Clarke’s Three Laws:
1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong
2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible
3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C Clarke was a very wise man, a product of an age when the interplay between Science Fiction and predicting the future was such that many fervently believe that the imaginations of exceptional writers drove technology forward. The list of things that he predicted is rather impressive. This blog post is not about Arthur C Clarke directly, or even about his laws. I am using it defensively because in any discussion of magic and technology Clarke’s third law will be cited almost immediately, in or out of context.
I am interested in writing in what distinguishes magic from technology, and also discussing what constitutes a proper magical technology. I feel that modern Fantasy touches on both, as well as the combination of the two. The days when guns and starships stayed away from swords and spells are long gone, with modern audiences enjoying good crossovers as much as traditional Fantasy.
The main difference between Magic and Technology is that the later must have a much larger and more robust causal link. Take the Star Wars Hyperdrive. The Star War Hyperdrive seems magical in that is impossible in our current scientific paradigm to move 120,000 light years in a few hours. We can’t really even theorize how that would be possible, plausibly these days. You could invoke Clarke’s third law here if you wish. I would sagely nod compliment you on your sagacity and ask: well how do you know its not magic then?
And this is the crux of the matter. Star Wars has magic: The Force. The Force obeys its own set of laws that exist outside of any purely scientific paradigm we can imagine. Indeed this is noted in passing in A New Hope (The whole I find your lack of faith disturbing scene). When Lucas introduced Midi-Chlorians in an attempt to add a sense of pseudo-causality to The Force in The Phantom Menace, it offended many fans. It stripped away the sense of ancient mysticism surrounding The Force and replaced it with little organisms that reside in your blood. Neither explanation is causal, since they can’t explain why or how this lets you pick up a Tie Fighter by willing it so. The new explanation was less satisfying to people who invested in the first, since it broke rules that were already established.
Back to Hyperdrives. Because The Forces exists in Star Wars, it is reasonably important to distinguish technology from magic. This is where Hyperdrives fall flat. They don’t follow any reasonable extrapolation of scientific theory and they don’t seem to be part of The Force. They are ultimately an unsatisfying explanation of how people get from point A to Point B in a Galactic empire. Most people won’t care, but those who are inclined to question that sort of thing will be put off.
Here are a few ways that I think Technology should be distinguishable from magic.
1) Technology builds on ideas that we already know, Magic is mostly explained to the reader: If I put a gun in a book, I rarely have to explain how it works. A writer can assume his audience will know a certain amount about modern technology, often enough to extrapolate on that technology. With a minimal understanding of guns more advanced forms like Gauss Rifles, Gyrojets, and Smartguns become sound story devices with very little explanation. If I write about magic I have to explain enough of it to situate the reader. They need to know what magic can and cannot do, and how it appears in the story. If Magic is frequently wielded by the protagonist then the explanations must be more and more detailed. Because magic is not based on normal cause and effect, it usually requires a more detailed explanation from the author to maintain consistency. A few authors, such a Guy Gavriel Kay make effective use of magic as a pure mystery but magical effects must be very rare and the quality of writing must be very high for this to work.
2) Technology should obeys the laws of science, Magic should be internally consistent: A handgun that shot black holes that swallowed up enemies would be frowned on as a technological device. It simply violates the laws of physics in so many ways that not even the craziest of theories based on current science would be able to explain it well enough to satisfy an average reader. A sphere of annihilation that sucks enemies into another dimension, powered by magical incantations and force of will would work perfectly well in many magic systems, however. Technology works best when it is based on recognizable concepts and obeys what we know about science. It just seems to trivialize human progress if it doesn’t. Magic on the other hand usually resides outside the realm of science. It is a metaphor for the unknowable, the mysterious, and often the creative process itself. Magic systems must be internally consistent, often more rigidly that technology. If a magic system breaks a rule that the writer has set out for it, it loses a great deal of credibility in the reader’s eyes.
3) Technology can be reverse engineered: If aliens showed up on earth with technology that broke current laws of science, most of us would think it was magic. However there is a large group of people who would simply sit down and go “hmmm, I wonder how that works and what the implications are for science.” these people would figure out that technology, fit it in to the new scientific paradigm, and then it would gradually become available as new technology where needed. Even if unusual barriers existed in understanding that technology, such as a weapon that only works for a select genetic group, some people would wonder why and try to figure it out.
4) Technology can be used by anyone who understands how, Magic can be used by a select group: You don’t actually have to understand the science behind a gun or a computer to use it. In fact, we can train monkeys to use some fairly complex devices with interesting results. Technology can often be learned through trial and error, since it behaves consistently. The iPad might seem like a wondrous device to a person who has never encountered modern technology, but after a while he’d be playing angry birds along with everyone else, at least until the batteries run out. Magic on the other hand tends to be the realm of the select few. In most Fantasy novels only a small percentage of people can work magic. In novels were magic is more commonplace then only a few can work truly the impressive feats of magic. Part of this is to maintain the sense of mystery, but much of it has to do with the idea that the wielders of magic must be special in some way (and not always in a good way).
Here a re a few blends I’m too tired to get into right now.
Fantastical Technology: Fantastical Technology is technology that obeys Clarke’s Third Law. It often does not work very well in a Fantasy novel because it clashes with the magic system. Some settings make it work though.
Techno-magic: Techno-magic is magic that is hidden behind the trappings of technology or needs technological devices to work. I’ve generally only seen this in tabletop RPGs.
Magical Technology: A gun that has an ever-full magazine is obviously magical, after all infinite ammunition in a single clip breaks the laws of science in many ways. However if the rest of the gun behaves in a an absolutely correct manner for that piece of technology it creates and interesting hybrid item that is part magic, part technology.
As subsets of Fantasy moves into the industrial age and the modern age it is increasingly important to distinguish magic from technology, at least enough that the reader can get a sense of each. By paying attention to science and causality a clever writer can do this, and even learn to blend the two in interesting ways.