A kind of Magic

By Dave Freer

Magic I suppose lies at the heart of fantasy, at least in theory* Science Fiction has at its core (it is a heartless thing, which merely reacts) science, possibly also only in theory. Well, a nod and a wave at science anyway.  However Fantasy always has the magic, even if it is merely confined to magical creatures.

In a way, it’s much easier, because the number of real magicians running around turning authors and publishers into newts because they got it wrong… Oh wait. Much is explained about the publishing world!  And some lionesses saying (yet again) ‘15% of 70% is such a good deal, how I am reassured!’ has to… um. I seem to have strayed from my thesis again. Perhaps some kind of mind controlling spell…

So, magic. It ranges from the badly thought out get out of jail free card, to the very structured — A good example of the latter was Lydon Hardy’s  Master of the Five Magics, which does as good a job as any of codifying the possible forms of magic (I think this was the first attempt to set this out in fiction, and you see ‘echoes’ of it throughout later fiction. He is a Physicist writing fantasy. It shows.).  Of course if you are really determined you can research Bonewits ‘Real Magic, Dion Fortune’s  Applied Magic,  Starhawk’s  ‘The Spiral Dance’  for ‘modern’ takes on this. If you want a lot of the source material for that you wade (and if you thought the above were hard going don’t even start) on Israel Regardie’s  The Tree of Life, and the Golden Dawn.  I failed fairly miserably with Aleister Crowley although many consider him to be source of much of modern occultism. My own favorite influence is Sir James Frazer’s  The Golden Bough (this is an anthropology tome attempting to tie the threads of religions and mythology and the ‘magical’ beliefs derived from these together.

I did eventually conclude that science is a lot less like hard work,  easier to understand and more reliable than magic ( so if I show up as Godzilla tomorrow, you know it was the newt that went wrong…)

However, I have my own set of touchstones in writing about it. The principles of sympathy and contagion** are fundamental to a lot of magical practice. As a result symbolism is very much part of the entire process. If a lot of what you read has echoes of High Church practice you’re probably not being fooled by the heavy layer of BS it is plastered with. A lot of the current ‘magical practice’ derived from the only forms of  esotericism  the founders knew, but rather like Urban Fantasy they they twisted the expected.

Religion – or at least the calling on higher powers,  (depends on your point of view: gods, angels or demons, or something in between), or to take another step common to the mythos of many cultures (Greek, Slavonic, Mongol, Norse – to name ones I’ve worked on) which have inanimate (or unintelligent – like trees) – storms, waves, rocks… objects possessed of anthropomorphic  ‘spirits’ which can be commanded, often by the possession of the ‘true name’ (an idea I suspect originally came out of India and spread across Europe – but has other variants elsewhere. It’s either an unbelievably old meme, or has arisen independently all over the show.)

A fascinating take on this is of course the Ancient Egyptian one which I wrote about in Pyramid Scheme.

The other area of course is what borders on telepathy and telekinesis or other possible mind-use concepts – which criss-cross from magic to science depending on convenience. Illusion, flying, precognition, mental control over others… I have to admit this is one of my favorite bits of ‘magic to write about. Sometimes it adds bits from the other areas…

Another form of  magical ‘usage’ common in fantasy relates of course to magical beings – which has a lot of cross-over into mythology, and some into ‘Just so story’ type interpretations of phenomena like dinosaur bones as ‘dragons’, and of course intelligence seems to go along with these, and some of the ‘mentalist’ powers.

So: tell me about magic?  Why does it appeal? What forms of it interest you. What suspends your disbelief. Why?

*Theory is a place rather like Ultima Thule, only more French.

** I am sorry you have caught it.


  1. One of the more interesting site visits I ever had was deep in the bowels of a military area. Smart people, doing very smart stuff. I sat down, and started to try to use the keyboard. It didn’t seem to be working… and my escort said, “Oh, you have to do this.” He banged three times on the table. And it worked. I asked, and they assured me that was the “magic” that made it work.

    During the course of diagnosing the other problem they were having, I “accidentally” managed to unplug the keyboard cable, then reseat it solidly and fasten the retaining screws that nobody ever tightens. I noticed that the intermittent failure went away the next time I had to use the keyboard, although the operators still banged on the table three times before using the keyboard.

    I have a suspicion that they may still be banging on that table.

    I don’t argue with true believers. I do, occasionally, help people think things through and discover for themselves that it really wasn’t magic.

    On the other hand, the sky this afternoon, with the clouds feathering after the rain, and the sun lighting it — now that was magic.

    1. Mike I suspect a lot of ‘true belief’ in magic comes fairly mundane and explainable causes which the believers would rather ignore. And yes, legacy beliefs continue beyond causes. Regardie certainly shows that well! I could explain the afternoon too, but I think you’d rather I didn’t :-).

      1. The funny part is that I could explain the afternoon sky too — and I think that’s part of the enjoyment of it? It’s like the Grand Canyon (uplift, erosion, and all — and it’s breathtaking!) or even the humble little ants scurrying around. There’s so much wonder and magic around us all the time… if we just look. Awesome, in the old meaning of the word. Maybe the new one, too? I’m perfectly happy to hear about Coyote, kitsune, and all that… but I’m not so sure that we need those magical critters for magic? Ah, I’m getting mystical, and I haven’t had morning tea yet. Thanks!

