Tue
Oct 21 2008 9:54am

System = Unmagical?

In discussions of magic in Fantasy fiction, a frequently argued point is whether or not systemized magic somehow ruins the “magical” feeling of a work of fiction by making magic a poor copy of science. “Gamers” are regularly cited as the ones who introduced this element into Fantasy, an assignment of blame that completely disregards the fact that magical systems are as old as the concept of magic itself.

Magical systems are akin to ritual magic—that is, a magic where a ritual (or system) is used in the belief that following that system will achieve a set desired result.

Ritual magic permeates numerous cultures. The ancient Egyptians used it not only in those rites associated with death and judgement, but in daily life. (Do you think only mummies wore amulets?). Many European cultures possessed their own forms of ritual magic, dating far back into prehistory. (What do you think cave paintings are?).

Ritual magic is central to many Native American cultures. I’m married to an anthropologist who specializes in the Southwest. Despite the hard-held belief of many New Age practitioners that the Native Americans are simply “close to nature” and “sensitive to the Great Spirit” magical/religious rituals (there is no real distinction) are integral to the power/belief structures of these peoples.

Perhaps no culture so closely equated magic and system as did that which is my current obsession: the Chinese. Moreover, especially to the older Chinese cultures (although plenty of wonderful rituals are still practiced today), there was no distinction between science and magic.

When the first Chinese emperor was advised to burn all books except for technical manuals and handbooks (the history of his own lineage was excluded from this general attempt to erase all contradictory history and tradition) divination was included with medicine, agriculture, and arboriculture as what we would today term a “hard science.”

As a writer of Fantasy fiction, I have explored many types of magic. In my contemporary novels (ex. Changer and Child of a Rainless Year) I have dealt with more “numinous” or non-ritual magic. When I designed a imaginary world Fantasy for my Firekeeper novels, what form of magic was practiced in an area varies according to the culture that colonized an area. Some of these were ritual magics. Some were not.

However, when dealing with historical or living magical traditions—as I did with Legends Walking (West African, among others), The Buried Pyramid (ancient Egyptian), and my forthcoming Thirteen Orphans (Chinese)—I did not ignore the elements of systematized or ritual magic. Rather, I found within those traditions material as numinous and mysterious as any vague evocation of magical vibrations could be.

Let me return briefly to the Chinese. Over time, an elaborate system of correspondences has evolved, so that every significant plant, animal, number, element, star/planet, and suchlike is linked. These links are not simple. For every affiliation there is an opposition. Yin and yang keep principles that in Western traditions are distinct from becoming absolute, so that within darkness there is a tiny bit of light, within the male there is a touch of the female, within the domestic there must be the wild, and so on...

Talk about complex, mysterious, and full of wonder.

33 comments
Barbara Webb
1. BJ_Webb
I've always believed that fantasy worldbuilding should be as rigorous as science fiction. Elaborate, intricately defined systems of ritual magic are part of the fun! A copy of science, perhaps, but hardly a poor one.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
The trouble is that magic in the real world doesn't work outside of people's heads. You can do all the rituals you like and it doesn't get repeatable results, and therefore it doesn't feel like science, or feel boring or whatever. Wearing amulets for Egyptians felt mystical and numinous because they hoped, but didn't know what was going to happen. Hope is magical. In a fantasy world where it works reliably, it's hard to make a system feel magical to the characters and to the readers. It's not impossible, and I'm sure you've made it work because you're a terrific writer, but it's one of those things where saying "the Chinese did this" doesn't necessarily count. The Chinese didn't do it and have it work every time, and for a character who can, it's going to feel different. If magic is reliable then all that balancing correspondences to make a light in darkness is going to feel (to a character who is used to it) as mundane as switching on a lightbulb is to us.
Phil Frederick
3. flosofl
I've always thought that world building that had magic *without* some sort of logical underlying system was cheap in some way. It's like a poor man's deus ex machina. If there are no limits or logical constraints then the author has no need to be clever or original when he (or she) gets painted into a corner.

Hell, some of the best Fantasy I've read is where a key element of the plot involves discovering the underlying rules of magic.
Graham Edwards
4. grahamedwards
By definition, magic does stuff science can't handle. For the writer, that means it's a great tool for working miracles. But you have to impose limits, if only on the level of 'well the magic can't do this'. Otherwise the magic-makers get it all their own way and there's no story. So it really comes down to how complex you those limits are, and how rigorously the rules are enforced. As a writer, I personally think the rigour is critical, otherwise it feels like every time I use magic I'm cheating.

