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Category Archives: Con-worlding

Human Conception: From Reality to Narrative

Psychology textbooks like to talk about the idea of “roles”: gender roles, professional roles, class roles, etc.  This is merely one instance of the greater process of human understanding.

Premise:  Reality is infinite and almost infinitely complex.

Premise:  Human beings–and their brains/processing power–are finite.

Question: So how do humans manage to interact with and understand the world?

A human being takes a subset of reality, and creates a rule from it.  A system of rules for a given topic becomes a model.  A group of models is understood through a narrative.  Our conception of the world, both physically ad intellectually, is comprised of a series of narratives.

Similarly, when we consider ourselves, there is a process of understanding–

Person -> Perceptions -> Roles -> Ideals -> Narratives -> Identity

–where “person” is a reality whose totality we cannot completely comprehend. When we consider others, we trade out the idea of Identity with the idea of a Label.  Now, a person can have many labels and many identities depending on context.

This goes back to the premise that we cannot understand everything all at the same time.

It is possible to move from the Label/Identity layer down into narratives, roles, and perceptions.  But no matter how low we go, we can never understand the totality, and this is where we run into the problem of false roles, false narratives, and false labels.  The vast majority of our conceptions of other people are flawed, and the other person would probably disagree with a large portion of them.  And so we have misunderstandings do to our inability to completely conceive of the totality of a person (or the world).

 

So, we take the facts we have and try to find what’s called a “best fit” case.  When you graph trends in statistics, you draw a line through your data points that best  approximates the average location of the points.  The same is true when we judge others, no matter on what axis we are judging them.  We look at our system of roles, ideas, and narratives, and try to find the set of them that most closely fits our perceptions of the person in question.  Then, we construct our idea of their identity from that best fit.  In this way, we warp (slightly or egregiously) the unknowable totality of reality as we experience it to fit a narrative.  Because our system for understanding and interacting with the universe is only capable of so much, we reduce reality down to something it feels like our system can handle.

The reason that certain character archetypes and narrative trajectories are so popular is because they match the most easily understandable roles and narratives.  Good vs. evil is easy for our  simplified system to handle.  It’s much harder to judge and therefore arrive at an “appropriate” emotional response to grey morality.  Because humans and the cultural sea in which we swim impose a localized best “best fit” on our collective consciousness, as writers we can learn about these best fits and cleave to or  subvert them for our own purposes in our writing.  We can pick where to deviate in order to focus our attention and our chances of successfully getting across our meaning.  Just as we can only handle a certain complexity in understanding reality, we are limited in our ability to deviate from the norm successfully.  Thus the  commonly re-quoted “You get one big lie” in regards to maintaining suspension of disbelief.

 

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AI, Academic Journals, and Obfuscation

A common complaint about the structure for publishing and distributing academic journals is that it is designed in such a way that it obfuscates and obscures the true bleeding edge of science and even the humanities.  Many an undergrad has complained about how they found a dozen sources for their paper, but that all but two of them were behind absurd paywalls.  Even after accounting for the subscriptions available to them through their school library.  One of the best arguments for the fallacy that information wants to be free is the way in which academic journals prevent the spread of potentially valuable information and make it very difficult for the indirect collaboration between multiple researchers that likely would lead to the fastest advances of our frontier of knowledge.

In the corporate world, there is the concept of the trade secret.  It’s basically a form of information that creates the value in the product or the lower cost of production a specific corporation which provides that corporation with a competitive edge over other companies in its field.  Although patents and trade secret laws provide incentive for companies to innovate and create new products, the way academic journals are operated hinders innovation and advancement without granting direct benefits to the people creating the actual new research. Rather, it benefits instead the publishing company whose profit is dependent on the exclusivity of the research, rather than the value of the research itself to spur scientific advancement and create innovation.

Besides the general science connection, this issue is relevant to a blog like the Chimney because of the way it relates to science fiction and the plausibility and/or obsolescence of the scientific  or world-building premise behind the story.

Many folks who work  in the hard sciences (or even the social sciences) have an advantage in the premise department, because they have knowledge and the ability to apply it at a level an amateur or  a generalist is unlikely to be able to replicate.  Thus, many generalists or plain-old writers who work in science fiction make use of a certain amount of handwavium in their scientific and technological world-building.  Two of the most common examples of this are in the areas of faster-than-light(FTL) travel (and space travel in general) and artificial intelligence.