  2. I once subscribed to the D&D version of magic. One was strictly from the Gods, the other was “Cookbook, if you have the native talent.”

    I decided to write one of each. The pseudo scientific handwavium type got “very different” sort of comments from readers and has been collecting rejections. O’Mike has admitted that he’s about run out of places to try. The “Real Gods, Saints and stuff” has gotten enthusiastic reactions from the readers so far, and O’Mike has snatched it up. It’s only been a month so I can’t yet report on publisher’s reactions to it.

    Odd to think that genetic engineering enabling tele-whatever is harder to accept than multiple gods, saints, demi-gods and such. Or is it uncomfortably close to happening in the real world?

    Of course, it could just be the very different types of stories, not the type of magic that made the difference. Or I might have learned a bit, in between finishing the two.

    1. I wonder if peoples lack of willingness to accept the GE option is due to their intrinsic understanding of Newton’s Laws of Energy(I joke). If the magic comes from a God or demon or whatever, the person using the power is simply channelling it from somewhere else. They are a conduit. If it is intrinsic within themselves, where does the power come from? How is some alterations in the gooey grey stuff in our skull suddenly give us the ergs to stop bullets or fly or whatever? What is our energy source to fuel these abilities(eating more? Drawing power from the air around us?)

      1. Squirrly thoughts, as to fuel sources for magic.

        Latest breakthrough in weight loss genengineering! Our newest designer genes will revv up your metabolism! Feel energtic, feel sexy, feel lucky! Feel like you can do anything!

    2. One story I read started out as apparent fantasy. What I remember was that the hero had a magic pouch, which he fed once a week or so with a nail. And when he walked into rooms, he always tossed some dust out. Which he then proceeded to do various magical things with, usually instantly after walking into the room. Light the room, make objects appear, so forth.

      So far, okay… but then the writer took a hard left, and started explaining that this was all nanotech left over from the Great War. And suddenly, I started going… wait. Time for nanotech particles to fill a room… what do you mean, they get the power to provide continuous strong light from the ambient heat? And matter construction? NO!

      And I tossed the book across the room. Oddly, I could accept his magic dust as magic much more easily than his handwavium nanotech dust. If he’s going to make it fit modern-day science, then it has to obey the limits.

      1. Eh. nanotech. Now there are wondrous things you could do, nanoscale. But I get very very very irritated by the unthinking idiocy that goes along with it. To do XYZ the nanoscale ‘bot has to move five meters. Nothing to you or I. A very long, energy hungry journey for nanobot. Doesn’t anyone know how big a nanometer is any more? (grumble. t’yoof o’ today)

  3. Ah, Dave, you always know what books to mention to get me scurrying to my bookshelf. I have read and re-read Master of the Five Magics and it never gets old. My favourite bit is where the Wizard Handar outlines all the different disciplines and the qualities needed to succeed in each. And although it it a YA read I also liked the occasional in-joke references(“I have only ever been summoned by the wizard Maxwell…”) that are going to go over the heads of most readers. I know I didn’t get them the first time.

    I have always been partial to the magic from Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books. Separating magic into High, Wild and Old or to put it another way, magic of the mind(knowledge), nature, and pre-history(Myth? Balance ). You can see how most of Robert Holdstock’s stories seem mostly a blend of the Old and Wild magics, while anyone who relies on incantations or archana is tending towards High magic(which brings to mind the dichotomy of John Brunner’s The Compleat Traveller in Black where his mages used ordered magic to wrest power from chaos, but by bringing order lessened the chaos available to them and diminishing their own power).

    Then there is Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World books where the amount of power you can place into your craft depends on a combination of knowledge and understanding of what your materials can do and the inner fire you can place within your creations. I loved that he had his character Elof discover and use carbon fibre in a medieval(?) setting(perhaps if we could find his current incarnation we could get him to help us build a sky hook so we can reach space easier).

    So many magics, all so different and each with its own wonders. If I can’t decide can I have them all?

  4. Honestly… I’m interested in all forms of magic if they are well done. That being that it behaves in a fairly consistent manner in the universal sense, and more tightly on the individual by individual basis. As someone well versed in psychology and through it a backdoor grounding in biology, I have a high respect for the differences individual biology and experiences have on their outlook and performance.

    The “Heraldic Magic” of Mercedes Lackey is neatly done for the most part. She says shes not a big believer in telepathy and its kin so she’s tried to build a system that would convince her. I find the magic in the Recluse saga to be interesting, and for the most part magic systems that are very specific as those two are say as much about the writer as anything else. Both are a lot more restricted than anything like what goes on in the Dresden Files or Midkemia.

    For the science end I’m always appalled by universes where everything is done by some ridiculously high tech means and there’s a uniformly nearly unimaginable leap forward in all areas of science. Just take a look at how much say medicine and firearms have changed in the last 150 years. The former can’t really be compared to its progenitors and the latter, well there are still some very effective designs of that age in use.

