Sunday 9 April 2017

Muggles and the elitism of fantasy.

Every now and then you'll see someone post about why magic and science are the same thing, and by extension imply that fantasy and science fiction are ends of the same stick.

And while these arguments may well be true they don't speak to an important difference of a more societal nature.

Let's talk about muggles.

The main difference between fantasy and science fiction is the nature of the fake science (magic) they present us with. Generally the technology resulting from science is available to anybody to buy or discover given sufficient reserves of money, intelligence, infrastructure etc. It's an egalitarian form of "magic". To use a warp drive or phaser gun doesn't require you to be born special.

Magic, on the other hand, often requires you to be born "magic". Fantasy is rife with chosen ones, singular heroes whose talents allow them to change the course of history, wielders of magic that is  available to them alone or to some elite that were born special.

Star Trek offers us a universe full of wonder where anyone has the potential to experience and use magic-like technology. Harry Potter offers us a world where the vast majority, through no fault of their own, are born muggles. It doesn't matter how good a person's heart is, how hard they try ... they will always be a muggle. The wonders of magic are not for them. Live with it, muggle.

It seems harsh. It echoes with the class systems of yesteryear. You were born a serf and you will die one, irrespective of your skills. Though here that class system/elitism is replaced with a binary genetic talent.

And this general structure pervades most fantasy to some degree. You are born to use magic or you aren't.

There are, of course, softer approaches where ability to use magic might be linked to some quality that we are used to seeing have an impact in the real world, intelligence say, and anyone has a shot at it.

Why, you might ask, is being born intelligent or not, any different between being born a muggle or not?

It's a question of degree. Intelligence is a spectrum and can to some degree be compensated by things such as hard work. Being a muggle is binary You are or you aren't. And the difference between the two is huge.

Now, I love fantasy. I'm perfectly happy to read about special individuals whose powers will level mountains. I don't need an equal opportunity socialist utopia before I can enjoy a story... I have written books about people born with special magical talent. But something in the concept of muggles has always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it's that we're not talking of a divide between the mass and a scattering of exceptional individuals, but between two societies,the haves and the have nots, with one looking down upon the other (even the kindly wizards who study muggles for a living still seem to see them as a separate thing rather than fellow humans for whom saying wingardium leviosa does not float a feather.).

one of us

Maybe it boils down to me being more comfortable with heroes than with a heroic class, more comfortable rooting for an ultra rare individual who can do what I can't than for a 1% who can. I think maybe I want my fantasy heroes to live among the people rather than to live in secret wizarding societies and call me a muggle.


  1. It's like the distinction between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset, and I can imagine a corresponding trend between those mindsets and those fiction genres.

    To further what you're saying in a possibly unwelcome way, I think it's a matter of Fantasy readers, at least more traditional Fantasy readers, often seeing themselves as one of the in-crowd, as one of the wizards. Whether their gift be intelligence, unusually sharp instincts, etc. They are part of a different upper echelon.

    Whereas Sci-Fi readers seem more willing to believe that it's down to a strength of character as opposed to natural gifts.

    Or so i've observed personally and would hypothesise.

  2. Hi Mark,

    My own perspective on magic in Fantasy is that it must be extremely rare, or else it loses its impact. In Sci-Fi, the technology is ubiquitous--We expect it as the backdrop of the tale. In Fantasy, magic is illusive, something that is almost unattainable... It is a force of mystery.

    It's faster to insert some select quotes a small essay I wrote on this topic:
    I think that on the deepest level we choose the Fantasy genre for a specific reason—- to step into the “Otherworld,” a premodern, open world that is radically different from our own world. And it’s not simply to have a “different” world than ours—if that were the case then any other genre would do just as well (especially sci-fi).

    Fantasy-lovers want a particular feeling—the feeling of mystical, Dark Age Otherness. The typical pictures are some mixture of King Arthur’s Camelot and Tolkien’s Middle Earth, filled with endless forests, dangerous caverns and mystical glades. We want the magic of that old mythology brought to life over and over in the Fantasy tales we read.

    Ghosts, spirits, witches, curses and gods should be unquestionably real and dangerous to these people. Fantasy characters should never deconstruct religion or gods; characters in these worlds may be terrified (or even hate) these supernatural elements and creatures, but never sit back in their philosopher’s chair and explain a culture’s “mythological inheritance.” Skepticism (and atheism) should be alien to these worlds. These characters should feel awe and reverence with the creatures of faerie.
    (Sorry if that was too long.)

    So, where I land is that the 2 genres should be utterly separated. In Sci-Fi, technology is a common "power" to be harnessed by everyone. In Fantasy, it is a frightening shadow/mist that is almost unattainable, scarcely controllable, and never without peril.

    How does this help with the "Muggle" problem? I'm not sure. It's possible that the best Fantasy out there has protagonists who have no real magic.


  3. No worries mate, it's 2017, and I'm sure there's some surgery you can undertake to help you identify as a wizard.

  4. I see your issue but I disagree with you when you talk about how in sci fi all are equal in that there are no binary distinctions. But just look at the world today, there simply are individuals born or at least born with the potential of being stronger, faster, better looking and more intelligent than the vast majority, which reflected in sci fi. I feel the vast majority of literature holds these characters who forgetting destiny are just better, more talented and probably better looking than everyone else, of course this is not a class but it is pie in sky goal for any regular mortal. You say your not comfortable with a whole class of these individuals but what difference does it make when even alone each such individual is a class above us.