Thursday, 14 June 2012

You can’t have magic _AND_ science … wait, what?

The idea that magic and science are incompatible is oft repeated, for example in this paraphrase of commentary on Prince of Thorns :


I also can’t understand a novel that decides to try and be almost science fictiony but still uses magic and never even tries making it all at sciencey or even gives the slightest explanation. Mr Lawrence, you cannot have it both ways!  You can’t have your cake and eat it too!


This is stupid for so many very different reasons.

We’re told that God doesn’t require us to believe in him. This goes double for science. Step off that cliff and you’re going to drop, Road-Runner, whether you happen to know the equations for gravitational attraction or not.

If magic is incompatible with science then it’s incompatible with _everything_. If magic is governed by a set of rules that can be deduced and described … then it _is_ science.

Item 1: Science is not technology. It’s simply a successful approach to analysis.

Perhaps people who think science is incompatible with magic (in books or elsewhere) really mean that technology is incompatible with magic? After all at no point did anyone in Prince of Thorns sit down and start ‘doing science’. So it’s technology that’s incompatible? Our friend up-post doesn’t think you can have a space rocket and a fireball-flinging magician?

Item 2: Everything is technology.

When our ape-like ancestors picked up a rock and used it to open a nut (any kind you like) … that was technology starting. It’s been a gradual and continuous process since then. Fire, bronze, iron, printing, computers etc … all technology. There’s no sudden ‘switch on’ point between wheel and light-bulb where it flips into being ‘technology’.

Our friend above presumably doesn’t cry foul if the magician in the story where he permits magic to be mentioned is wearing clothes or rides in a cart? So where does technology reach the point where it precludes magic? Is clockwork a step too far? Does magic fail if we refine petroleum? Is it electricity that causes the problem? It all seems a bit arbitrary and frankly … stupid (have I said that already?).

So … the final implication was if there was some ‘science’ then it must be used to explain the ‘magic’ … even if the character observing both the ‘science’ and the ‘magic’ understands neither, draws no distinction between them and calls them both magic? Meh.




Now we’ve face-palmed that one let me address a second bugbear.

Interview Question 7 (from at least 20 interviews so far – albeit not always Q#7): You’re a scientist – you should be writing science-fiction. Why aren’t you writing science-fiction… you monster? Quit tramping over our magic swords with your dirty scientist boots!


Ok well it’s not posed quite like this but you get the picture. It’s not unreasonable for the interview to pick up on some of the scant info offered in my author-blurb and frame a question around it . . . but when you’ve answered the question as often as I have you start to think more deeply about what prompted it.

All the other authors who get interviewed have (or have had) a day job. I’m willing to bet that none of them wrangle unicorns for a living or polish dragon scales or struggle to perfect the lightning bolt spell, so none of them are particularly aimed at fantasy by their training. Moreover some of them will be lawyers, doctors, policemen, farmers or have had romantic moments with members of the opposite or same sex whatever, and might be asked ‘why don’t you write romances/legal thrillers/detective stories/medical mysteries etc’ but generally ARE NOT asked that.

All this leads me to suspect that the question is driven by the aforementioned belief that science and fantasy are somehow more incompatible than ‘anything else’ and magic, and that scientists themselves will not be interested in / good at ‘fantasy’. The notion that a scientist might be better equipped to write science fiction than a non-scientist obviously is a motivator too. However, a large chunk of science fiction on offer could well have been written by people who had simply read or watched a bunch of the stuff. After all – science fiction is very often incompatible with science. If it wasn’t it would be called SCIENCE.

So to conclude – before I call anyone stupid again – Science is not technology and neither of them preclude magic any more than does say ... biology, or ice-cream, or rocks, or swords.

18 comments:

  1. Re point 1, it really is totally arbitrary, isn't it? I have beings in Elizabethan London who use chemo-luminescent liquids for illumination, but no-one's said to me "You can't have technology and magic in the same book". Also, what about contemporary urban fantasy? That has magic alongside present-day technology.

    I think maybe the attitude you describe is based on someone feeling that you "cheated", in presenting an ostensibly medieval world that turns out to be post-apocalyptic. Exactly the same happens to SF writers who dare to put romance in their stories. Readers of fantastical fiction can be surprisingly hide-bound about what they expect from their favourite genre.

