It often seen as the one thing that absolutely divides fantasy from science fiction. On the other hand it is, if sufficiently advanced, indistinguishable from technology — or is that the other way around? 🙂
M is for magic.
I’m not going to tell you about magic as it is depicted in various works of fantasy fiction; plenty of other people have done that already, possibly even for this year’s A-Z Challenge. Instead, I’m going to discuss magic in a more… anthropological slant.
First, let’s look at a couple of definitions (out of Webster’s Universal Encyclopedic Dictionary, 2002 edition) so there’s no confusion concerning the terms being used here.
Technology: the practical application of knowledge especially to a particular area; a capability given by the practical application of knowledge; a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge
Magic: the use of means (such as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces
Compare and contrast… Technology is the practical application of knowledge to get stuff done. If magic worked, rather than being merely a superstitious belief, it would also be a practical application of knowledge to get stuff done. Natural forces, of course, meaning the way the world actually works — y’know, like physics and biology and stuff.
Two or three years ago, I read an anthropology paper on how Western medicine is really not any different from the beliefs of more “primitive” cultures with their use of magic to cure maladies. (It was an interesting paper all around; I wish I had access to a copy of it now so I could give specific quotes from it. Maybe some other time I will. Handy, being related to the anthropologist who wrote the paper.) Even the success rates are about the same — not all that good, sometimes — and yet people in First World countries will tell you that our way of doing things is purely rational science, whereas anyone who believes in magic is a superstitious fool.
Science, y’see, has rules. It can be repeated. Do a scientific experiment, get a particular outcome, have someone else do the same experiment… and watch them get the same outcome. That’s part of the scientific method: do the same experiment, get the same results.
Somehow, I don’t think those “primitive” people who use magic in their real lives would keep doing it if they didn’t get the results they wanted, at least often enough to make it worth a shot. We all tend to go with what works, even if we don’t understand the principles behind why it works — and how many of us actually understand how even something as simple as taking aspirin to cure a headache works? We do it because it gives us the results we want.
Science: knowledge or system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained through scientific method; a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws
There’s much in science itself that goes against our old views of how science is supposed to work. Ever read about the experiments to determine if light is a wave or a particle? Funny how what the person conducting the experiment believes the answer is will determine the outcome. Believe light is a wave? Your experiment will show that it’s a wave. Somehow, physics itself — that hardest of hard sciences — seems to respond to human belief. Sounds a bit like magic, doesn’t it?
All right, anthropology lesson over. I have been trying to relate all of my A-Z Challenge posts to writing science fiction and fantasy, so let’s take a moment to discuss that part.
I do believe that one thing science fiction is good for is challenging readers’ preconceptions. Even though some people prefer, despite the current trend for everything to be cross-genre hybrids, that science fiction and fantasy don’t mix exactly because they don’t want that messy, irrational magic stuff polluting their clean scientific worldview.
The universe isn’t neat and tidy. Physics — that hardest of hard sciences — isn’t neat and tidy. Not in real life. So why should it be in fiction? If someone’s magic system — real or fictional — gets results according to the scientific method (do it this way every time, get the same results every time), who is to say that it’s irrational simply because of what it’s called?