Science Versus Magic — Is There a Difference in the World of Fiction?

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One of the biggest debates among people who like scifi — aside from the Star Wars vs. Star Trek thing — is where to draw the line between science and magic. Some adhere to the idea that magic is simply science that we don't yet understand, others feel that magic represents an essential mystery that can't be understood rationally. Of course the other big dividing line between magic and science has to do with genre: magic appears mostly in fantasy stories, and science (of course) in science fiction. And yet there is currently a trend in the scifi world toward creating stories that blur the line between science and magic: A lot of steampunk novels blend technology and sorcery (one of my favorite examples is in Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam, where one of the characters is a "forensic sorceress"). And shows like Lost and X-Files have frequently mingled the mystical and the rational. We talked to five authors whose fiction blurs the line between magic and science to find out what they thought of the difference between the two. Here's what they said.


Jeff VanderMeer, author of City of Saints and Madmen (and, with Ann VanderMeer, a columnist for io9):

The main difference is that science exists and magic doesn't. Even though everything in a novel is made up in a sense, this still matters-it creates different responsibilities. If, for example, the physical laws of a fantastical or SF world are different than our world, there has to be some explanation, no matter how off-the-cuff. And if that world contains magic, I think the writer has to be even more rigorous in thinking out how magical systems work, no matter how much of that appears in the text. This is because we are used to constraint. We are worlds of blood-and-water existing within a larger but finite network of people and settings, and all of that is constrained by the egg-yolk that is the Earth. If even something as arbitrary and recent as a sonnet suffers from constraint, then magic can be no different.

Of course, if you're a surrealist or absurdist, you often don't care about the difference between science and magic because the boundary between the two is going to be trampled and gleefully pissed on anyway. As well it should. Nothing is more annoying than allowing a little reality ruin your fun. If you have the imagination to get away with it.

Or, if you're Jack Vance, you just set your stories far enough in the future that the science seems like magic and you sit back in your golden throne, fold your arms, and cackle like either a mad scientist or a crazy sorcerer-take your pick.

One reason I have no magic in most of my fiction is that I cannot believe in it and thus cannot write about it in any convincing way. This is the same reason you do not find unicorns in my fiction. Or Smurfs. Or Republicans. I can and do, however, believe in huge intelligent squid ponderously pulling themselves through the alleys of a weird city, protecting themselves with helmets full of water. I can also believe in nefarious mushroom-based intelligent life forms living in bizarre underground caverns. However, since this is merely an audacious application of current theory on biology and biological systems it amounts to perfectly good science.


Elizabeth Bear, author of New Amsterdam and Dust:

That's a really interesting question, especially since for both SF and fantasy, I tend to lift my "rules"—whether that means the laws of physics or the laws of magic—from outside sources. Basically, in terms of writing—science fiction or fantasy—science and magic both serve (for me) to form a framework upon which I can hang the rest of the story. They're a structural element. So I try to find the coolest bits of either than I can.

Stephen Hunt, author of Court of the Air:

A fantasy author creates a monster by having a character in robes of any colour mumbling a spell, whereas the rules clearly state a science fiction writer has to put the character in white robes only, and have them mumbling something about genetic engineering and how at termination of protein synthesis, type I release factors promote hydrolysis of the peptidyl-transfer RNA connection in reaction to recognition of a stop codon. For the average reader, though, these both seem equally magic.


Ted Chiang, author of Stories of Your Life and Others:

Roughly speaking, if you can mass-produce it, it's science, and if you can't, it's magic. As an example, suppose someone says she can transform lead into gold. If we can use her technique to build factories that turn lead into gold by the ton, then she's made an incredible scientific discovery. If on the other hand it's something that only she can do, and only under special conditions, then she's a magician. And I don't mean that she's a charlatan; she might actually be able to transform lead into gold. But scientific phenomena are reproducible by other investigators; they aren't dependent on a specific person.

Electricity might have seemed magical at one time in history, but it works for everyone; you don't need to have an innate talent or be descended from someone special for a light bulb to turn on which you flip a switch. It took the work of very smart people to get us to the point that we can all use electricity, but none of them were magicians, precisely because they were able to make their discovery work for everyone.

To go on at slightly greater length, the reason magic can't be mass-produced is that it usually relies on some subjective quality of the practitioner: her intense concentration, her spiritual purity, something that can't be substituted with another person or with a machine. Magic is, in a sense, evidence that the universe knows you're a person. When people say that the scientific worldview implies a cold, impersonal universe, this is what they're talking about. Magic is when the universe responds to you in a personal way.


China Miéville, author of Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun:

What is the difference between science and magic? In real life, loads. In SF, I think the question's misleading, because I think that whatever SF may think and claim, and however much individual books may justly pride themselves on scientific accuracy, fundamentally the genre is not predicated on 'real' science at all. It's about apparently authoritative use of supposed scientific language, or, to put it another way, bullshitting. And that is not (necessarily) a dis.


There you have it, dear readers. What do you think?

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@Luger-Axhandle: I wouldn't want to speculate what proportion of the population is rational. But since you bring it up this does help define the contrast between science and magic in literature a little better. The relationship that parses these two better isn't between an author and society at large but far rather a little more intimate than that- It's between an author and their reader.

Just as technology or nature would never be accepted as magical by someone who is rational it is also the case that magic could never be accepted as real or natural by someone who is rational, no matter how the metaphysical phenomena is described or defined. In broad terms, I would say that whenever an author is asking a reader to place reason aside and accept something metaphysical then it is the author who is treading into the realm of fantasy and not science fiction. It's not the authors own ignorance in the subject that causes it to be fantasy but rather the expectation that the reader will accept it as a matter of faith that this is so despite of or in defiance of reason.

An extreme example of this is Lord of the Rings. Middle Earth was a very well thought fictional land that adhered to very mechanistic realities- People aged and died, trees were green, sharp metal objects hurt, and there was a natural diversity of flora and fauna that mirrored those of a world we might recognize. Despite this, it is a fantasy world because JRR Tolkein asked the reader to put aside everything they know of history and the world and to replace it with this whimsical construction of his own imagination. And despite the historical and geographical parallels, for instance between World War I and the war of the ring, it is pure fantasy. The reader knows that none of this ever occurred, even though they never lived at the time the events would have occurred, because reason dictates this.

More recently the Harry Potter books follow this same pattern and fall in the land of fantasy, not sci-fi- The author asks, for the sake of her story, for the reader to put reality aside to deliver her characters in a reality that she can't explain nor could the reader accept in rational terms. This despite the fact that the story apparently follows its own internal logic.

Good sci-fi doesn't do this- Sci fi expects its audiences to be rational and to evaluate the subject through a rational lens where metaphysical explanations aren't required. The problem for sci-fi is that it is becoming increasingly frequent for authors to use scientific sounding terms as a literary sleight of hand to expand its readership and make it more appealing to a broader audience.

Since this is literature and more difficult still fiction after all it may not be possible to nail this down definitely. I'm not sure it could be argued that the Matrix is any less of a fantasy then LOTR or Harry Potter. It may be that Tarzan is more science fiction then John Carter of Mars. And BSG may be both sci-fi and fantasy simultaneously.