I’d like to argue that there are three possible ways to deal with theoretical or futuristic technology in the premise of  an SF novel:

  1. To as much as possible research and include in your world-building and plotting the actual way in which a technology works and is used, or  the best possible guess based on current knowledge of how such a technology could likely work and be used.  This would include the possibility of having actual plot elements based on quirks inherent in a given implementation.  So if your FTL engine has some side-effect, then the world-building and the plot would both heavily incorporate that side-effect.  Perhaps some form of radiation with dangerous effects both dictates the design of your ships and the results of the radiation affecting humans dictates some aspect of the society that uses these engines (maybe in comparison to a society using another method?)  Here you are  firmly in “hard” SF territory and are trying to “predict the future” in some sense.
  2. To say fuck it and leave the mechanics of your ftl mysterious, but have it there to make possible some plot element, such as fast travel and interstellar empires.  You’ve got a worm-hole engine say, that allows your story, but you don’t delve into or completely ignore how such a device might cause your society to differ from the present  world.  The technology is a narrative vehicle rather than itself the reason for the story.  In (cinematic) Star Wars, for example, neither the Force nor hyper-drive are explained in any meaningful way, but they serve to make the story possible.
  3. A sort of mix between the two involves  obviously handwavium technology, but with a set of rules which serve to drive the story. While the second type is arguably not true speculative fiction, but just utilizes the trappings for drama’s sake, this type is speculative, but within a self-awarely unrealistic premise.

 

The first type of SF often suffers from becoming dated, as the theory is disproven, or a better alternative is found.  This also leads to a possible forth type, so-called retro-futurism, wherein an abandoned form of technology is taken beyond it’s historical application, such as with steampunk.

And therein lies a prime connection between our two topics:  A\a technology used in a story may already be dated without the author even knowing about it.  This could be because they came late to the trend  and haven’t caught on to it’s real-world successor; it could also be because an academic paywall or a company on the brink of releasing a new product has kept the advancement private from the layperson, which many authors are.

Readers may be surprised to find that there’s a very recent real-world example of this phenomenon: Artificial Intelligence.  Currently, someone outside the field but who may have read up on the “latest advances” for various reasons might be lead to believe that deep-learning, neural networks, and  statistical natural language processing are the precursors or even the prototype technologies that will bring about real general/human-like artificial intelligence, either  in the near or far future.

That can be forgiven pretty  easily, since the real precursor to AI is sitting behind a massive build-up of paywalls and corporate trade secrets.  While very keen individuals may have heard of the “memristor”, a sort of circuit capable of behavior  similar to a neuron, this is a hardware innovation.  There is  speculation that modified memristors might be able to closely model the activity of the brain.

But there is already a software solution: the content-agnostic relationship  mapping, analysis, formatting, and translation engine.  I doubt anyone reading this blog has ever heard of it.  I would indeed be surprised if anyone at Google or Microsoft had, either.  In fact, I only know it it by chance, myself. A friend I’ve been doing game design with on and off for the past few years told me about it while we were discussing the AI  model used in the HTML5 tactical-RPG Dark Medallion.

Content-agnostic relationship mapping is a sort of neuron simulation technology that permits a computer program to learn and categorize concept-models in a way that is similar to how humans do, and is basically the data-structure underlying  the software “stack”.  The “analysis” part refers to the system and algorithms used to review and perform calculations based on input from the outside world.  “Formatting” is the process of  turning the output of the system into intelligible communication–you might think of this as analogous to language production.  Just like human thoughts, the way this system “thinks” is not  necessarily all-verbal.  It can think in sensory input models just like a person: images, sounds, smells, tastes, and also combine these forms of data into complete “memories”.  “Translation” refers to the process of converting the stored information from the underlying relationship map into output mediums: pictures, text, spoken language, sounds.

“Content agnostic” means that the same data structures can store any type of content.  A sound, an image, a concept like “animal”: all of these can be stored in the same type of data structure, rather than say storing visual information as actual image files or sounds as audio files.  Text input is understood and stored in these same structures, so that the system does not merely analyze and regurgitate text-files like the current statistical language processing systems or use plug and play response templates like a chat-bot.  Further, the system is capable of output in any language it has learned, because the internal representations of knowledge are not stored in any one language such as English.  It’s not translation, but rather spontaneous generation of speech.

It’s debatable whether this system is truly intelligent/conscious, however.  It’s not going to act like a real human.  As far as I understand it, it possesses no driving spirit like a human, which might cause it to act on its own.  It merely responds to commands from a human.  But I suspect that such an advancement is not far away.

