, Axis in the old one (the Nazis seem more like lawful evil than chaotic to me, but I’ll let that pass). Holger begins to realize he’s been shifted across parallel-world lines to fight against Chaos there was he was doing in our world.

Accompanied by a dwarf and the swan-may Alianora, Holger sets out in quest of a holy sword that can tip the balance against Chaos, while trying to make sense of his new world and his presence there. It’s fun and well worth reading, but what I want to talk about is that it’s yet another attempt to combine science and sorcery into a single thing.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a long tradition of explaining sorcery as science we don’t understand. A. Merritt, as noted at the link, implies all seeming magic is just super-science. Tim Powers invokes quantum mechanics. Randall Garrett presents magic as a completely different science.

Anderson’s approach is different. He starts out by suggesting magic could be some form of psionics, then pretty much drops the idea. Instead, he keeps throwing in little bits of science: lycanthropy is a recessive gene, giants turning to stone in daylight is like an isotope turning overnight to lead (i.e. the change gives off a lot of fatal radiation), ultraviolet in sunlight makes it fatal to fae (so one lord carries a magnesium knife he can burn to get the same result). This fascinated me when I first read the book; now it feels oddly betwixt and between. Anderson doesn’t attempt to imply all magic is science, so why these little things?  It didn’t hurt the book, though.

Another detail worth noting is the sexual aspect. This is a world where in the best knightly tradition, you have to stay chaste—when Holger accidentally touches Alianora’s boob while she sleeps, he keeps his hand there for a second; that unchaste moment gives evil a chance to attack. A review at Tor suggests it reflects courtly love traditions, but I can’t help thinking it reflects contemporary attitudes (from when Anderson was writing) too: you were supposed to have sexual feelings for someone you married, but you weren’t supposed to act on them ahead of time.

Surprisingly, as the review notes, Alianora is quite keen to act on those feelings, taking the initiative a couple of times only to get turned down. Pleasantly, she doesn’t get slut-shamed for it. This may reflect Anderson’s times too; as my friend Ross puts it, by the late 1950s even Hollywood was having to admit Good Girls Want It, even as films insisted they shouldn’t get it.

This may be Anderson’s most upbeat fantasy, though the ending is frustrating—more so since a later appearance in A Midsummer Tempest shows Holger still searching desperately to recover his true love. Thumbs up for me.

(But I’ve got to say, I think Powers did better with his SF covers).


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Elementary, my Lord Darcy (#SFWApro)

As a Christmas gift to myself, I bought the complete collection of Randall Garrett’s LORD DARCY fantasy detective stories. I had the original three books of the series, but this includes a short story Garrett wrote for an anthology several years later, so why not go completist?

The stories are set in an alternate history in which Richard the Lion-Hearted survived the Crusades and returned home sober and more mature, to become a great king. A bigger turning point is that a couple of hundred years after the divergence, a scholar figured out the underlying principles of magic. By the 20th century, the Anglo-French Empire has endured for centuries, as has the Catholic Church (no Henry VIII disestablishing the church in this timeline). Technology stopped at the Victorian level (gas lights, trains) but magic has replaced it. Magic provides healing (in one story, a character speaks disparagingly of folk remedies based on moldy bread or foxglove—i.e., penicillin and digitalis) and also forensic science. By the laws of contagion (two connected objects are never truly separate) a trained mage can make a bullet return to the gun that fired it, or confirm the blood on a blunt instrument is actually tied to the murder victim.

880461I’ve never seen anyone convey the sense of magic-as-science so well, while keeping the magic resolutely magical. It’s not a world where magic works for everyone, as technology does (a big difference between the two); it’s a talent only some can practice, and it takes training to wield well. One of the characters compares to having a natural talent for music. Yet at the same time, it is presented as something reliable and efficient, albeit in different directions. We may have lost out on electric lighting but magical healers can promise most people a century of life.

Garrett implies in one story that magic is what keeps the empire and the church strong: sensitivity to evil allows the authorities to purge themselves of the corrupt, the cruel and practitioners of black magic. I don’t entirely buy this (I think revolution and religious schism would be probable in any timeline) but I’ll concede the point (the real reason, I suspect, is that as a devout Catholic, Garrett just liked giving the church a big role). Overall, Garrett’s worldbuilding is the strongest part of the book for me (as witness it’s what I’ve discussed first).

The stories themselves are primarily classic mystery puzzlers (question stories, as I put it here), with magic added. Lord Darcy, a royal investigator, and his Irish sidekick Sean look into murders (espionage cases as well) using their respective abilities of deductive brilliance and forensic magic. Characterization is thin, but usually adequate, and the mysteries are well-executed. The rules of magic are tightly designed enough that they don’t provide an easy out for either the killer or the detectives.

