This page is part of my What is Science Fiction? site.

Science versus Magic

Specifically, this page is devoted to that part of the distinction between fantasy and ScF which looks at the ways in which magic works differently from (or similarly to) science and technology.

The Rules

Some folk mention the [ir]reducibility of magic to a set of simple rules. What is science but the attempt to discover rules by which the whole universe works? and make them as simple as possible so we can use them.

Ahasuerus the Wandering Jew replies:

I beg to differ. First, science isn't necessarily about "using them". There can be technology without science and, conversely, there can be science without technology.

More importantly, most systems of magic that humanity has known are reducible to "a set of simple rules" and there are plenty of books on the subject. However, the "simple rules" of magic are not the same as the rules of the world around us but rather the rules governing human thinking in a pre-technological civilization. E.g. things that look similar must be similar otherwise; affecting a (former) part of the object must have some effect on the whole; etc. Hence the similarity between magic and technology lies in the fact that they both aim to change the world in accordance with our whims, but magic is about projecting the ways of our mind on the outside world, whereas technology is about learning the ways of the outside world and then using them to change (bits and pieces of) the world.

Of course, the above leaves open a much more interesting question of why the mind of a pre-technological human operates the way it does, but I'll have to address it some other time :)

For some attempts to picture worlds where "magic" is a science, see Anderson's Operation Chaos and Geston's The Siege of Wonder. Others often cited in this connection include Magic, Inc. by Heinlein, some of Randall Garrett's books, and The Toxic Spell Dump by Turtledove. I'd be interested to hear of more examples.

Clarke's Third Law

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This law is often cited by boneheaded readers and lazy authors who want to claim that the magical background of any fantasy work can just as well be explained as a result of highly advanced technology, and thus there is no point in distinguishing the two. One could simply point out that in most stories labelled as fantasy, the general level of technology is quite low (iron swords), and the magic is presented as being something apart from, and much more powerful than, this technology. But more importantly, these people are really asserting the converse of the Third Law, a quite different statement: "Any magic can be imitated by a sufficiently advanced technology". Clarke didn't say this, and I've evolved a retort to it, which I shall call Treitel's Third Retort
"A sufficiently incompetent ScF author is indistinguishable from magic." This is particularly aimed at authors who find that their plot doesn't quite work in the world they've created, and solve the problem by adding a new piece of "technology" that does exactly what the hero (or villain) needs it to do at that point, after which it's conveniently forgotten.

However, Elisabeth Carey asserts that there is a difference between fantasy with science fictional elements and science fiction written by someone who didn't do their homework; Gary Farber adds that we can distinguish between intentional and unintentional fantasy. These strike me as good points. An interesting project might be to list some of the better-known magical powers and ask how they could be simulated using standard ScFnal devices, and whether the results would be easily distinguishable.

Tim Poston points out that writers who introduce a powerful device do so at great peril to their imaginary worlds:

a true technology (as distinct from a rootless tool) implies that you can do a lot of things, if you can do the mentioned one. Even pretty good writers tend to slip on this: Niven's stasis fields would transform far more things in Known Space than he thinks through. [snip] If there are guns in a story, there must be a metallurgical society somewhere not too far off, and that has a whole heap of implications.
He adds that some admitted fantasy writers, e.g. Randall Garrett, do quite a good job of making their magic work like a technology.

One author who seems to me to fail this test is Frank Herbert. Dune includes an anti-gravity device that seems to be cheap and reliable -- it's very widely used -- but how do his aircraft stay aloft? With good old-fashioned wings.

Jim Maloy disputes Poston's point:

I call his misconception "the 'black box' fallacy." You've probably heard the old gag line: "If airplane 'black boxes' are so indestructible, why don't they make the whole airplane out of the same stuff?" The fallacy lies in the assumption that a technology that works for application "A" must be usable for applications "B" through "Z" and beyond.

Real technology in the real world is a lot more complex (and a lot less flexible) than that. In the case of the "black box" question, the answer is: If they built an airplane the way they build black boxes, the airplane would be too heavy to get off the ground.

Maloy also mentions other reasons why a technology might be understood but not used widely (or at all), including political and economic ones.
Oh, very well. The first two Retorts are:
  1. When a distinguished but elderly ScF author says that a younger author has talent, he is almost certainly right. When he invites the younger one to collaborate with him on a book, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way to find the limits of the readable is to go beyond them into the unreadable.
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