Graham Edwards Website
Ken Walton
5. carandol
Of course, science actually grew out of systemized magic. The more you try to systemise magic and figure out what makes it work, the more you reject the stuff that doesn't work, the closer you are to science as we know it. Chemistry grew out of alchemy, astronomy grew out of astrology, etc. Science as we know it ended up describing things very mechanistically. My history of science lecturer a a few years ago reckons that if things had taken a slightly different turn in the seventeeth century, we would have had a science which knew more or less the same things we know, but would have described them in terms of spirits and sympathies rather than particles and forces.

If you have a system of ritualised magic or science which doesn't actually fit the way the world really works, then when your magic/science fails to work, you can either try to figure out why your method is wrong (which is how science works) or you can blame it on the gods, or an evil curse, or a rival magician, or whatever. If your alchemy fails to produce gold, it's because you're spiritually impure, not because your methods are wrong. If your holy book tells you the world works in a certain way, and then it fails to do that, something spooky must be going on.

I suppose to have what Jo has called the numinous in fictional magic, either the physical laws of the universe have to work differently than they do in this reality, or the magicians have to have a world view which doesn't quite fit with the way the world works, and the writer has to get the reader sufficiently into the mindset of the characters that things seem magical even if really they're not.
fred campbell
6. fred00
I think the magic system in a novel depends on the number of people who can use or have access to it. If it’s a just a few people then that in of itself can be the limiting factor. If many have access to magic in one form or another then a cost has to be associated with it. The more personal the better.

A system where a person can cast magic but their family members pay the cost could make for strong traditions that could be explored, changed, and broken.

I remember reading a paperback where the main guy’s sister could cast magic but only when she was naked. My young mind couldn’t figure out why she insisted on wearing boots with hard to work buckles.
Graham Edwards
7. grahamedwards
I like the word 'numinous' in this context. It reminds me that, while I stand by my argument that rigour in the use of magic makes for good narrative, I would add that too much emphasis on rules can rob the piece of its, well, its magic. John Crowley is a good example, in that it's hard to spot where he's actually writing overtly about magic at all, yet it positively oozes from the page.

Graham
Nancy Lebovitz
8. Nancy Lebovitz
There are a lot of different kinds of system. To my mind, magic works best fictionally when it's personal. If you can use it for mass production, it doesn't feel magical.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
The normal ways people have for getting around that are, sometimes combined:

a) Magic only works for Special People. Therefore, even if it works for you all the time, that's because you're special. (Harry Potter, etc.) With a variant that it only works for special people who are extremely rare. (Tolkien, etc.)

b) Magic takes a physical toll on you (Darkover etc.) or on other people (Fionavar) and there's a finite amount of it you can do. Or magic wears out your soul (Door Into, Magic or Madness) and you will die young if you use it.

c) Magic is about as magical as switching on a light or making cupcakes, to the character (Vlad). This isn't a problem.

d) Magic requires the direct intervention of capricious gods. (Chalion etc). This keeps it unreliable. For variety, to get it you have to sell your soul to a demon -- Faustian variants.

e) Magic needs lots of people and ritual to work. This is less common than you'd think. I fancy a world where the Aztec way is effective, it would certainly be interesting, if unpleasant.

f) Magic is illegal and you'd be in awful trouble if caught using it. (Hambly's very fond of this and does it very well.)

g) Magic is imperfectly understood. There are several competing schools of magic, none of which has a total grip on the underlying worldview. Combining them, often by our protagonist in the story, can be extremely effective.

What other obvious ones am I missing?
Nancy Lebovitz
10. Nick Mamatas
Chinese metaphysics and magical systems are hardly as top-down or as systematized as the OP would have it. That's not to say that there aren't systems, but simply that there isn't a single "elaborate system" that evolved. Rather it's a mishmash of Buddhism, Taoism, various animist elements, alchemy, the parlor tricks of martial art traditions, etc. and as such is often vague, ambiguous and contradictory.

As an experiment, bring a Chen style taiji practitioner, a Wu style taiji practitioner, an accupuncturist, an herbalist, and a Pure Land Buddhist together and ask them to define ? and describe its role in their lives, professions, and beliefs about the body and the world.

