TT: Indistinguishable?

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and discover how Christmas trees can show up in the most unexpected places.  Then come back and join in as Alan and I delve into the mysteries of Clarke’s Axiom.

Levitation? Anti-Grav?

Levitation? Anti-Grav?

JANE: Last time, Alan, you introduced Clarke’s Axiom about magic being indistinguishable from advanced technology.  In theory, I don’t disagree with Clarke at all.  You can run through the list of comparable “special effects” easily enough: levitation vs. anti-gravity, transporter vs. teleportation, lightning spell vs. laser, magic wand vs. ray-gun, robots vs. golems.

There was a great cartoon by, I believe, Phil Foglio, in Dragon Magazine many, many years ago, that played on the same point.  Two tough-looking guys are in a bar, arguing.  One is dressed “futuristic,” the other in rough armor.  They go back and forth, back and forth: “Mutants!”  “Orcs!”  “Mutants!”  “Orcs!”  Finally, in frustration, the bartender says, “For heaven’s sake, you’re looking at yourselves in the mirror!”

ALAN: And reflecting on what they saw there?

JANE: Exactly!  So, I don’t disagree with Clarke in theory.  In practice, though, I can get a bit cranky about it.  This is what I call the “furniture” definition of the genres.  Technically, it’s correct, but intrinsically, it’s just lazy writing.  (Not that Clarke was lazy.  However, I have heard many writers quote Clarke to excuse themselves when they are being lazy.)

If the terms a writer uses for something are the only things that decide the label put on a book’s spine, then I don’t think the world building has a lot of depth.  There should be a reason for magic –  whether alien gods, bleed-through from another universe, or some other interesting idea.  There should also be some thought put into how magic works.  That “why” doesn’t need to be spelled out – unless that’s the point of the story – but the reader should have a sense that it’s there.

Jack Chalker did a series of novels – the “Dancing Gods” books, I think –  where the premise was that God had let the angels design a universe.  Since the angels were not perfect beings, they made mistakes.  They then wrote massive volumes of rules to fill in the gaps.  Magic involved  understanding those rules and exploiting them.

I thought it was a clever idea, although I will admit that I did not remain enchanted with the series.

ALAN: Magic can be both serious and/or silly, of course. Jack Vance (one of my very favourite writers) knew this and somehow managed to combine the two to great effect. In his Dying Earth stories the wizards cast complicated spells which have portentous names  such as The Spell of Forlorn Encystment which, when cast on a hapless subject, constricts the subject in a pore some 45 miles below the surface of the earth. (That’s pretty much a direct quote, I think). But having cast the spell, the wizard will not be able to use it again until he has re-learned it. Casting the spell erases it from his mind. I always thought this was a really neat side effect. I gather the device was “stolen” by the Dungeons and Dragons people. I’m not sure if they ever acknowledged the source of their inspiration.

JANE: They certainly didn’t in the D&D source books I remember using back in college.  However, I haven’t played D&D or its variants in closing on twenty years, so maybe they’ve given Vance his bow.

ALAN:  My favourite example of very silly magic is actually satirical. Terry Pratchett, that wickedly funny man, wrote a novel (I think it was The Last Continent) in which Rincewind the Wizard gains the magical ability to always find food in the desert. As a result of this gift, he keeps finding cream cakes underneath rocks…

JANE: Yep.  That’s The Last Continent.  Small aside.  What’s a cream cake anyhow?

ALAN: It’s a cake (usually some sort of a sponge cake) with lots and lots of whipped cream as a filling in the middle  and/or spread on the top and sometimes spread all over the sides as well. You can actually feel your arteries hardening as you eat it. Yum!

JANE: Sounds wonderful.  I wish I had one to go with my morning coffee right now.

Returning to our subject, whatever refinements we give it, my definition of Fantasy is one that publishers would use.   Put in the least bit of magic and the book is Fantasy.  If you blend tech and magic – say the flying cars in Harry Potter – it’s still Fantasy.

Roger Zelazny used to drive his publishers nuts.  They even tried to invent a “science fantasy” category for some of his more convoluted works, but that just made the booksellers not know where to put his books, so they gave up.

ALAN: That’s what makes it so hard to pin these things down. It’s easy when you write “extruded fantasy product” as someone once dubbed the largely formulaic fantasy trilogies that dominate today’s bookshelves. But out near the edges, where all the really interesting stories are being written, it’s difficult to be precise. And Roger was particularly good at combining categories in new ways. I’m thinking of the Amber books here – they didn’t fit neatly anywhere! Are they Science Fiction or Fantasy? The only honest answer to that question is “Yes, they are!”

JANE: The Chronicles of Amber, Changling and Madwand, Jack of Shadows, even that SF classic Lord of Light all are great examples of where Roger blended magic and technology without ever losing the “feel” that the two things were distinct from each other.