Nor is there an AI out there that can speak a thousand human languages and program new AIs, or write novels.  Not yet, anyway.  (Although apparently they’ve developed it to the point where it can read a short story and answer questions about it, like the names of the main characters or the setting. ) My friend categorized this technology as somewhere between an alpha release and a beta release, probably closer to alpha.

Personally, I’ll be impressed if they can just get it reliably answering questions/chatting in English and observably learning and integrating new things into its model of the world.  I saw some screenshots and a quick video of what I’ll call an fMRI equivalent, showing activation of the individual simulated “neurons”* and  of the entire “brain” during some low-level tests.  Wikipedia seems to be saying the technical term is “gray-box testing”, but since I have no formal software-design training, I can’t say if I’m mis-uderstanding that term or not.   Basically, they have zoomable view of the relationship map, and when the program is activating the various nodes, they light on the screen.   So, if you ask the system how many legs a cat has, the node for cat will light up, followed by the node for “legs”, and maybe the node for “possession”.  Possibly other nodes for related concepts, as well.  None of the images I saw actually labelled the nodes at the level of zoom shown, nor do I have a full understanding of how the technology works.  I couldn’t tell anyone enough for them to reproduce it, which I suppose is the point, given that if this really is a useable technique for creating AIs, it’s probably worth more than the blog-platform I’m writing this on or maybe even all of  Google.

 

Getting back to our original topic, while this technology certainly seemed impressive to me, it’s quite possible it’s just another garden path technology like I believe statistical natural language processing to be.  Science fiction books with clear ideas of how AI works will work are actually quite few and far between.  Asimov’s Three Laws, for example, are not about how robot brains work, but rather about  higher-level things like will AI want to harm us.  In light of what I’ve argued above, perhaps that’s the wisest course.  But then again, plenty of other fields  and technologies are elaborately described in SF stories, and these descriptions used to restrict and/or drive the plot and the actions of the characters.

If anyone does have any books recommendations that do get into the details of how AI works in the story’s world,I would love to read some.

 

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Magic’s Pawn

One of my favorite styles of magic, though not often see is not a clever way for the protagonist to control the forces of magic, but a system where the forces of magic control the protagonist.  I suppose an ancient prophecy ca work kind of like this or a higher being giving direction, but I’m talking a more concrete and local form of control, yet exercised by a more abstract force.

The forces of magic involved don’t necessarily have to be sentient or intelligent in the way a human is or, even an animal although they could be.  Honestly, I think not being so makes the situation all the more interesting.

Think of the way a bee is involved in an ecosystem: generally as a pollinator.  Now imagine that a human (probably a mage or this world’s equivalent, but not necessarily) has been incorporated into the magical ecosystem of the world in the same way.  Some force of magic has evolved to encourage certain behaviors in human mages that are beneficial to the magic of the world that force of magic is part of.

Perhaps there is a cycle sort of like the water cycle that benefits from humanity in chaos, and so the magic has evolved ways to create that chaos through empowering some mage or person.  The specific actions of the person are irrelevant to the magic, as long as they cause a great upheaval.  The system may not even care if humans would describe this pawn of magic as “evil” or “good”.

Humanoid characters are almost always portrayed as exerting control over the magic of their world, but they are rarely shown to have been integrated into the system–as we are integrated into nature, even despite our control of it–despite what is portrayed in the world’s history as thousands or even millions of years of coexistence.

Where are the magical world equivalents of modern climate change?  There are apocalypses sort of like nuclear bomb analogs.  Mercedes Lackey’s Winds series, for example, with it’s effects on the world of the end of the war depicted in her Gryphon’s series.  But rarely if ever are there subtle build-ups of all the interference caused by humans harnessing magical forces.  Not even on the local level like the magical equivalent of the flooding and ecological damage caused by damning rivers, or the water shortages caused by different political entities failing to cooperate on usage rights of the local river.

I would love to read (or write!) some fantasy exploring a closer relationship between man and magic than simply human master and magical servant/slave.

 

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Why Obsessing About Rape Only Muddies the Waters

That titles is absolutely intended to be click bait.  A completely honest description of the topic is going to sound very boring.  That I had to use the click-bait title only demonstrates my point, really.  So, what is this post really about?

I’m taking a quick break from my World-building seminars to address a topic that’s both in the news a lot lately, and is also a relevant example of how you can add depth to your world-building.  The issue is sexual consent, and the broader application is linguistics.  Using the word “rape” to talk about issues of sexual consent is a linguistic choice, a cultural choice, and a rhetorical choice.  But what a lot of people don’t understand is how those three types of choice interact, and it really makes it hard to have a useful discussion on the issue of sexual consent when we focus on rape and whether or not the definition of the word should be expanded.  I’m going to make a lingusitic, cultural, and rhetorical argument that it shouldn’t.  The interaction between those three frames of references is the world-building aspect of the post.

First, I’m going to give my short essay on why I am taking the position I am, and then I’m going to explore how the topic could be generalized to help with world-building.  Those of you who aren’t writers or don’t care about world-building can certainly skip the second part of this post.  I think you could benefit from it, but if the issue of rape and consent is why you came here, I’m not going to try to force you to look at the broader implications of my argument.  Here we go!

Rape is often defined as forcing sexual intercourse on a target.  From a linguistic standpoint, you could argue that rape is any form of sexual intercourse without consent.  That’s the linguistic frame of reference.  Now, consider the “prototype” of the word rape.  (I’ve talked about prototypes in linguistics before.  Essentially, it’s the first example you think of when you picture the word in your head.)  It’s a guy dragging someone kicking and screaming into an alley for a lot of pop culture.  So you’ve made a perfectly valid linguistic choice, especially if you explicitly state your definition of all forms of sexual intercourse without legal consent.  But you haven’t made a good rhetorical decision, because when you call someone a rapist, or say a crime is rape, your listeners/readers are going to compare it to their prototype, and it it doesn’t fall within that individuals personal tolerance zone for deviation from that prototype, you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage in convincing them of your argument,

There’s also a cultural choice involved.  Each culture has its own prototype for a word, and the concept the word describes has its own connotations.  Rape culture is a common buzzword these days.  It’s not a “culture”, it’s a set of attitudes, beliefs, and connotations within our larger common culture or popular culture that arguably encourage, allow for, or cover up rape and sexual misconduct/lack of consent.  By calling something “rape”, within a culture with a strong rape culture component, and knowing the prototype for rape is different, perhaps significantly so, from the crime in question, you make a poor rhetorical decision.  It might even be argued to be a poor linguistic decision, because to an extent words are variable, and a word in one culture might have such a strongly differentiated prototype that you can’t really say your definition is correct or reasonable.

However, there’s also the rhetorical decision that “rape” gets people’s notice.  You might write a linguistically, culturally, and even otherwise rhetorically sound decision to use a different term, and then you won’t reach your target audience because that term isn’t on their radar.

Now, my argument is that we should not be focusing so much on the word “rape” in these discussions.  Not only is it rhetorically risky, it doesn’t acknowledge that so-called “rape” is only the tip of a massive iceberg called “non-consensual sex”, the prototype of which is just the tip of another massive iceberg of incidents which are non-consensual sex but not considered so by popular culture, even if they may be considered “skeevy” or sleazy, or ethically grey/black.  But to call them rape gives your rhetorical opponent a lot of wiggle room.  Here’s a technically “true” statement reworded in several different ways to give you an idea of how strong an influence these cultural and rhetorical choices exert on discourse:

  1. “Barney Stinson raped a dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  2. “Barney Stinson assaulted dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  3. “Barney Stinson had unconsensual sex dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  4. “Barney Stinson lied to dozens of women to get sex they would not otherwise have given within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  5. “Barney Stinson tricked dozens of women into having sex with him within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.

Now, given the popularity of the show, and the lack of outcry over Barney’s behavior, I’d argue that last version is the worst most people would say of the behavior of Neil Patrick Harris’s character in HIMYM.  Personally, I think #3 does the best job of balancing linguistic reality, rhetorical wisdom, and cultural perception.  The trick here is, I don’t think mainstream cultural perception would accept the label “unconsensual sex” for these incidents.  After all, the women said “yes”.  barney did not use force on any of them.  None of them were roofied, although depending on how you classify alcohol, you could argue many were drugged; but, most of them drugged themselves, so you probably won’t have an easy time making that argument, despite its truth or falsity.

Now we have to dig down a bit deeper.  Most people consider consent as a simple black and white “Did she say yes at some point?”  That certainly makes it easier for someone accused of misconduct to defend themselves.  Or to avoid a lot of thought on whether the person actually wanted to be part of an encounter with them.

A more sophisticated view is, “Did they say yes without external pressure such as alcohol, force, or threat of force?” Does a slightly better job of determining true consent by my definition, but still isn’t quite there.

Better yet, add “implied force, peer pressure, hierarchical pressure(boss, teacher, adult to kid), cultural pressure, or economic pressure”.

However, that can be very hard to test for, and our society’s focus on freedom and being able to go with the flow and not be too analytical can make it hard t determine consent to that level.  Explicitly asking those questions can get you a rejection you might not otherwise have gotten.  Again, this creates wiggle room for people who do know that they wouldn’t have gotten sex without external factors.  The vast majority of rape accusations are against people who knew they were applying outside pressure or that some other factor was.

However, the ethical standard I’m choosing to apply is, “Did the accused (or not, if you’re judging yourself) know that under normal circumstances, the other party would not have consented to sex with them?”  If so, and if they had sex with the person, they must have known that the person’s capacity to consent was compromised when they decided to pursue sex.  Legal issues aside, this is unethical.  It also often accounts for why people view some approaches to obtaining sex as sketchy or generally less than a stellar recommendation of someone’s character.

Now, is that rape?  No, I don’t believe so.  I would restrict rape to the person knowingly applying their own form of force through physical means: ie, physical force, threat of physical force, implied threat of force, them drugging the person, or them getting the person drunk.  However, I do think it should be considered immoral, unethical, and probably criminal.  The crime here is intentional denial or avoidance of consent for the purposes of obtaining intercourse with the person.  We don’t have a rape problem, we have a consent problem, and insisting on focusing on rape obscures that.  Certainly in our lifetime, it’s unlikely this sort of crime will ever be considered under the umbrella of rape from a legal or pop culture standpoint, and I think trying to shoehorn it into that category makes a difficult task even harder.

Now, onto the world-building section, it is a bit short, since this is an example-based article.  Using this as an example can you think of any other issues that suffer from similar complexity?  There are quite a few.  Drug crimes, religion, various areas of ethics.  The humanities, the sciences.  You can use the contrast between culture, rhetorical value, and linguistic meaning to add depth to any area of your world-building.  The spaces between these related meanings leave people room to rationalize, have different opinions or takes on a subject, and room for cultural change and/or growth.  This also applies to conflict between individual characters and groups of characters.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Con-worlding, Gender Issues

 

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Monthly World-building Seminar: Fantasy, Technology, and Occupation

Welcome back to Atsiko’s Monthly World-building Seminar!  Today, we’re going to be talking again about technology and its influence on society.  In fantasy literature.

In the spirit of my official seminar schedule, I wanted to talk about how the ideas in the previous post can be applied to the real world.

According to the MIT Technology Review and the National Bureau for Economic Research, income and wealth inequality are directly related to the way in which an increasingly technological culture advantages the technologically literate over any other group.  Which only makes sense.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that those most likely to be technologically literate are people who are already advantaged in a given economy/society.  And when new technology comes around, they are also the most likely to have the time and resources available to capitalize on the possibilities of that new technology.  And this has been true throughout history.  When a group of people has a smaller share of inherited wealth, and a technology comes along that eliminates or changes their field of employment drastically, they have less chance of being able to recover and find a place in the new incarnation of society.

The roots of this problem all go back to the concept of specialization of labor: As a society grows larger and more organized, individuals in the society begin to switch from being jacks of all trades to being the master of one.  With the advent of agriculture, the job of producing food could be handled by a smaller percentage of the population, leaving the rest of the society free to pursue other trades.  This leads to the development of trades, where the master passes on their skills and knowledge to the apprentice, and these traditions result in an increasing level of quality in those areas.  As trades become more specialized, it becomes increasingly harder for an individual to learn a new trade, whether by themselves or from a teacher.  Finally, trades become specialized enough, and important enough to the economy that they begin to gain prestige, the supply of those skilled in the trade is exceeded by the demand for their services, and they become economically more stable and lucrative.

 

And some day, a new technology is invented which makes some trade obsolete.  Or perhaps a step in the production of a good that was once important and labor-demanding becomes simpler and easier, eliminating the need for the people who specialized in that step begins to dry up.  Now they must either invest in learning a new skill or be relegated to the pool of laborers suited for only easy tasks which are little trouble to learn.  The suppl of workers is closer to or even exceeds the demand, and the individual faces a decrease in the standard of living.