One weakness the tales have is the heavy exposition. Sean, you see, likes to lecture about his craft, which is Garrett’s excuse for providing info-dumps. It doesn’t bother me as much as usualy because the information is interesting, but it does feel forced.

A bigger problem is Garrett’s women. In most of the stories, they’re ciphers, witnesses or suspects with zero character. Admittedly these are minor roles but a lot of mystery writers managed to give the bit players some personality. A few stories are all-male. We get a couple of adequate female roles in the novel Too Many Magicians, but overall it’s glaring how male-dominated the series is.

Despite the flaws, I’m quite happy to have the book on my shelves.

(Cover image rights belong to current holder)


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Magic is the technology we want to have (#SFWApro)

As I mentioned earlier this week, the best Dragoncon panel had Jim Butcher and Lev Grossman (of The Magicians and its sequels) discussing the role of magic in the modern technological world.

I wasn’t sure exactly where that would take me based on the description. As it turned out, it was largely a discussion about what magic is and what makes it different from science.

Butcher was the one who said that magic is “the technology we want to have.” He meant in the sense that magic isn’t neutral: it responds to its users and maybe even chooses them, so that the people who get to access it are worthy (though given the magical villains in Butcher’s books, I don’t quite see that [then again, Butcher also said that magic only works if you really believe you’re doing the right thing with it. So if you’re evil enough to believe mass murder or mind-control are the right thing, perhaps that’s a different kind of worth.). It’s a technology that cares about us, and one we’re to some extent in charge of: if we’re scrying the Superbowl, we don’t have to worry about disputes between the NFL and cable carriers or whether the cable or the power’s going to go out mid-game (I’m heavily paraphrasing).

Another point he made that I really liked restated Lisa Goldstein’s observation about the magic/science difference: Any idiot can turn on a light switch. Butcher likewise pointed out that while our smartphones have powers that certainly seem magical (communication across thousands of miles, magical mapping of our location, ability to research all manner of knowledge), it takes no special skill to access them. I don’t have to know how to make a smartphone or an app to use them; I don’t even have to understand the technology. With magic, by contrast, you can have mentors or teachers but you have to do the work yourself or bind something (djinn, demon, spirit, etc.) to do it for you.

I think that’s a huge difference, even given that there are exceptions (magic rings, magic swords, etc.). James Blish’s Black Easter is an excellent book that draws heavily on medieval European magic tradition. One of the things he emphasizes is that magic back then was hard work, as magicians had to make almost all their own equipment to be effective. The book also deals with why someone would make that effort rather than just take up science: the sorcerer believes there are forces and beings that science doesn’t acknowledge and won’t deal with.

These insights don’t do much to help my own writing, but I did find it fascinating.


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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.


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Indistinguishable From Science?

When I attended Illogicon last month, one of the things that stuck with me was Tim Powers’ comment that he tries to incorporate science into his fantasy novels (like the use of quantum mechanics in Last Call) because readers know fantasy, by its nature, is impossible, so he tries to make it more plausible.
This is something that never much bothers me—I usually assume anyone who reads fantasy is okay with that. There is, however, a long tradition of giving fantasy an SF overlay. Fritz Leiber’s classic Conjure Wife implies that there’s an underlying scientific logic to magic, even if it’s not clear exactly what it is. A. Merritt’s superb fantasies (Face in the Abyss, The Moon Pool, Dweller in the Mirage) usually have pseudoscientific rationales (racial memory, other-dimensional energy beings, guardians vibrating so fast they’re invisible). Even if it doesn’t draw more readers (I honestly have no clue), it can certainly be entertaining (as Powers always is).
But the point of this post is that there’s two ways in which pure fantasy can work that SF just doesn’t.
•The impossible happens.
In reading New Worlds of Fantasy II this week, I came across the short story “En Passant” by Britt Schweitzer. The concept is simple: A man’s head falls off his body and has to find a way to climb back on the neck.
That’s something you can only do in fantasy—a story built around a completely impossible premise. Not impossible in the “magic works” way, just impossible.
Likewise, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo centers on Jeff Daniels as a movie character (“Tom Baxter—poet, explorer, of the Chicago Baxters.”) who sees Mia Farrow watching his film over and over and walks off the screen to meet him. Again, no explanation, magical or scientific, it just happens.
These are the kind of stories where any sort of scientific explanation would probably work against it, not for it.
•Poetic reasoning.
In the 1949 film Orphee, Death comes and goes from our world using mirrors for gateways. Why? Because “mirrors are the doors through which death comes and goes—look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you’ll see death at work.”
That’s the logic of poetry, not science. It works because it’s poetry.
Like so much else in writing, success with fantasy-as-science is a matter of judgment, of knowing when it works and when it doesn’t. No hard and fast rules.


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