Following up on my last post linked to at the bottom of the page, today I’m gonna talk about the issue of requiring a “cost” for magic, and the hidden costs of technology. I’m sure you know a bit about that second part in the real world, but I want to address it from both narrative and world-building perspectives.
Again, not an attack on the opinions of this panel. But, the “personal” cost of magic vs. the hidden cost of science is sorta the topic, and this tweet did inspire it.
The main reason that the cost of magic tends to be a personal one is because the function of magic so often tends to be to side-step the infrastructure so indispensable to science and technology. When we use technology to solve a problem in a story, the world-building and pre-work that supports the tech is so often already implied and accounted for. Sure, it costs me nothing to dial your cell phone. But somebody had to invent the tech, build the cell towers, provide the electricity, drill for the oil to make the plastic, mine the gold and copper and process the silicon, etc. And all of that took thousands of years of set-up on the part of millions if not billions of people from all over the world.
Whereas, if I telepath you in Fantasy Capital City #11 from Frozen Northern Fortress #2490, none of that work was required. At most, maybe there was a breeding program or a magical experiment. Maybe a few years of training me. But you’re still short-cutting uncountable hours of effort that were required for me to text you on Earth. And some magic is vastly more powerful on a per-second basis than telepathy. That is, it’s effect on the physical world is enormous in comparison to me pathing you about the cute boy at the inn.
That’s why many people want magic to have a price. Usually it’s a personal price, because there isn’t the societal infrastructure around to displace that cost to the ancestors or, as Merc so sharply notes above, the environment. The cost is personal because there’s no structure to allow for other options. And also because it plays powerfully into the themes of many fantasy works. is the requirement that there even be a cost puritanical? That depends, I guess. Certainly a YA protag whose mom pays the phone bill isn’t expending any more personal effort to make a phone call.
But then, the requirement of all that infrastructure vastly limits what you can do with tech. Whereas magic can do not only enormous stuff for seemingly no effort, but it can do things that normally would be considered impossible. Such as throw pure fire at someone. If Lvl. 3 Fireball is functionally equivalent to a grenade, does that negate the need for a cost to the spell? Well, can I cast infinite Fireballs where I might only be able to carry six grenades? Then maybe not. Even if I have 20 incredibly advanced, complex tools that are carry-able on a tool belt or in a small backpack, I probably still can’t do even a hundredth of what a mediocre hedgemage in some settings can do with zero tools.
If I feel like the character can do literally anything with magic without having to do much prep beforehand, and without the labor of millennia of civilization to back them up, if might take some of the tension out of the story. Can you substitute unbreakable rules to get around that freedom? Certainly. And most systems with a cost do. But that can steal leave a lot of freedom to avoid the hard work it would otherwise take to get around a plot obstacle.
And finally, we have to look at the other obvious reason for putting a cost on magic, even if it’s only eventual exhaustion. Every other thing we do or could do in a given situation in the real world has a personal cost. It might be immediate, like physical exhaustion. Or it might be more distant like having our phone shut off for not paying the bill. So, if magic has no such cost, or physical.economic limit, you have to wonder what the point of doing anything the normal way would be. And if you don’t ever have to do anything the normal way, it’s unlikely your culture and society would match so closely to societies whose entire reason for being the way they are is based on the limitations of “the normal way”.
So, in the end, it’s not that all magic must have a personal cost, and tech can’t. It’s more that the way magic is used in most fantasy stories means that the easiest or almost only place the cost can fall is on the shoulders of the character.
But there are other ways to do. Environmental ones, for example. The cataclysmic mage storms of Mercedes Lackey. Bacigalupi and Buckell’s The Alchemist, and The Executioness‘s brambles. Or, for example, perhaps the power for magic comes from living things. A mage might draw his power from a far distant tree. Might kill an entire forest at no cost to himself. Might collapse an empire by sucking dry its rivers and its wombs with her spells. And at no cost except of course the enmity of those he robs of life, or of the neighbors who blame her for the similar catastrophe wrought upon them by her unknown colleague to the west. Perhaps they crumble buildings by drawing on the power of “order” stored within its interlocking bricks. Or maybe the radiation by-products from the spell energy pollutes the soil and the stones, leading to horrific mutations of wild-life that scour the country-side and poison the serfs with their own grain. Or maybe, just maybe, it cracks the foundation of the heavens with its malignant vibrations and brings the angles toppling down like iron statues and through the crust of the world into hell.
So, as I’ve said before, it’s consequences to the actions of the characters that people want. And often the easiest or most simplistic costs are personal ones. But certainly, you could apply environmental costs. Or narrative costs paid to other characters who don’t much care for the selfish mage’s behavior. Or metaphysical costs to the order world or the purity of its souls. Those costs are easily addressed and provided for when they mirror the costs familiar to use from our own use of technology. But sometimes when were straying far from the realms of earthly happenings, interesting and appropriate costs become harder to work into the story in a way that doesn’t disrupt its progression.
Sure, the choice of a personal cost could be puritanical. Or it could be efficient. Or lazy. But that’s not a flaw of our conception of magic; rather, it’s a flaw in the imagination of the individual author, and the sum of the flaws of all authors as a whole.
I’d love to sea some magic systems that lack a direct personal cost like years off your life, or the blood of your newborn brother. And while we’re at it, give me some science fiction choices with personal costs. Technology in our world certainly isn’t consequence free; just ask Marie Curie. Anyone up for the challenge?