Magic

Tagged: Theme

In the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1884-1928) "magic" is defined as "the pretended art of influencing the course of events . . . by processes supposed to owe their efficacy to their power of compelling the intervention of spiritual beings, or of bringing into operation some occult controlling principle of nature". The lexicographer assumed that there is no difficulty in telling a "pretended" art from a real one, nor in distinguishing the "occult" from the scientific. Many sf authors have felt dissatisfied with such confident categorizations, and have written stories exemplifying alternative relationships between magic and science.

One typical attitude is summed up by Arthur C Clarke's "Third Law" (> Clarke's Laws) in Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (1962; rev 1973; rev 1984; rev 2000): "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This echoes the observation by Roger Bacon (circa 1214-1292) 700 years before that "many secrets of art and nature are thought by the unlearned to be magical"; the irony whereby Bacon, a pioneer of experimental science, gained a posthumous reputation for sorcery goes far to confirm Clarke's "Law", and is at the heart of James Blish's novel of the history of science, Doctor Mirabilis (1964; rev 1971). Stories in which superior technology is treated as magic are common, the most thoroughgoing being Larry Niven's and David Gerrold's The Flying Sorcerers (1971). However, the unexpressed converse of Clarke's "Law" has proved even more attractive: if technology looks like magic, could magic not have been misunderstood technology?

The possibilities for fiction of this nature were well exemplified by several stories published in Unknown in the 1940s: Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife (April 1943 Unknown; 1953; vt Burn Witch Burn 1962), Robert A Heinlein's "The Devil Makes the Law" (September 1940 Unknown; vt "Magic, Inc." in Waldo and Magic, Inc. coll 1950), and the Harold Shea stories by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, later collected as The Incomplete Enchanter (May, August 1940 Unknown; coll of linked stories 1941) and The Castle of Iron (April 1941 Unknown; 1950); the Leiber tale is set in the contemporary USA, the Heinlein in an Alternate History very similar to it, and the Harold Shea stories in Parallel Worlds to which contemporary US citizens venture or are sent. All rely heavily on the juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar, realistic and fantastic; their concern, above all, is to discipline and rationalize notions of magic. Thus in Conjure Wife the hero, a professor of social anthropology, discovers that his wife is a witch and forces her to give up this "superstition". Accumulating catastrophes persuade him that he is wrong. In the end he has to use his academic training to systematize his wife's knowledge and restore stability. The "incomplete enchanters" are likewise academic psychologists, though Heinlein's hero, characteristically, is a small-town businessman.

In presenting rationalized forms of magic the Unknown authors were following arguments presented in The Golden Bough (1890 2vols; 3rd edition rev 1911-1915 12vols) by Sir James Frazer (1854-1941). This extremely influential work had suggested (a) that magic is like science but unlike Religion in its assumption that the Universe works according to "immutable laws", and (b) that some of these laws can be codified as Laws of Sympathy, Similarity and Contact. Frazer was probably no more than half serious in this, but the notion of quasi-Newtonian laws proved irresistible. Leiber, de Camp and Pratt include overt references to The Golden Bough, while the hero of "Magic, Inc." is actually called Fraser. At one point this Fraser explains how, for instance, he exploits the laws of "homeopathy" and "contiguity" to erect temporary grandstands: he has a section of seating carefully built, then chops it to pieces, and, "Under the law of contiguity, each piece remained part of the structure it had once been in. Under the law of homeopathy, each piece was potentially the entire structure." So Fraser can send out splinters which, when activated by the proper spells, will temporarily become entire structures. We realize that the world he lives in is controlled entirely by "occult" principles, but that these are not haphazard. Much of the amusement of worlds-where-magic-works stories lies in developing the possibilities of a small number of magical rules.

Many authors have followed the lead of the Unknown stories: Poul Anderson in Three Hearts and Three Lions (September-October 1953 F&SF; exp 1961) and Operation Chaos (stories 1956-1959 F&SF; coll of linked stories 1971), John Brunner in The Traveler in Black (coll of linked stories 1971; with 1 story added vt The Compleat Traveler in Black 1986), James Blish in Black Easter (August-October 1967 If as "Faust Aleph-Null"; 1968) and James E Gunn in The Magicians (May 1954 Beyond as "Sine of the Magus"; exp 1976). The principles of magic as a kind of alternate Technology are also examined in Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (coll of linked stories 1950) and The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), in Mark Geston's The Siege of Wonder (1976), in Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East trilogy beginning with The Broken Lands (1968), and in Christopher Stasheff's Warlock series beginning with The Warlock in Spite of Himself (1969). Rachel Pollack's Unquenchable Fire (1988) envisages an alternate-world USA run by a bureaucracy of shamans whose shamanism actually works. But the purest example of "Frazerian" sf is Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series (January 1964-April 1979 var mags, chiefly Analog), set in an alternate world where King Richard I founded a stable Plantagenet dynasty, Europe remained feudal and Catholic, and magic was developed in harmony with science. The heroes are a detective pair, Lord Darcy and Master Sean O'Lochlainn, resembling Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Master Sean is not a doctor, however, but a sorcerer, and he plays a much more significant role than Dr Watson ever did, compensating for the absence of forensic science by a series of carefully described magical tests for murder weapons, times of death, chemical analysis and so on. It is not too much to say that the stories are vehicles for the explanations of Master Sean rather than for the adventures of Lord Darcy. Garrett's distinctive contributions lie in the range of new "laws" added to the old Frazerian ones (Relevance, Synecdoche, Congruency, etc.) and in the rigour with which these are stated and used.

