Friday, May 11, 2007

Bad Magic

I do not much like magic. This, perhaps, is a somewhat awkward position to be in if you are trying to sell a fantasy novel, which I am. It's a bit like trying to do science fiction when you don't think that spaceships are either very believable or very interesting. You might even wonder why I like fantasy in the first place. The short answer is that the main appeal for me has always been the imaginary worlds, cities, and so forth. Pretty much the same appeal as SF, in fact; the difference is that I also like spaceships.

The subject of magic came up almost tangentially in today's post by Bernita Harris on her blog An Innocent A-Blog. Attaching a picture of her herb garden, she commented on the literary uses of an herb with a pungent name, then remarked on the "many books I've read which include spells, charms and potions as an important plot point are irritatingly vague regarding specifics."

I plead guilty. Not that Catherine de Guienne or her ladies in waiting deal much with applied herblore - beyond brewing some maiden's prayer as a sensible precaution - but I had never given much thought to the little practical details that bring life to a scene of, say, someone mixing a potion.

Even more to the point, I'd never thought before of just how much continuity there is between kitchen craft and witchcraft, which is doubtless one reason why witchcraft has female associations. Consistant with this continuity, male wizards are like guys who are into cooking writ big - they never just cook something; it's always a dramatic production, demons of flame that scare the bejeezus out of the guests while putting just the right touch of searing on the roast of lamb.

What does this have to do with my magic problem? I have always tended to view magic as a somewhat gaudy substitute for technology. In which case, why not just have the real thing, which is after all inherently cool? Say that you have a dragon spell that can make ships go regardless of the wind. On the one hand that sort of devalues plain old seamanship. On the other hand, why not just change the mumbo-jumbo and call it a triple-expansion steam engine? Find yourself some armor plate, mount 12-inch breechloaders in barbettes forward and aft, and you're set to scoff at evil wizards and civilize the natives in style.

Magic treated as pseudo technology (which is too often how it is treated) may work fine for some people, but it just doesn't appeal to me, which is why I've never been happy with the notion of magic in a world. If you want flying fireballs, just give me missiles.

The insight I got from Bernita's observation is that magic, treated properly, has one fundamental difference from engineering technology: it is an art. There is an art to great engineering - that is what makes for classic designs like the DC-3 - but the DC-3 itself is a pretty standardized, predictable industrial product.

Magic, like kitchen craft, is inherently chancy. Good cooks can cook consistantly good meals, but it's never a done deal, never an automated process, nor one that can be handled mostly by people with a few weeks' or months' training - which is more or less the military standard for operating equipment up to and including ballistic missiles, and broadly the standard that industrial civilization depends on.

(Chain restaurants do exactly this, of course, but they have nothing to do with kitchen craft, and not much more to do with good food.)

So the craft element is what keeps magic from being just technology with different special effects. It also keeps magic inherently rare, which keeps it from overwhelming its world ("dragon flights on a half-hour schedule till 6 PM, then hourly till ten"). Even plain old hedge witches have to learn their craft, and master mages are as inherently rare as truly brilliant second basemen or rock guitarists.

If you had this insight when you were fifteen, feel free to sneer, but after 40 years of struggling with the problem, I feel liberated. Thanks, Bernita!


Kedamono said...

I really don't feel like sneering, since I was 17 when I had that insight. :-)

Actually I was a fan of some of the more esoteric fantasy, not the thud and blunder stuff, but sophisticated, almost literary fantasy, as well as the classics, such as the early Arthurian legends as well as others. And one thing I noted in these stories, was that magic wasn't flashy or showy, but subtle and kind of private.

It was also pervasive. Travelers would routinely leave wards against evil spirits on doors and window frames, that were constantly renewed by the next person.

One magician was a cheesemaker, an art in and of itself. You also noticed that most of the magic was of the utilitarian type: Kitchen magic, spells that kept the dust off tables, a spell to make sure your bread rose correctly, stuff like that.

When it came time for the big magic, it wasn't Hollywood style, it was more natural and in many ways, more impressive. Sort of like tossing a snow ball onto a patch of snow, and ending up with an avalanche that wipes out a town. And I wish I could remember what the book's or books' name was. I may be conflating two or more books together.

And then you have a book like Flying Sorcerers, which in one way is all about natural magic, and in others is a great parody of fantasy novels.

As for the craft part of magic, well yes, it should take time to cast a spell of great power, and not just whip one out with a couple of words and smidgen of coal dust.