Eventually, I’d like to chat with you about  some of the sub-genres of both SF and F but, before that, we should take a look at an important final element.

I’ll leave what that element is for next time.


15 Responses to “TT: Indistinguishable?”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    I’m inclined to think that the thrust of Clarke’s Axiom is ‘how can you tell?’, more than it’s a prescription of what a writer can get away with. IOW, what it is is what the writer says it is, and where the writer runs afoul of the readers is in not ‘playing fair’. The magical effects in Sixth Column aren’t, they’re technology – a tech that, as it happens, is still unknown to the antagonists, which is why the protagonists can get away with presenting it as magic – but the reader knows that, because Heinlein shows the characters planning how to take advantage of the output of a black research project. The magical effects in Thirteen Orphans are magic, and the reader knows it because the characters make it clear that they’re practicing magic and know it. Of course, we have to take your word for it that what the characters think they’re doing _is_ what they’re doing, which is where playing fair comes in. There has to be enough info in the text to at least make any blow-off plausible when it happens. The fun thing with Lord of Light is that Zelazny _doesn’t_ tell us how to interpret the quite substantial amount of info in the text that can be seen to point either way. I was thinking about that book after last week’s posts, and realised that after, what? 35 years? I’m still not entirely sure how to classify it. And, come to think of it, even less sure about Creatures of Light and Darkness.

    BTW, if you don’t mind a return to last week, I was just remembering Poul Anderson’s Note in the 1970 printing of Virgin Planet? He lays out his definition of science fiction, in a way I’ve always found useful. To paraphrase, since I don’t have the book handy, he restricts it to fiction that is built around the extrapolation of known science and technology. He does stipulate that authors should be allowed _one_ ‘I made it up’ in a story – in this case, FTL star travel – but that once introduced, it must be handled in the same way as all other technology in the world. Make up anything you happen to need for the story, and you’ve wandered off into something that isn’t SF. I’m not sure that it’s still feasible to enforce that definition strictly, but I think it’s still a useful guideline. The reason it may not be enforceable is that too many people now writing in the field are adopting memes that they’ve seen used for decades, without really knowing what is valid extrapolation and what’s been made up out of whole cloth – particularly since we are now aware that many 70s extrapolations were quite, quite wrong [to say nothing of the 30s or 40s], so continuing to use them is now a violation when it was perfectly legitimate when first done. It would be unfair to penalize somebody for doing what the readers expect. We need to elect a new people, and that’s a long, slow process.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    As I wrote in the previous section, I agree that Clarke’s Law gets used very lazily. It’s also interesting that the inverse Clarke’s law (advanced magic is indistinguishable from a science) seems to drive so much recent fantasy, especially that written by, or directed at, computer nerds. Personally, I think this can be a major mistake, because it demystifies magic and can take the life out of a story if not done well.

    In an interesting juxtaposition, right after I read this, I read a post called “What if God Were a Maggot (link). This isn’t about magic at all, but about how animals are regarded in a religious context. It’s worth reading, if only as an antidote to mechanistic magic. To paraphrase the author, we only reach the afterlife through the mouths of maggots, and not only that, life on this planet would not be possible without the activities of maggots, fungi, bacteria, and the rest of the “brown” decomposer ecosystems. Yet if we think about them spiritually at all, we regard them as infernal, not divine. If someone puts this in a fantasy novel, it is often condemned as “new-agey,” “folk philosophy,” or similar, and a magic system based on the sacredness of maggots would be classed as a “weird tale,” not “fantasy.”

    We do regard things as sacred in real life, even if we consider ourselves atheists. No one mourns the passing of a maggot the way we mourn the passing of a great whale or a panda, for example, even though the maggots are arguably more important. But the environmental movement has made pandas and whales sacred, and so we mourn their loss.

    Too often, the sacred seems to be missing in fantasy novels. And what is a fantasy, if nothing is sacred in it?

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Hmmm… You raised an interesting thought: could it be that the fundamental distinction is that fantasy is a fiction of the spiritual, whereas science fiction is fiction of the material?

      That suggests that it’s more of a continuum, since most writing won’t be purely one or the other. It also gives a reason why some things classed as SF don’t read as SF, and the same for fantasy – they have the forms, but not really the focus. And why there have always been stories that seem unclassifiable – they are nearly enough balanced that the reader has to decide where the emphasis lies.

      Please note that I’m using ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ as descriptors, without assigning greater value to one or the other – I happen to believe that both are essential, both equally fundamental to the human condition.

      • Heteromeles Says:

        That’s a good thought, but novels like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land that are more seriously spiritual than most fantasies. And I won’t even go near L. Ron Hubbard. In some ways, SF is a safer place to talk about alternative religion than fantasy is. Certainly, SF (in the broadest sense) has inspired real-life versions of Stranger in a Strange Land (Church of All Worlds), Star Wars (Jedi), and, well, Scientology. I can’t think of a modern fantasy novel that has inspired similar devotion.