Incidentally, the differences in answers will both a) handily explain how the numinous can continue to exist within baroque traditions and "systems" and b) how belief in ? as something other than, say "inhaling" or "leverage" can endure for centuries.
Nancy Lebovitz
11. joelfinkle
Systematized magic isn't new in fiction: De Camp and Pratt's "Incomplete Enchanter" attempted to describe magic as just fancy maths, and that's from 1941.

And to say that gamers caused the systematificationizing (heh) makes no sense when one of the biggest influences on Dungeons and Dragons' magic system is Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" from 1950.
Ken Walton
12. carandol
@bluejo

h) The world works in a different way than most people think it does, but only a small number of people know this, and they keep it secret from the rest. The people who practice magic aren't special except in the sense that they're members of some secretive organisation which has taught them skills which appear magical to the uninitiated.
Nancy Lebovitz
13. Dan McGirt
As a reader, I enjoy exploring a detailed system of magic that the author has worked out ... as BJ Webb says in comment #1 that's part of the fun! (I would add ditto for bits of made up history, politics, culture, custom, religion, etc that might permeate a story.) On the other hand, it by no means lessens my enjoyment if the story comes without a detailed operating manual. "It's magic!" is an acceptable answer, so long as the story entertains.

As a writer ... well, it just depend on the needs of the story. In my long-forgotten Jason Cosmo novels, I was mainly going for laughs, so while I did sketch out a few "rules" to guide myself, I largely made up my magic as I went along -- which may, in itself, be a system.
Nancy Lebovitz
14. cbyler
i) There are several competing schools of magic... all of which are right, because there are several different kinds of magic that work in different ways. Later Chalion books do this, for example.

j) Magic requires a rare substance, either physical or ethereal. When you run out, you can't do any more until you collect more. When a whole area runs out, *nobody* can do magic until they find more. Resource wars may ensue. (This is different from b because magical energy can be given, stolen, stockpiled, carried around, etc.) It may or may not be a renewable resource, but even if it is, some people will want more than their share.

k) Certain people (or all people) contain magic, which can be released by killing them and used by the killers (if they know how). This is like j, except with soylent green (and could also be considered a subclass of b, although most works in group b only require fatigue or something similar). Particularly if only some people have magic blood, leads to slavery. Rarely the *only* source of magic, if only because that doesn't leave the heroes much of a way to fight it.
Jeff Soules
15. DeepThought
After Nick @ #10:

This isn't completely accurate, both to the nature of Chinese "magical" systems, and to the nature of science.

Science is both a systematic way of establishing new knowledge about the world (empiricism ) and also the body of knowledge we've built through those methods (the stuff in a chem textbook).

I've heard some very convincing arguments (from Prof. Dorothy Ko) that a lot of feng shui did use an empirical approach to studying the world, but simply did so on a scale that didn't isolate variables well or permit of repeatable experiments -- rather like economics or other social sciences -- and that started with different assumptions about how the world works. Within those limits, you wouldn't hire a feng shui practitioner to site your new house/city/temple/etc if the residents of his previous work had bad luck after a few years, and the manuals would be updated based on the observations of generations of practitioners. The same is true of traditional medical practices and the like (and some of them have some merit as a result; they're founded in observations after all). Remember, they weren't trying to understand a magical system; they were trying to understand how the world works.

So one interpretation of magic in the real world is that it's applying solid empirical approaches to poorly isolated variables, and as a result is a scientific examination of statistical noise. Ritual is the result: it's an attempt to recreate circumstances in which the magic had earlier been effective. (And hey, psychological needs and all that.)

As to complaints about the systematization of magic -- reading about the system is totally interesting, provided the system is rich enough. I want magic with limits, but I'd rather the characters be more limited than the possibilities of magic. And I think that suffices for magic to remain something beyond the light switch -- characters can imagine things that magic can't do, but the world of magical possibilities extends beyond the characters' creativity or imagination. (Perhaps that's why there's still some magic left in this world, too -- even though we can dream things that aren't possible, our technology is still as limited by our imaginations as by the world's physics.)
Nancy Lebovitz
16. Clark E Myers
Blue Star by Fletcher Pratt has a wrapper that asks what would keep hereditary magic from total world domination in an evolutionary minute - it would seem to offer a real breeding advantage.