In the stories so far mentioned magic is seen not as like science but as a form of science. The theme of magic as a kind of alternate science remains intensely popular. Among the writers who would convince us that magic is as much science as art are Patricia McKillip in her Riddle-Master trilogy, beginning with The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), who does so with gravitas, Phyllis Eisenstein with Sorcerer's Son (1979) and its sequel The Crystal Palace (1988), who does so with some frivolity, and Barbara Hambly in a variety of works, notably the Sun-Cross sequence beginning with The Rainbow Abyss (1991), which presents magic as culturally disreputable. Though, for really disreputable magic, it would be hard to go past Tim Powers's splendid The Drawing of the Dark (1979), whose title puns on approaching evil and long-brewed beer, "the dark", which is the fountainhead, literally, of magic in the book's alternate sixteenth-century Vienna.

But, if magic is a form of science, why has it never been systematized in our world? Many different answers have been given to this. Garrett's, for example, is that it is a result of prejudiced inquiry on the part of Scientists (exactly the charge levelled at scientists in the real world by adherents of the Pseudosciences and researchers into the paranormal), complicated by the fact that the exercise of magic demands a mysterious "talent" which many investigators do not possess: experiments are therefore likely to be unrepeatable. Magic here is being assimilated to Psi Powers, which sf authors are capable of taking seriously. No matter how serious the treatment, however, the end result can be argued as frivolous, for magic is, if not precisely disproven, regarded by science as actually workable only when both magician and subject are believers (as with faith healing or Australian aborigines "pointing the bone"), when it is susceptible to a psychological or psychosomatic rather than a supernatural explanation.

The subgenre of tales about alternate worlds in which magic is subsumed into psi powers is often associated with the names of Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Above-average work in this vein has more recently been produced by Katherine Kurtz with the continuing Chronicles of the Deryni series, beginning with Deryni Rising (1970), by Sheri S Tepper with the True Game series – which can be regarded as sf – beginning with King's Blood Four (1983), and most famously by Orson Scott Card in the Tales of Alvin Maker, to date comprising Seventh Son (1987), Red Prophet (1988) and Prentice Alvin (1989), assembled as Hatrack River (omni 1989).

A not uncommon elegiac variant is the idea of a world in which the supply of magic, or its sources, is drying up. Peter Dickinson's The Blue Hawk (1976) is of this kind, and there never seem to be enough Sipstrassi stones (superscientific sources of magical potency from Atlantis) to go around in David Gemmell's Sipstrassi sequence, which begins with Wolf in Shadow (1987; vt The Jerusalem Man 1988). The best-known book of this kind may be Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away (1977), which was followed by his two Shared-World anthologies, The Magic May Return (anth 1981) and More Magic (anth 1984).

It is striking that one "Frazerian" area has daunted all but the boldest users of magic in sf, this being Religion. The position of magic in a Christian universe is especially difficult to define, since its compulsive quality appears to contradict dogmas of divine omnipotence. Most authors accordingly relegate the problem to the background of their stories, C S Lewis going so far, in That Hideous Strength (1945), as to explain how magic has come to be unlawful for Christians in normal circumstances. One author who does not shirk the challenge is James Blish, but his Black Easter ends with the words: "God is dead."

The actions of godlike creatures in sf (> Gods and Demons) are seldom distinguishable from magic, much as in Clarke's "Law" quoted above, and John Varley's hyperactive Gaean sequence about an artificial world controlled by an intelligence devoted to metamorphic theatricals of a magical kind – Titan (1979), Wizard (1980) and Demon (1984) – though published as sf, has less cognitive consistency than a number of works – including McKillip's Riddle-Master series – which would normally be classified as fantasy.

That classification is frequently given also to the only wholly successful resolution of magic, science and religion in sf so far: Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy (1968-1972). This is in a sense a "Frazerian" work, for the magic in it is based on the notion that everything has a true name and can be controlled by knowledge of it: Frazer was familiar with name-taboos. However, the relationship is virtually one of Parody, for while the first "golden bough" was Aeneas's talisman of return from the underworld (Virgil's Aeneid Book 6), the Archmage-hero of Earthsea finds himself continually struggling against death without any supporting token. He learns in the first book that the defeat of death is an improper aim for a magician, whose art must depend on respect for the individual qualities (or names) of others, rather than on manipulation of them for one's own self-perpetuation. In the second book he faces an organized religion of sacrifice and propitiation, to demonstrate that this offers no better hope for humanity. In the third he duels with a rival "mage" who appears to have won power over death, though with disastrous consequences for others. Magic is presented continually as an alternative ideology to those with which we are familiar – i.e., those of science and religion – and as a more attractive one. Earthsea is informed, atypically for sf, by an awareness of the discoveries of post-Victorian Anthropology; it exemplifies the serious and powerful argumentative quality which can underline what appear to be only entertaining fantasies.

More recently two authors have, perhaps, done something new in the subgenre. The first is Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld sequence (from 1983) must have produced a greater (and funnier) variety of riffs on the world-where-magic-works theme, many of them borderline sf, than any other author; it is the sheer variety that constitutes the novelty. The second is John Crowley, who has presented one of the most scholarly (and historically accurate) varieties of the magical art yet to appear in genre fiction, borrowed from the neo-platonic scientist/magicians of the Renaissance. Magic of this sort permeates (though seldom obviously) the novel Little, Big (1981), and actually becomes the structural principle of Aegypt (1987). This latter – first of a projected quartet – may be the only novel by a genre writer whose story, whose structure and whose imagery are wholly isomorphic with an actual historical magical system, gnostic magic. Renaissance magic does, however, also play a prominent role – and is portrayed as rigorous and systematic – in Mary Gentle's vivid alternate-world novel Rats and Gargoyles (1990). [TS/PN]

see also: Gothic SF; Monsters; Mythology; Supernatural Creatures.

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