    1. manufacturing resists change. Retooling a factory – especially in a radical way – is expensive and its success is often unknown. So manufacturing of many goods changes in small incremental steps often down the same ‘line’ of progress. Ergo, the flush toilet is still intrinsically the same beast as was first made about 500 years ago, and still uses a patented device from 1775. So parts of society change. Others do not. Magic it seems is similarly resistant to change 😉

  5. I’ve always liked Dave Duncan’s stuff. It’s been a while since I read any so I can’t comment too much on the consistency but at least he obviously gives it some thought.

    My free novel (available at http://www.scottjrobinson.com) is science fiction but part of the idea is that it’s about explaining some of our myths and legends. So there are dwarves (spoilers for anyone who cares 🙂 )who can do ‘magic’ that was engineered into them to let them work on the hulls and other parts of space ships. And the moai (ancestors of the polynesians) were the original ‘navigators’ and have crystal balls that are ancient navigation computers. Trolls were space marines and can see in the dark and have radios in their heads.

    I think any magic and or science can work, as long as there are consequences– even if they are only psychological.

    One thing that always bugged men about Harry Potter– even though it is really only a little thing… JK Rowling once admitted that before she started writing she didn’t really read much fantasy. She has witches and wizards as if they are the male and female versions of the same thing where traditionally they practice different types of magic. Perhaps the problem was that ‘warlock’ has bad connotations. Oh well, maybe I’m the only person who cares.


    1. Scott, the linking of legend to plausible explanations is the stuff of fantasy.
      Harry Potter is suitably PC. You didn’t really expect historical accuracy did you? Myself I always assumed she’d read Diana Wynne Jones – witch week i think it is – and was not giving credit where it was due. It is of course possible that she didn’t.

      1. The story can’t really be called fantasy. It’s set in the present day and the ‘plausible explanations’ involve genetically engineering people 50k years ago to perform certain tasks on space ships. When society collapsed the different groups hung out with (and bred with) people they liked and the engineered traits strengthened and became racial traits. All that barely gets a mention in the 3 books (possibly 4 books– #2 is currently at 210k words) but it’s what everything started from.

  6. Theory is a wonderful place. Everything works there, and does what you expect it to. Not at all like the messiness of the real world.

    Oh, sorry. Too much time testing crappy software.

  7. Let’s see. You remember the old ads for “one silly little millimeter?” Cigarette ad of some kind. Anyway, take that millimeter. Now, there’s a thousand (that’s 1,000) micrometers in that millimeter. And 1,000,000 (one million!) nanometers in a millimeter. Which means Americans would say there’s a billion nanometers in a meter. Traditional British usage would say that’s not quite the right measure, but it’s a bunch, anyway you count them.

    One giant step for a nanobot… would hardly be noticed by most people.

    1. Well, see, that’s why you need magic – to shove those nanos around.

      I prefer to stick them in a liquid, and drink it or inject it. Then the liquid can do all main traveling bits.

  8. Ooo. Good question. As in all things, the needs of the story come first. So far I’ve got two published fantasy pieces and one forthcoming.

    For the first “Jilka and the Evil Wizard” (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, Winter, ’91) I developed a rather involved magic system that involves deities as a source of magical “storage batteries” (how much magical energy a person can store within themselves or within an object) and rules on how magic may be used. Backstory had the gods disappearing leaving only a fixed supply of those “batteries” passed from one magic user to another (willingly as in master to student or not as in defeated wizard being “drained” by his opponent) Absolutely none of that showed up in the one story from that world that was published except my protagonist “graduated” from mage training but still couldn’t cast spells. (Learned the skills but hadn’t earned the “storage battery” yet.) I did more with that world but none of that ever sold. Maybe someday….

    The second was in my novelette “With Enemies Like These” in the anthology “Lawyers in Hell” (shameless plug: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1937035026/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=coldserv09-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399373&creativeASIN=1937035026 ) That one is quintessentially “religious” in its magic and I tend to limit the use of any spell-type magic in my stories set there (presuming the editors like my upcoming stories as they did the first) but magical/divine/infernal creatures are rather common. In fact, they’re a large part of the point.

    The third is in “Time for Tears” (forthcoming in Sword & Sorceress 26 by Norilana Books). Again, this story is part of a wider world where I’ve developed the magic system in some detail and again the magic system is a blend of religious and rules-based aspects.

    Looking back on my unpublished efforts it seems that there, too, I tend to blend religious and rules-based aspects. For one thing it seems that without some kind of rules that say what can, and most importantly what cannot, be done with magic one loses dramatic tension. However with rules-based magic unless it’s severely limited (entirely possible, but not the kind of story I’ve tended to write) then it stands to reason that there would be, somewhere in the wide world, some supremely powerful magical beings and at the extreme levels cause and effect can get a little muddled (why, yes, I am a physicist and I have studied quantum mechanics, why do you ask?) so calling these “top level” magical beings “gods” would seem to follow, particularly as I don’t insist on either omniscience or omnipotence for my fictional deities. (Most myths of which I’m aware have no such requirement so why should I?)

    And so the worm Ouroboros comes back to its beginning and bites itself on the tail, forever and ever.

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