The Role of “Magic” in Speculative Fiction

I’ve been thinking about the role of magic/advanced technology in both Science Fiction and Fantasy writing. In both genres it can define a major aspect of the story world. Or it can be part of the sideshow accompanying the main plot. Either way, to have speculative fiction there needs to be something to speculate about. This usually done by projecting forward (advanced technology) or drawing from legends past (magic), if it gets scary along the way we call it horror.

Arthur C. Clarke famously opined “any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.” This statement seems more true every day. With all the technology surrounding us, how much can one person truly understand?

Even as you read this blog, think about all the moving parts behind the scenes:

  • The text of this article stored on a drive of some kind.
  • The computers hosting the WordPress code and rendering the PHP/Javascript to text and images ready to be sent over the internet.
  • The computers and equipment running the internet and transmiting those signals.
  • The computers behind the screen you’re reading this on.
  • All of the software powering the hardware doing the above.
  • The actual hardware—the silicon, glass, and other materials formed into the functioning electronics making the rest possible.
  • Electricity in general.

It’s possible to understand these things exist and work together in an organized matter. But I think it’d be impossible for even a small group of people to understand all of it. By “understand” I mean to grasp the concepts in a way that would allow the system to be recreated. This would mean knowing everything from extracting the raw minerals from the Earth to delivering a shiny white box of iPad to a customer’s door.

So by Clarke’s definition even our phones are magic. I understand a bit about electronics and programming but I’m not able to explain how it all works in specific, concrete details. So when describing something like tapping the screen to launch an app, even the decscription glosses over exactly how a touch is registered, how it’s converted into an electrical signal, and then into software commands to render an interactive image back onto the screen. To list the specific steps behind each action would be:

  1. incredibly boring to someone who isn’t interested in those details.
  2. still just a list of summary steps.

Entire research papers are written (and patents issued) about every single step related to how an app is launched by tapping on a piece of glass. This is truly the magic of a sufficiently advanced technology. So much of what happens behind the scenes is not knowable by the end user.

There’s a joke told in every class dealing with electrical wiring.

Q: What’s inside of a wire? A: Magic smoke.

It may seem nonsensical at first, but it’s directly related to Clarke’s statement about technology. The goal of anyone working with electrical wiring is have enough capacity handle the electrical load. Otherwise components and wiring can burn out and cease to function. We can’t see electricity. We can only see its effects. The motor that turns. The lamp that lights. The arc of ionized air created by a short circuit. The smoke from when a circuit is overloaded. Which leads us into the heart of the joke. If the smoke is let out (i.e. a burned circuit) then the electricity doesn’t flow, and things stop working. If the smoke is kept in the wires, everything works.

So does it really matter whether we think flowing electricity is electrons or magic smoke? Usually not.

As I’ve thought about magic in SF/F, I kept coming back to the magic smoke. Our understanding of electricity is based in science. But it would exist in the natural world even if we didn’t understand it. Without that understanding it would be magic to us.

So using Clarke’s definition, our understanding is the difference between science and magic. Working from this base makes it easy to see how the level of understanding of magic in a fictional world will tilt the story towards either fantasy or science fiction.

In a fantasy story the magic is science. It’s a feature of the natural world which is studied so its practitioners can grow more proficient or powerful. The magic is used directly to conjure or as a weapon, or indirectly in such things as enchantments. Strangely enough this is an accurate description of how we in the modern word deal with things like physics. We study it in hopes of a deeper understanding so we may use the results to build new magical items like smartphones and space probes. The magic is a natural force, and by study and practice it can be learned and applied.

In a science fiction story, the science is magic. The author has imagined a technology which is “sufficiently advanced” and makes it a fixture of the story world. Even if the technology is based on what we have now, there’s still an imaginative leap needed. This would be things like artificial gravity, faster-than-light travel, and advanced bio-hacking. These elements are presented with the necessary hand-waving to pass most reader’s BS detectors, and become part of the baseline technology in the story world. It’s the smoke in the wires. Remove it and things stop working.

Fantasy stories take this to heart and often have characters learning about magic. Things like wizarding schools mimic our universities with students devoted to unlocking the mysteries of a natural force.

In SF stories the science is taken for granted and used with only a thin veneer of understanding to further the plot. The very nature of having an advanced technology in the story makes this necessary. Even if the author is an expert in the field, the speculative jump in technology is the very definition of some unknowable advance in the underlying science. Which makes the science in SF much closer to how we view the supernatural in our day-to-day lives.

As with most things in literature, the boundaries blur. But the distinctions remain. A wizard can throw fireballs the same as a space pirate shoots a laser pistol. While the story may not explain how the wizard learned his magic, there’s an assumption by the reader about his apprenticeship in the magical arts.

There’s no such assumption with the space pirate. His weapon is probably common in the story world. While he might be a sharpshooter, his skill lies in using the weapon not understanding it.

Other forms of speculative fiction don’t use magic at all. The speculation might take the form of imagining present day technology and the problems relating to its absence or use in an unexpected way (“what if an astronaut is stranded?”).

Even pure fantasy can be devoid of magic. A merry band of dwarves and elves might quest without supernatural help. But being fantastic creatures themselves is enough to firmly place the story in the realm of speculative fiction (“what if there were dwarves and elves?”).

In the end, setting and characters do more separate science fiction and fantasy than “the magic” used.