Not every technology has this effect, but the more innovative and powerful the technology, the more likely it is.  And while new technologies make create new jobs and trades, they tend to be more specialized, and create fewer jobs than a job-killing technology may destroy.

 

The next step of the association between technology and inequality involves the way in which technology breeds complexity in a society.  As more technologies arise, and the limited population divides further between career paths, it becomes necessary to have more effective organization.  Now jobs in organization begin to diversify and increase in complexity.  Because some human beings are better at certain tasks than others, and because there are a limited number of slots in most fields, especially as increasing levels of technology make tasks in those fields more efficient, the ease of switching between careers decreases.  And even the mid-level careers go through this, such that high-level and mid-level careers both drop to low-level when their relevance is eliminated by technology.

Finally, as technology and organization increase in complexity and investment of time and knowledge, there is a class of job that only a tiny number of people are suited for, but for which workers are in high demand.  You can never eliminate all the low-level jobs.; human society will always have the equivalent of today’s “minimum wage” job, at least as far as fantasy is concerned, no matter what the level of technology or magic involved.  Supply and demand will always hold, and so as a result, the greater the level of technology, the wider the income gap is going to be, no matter how much that same technology may raise the floor.  And as this rise in demand for certain skills convinces more people to aim for those career tracks, the people in the middle shift more towards the top, and the economy sees more profit in those areas, increasing demand and also increasing inequality.  Those who would previously have been in the mid-level fields are now instead either hitting the tail-end of the upper-level, or failing out and losing their investment, dropping into the low-level fields.  You can read a bit more about the ideas of capital bias and skill bias here.

 

The easiest example of this today is Silicon Valley.  As noted in the MITTR article, Silicon Valley is one of the areas of the highest economic inequality in this US, being one of the centers of technological innovation and change.  But basically any American corporation can model these concepts.  Certain high demand fields, such as CEO or other management jobs are paid not according to merit, but rather based on competition between companies for an under-available commodity.

 

So technology leads both to a massive increase in the overall productivity of the society, but also to larger and larger amounts of inequality.  This is something that’s important to keep in mind when building your own fictional society, and it can lend a lot of verisimilitude to your world-building. And in our third and final post for this introductory mini-seminar, I’ll go into more detail about both realistic and reasonable applications of these concepts to fictional world.

 

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The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic.  And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool.  I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so.  One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.

Everything has a cost.  You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going.  The cost of most things is pretty clear.  But the cost of magic is different.  Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system.  I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice…  Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.

All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic.  And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world.  Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs.  For this  post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:

The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy.  Shoot a bow?  It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release.  By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at.  Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together. 

So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic?  Well, it often is.  But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:

1.  It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect.  Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release.  This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip.  Makes perfect sense, right?  This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.

But what about with magic?  How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball?  In reality, we can’t.  But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow.  That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie.  Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.

But what about for bigger spells?  Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word.  No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer.  And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region).  So now we’re in a bit of trouble.  Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.

Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself  is not as easy as it would seem).  Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow.  Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands.  A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible.  Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow.  Jack of all trades and whatnot.  So why should magic be so priviliged?  Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future…  The list goes on forever.

At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit.  Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire.  But right now we’re talking about cost.  There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable.  Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own.  At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.

2.  Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic.  One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again.  All it takes to level a city is an apple?  I find it hard to countenence.  What was the creator of this system thinking?

If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine.  Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it.  But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should.  Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story.  The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it.  Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again.  If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward.  Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause.  So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.

None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires.  If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers. 

But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later.  Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other.  Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything.  You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time.  But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.

Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot.  Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature.  Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?

 

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Not All Elementalists Control Their Elements

Another random short-story recommendation:

Elementalism is one of the most common forms of magic in fantasy.  Flinging fire, whipping up the waters, hurlling thunderbolts.  Who wouldn’t love to do that?  But, like many other popular forms of magic, elementalism has lost its grip on real magic.  Because, real magic has a price.  And real big magic has a real big price.  Being tired for a few hours just doesn’t cut it.

And along some Helen Keeble and makes the magic magic again.  In Helen Keeble’s world of elemental magic, it’s the elements that are in control, and the humans who are just poor vessels of that power.  Specifically, I’m refering to two short stories in Strange Horizons, entitled “In Ashes” and “In Stone“, where we learn just what price you pay to control nature, and just how cruel the choice of who pays it.

And I guess what I’m saying here is that that’s how true magic works, or should be.

 

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