Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Varieties of Magic

A collection of thoughts.


One of my favorite things to write is technical magic explanations, complete with tons of imperfectly matching analogies. This is probably a side effect of having been convinced, when I was younger, that I could learn magic myself, compounded by my more recent awe of how beautiful and self-consistent physics is.

Another one of my favorite things is when a story has multiple magic systems running around and bumping into one another, merging and splitting off like amoebas. I particularly like when multiple magic systems are deeply interconnected on a fundamental level, revealing that all the smokes and bangs &c on the surface are only regional idioms/conventions.

From PCWrede's Far West:
“And then, suddenly, I fell through into the quiet that was just magic and no spells.

It was like being deep underwater, knowing that above me there were fish swimming, and higher up were boats and people fishing and swimming and splashing, but none of it could reach where I was. It felt like the ocean in my dreams. It felt right.” (334)

I'm not sure if the experience in the quote above is a higher level of magical abstraction or if it's a more visceral, literal way of grasping magic - up or down? Which is it, if you're meddling directly with the magical substrate? "Sub"strate - should be the latter, then. And yet, you are integrating all different magic types, finding what lies beneath, and integration implies upward motion.

What bothered me about the magic I read in books was how arbitrary some spells and gestures seemed. Then I thought, maybe the motions themselves don't matter; maybe it takes magical talent to affix a certain outcome to a certain procedure. Magic, in this view, is essentially a way of programming the universe; learning magic means gaining access to more and more modules, learning more and more ways you can do things. What kind of syntax would a magical programming language have? I only know python, so I'm imagining:

object.make_fly("wingardium leviOsa")

...or maybe not.

By the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, if you watch an electron it'll behave differently from when you're not watching it. Likewise with magic.

Bharati Krishna Tirthaj on Vedic math: "It is magic until you understand it; and it is mathematics thereafter."

However, much as I love math and physics, I do have some sympathy for people who want their magic not to be completely like science, not to have methods and steps; who don't mind a certain level of arbitrariness, a certain lack of sense; a certain addition of chaos.

From R. L. LaFevers's blog, quoting Holly Black, a useful set of distinctions:
Closed fantasy - the magic is hidden
Open fantasy - the magic is well-known and an acknowledged part of the world.

Day logic and night logic
Day logic - rules are spelled out, acts almost like science
Night logic - more intuitive and less reliable outcomes

As my above comments should make obvious, I don't much care for the whole dichotomy of day/night logic because the day is full of strange and unexpected things, while the night has rules of its own. Yet, as a spectrum, it works, or, following the metaphor more closely, as a cycle. I believe, in my stories, that people with magical affinity tend to start early on, usually at age six or eight (those being my two favorite single-digit numbers, as both are blue), without having any idea what it is they're doing. (I'm in good company on this one: see Harry Potter.) Then, with training or on their own, intuition is shaped by instruction.

Confucius says: "Study without thought is a waste of time; thought without study is dangerous." Replace 'thought' with 'magical talent' and you have, respectively, a Squib and an Ariana Dumbledore.

On the subject of magical creatures - that is, creatures that are inherently magical - well, that's a difficult one. I don't believe, as in many magic worlds, that certain creatures are "made of magic". Rather, I see magic as an emergent property like intelligence. However I'm not sure what makes magic emerge in one person rather than another. I do believe (when I say "I believe", most of the time I mean "in my stories, I take as true") that it's not hereditary, much, in which case it would seem that magic is a product of environmental influences, or maybe the part of us (which I believe exists) that is separate from both our genetic heritage and our surroundings. That discussion could get involved; let's postpone it.

A word on magical species: I see it taken for granted that out of all the humanoid species in a world, humans - Homo sapiens sapiens - are the least magical. I'm still poking at this idea, but I'm leaning toward the view that there is no difference on the genetic level between a non-magic human and a human magician. In the brain circuitry, maybe, but not in the chromosomes. Self-organizing systems, ja? And, another word - I think the idea of having completely not-human Fae is fantastic, as in they have a completely different innate sense of morality - more like insects, maybe? This needs must be deferred.

Another discussion I'd like to have later is about the role of gods in fantasy/worlds with magic. Theology is not my strong suit (probably because I'm not religious...) so that one might be offensive to some people. Whatever.

What about magical places? I do use the concept of ambient magic, that is, magic in a location, in most of my stories. But that is also, I believe, an emergent property, though again I'm not sure what makes it emerge. Forests and lakes and canyons seem to me, intuitively, more magical than some other biomes (is biomes the right word here?). The ocean is too immense for the word "magic", though my saying so is probably a product of my own tendency to glorify the ocean (not that I do so without reason. Just look at it). Can ambient magic be used in a spell? Or is it untouchable by human magicians?

Now would be a good time to pull out a sweeping statement that encompasses my entire theory of magic in all its divers and wondrous ways. However, no such statement exists. The closest I have to summarizing all I have said is this:

Magic, if real, has rules. We just don't know exactly what they are, and sometimes they manifest themselves in strange, strange ways.*

*Replace 'magic' with 'the universe' in the first sentence of that paragraph. Just for fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment