Saturday, May 12, 2007

More Bad Magic

My last post brought several provocative comments, all the excuse I need to continue on the subject of magic ...

Two themes that emerge from comments are the psychological component and the moral component. Nyrath observes that theories of magic in fantasy are legion, but notes Isaac Bonewit's take: Magic draws from the subconscious, meaning a) if you don't have the native capacity, you can't get it from a manual, and b) even if you do have it, magic is tricky and hard to manage because the subconscious is "nonverbal" and just plain not very bright.

Cambias notes that traditionally white magic and black magic are inherently different, not simply put to different uses, the way you can use U-235 to make either a bomb or a power reactor. Dabble in black magic - even if your immediate purpose is benign - and it will pull you over to the Dark Side. The implicit corollary is that using white magic even for a morally neutral purpose draws you toward the light.

The further implicit corollary is that white magic is harder to use, or lends itself to fewer obvious and convenient uses - for good plot reasons, we probably don't want characters to become nobler every time they call up some magelight. (Though it might explain why Elves, who presumably have been using it for centuries, have become so damn Noble that they make you barf.)

Gabriele notices a further property of magic - it costs. So does technology (global warming, anyone?), but the costs of magic are much more direct and personal. Take a hike in 7-league boots and you'll arrive tired, in a way that you wouldn't if you drove a car the same distance. She felt much the same dissatisfaction with magic as I have, till her focus shifted from the magic items themselves to power and temptation ... which leads us back toward the moral dimension.

As Kedamodo notes, there's also an element of negotiation in magic - you are dealing with entities (perhaps including your own subconscious) that have persuaded, or offered a deal. Anonymous looks at another aspect of the problem, the mage, perhaps more akin to a commercial artist than to an engineer.

Science and engineering are rooted in predictability, and that seems to be what most sets them off from magic, which is never quite predictable, because it deals not in "forces" but in beings, that have some mind or at any rate purposes of its own, whether the daemons that inhabit or infuse rocks and trees, or a moral polarity that infuses the whole world, or even our own subconscious impulses.

Although Kedamodo notes that magic pervades its worlds, in other respects there can't be all that much of it, at least not handy for use. In most fantasy settings people still live largely in a retro-historical world; e.g., they fight with swords, and plow with Percherons or oxen. Historically we know that once firearms were cheap and plentiful, swords first became largely ceremonial, then all but vanished. If people are using swords, then, magical fireballs can't really be the equivalent of an arquebus - even if they have similar effects (flash, bang, dead person). If magical fireballs and arquebuses were really equivalent, battles would be fought between well-ordered ranks of magic-fireball-hurlers, and only the commanders might still wear small-swords.

Nyrath also touches on the role of synchronicity - which opens up a whole new can of worms in its own right, because fiction of all sorts is filled with synchronicity, random coincidences that at some level of deep structure are not random at all.


Cliff said...

Magic harkens back to the days of royalty while science is democratic. Science is inclusionary. Anyone, even an uneducated peasant, can learn science and use the technology of the cell phone and the gun. Magic is exclusionary. Only those with the right bloodlines can employ magic.

Rick said...

Cliff - this gets into a touchy area regarding fantasy, because its enchantment with the ancien regime is hardly confined to magic. Nobles abound. I'm as guilty as anyone, since my protagonist is royalty, and hasn't the least doubt or hesitancy about her right to the throne of Lyonesse. (She's acutely aware of practical difficulties, but her right is not one of them.)

Of course, if your setting is premodern that pretty much implies a traditional social order. But that begs the question, since it's the knights and castles that draw readers to these retro settings in the first place.

Yet the "resistance narrative" is also alive and well in fantasy, even if sometimes dressed up a bit, e.g., the quick-witted peasant lad turns out to be the rightful heir, concealed in infancy.

A nascient liberalism (using the term in its broad sense) did exist, though, and it would be nice to see more done with it. It was no shrinking-violet philosophy - if you want to know what a 16th c. liberal thought, just read Nick Machiavelli.