Spoiler of sorts for a by now very old story. The answer separates the magic wielder from the hereditary line under circumstances that make slavery also difficult. Old Nathan by Drake suggests the obvious reason magic gives no breeding advantage.
Sammy Jay
17. Malebolge
I'm not sure- I like there to be a system of sorts for a world's magic, and Stross's Down on the Farm (available online here) is an example of where a thorough, clever system of magic can make for a delightful story. At the same time, and again, as seen in Down on the Farm, it's nice to keep things unknown, and to keep the audience in the dark for a while.

If you have a system, it's important to make the 'unknown effects' logical, but not so obvious that the audience can figure it out straight up.
Jane Lindskold
18. janelindskold
I'm glad to read such intelligent and varied comments!

Minor aside to those who protested my treatment of Chinese magic wasn't complex enough.

For goodness sake! The entire post was only slightly over 500 words...

I never pretended to be writing an authoritative dissertation on either ritual magic or Chinese myth and magic.

Nor do I particularly desire to do so.

I've done my dissertation (on other things entirely). Now I write stories... If you want my twist on the complexities of Chinese myth, magic, and culture, please feel free to join me in the realm of fiction. I'll also be writing some blogs on other aspects of Chinese lore, but even those are just samplers. This isn't (to me at least) a format for tapestry.
R O T
19. rogerothornhill
Viewing this from a storytelling rather than a real-world perspective, I wonder if anyone can think of a story or series in which there is an as yet uncomprehended system of magic. This is almost like bluejo's (g) but not quite. Nearly all the stories of magic I can think of off the top of my head involve some large cache of already assembled wizardly knowledge that the protagonists need to comprehend and acquire before they can achieve narrative closure. Even in Jim Butcher's close-to-real-world Chicago, Harry still trained and learned a clear set of rules before he set off with his hockey stick to start spitballing all those ad hoc spells.

But what would happen to a protagonist who discovers the mere existence of magic and has no body of preexisting magical knowledge to draw on? S/he would have to come to an understanding of magic's systemic, predictable workings via trial and error--magical experimentation, if you will.

I'm sure there's a story like that out there, but for some reason all I can think of is The Suit in The Greatest American Hero, for which (as you all remember) they lost the alien instructions. There's also Jack Sawyer's learning curve re: traveling back and forth to the Badlands in The Talisman, but I'm not sure if that counts for the purposes of this thread.
Sammy Jay
20. Malebolge
Well, not really magic, but sort of relevant:

In Neil Gaiman's suffix to the Sandman series, Endless Nights, there was a chapter called 'The Heart of a Star'. Set waaay early in the DC universe- timeline-wise, Earth hadn't even started displaying life yet- the titular Sandman is courting an early version of the Guardians that would go on to found the Green Lanterns. This proto-Guardian is one of a royal educated class that has found a way to mentally bend and manipulate a distinct kind of green light, and is still playing around with the mechanics of how to use it.

Then things happen which I won't go into BUT the point is there is still some thought given to this process of creating and manipulating a greater-than natural energy source, a la magic.
Which I thought was sort of neat.
R O T
21. rogerothornhill
Oh yes thanks for reminding that.

And great screenname by the way.
Kevin Riggle
22. kevinr
rogerthornhill @19: Rick Cook's The Wiz Biz is a lot like that -- our hero, a late 20th-century computer programmer, finds himself thrust into a fantasy world where everyone treats magic as, well, magical, but he wonders if it can't be systematized, and darned if the system he creates doesn't look familiar... Quite a fun book.
Sam Kelly
23. Eithin
Well, part of my grouch about gamers' (some gamers') bad influence on (some) fantasy is as much to do with missing complexity as it is to do with systematization. Real-world magic (ritual, alchemy, the Mysteries of Trade and Craft) all developed from observations of incredibly complex systems, and are attempts to model and affect those systems. One of the ways they "look" real is because they have holes in - missing patches, bits the practitioners don't understand, obviously fake bits of baroque hierarchy plastered over gaps as placeholders.

Most real-world magical practitioners have an intuitive understanding of complex systems and nondeterministic results - mostly because magic is either applied psychology or folk medicine/engineering, and in all those disciplines you need to take account of the weird stuff lurking in the shadows just outside your understanding of the universe.

