This post is going to be a little late, and thank you for your patience – I was under the weather and although the clouds are thinning, I’m still not in sunshine. Actually, I woke up this morning and had forgotten it was Saturday, and it wasn’t until I was talking with my friend that I realized I didn’t have a post. Or a topic. Or, really, much of a brain. Fortunately, we’d been discussing her writing work-in-progress, and when I brought this post up, she suggested a topic.
How to balance hard science and fantasy in writing?
There’s a bit of an assumption about writing fantasy I run into from time to time. ‘That’s so easy to do, you just make it all up.’ I suppose it’s possible that there are fantasy authors out there who don’t bother with any research, they just make it all up. But reality as an underpinning to fantasy is essential to my reading pleasure, and I suspect strongly that this is the case for most readers. So the ability to blend science with fantasy is essential. You can’t disobey the laws of physics because ‘it’s magic’ any more than you can in Space Opera, unless you want your books to take regular flying lessons.
The friend I was talking to – I’ll call her Thing 2, since that’s her nickname in our group, and using her real name is confusing here – was commenting on the fact that she couldn’t find images as generated from the latest night-vision system. Since it’s not legal for civilians and all. She’s trying to research her work, and to blend science in with her fantasy. She’s doing it right. Her imaginary world isn’t going to have capricious magic use that exists for the convenience of her plotline. When vampires show up, they won’t be ignored and dismissed, actual science will be done on them and their traces.
This is what I like to read about. Magic that is limited, has a price to use, and it’s not like turning on a tap. Well, if it is, it’s with the understanding of where the tap is connected to pipes, and a pressure tank, and a well, and the well WILL run dry if you try to pull out too much, too fast. Just like in the real world, magic could be handled like chemical reactions: you can react some substances with others, bot not all. Reactions should be endothermic or exothermic. A catalyst will help the ‘spell’ get over the initial activation energy need to make it proceed faster (or proceed at all, in some reactions). if we’re going to keep this chemistry as magic metaphor, we should also keep in mind that the ‘water’ coming oout of our tap matters, a lot. You don’t use regular tap water for chemistry, it’s got contaminates in it, and ions and goodness-knows what-all. No, you want deionized water that is from a controlled source so you aren’t reacting with something unknown like calcium carbonate. You also want clean glassware. Some of these fantasy novels with their oddball ‘organic’ wood or stone containers *shudder* I don’t know what you’re going to get out of that and when was the last time you read about a witch scrubbing and sterilizing their workspace? Heck, half the hurdle in Analytical Chemistry is learning how to properly wash dishes. Also, some magical reactions will be more, ah, energetic than others. And if my fantasy writer readers want to play with THAT concept, check out “Things I won’t Work With” a series of chemistry blog posts.
Pulling myself reluctantly away from that metaphor (what? I really like chemistry) I’m not sure that’s what Thing 2 wanted to concentrate (heh, heh… concentrated vs dilute magic. Back away from the Chemistry jokes, Cedar) on. Science, in the purest form, is the study of the universe using mathematics and measurement. This is done with observations, experiments, and hypotheses that can be tested, repeated, and proven. I don’t see any reason why a well-written fantasy can’t adhere to the same rules of the universe as our known sciences. It does mean the author should have at least some grounding in basic science, though.
My point, if you managed to follow me through this odd ramble, is that you can’t just make it all up. Not an make it into a good book with a solid story. If you want to blend hard science and fantasy believably, you have to do your homework. Thing 2 is on the right track, and I am hoping she keeps at it – this would be her debut work, and it’s got a lot of promise. I do enjoy a well-done fantasy, especially an urban fantasy that pays attention to the rules of the universe and doesn’t break science without a very good reason. Or some kind of explanation afterward when the main character demands to know what the &*^$ that was!
Operating on limited brain, I can only think of two titles offhand that did a really nice job of pairing the two fields of magic and science. I am sure you all can come up with more, and please do. The first, and highly recommended, is the Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett. The second much more recent is Julie Frost’s Pack Dynamics which gets into (lightly) the mad science of vamps and weres.
What can you suggest for blending hard science and fantasy in a story?