Magic versus Science in the Fantasy World

It has been said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Arthur C. Clarke—and while I’m quoting him, check out this site listing some of his other quotes, some are pretty good). I would tend to agree. I’m quite convinced that a modern computer would be regarded as a magical device by a secluded tribesman, or—going even more primitive—a monkey. They would be baffled by how such a device works, explaining it, no doubt, with recourse to mythology and mythic powers (assuming monkeys can even entertain such thoughts). I was about to propose a corollary to the above quote, then I did a search on the net and found this site: it is quite interesting; it seems the corollary evokes quite heated responses from the scientific community. I’m going to give my corollary anyway: “Any well-developed system of magic is intended as a form of alternative technology or science.” I’m not saying the magic actually works here on our lovely planet Earth, but rather, the magic as described in a fantasy setting is postulated as working in a situation where alternate rules apply. It could be an alternate planet, or more probably, an alternate universe.

 

There may not be practical utility in noting this, but I find it interesting. It kind of occurred to me as I worked on developing my world for my fantasy books (the first of which is “Drasmyr,” a dark fantasy featuring a vampire bent on destroying a wizards guild, now available for free at Smashwords). I’m also, on the side, developing a pen and paper RPG game to go with it. Anyway, the system of magic is complex and detailed. Let’s take potions. In my world, wizards can make potions. Generally, the process involves obtaining various ingredients and combining them so that their properties interact and evoke a desired result. The basic assumption behind this is that each of the ingredients has certain properties which can be harnessed with diligent effort. Is it not unreasonable to assume they are using an alternative Periodic Table or something similar that operates according to their own rules, so that alchemy in a fantasy world is something like a “parallel” form of Chemistry or Pharmacology? Magic in the fantasy world generally is not something quick and simple; it takes years of study and discipline for a human being to become a wizard and learn magic. Of course, using magic to blast something with a ball of fire might be stretching things a bit… but if we can have electric eels in this world, a fire-wielding spell-caster in an alternate reality might yet be feasible. And the rules that govern the fire-wielding spell-caster will no doubt require years of diligent effort to master. At this point, I don’t see much of a difference between science and magic: it is simply different rules give different results. Well, at least, in theory. In terms of practicality, it would be impossible and really foolish to try to spell out all the rules of a magic system at the same level of detail that we have for modern science. That would be the work of lifetimes, for something that doesn’t exist.

 

Additionally, if you play with the rules too much, and you follow them strictly out, the resulting universe could very well be unintelligible to us. No one wants to read very much about a “gak that blops a trebid.”

 

Thoughts, anyone?

11 thoughts on “Magic versus Science in the Fantasy World

  1. Steve

    I say take it a step further and contemplate NO difference: Magic is just the science we haven’t discovered how to use yet. I think that’s the real meaning Sir Arthur C. Clark was after. Who says there isn’t some way for us to harness and manipulate energy to manifest a fireball and throw it across a room? Maybe one day we will discover that which seems impossible today is actually quite possible with the right understanding of the laws of the universe.

    Reply
    1. atoasttodragons

      I don’t think Arthur C. Clark would agree with you. That said, from my own experience, psychic phenomena are real and most modern day scientists would scoff at that. If you want to classify psychic phenomena as magic, then magic exists and it is not understood. Still, there are probably limits like everything else. Something like conjuring a fireball… well, I’d have to see it, to believe it.

      Reply
  2. Bats

    “In terms of practicality, it would be impossible and really foolish to try to spell out all the rules of a magic system at the same level of detail that we have for modern science. That would be the work of lifetimes, for something that doesn’t exist.”

    Tell that to Brandon Sanderson. His novels have such complex magic systems, though they basically solve problems the same way. Allomancy in Mistborn, BioCroma (can’t remember the name, had to do with colors and this voodoo type doll) in Warbreaker, Stormlight and Lashings in The Way of Light. He even has appendices that detail these magic systems. I still haven’t figured out what’s so intrinsic in those worlds that these types of magic systems are the only ones that are used.

    It’s a coincidence you posted this because I was planning also to blog about fantasy and magic v. science in sci-fi.

    Reply
    1. atoasttodragons

      I just finished “The Way of Kings.” Agree that the magic systems in Sanderson’s universe are complex. Just not as complex as science. Science has accumulated over centuries. It is impossible for any single individual to develop anything as complex or in depth as science. For writers, I think there is a trade off: you can only make your system so detailed before you start losing your readers. Besides, you only get about two years to write a book.

      Reply
      1. Bats

        It took years for Sanderson to develop the magic systems in Way of Kings and Mistborn. I think he started imagining and writing Way of Kings in college. It’s possible the reason he’s had so many books released in the last 5 or 6 years and seems to work on multiple projects because he has material that’s accumulated for awhile. Personally, I think his magic systems are more complex than necessary, but they’re so cool and interesting that they compensate for mediocre character development.

        One of my favorite sci-fi writers Octavia Butler said the difference between fantasy and science fiction is that fantasy doesn’t need to be explained, there’s no science in fantasy. For instance, she considered her two novels “Fledgling” featuring vampires and “Kindred” featuring time travel as fantasy because she didn’t provide a scientific basis for the time travel or vampirism.

        Anne McCaffrey on the other hand in “Dragonflight” theorized that dragons were engineered by scientists to deal with a threat in nature. The only magic is the actual telepathic ability dragons share with their human counterparts. Telepathy doesn’t exist in the real world except in comic books, but in Pern, telepathy is believable and makes absolute sense.