    On the second point, I've never been called out for writing fantasy, despite being both a scientist and a programmer. But then of course we poor girlies aren't supposed to be interested in science and technology, so *of course* we write fantasy. The fact that there's more science in my fantasy than in most TV SF is neither here nor there...

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  2. Science is indeed not technology.

    There are artifacts of technology in the Empire of the East, but much less science.

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  3. This reminds me of Clarke's third law - Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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  4. Some of my favorite bits of storytelling have been when people combined science and magic, like the "Glass Walker" tribe in the old Werewolf RPG who could manipulate computers and such via magic, in a world where the internet was reflected in the spirit world by a vast and often-corrupt spiderweb. Anything can be made a bit more gee-wow by adding some mysticism or magic to it. I don't see the problem.

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  5. That's a stupid concept for people to have. A lot of my favourite books treat Science as magic and the reverse!

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  6. The people who claim you can't have "science and magic" in the same work are the same ones who essentially can't see the forest for the trees. There's always someone, whether it's radical Christians claiming Harry Potter is the devil because there's magic involved (because THAT was such an original concept of the time, right? It's not like Lord of the Rings came way before, also became crazy-famous, and happened to be written by an atheist) or the folks who pick on movies for not being original, when some scholars actually claim there is only one real story, something along the Hero's Journey or some such thing. I haven't read that book yet.

    I've seen enough books and movies that integrated both science and technology that the argument doesn't work. Stardust, The Golden Compass/His Dark Materials series, the mini series Tin Man, etc.

    But then if you think about it, isn't today's science and technology like magic to people in the Amazon or someone from the past? Maybe the definitions need a little reworking.

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    1. Wasn't Tolkien a devout Catholic? He was certainly raised that way. Or were you referring to JKR?

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    2. Tolkien was a devout Catholic. The Silmarillion is full of Catholic elements, the mythology especially. His world is definitely not incompatible with Christianity. But he was against preaching, unlike what CS Lewis did in the Chronicles of Narnia.

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  7. Is "sciencey" a word?

    Notebookmuse: Check your facts. Tolkien was a devout Catholic; the elves were representative of angelic beings. The entire LoTR story was a tribute to Catholicism and filled with Christian symbolism.

    Tolkien was really angry that his friend C.S. Lewis became a pagan Anglican rather than adhere to Catholicism, unless you were referring to Lewis, who was an atheist, but converted to pagan Anglicanism and really upset Tolkien, who was a devout Catholic.

    Of course, all of this revolves around to my original question: Is "sciencey" a word?

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    1. 1. It was the Ainur (which included Melkor/Morgoth, Sauron's old boss and the mightiest among the Ainur and the first fallen Ainu, Sauron a lesser Ainu that joined Morgoth, Elbereth, a powerful Ainu of the sub-order Valar (those that went to Arda, or the created world, at Elu Illuvatar's (God) request), the Balrogs were also Ainu, sub-order Valar, sub-order Maiar (lesser Valar), that joined Morgoth, and Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast and the blue wizards were Maiar incarnated into the bodies of men (thus able to die but tied to their quest to help the free peoples of Middle Earth against Sauron)) that actually were the angelic beings.
      2. I'm not sure Anglicanism is a form of paganism, which is usually reserved for the rather broad category of religions, belief structures and superstitions "not of the Book," as it were. If on were to use derogatory religious terms, heresy would be the correct one, I think.

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  8. you really need to read the coldfire trilogy by cs friedman. perfect example of a scrience fiction setting with magic done really well :D

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  9. Perhaps the reader's real trouble was with the way the world-building was presented. Maybe if more of an explanation had been provided as to why/how science and magic could coincide (as per this article), the issue never would have come up.

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    1. It would have been a very dull book & if I were to load in a ton of self-evident explanation for this... where would it end? A thesis on the mechanics of doors? I think then the issue would never have arisen because nobody would have cared :)

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  10. Should fantasy allow the author to do anything he/she wants to do? It's one of the things I like best about R Scott Bakker's "Prince of Nothing" series. For all my many problems with it, the gonzo meshing of pure science fiction with high fantasy magic is great.

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  11. People really ask you that last question? That's... moronic. Sorry, there's really no other way to put it.

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  12. What do Unicorn Wranglers do for a hobby?

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    1. Something less stressful and less physically exhausting, such as lawyering, accounting, CEO-ing. And clearly only very rarely book writing. As is evidenced by the rarity of succesful unicorn wrangling authors.

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  13. Thanks, Mark, loved it!

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