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Magic vs. Science; Function vs. Presentation

31 Jul

A. Merc Rustead recently live-tweeted a panel from Diversicon called: “Magic: Science or Witchdraft.  https://twitter.com/Merc_Rustad/status/1023252105627357184

 

And I’d like to expand a bit on this topic.  One of the issues apparently brought up during the panel was that science fiction has magic in it.  That is, FTL travel, say, or other “futuristic” technologies function like magic, despite being clothed in SF trappings.

However, I think this is a flawed argument.  Which brings me back to the title of this post.  Science and magic are often presented as diametrically opposed.  But that’s a bit of a simplification.  Some people might argue with some merit that science and magic in fiction are merely collections of tropes, and as you modify the collections to bring them closer in line with each other, the line between science and magic begins to blur.

But there are two axes of the distinction that can make this a much more precise discussion.  There’s function.  If the functions of magic and science are identical, are the two concepts really that different.  There’s presentation.  If I present a scientific concept as magic, cuddling up to Clarke’s Third Law, is it a distinction without a difference?

The problem with these discussions is that the conclusions really depend on how magic or science is used in a given narrative or set of narratives.  If I present you a magic system, and it looks and feels an awful lot like science, in that we have repeatable results to identical actions, and you can logically manipulate the rules to achieve effects that follow directly from those manipulations, is it magic or is it science?  Well, I might use tropes around this system that relate to science, and therefore you might argue it’s science.  But if I use tropes related to magic, does that mean it is magic?

What if I present you with a system that I treat as scientific but it doesn’t have direct parallels to earth sciences?  Can we really call that science when the common conceit of science fiction is that the science follows logically from an extrapolation of real scientific principles found in our world?  Or are all systems that incorporate some or entirely otherworldly principles and logic by definition magic?

Many people have argued that magic is magic precisely because it doesn’t follow a logical system of rules, and especially not rules known to the reader or that can have experimentally repeatable results.  Certainly you can take that approach to magic.  Although then one has to wonder how anyone can achieve anything useful narratively with it.

Plus, I think it would be really cool to see more unearthly sciences in fiction, so I don’t want everything that cant be rigorously extrapolated from “real” science to be declared magic.

And our last major question, why does it matter?  Well, for one thing, because the genres are marketed to different people, and so someone or a large group of someones might be very grumpy to receive a “science fiction” novel and then find it fits much more closely with their conception of a “fantasy” novel.  And that’s bad for marketing and sales.  People are and should be allowed to be deeply invested in the trappings of various genres, and so we need words to categorize and discuss those trappings in a way that results in people being able to know whether a given story will appeal to their interests.

So going back to my argument that I think it’s flawed to say “SF” includes “magic” because FTL travel isn’t yet possible.  My point is not that that perspective can’t be useful in discussing how to construct and analyze speculative fiction to help readers find books and help authors find readers.  But rather, regardless of whether FTL travel is no more likely to exist than fictional magic systems, it belongs squarely in the genre of science fiction if that’s where the author wants to place it.

Certainly you could have a fantasy novel whose conceit is that a mad magician created a device that transported his entire planet into another solar system and thus brought its inhabitants into conflict with the inhabitants of a native planet, and started a war fought on great short-range mythril-keeled metal warships that sail between worlds.  And for all intents and purposes, that device is a planetary hyperdrive.  But I think you’d have trouble marketing that as a purely science fiction or even space opera novel.  You might, with some effort, succeed in marketing it as that rickety sub-genre “sword and planet”.  It sounds like it would be a really fucking cool book.  Maybe Spelljammer RPG enthusiasts would buy it by the boatload.  Who knows.  But even though it has hyperdrive, it’s probably not viable as sci-fi in the modern market, nor would it be scientifically plausible given real world science.  Imaging trying to do the gravity and orbital calculations for the star-galleys or whatever.

If you’re unlikely to ever find hyperdrive in a fantasy novel, is there any value in arguing that it’s technically magic?  This post isn’t in any way intended an attack on the panelists from the twitter thread or their personal views.  I just found some of the comments useful jumping off points for things I’ve been trying to express for awhile.

 

Look forward to a follow-up post in a few days on the issue of “cost” of magic vs. the cost of science.  Both in terms of what it requires from the structure of a society, and why the emphasis on “cost” in the first place.

 

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