Anonymous said...

Couple throughts:

first, I don't like the "psychic powers" angle. Magic as an inborn power which elaborate mumbo-jumbo is required to tease out just seems silly to me - might as well call them x-men and be done with it.

That being said, I'd agree with the "magic as an art" and "magic as a limited resource" ideas. As mentioned, if fireball-throwing is something everyone can do with a little training and in a predictable manner, we are in what one might call "alternate science" territory. That can be fun too (I'd recomment Richard Garfinkle's "Celestial Matters"), but it's a fundamentally different setup from the traditional sword-and-sorcery situation.

The supply of miracles should be limited, and that's where magic as the invocation of intelligent forces is useful: the fire god Thermocoupleicus may be willing enough to help a few dozen wizards throw the occasional fireball, but provide hundreds of thousands of fireballs a day to thousands of peasant soldiers? Suuure. And if you aren't using the services of gods or spirits, there should at least be some fairly high costs involved...

Of course, this all depends on whether you consider a traditional fantasy setting a "normal" one: as I said, "magic as engineeering/alternate science" has some possibilities of it's own, although elves should probably not be included. I'd like to see a story based on, say, 17th century "science": working alchemy, clockwork, perhaps manipulation of magnetism...

(And there are other magical systems which don't work too well with traditional fantasy. Say, James Blish's "Black Easter" model, in which pretty much all forms of magic come down to deals with devils or the aid of angels: or the traditional peasant view, in which witches aren't devil worshippers as much as people having an inherent power to make Bad Things Happen).


Rick said...

Bruce - I don't think psychic powers quite turn mages into X-men, because X-men are (I think) are also defined by the world in which they exist - essentially the world of the costumed superhero, very different from the world of traditional fantasy.

(As an aside, is it me, or has the superhero mythos never really jumped from comics / graphic novels to straight print?)

Even if the basic capacity for magic is inborn, it might still have to be trained - not just to control it but perhaps to draw it out at all, just as an inborn aptitude for math still requires training in mathematics to get very far.

The supply of miracles should be limited - because otherwise they aren't very miraculous. We don't think "miracle of flight" when we board a jetliner. Cheap magic doesn't feel right, and it pushes the whole setting toward pseudo or alternate modernity - a world where people invoke their magic crystals of far-seeing to watch CNN and a movie channel or two.

The magic element in my novel is very subdued, but such as it is, it has a whiff of alternate or proto-science - the closest thing I have to a mage is the Mathematicus Regalis, an astronomer modeled loosely on Tycho Brahe. Astrology is valid, though practical statesmen regard it more or less as they regard economics today: "All astrologers, if laid end to end, would not reach a conclusion."

Nyrath said...

Bonewits had some other theories as well, though some found them offensive.

The fire god Thermocoupleicus has a natural limit on how many fireballs he can grant.

According to Bonewits: demons, spirits, and deities are basically living creatures composed of magical energy (he calls it "mana") instead of protoplasm like other living things on this planet.

When one "worships" a deity, one is feeding the deity with bits of one's own supply of mana. The priest or priestess uses the religious service as sort of a spell to gather the offerings of mana from the worshippers and feeds it to the god or goddess in question.

Then on special occasions, members of the congregation can petition the god (usually through the priest) to cure your ailing goat, to grant a good harvest, to ensure fertility, etc. The god gives back a bit of mana in the form of a spell to perform the miracle. The mana given back is sort of compound interest on the worshipper's regular donation to the Mana Savings And Loan.

So Thermocoupleicus has a limit to how many fireballs he can grant. The more worshippers, the more spare mana he has to grant fireballs. In any event, he is only going to grant fireballs to especially deserving worshippers. Which usually boils down to worhippers who give lots of mana in the first place at religious services, or who do good works like adding more people to the congregation.

You can see why many found this analysis offensive.