        Still, it seems that magic really is an alternative to science in most fantasies. The standard definition of a fantasy world is one in which “magic works,” and then it goes on to use said magic as a carefully constrained plot device. In the real world, magic tends to be marginalized or DIY religion, but that approach rarely gets used in fantasy, and even more rarely by the protagonists. Devil worshiping villains are more common, with “magical negroes” (see and similar enablers/allies running a close second.

        Now, I do understand why this happens: fantasies are published in our fundamentally Christian society, and things like DIY religion, the sacredness of bits of the real world, or praying to accomplish a real-world goal are ideas that most people aren’t comfortable with, regardless of whether they’re believers, atheists, or couldn’t care less. Christianity is most peoples’ reference for what religion should be, and Sunday in a church is what’s seen as defining “sacred,” rather than, say, redwood forests, temples, or possession. It’s safer to use magic as a replacement for science and go from there. The problem is such stories can be so safe as to be artificial.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    And some very rich Fantasy — I’m thinking of the Lord of the Rings books — does not show any indications of a separate spiritual life. I’ve wondered if we’re supposed to think that it is integrated into the daily activities of the various cultures or if it doesn’t exist.

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    That’s a great point, Jane. I’d venture that faith isn’t required in Lord of the Rings, simply because they knew they were part of a creation. After all, Gandalf is crudely equivalent to a Christian archangel in Tolkien’s eschatology, and when he’s sitting there on your doorstep smoking, why should you doubt the existence of an ultimate divine being? Faith isn’t necessary. This contrasts with, say, Diskworld, where the gods depend on belief to exist.

    I’ve been thinking about Earthsea in a similar vein. I’m going to give the first three books to a niece who is in a strongly religious family that I happen to like a lot. The wizards are not priests, and although they celebrate rituals, they do not worship that we see. They are powerful for their learning, not for their connection to the god who made Earthsea. It’s a book that might upset a serious Christian, yet at the same time, it’s a great series for inverting fantasy tropes such as skin color, and for not solving conflict by violence.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      And yet the religious elements are rather clearly present in LotR, if you pay attention. They simply don’t leap out, because they aren’t organised [which, I guess, means that strictly speaking they are spiritual practices, not religion], nor are they particularly emphasised. But A Elbereth is a prayer, as is Galadriel’s farewell song at the Naith of Lorien, and IIRC is described as such by either Bilbo or Frodo. Tolkien is quite explicit about it elsewhere, in any case.

      Ditto for Earthsea, BTW. The Lady Of Atuan is described as high preistess in The Farthest Shore.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      I know about LOTRs religious roots.

      Earthsea though, is a bit different, since the Tombs cult in Atuan is a religion (worshiping some of the dark powers of the earth, if I recall properly), but it’s different from what the wizards do. Wizards speak the language that made the islands of Earthsea, something like the Word of God in Christianity. They don’t appear to worship that god (Segoy) to derive their power. Instead they attempt to be like that god. One could certainly argue that this is a religion, but it’s very different than a faith-based, worshipful religion. Wizards are priests.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        I was unclear, I think, plus we’re a bit at cross-purposes.

        Wasn’t really disagreeing with you, just pointing out that religious practice is evident in the books, not simply buried in the author’s world-view as Jane was suggesting.

        As for faith and worship, we seem to view it – or at least the words themselves – rather differently. I don’t class ‘faith’ as belief without evidence. That is superstition, something that can also be fertile ground for the fantasist. Nor should ‘worship’ be regarded as synonymous with ‘ritual’; they are distinct, and the degree of overlap pretty variable. Even for different participants in the same event 😉 My memory of the wizards isn’t clear, I’m afraid, but I can’t say they aren’t engaged in worship in their activities.

  5. Alan Kellogg Says:

    The difference lies in how the item is treated.


    “I got the lightning wand for helping the king of Bellstock defeated the goblins of grimboil.”

    Science Fiction:

    The blaster? $69.95 at Sears.

  6. Paul Says:

    I’ve seen movie-makers try to appropriate the “science-fantasy” tag (Star Wars?) and I suspect some book publishers have as well. In fact, I think there was at least one magazine using it in, or as, its name. It is a handy tag but doesn’t cover the extremes of “hard” SF or what I guess we could call “hard” fantasy. Nelson Bond’s version of the Poul Anderson definition was “Grant me one impossible thing.” For the SF, I guess that would mean “Impossible by today’s standards…”

    • Alan Kellogg Says:

      I believe Paul is referring to “Fantasy and Science Fiction”, once known as “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”. Even today the two genres are kept separate, though the SF is not as hard as it is in, say, Analog.

      As for the term “science fantasy”; I recall reading it when I was a teen, and that was decades ago. Remember, New Yorkers of 1990 did not get to see God create the Heavens and the Earth out of the void, that was earlier.

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