But often in fantasy fiction, we're shown a set of simple levers and the challenge for the protagonists is in working out which one to pull, or collecting the energy needed to pull it hard enough. This does work out sometimes (I'm quite fond of those Jason Cosmo books, in fact - I was just thinking yesterday about re-reading them) but mostly it seems to reduce magic to the plot-coupon level, rather than the character level.

YMPDV, of course.
Sammy Jay
24. Malebolge
I don't know what YMPDV means.

I'm thinking it's You May Something Differ Something.

(You May Beg To Differ?)
Sammy Jay
26. Malebolge
damnit. curbed again by imperial units. alrighty, thanks.
Jane Lindskold
27. janelindskold
As I noted in my initial blog, I've written novels where I've dealt with magic in all sorts of ways.

A recent trip to the library reminded me of an author who does magic in a special and unique fashion.

Patricia McKillip.

I fell in love with her stuff with THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD, adored the RIDDLEMASTER OF HED books, and have pretty much read and loved everything since.

She gives a sense of a specific ritual underlying lots of what her characters are doing (riddles; an alphabet; woven and knitted materials to grab three at random), but that doesn't ever make her stories one tiny bit less magical.

Wonderful...
Sumana Harihareswara
28. brainwane
I am reminded of Alexandra Erin's Tales of MU (another example). In the story, magic IS NOT science -- science is bunk -- but there are well-understood and systematic schools of magic.

The wizards of that period spent their time compiling what they observed to be the laws of magic, and if they only found one or two potential apprentices within their extended lifespans for whom those “laws” could be made to function, they concluded that wizardry was simply a very rare gift to begin with. After all, they had “proven” that magic could be made to work reliably in only those few certain ways, hadn’t they?
...
It had only been when human thought moved away from irrational impulses that something like a school of magic had become practical. The modern approach… which focused more on intuition, personal perception, and a healthy appreciation for not prodding at things until they either fell apart or started prodding you back… had been the basis of the magical revolution...
Nancy Lebovitz
29. Nate2
The problem with some fantasy is that, if anything can happen, why read it?

That's why limiting magic, and making it systematic is essential to good fantasy.

It doesn't necessarily have to be shared with the reader all of the time, but the details must be known by the author.
Dan McGirt
30. Dan_McGirt
I actually quite like the system proposed, perhaps inadvertently, by Eithin (who is clearly an individual of exceptionally refined reading tastes!) at #23 above:

l) Coupon-based magic. Characters are issued coupons which they may redeem for magical results.

In the abstract, this is not dissimilar from the gaming tropes of casting spells from one-shot scrolls or wands with a limited number of charges. But I'm talking about actual coupons, which perhaps must be clipped from a weekly Sorcerer's Circular .
Blaine Moore
31. Zackalthair
Personally, I think that it depends entirely on how the storyteller uses the system, rather than the system itself. A lot of books/stories either have a rigid system with clear cut rules and no exceptions, or have a vague system that makes no sense and seems to serve as more of a "Wizards did it, don't ask how" sort of thing. I'd like to think that in any magic system there would be some exceptions, sort of how there are exceptions to most, if not all, of the scientific laws.
Nancy Lebovitz
32. Mary Frances
I think one of the things that an author has to ask him/herself in the course of writing a fantasy novel in which magic is significant is: in my world, is magic a science or an art? Or--sort of--both? Both science and art have rules, so to speak, but the rules are different in nature (as is the attitude towards those rules, I believe).

Obviously, this distinction overlaps with what Jo Walton outlined @ 9. For example, if magic is an art, then the effective working of magic requires individual talent . . . hence, magic can ever only be worked reliably by Special People. Similarly, science requires creativity, but--scientists look at their work (even in terms of imaginative breakthroughs) somewhat differently than artists. (I think. Any scientists want to comment?)

It seems to me that when magic exists at the intersection between art and science in a work of fiction, the author has room for all sorts of shenanigans--and yet still has to have some concept of limits to make things work.
Jane Lindskold
33. janelindskold
Mary Frances -- Very thoughtful. I like the comparison between science and art... And the reminder that Art still has rules.

I've been reading an article about Van Gogh's formal art training -- and how much he valued knowing the rules, even as he adapted or flat-out broke them.

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