I think a lot of readers these days are used to Hollywood magic, to Harry Potter and their effortless spellcasting, or the DnD trope of battlemage. And all of these treat magic as just another science that can be bent to man's will. And that's just plain wrong.

Magic is more about using the spirit of the rock to do your bidding. Or convincing a demon to help you with your task. Where lighting a fire is best done with flint and steel, and not by summoning a small fire elemental to do it for you. (Though keeping a salamander in an iron cage is OK. As long as you feed it plenty of fireflies... )

Magic should be a craft, since the spirit you invoked last time, may not listen to the same spiel again. Thus you have to research spells, learn how they change depending on the time of the year, the phase of the moon, and purity of your cause.

Sure you can whip off spells, but are you ready to face the consequences of a failed spell, where the backlash isn't it blowing up in your face, but the spirits taking revenge on you?

Sounds a bit like that old "Light side takes longer and requires more dedication, while the Dark side is quicker, easier, but you lose your soul in the process." kind of thing.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Rick.
Must say, my girl has little use for the crepes flambe style.

Rick said...

kedamono - Hollywood magic is the equivalent of those Hollywood spaceships that maneuver exactly like WW II fighters. My bad attitude predates Hollywood fantasy, though I imagine my geek friends and I were groping toward the idea of D&D, several years before Gary Gygax invented it.

bernita - I'd be surprised if she did; it's an egotistical and not terribly practical style.

EA Monroe said...

An interesting post, Rick. It reminds me of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series when his character Matt's curiosity about fireworks overrides the general "fear of magic" -- the technology behind the magic.

Gabriele Campbell said...

The better version of Fantasy magic comes with a price tag. Those dragons tire out if they have to do too much flying, and they won't have enough sex and enough dragonlings over time, and one day they'll die out and people can see how they get that flying business working without dragons. :)

In a way it's the same with technology, but we tend not to think about that.

I had the same problems when I dabbled with genres, mostly in 2003. The magic in my Fantasy world felt artificial, put there because it's Fantasy, and I didn't have dwarves and trolls, either. ;)

When I invented the magic stones as additional layer that connects the plotlines in Kings and Rebels, it was not so much about the magic, but more about power and temptation. The Keepers are supposed to prevent the stones from being (mis)used because magic stones that tap the telluric lines are very dangerous (and far ahead Mediaeval technology). I don't have much about the stones actually being used (though Alastair collapses the wall of a castle with his), it's more about the psychological effect the stones have on the Keepers, and on other people who suspect/know about their existance.

Anonymous said...

Magic, at least in folklore and legend, often has a moral component. If you use wicked magic, you're being evil -- even if you're not using it for an evil purpose. If you're using good magic, it's a gift from God/the Gods.

In other words, magic is part and parcel of the moral order of the world, implying that such an order exists.

That's what makes science and technology different: they have no moral component. You can use technology to save lives or cause harm. Atomic power can level a city, or drive pumps to supply a city with clean water.

Which is why I find the sort of magic in Dungeons & Dragons, or much modern genre fantasy, rather unsatisfying. It wants to be morally neutral, just like technology. With the result that it feels like technology. It's not "magical."


Nyrath the nearly wise said...

There are so many theories of magic created by various fantasy authors that it is hard to keep track without a scorecard.

Isaac Bonewits' take is that magic is a collection of rule-of-thumb techniques used to allow one to utilize one's own innate "psychic" abilities with a bit more reliability.

The implication is that if one does not have such psychic powers to start with, you will never be a wizard, no matter how many books of magic you study.

He adds the "art" part by comparing a good spell to a good bread recipe or a good play. You are never quite sure if it is going to happen correctly, no matter how much practice you do. He is of the opinion that this is due to the deplorable fact that psychic powers are controlled by ones subconscious, not the conscious mind. Which is a problem, since the subconscious is non-verbal. The spell techniques are mostly aimed at trying to get through your subconsious' thick skull exactly what you want it to do (the rest of the techniques are mostly concerned with working up enough strong emotions to energize your psychic powers).

I've read other books where the the magic appears to somehow harness Carl Jung's synchronicity. The wizard does a spell for money, and later that day they happen to find a five dollar bill on the sidewalk. There is no real causal connection between the spell and finding the money, but it is a spooky coincidence.

Anonymous said...

Here's an idea that'd make for interesting urban fantasy - Wizards and witches as analogues to commercial artists and designers. Four years training at a magic institute. They can deal with the uncertainties of freelance work, or join a 'studio' (coven? conclave?) for more stable income.

I like that idea a lot.

Rick said...

Too much good stuff here for just a comment reply - so I'll cheat again, and respond in my next blog post!