        In fantasy novels, dragons don’t have to be explained. They’re just born dragons and they make more dragons, they fly and breathe fire and do incredibly fantastic things and help save the world. In the Pern series, dragons chew firestone, queen dragons can’t, which was just such a great device for mirroring F’lar and Lessa’s relationship. Anyway, you know what I’m talking about.

        If you’ve read the Belgariad fantasy series, the magic system is about the Will and the Word. It’s pretty simple. Say the word and will something to happen. There aren’t pages of exposition like in Sanderson’s novels describing how the brain works with the environment to make a boulder turn over just by saying a word and how you could get buried in the ground if you said push, and the stone pushed back, because you didn’t think about the consequences, and cause and effect, and something called gravity. Then, in the Mallorean, Garion causes a storm, and Belgarath has to go around the world fixing all the cataclysmic weather events that resulted from that one magic Garion created. It was pretty funny.

        So, basically, I think the imagination is just as complex as science. Making magic out of nothing might not require proof or evidence, but it can be someone’s life work. Tolkien’s world was so detailed even if the magic wasn’t complex, it spawned a whole genre. I only cite Sanderson as an example because he’s the only fantasy writer I’ve read who writes magic as if it were a science, for the most part, effectively. The magic systems make him stand out, and readers come back for more because no one else is doing it. But I have more fun reading fantasy novels where characters are more interesting than the magic.

        I agree that most fantasy readers don’t want to read a technical manual explaining how the magic works in a fantasy novel. Most fantasy readers willingly suspend their disbelief, because we already know none of it is real. We expect there to be magic and phenomena that can’t be explained. To me, the magic just has to make sense and be believable in the context of the world the writer has created. So, we create systems because hurling fireballs isn’t as interesting as saying the word and having the will and that special something that makes a normal person a sorcerer and not a farmer. I like fantasy novels that show magic as something more complex than fire out of thin air.

        Reply
  3. Bats

    Reblogged this on On Oxnard Shores and commented:
    just wanted to save my comment on this M Ryan’s blog:

    It took years for Sanderson to develop the magic systems in Way of Kings and Mistborn. I think he started imagining and writing Way of Kings in college. It’s possible the reason he’s had so many books released in the last 5 or 6 years and seems to work on multiple projects because he has material that’s accumulated for awhile. Personally, I think his magic systems are more complex than necessary, but they’re so cool and interesting that they compensate for mediocre character development.

    One of my favorite sci-fi writers Octavia Butler said the difference between fantasy and science fiction is that fantasy doesn’t need to be explained, there’s no science in fantasy. For instance, she considered her two novels “Fledgling” featuring vampires and “Kindred” featuring time travel as fantasy because she didn’t provide a scientific basis for the time travel or vampirism.

    Anne McCaffrey on the other hand in “Dragonflight” theorized that dragons were engineered by scientists to deal with a threat in nature. The only magic is the actual telepathic ability dragons share with their human counterparts. Telepathy doesn’t exist in the real world except in comic books, but in Pern, telepathy is believable and makes absolute sense.

    In fantasy novels, dragons don’t have to be explained. They’re just born dragons and they make more dragons, they fly and breathe fire and do incredibly fantastic things and help save the world. In the Pern series, dragons chew firestone, queen dragons can’t, which was just such a great device for mirroring F’lar and Lessa’s relationship. Anyway, you know what I’m talking about.

    If you’ve read the Belgariad fantasy series, the magic system is about the Will and the Word. It’s pretty simple. Say the word and will something to happen. There aren’t pages of exposition like in Sanderson’s novels describing how the brain works with the environment to make a boulder turn over just by saying a word and how you could get buried in the ground if you said push, and the stone pushed back, because you didn’t think about the consequences, and cause and effect, and something called gravity. Then, in the Mallorean, Garion causes a storm, and Belgarath has to go around the world fixing all the cataclysmic weather events that resulted from that one magic Garion created. It was pretty funny.

    So, basically, I think the imagination is just as complex as science. Making magic out of nothing might not require proof or evidence, but it can be someone’s life work. Tolkien’s world was so detailed even if the magic wasn’t complex, it spawned a whole genre. I only cite Sanderson as an example because he’s the only fantasy writer I’ve read who writes magic as if it were a science, for the most part, effectively. The magic systems make him stand out, and readers come back for more because no one else is doing it. But I have more fun reading fantasy novels where characters are more interesting than the magic.

    I agree that most fantasy readers don’t want to read a technical manual explaining how the magic works in a fantasy novel. Most fantasy readers willingly suspend their disbelief, because we already know none of it is real. We expect there to be magic and phenomena that can’t be explained. To me, the magic just has to make sense and be believable in the context of the world the writer has created. So, we create systems because hurling fireballs isn’t as interesting as saying the word and having the will and that special something that makes a normal person a sorcerer and not a farmer. I like fantasy novels that show magic as something more complex than fire out of thin air.

    Reply
    1. atoasttodragons

      I like that. Sci-fi requires justification, fantasy does not. And I agree about Sanderson’s magic systems. They are pretty cool.

      Agree that imagination is very complex and can come up with complex things. However, even though I’m not a real big “science-is-everything” torch-bearer, it (science as a whole) is still the work of many individuals (not just one) over centuries of time. There is just way too much info there for any single indvidual to digest, let alone mirror in a single work of imagination, even if they spend their entire lifetime working on it. It can’t be done.

      Maybe you’re saying it requires as much intellectual effort to successfully write novels, as it does to perform science in a career. That I would probably agree with–I’m not trying to dis fantasy writing (I’m a fantasy writer myself).

      Great, I think I’ve looped around and confused myself. I think, to sum up my original post, magic is the “science” of the fantasy world; it just doesn’t require as detailed a justification as real science does, as such would ultimately lose the reader.

      Reply
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