Most readers of speculative fiction are familiar with the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and if you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to tell you that we live in an age of wonders and horrors.
2010 Earth is a world where I can fit every word I’ve ever written—and there are a fair number, believe me!—on a flashdrive the size of my thumb. I can video-phone my three-year-old niece, who lives 650 miles away, and watch her practice her dance moves in real time. Or I can be there in two hours, and that includes the ride to the airport. I live in the heart of a big city, yet I can catch public transit to my favourite wilderness park... and if anyone needs to reach me once I’m there, sitting on a rock and staring at the turtles, one of the many plastic gadgets in my keeping will buzz to life and let me know about it.
And the horrors? We need look no further than the news coming from the Gulf of Mexico to feel a deep, perishing despair at the price we’re continuing to pay, by choice, for all these miracles.
I’m no engineer. I’ll sometimes look up a given piece of technology on a site like www.howstuffworks.com. I know humans invented my fridge and medical prescriptions and digital camera, people who took the time and trouble to work out the science, who tested and experimented and optimized each technology until they had just the right thing. I know, in other words, that they’re not magic. But for most of us, Clarke’s law might already be said to hold: a lot of what goes on in our techno-toys might as well be magic. As Ursula K Le Guin put it at the 2010 Locus Awards this past June 26th, “There’s a gift in science just as there’s a gift in wizardry.”
What I do understand is that all my toys are a blessing. I love technology, love the internet and especially love the digital camera with which I take literally thousands of pictures of birds and flowers. I try to be mindful of their cost and grateful for the lifestyle they allow, to remember that it’s not universal.
Sometimes, too, I’m surprised that my appetite—and the appetites of so many fantasy readers—for magic hasn’t lessened. In an age where so much is within our grasp, we still yearn for the impossible: vampires, love spells and dragons. The uncontrollable, the uninvented, whether it’s sacred or profane, has lost none of its allure. In an era when we have so much power to create, communicate and destroy, we’re still pining for a sliver of impossibility, for the possibility that the monsters come from the dark to devour us, despite our immense powers.
Lately, in urban fantasy, the gadgets and the mystical have been melding in increasingly cool ways.
This trend certainly did not originate with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I do think it got a big boost from the character of Willow. Willow began her evil-fighting career as a computer geek, of course, and she made her bumpy and sometimes painful transition into witchery as we all happily watched. A good deal of the time what she was doing was an either/or proposition: she was hacking, or she was working spells. But there was overlap, too: in “Smashed”, for example, she held her hand over her laptop and telepathically hoovered up a necessary piece of evil-fighting knowledge.
These interactions are nothing new. All fantasy fiction features these mixes—a magic shoe is as much a combination of science and wizardry as an enchanted iPhone. Something I emphasize when I am teaching writers new to the fantasy genre is that there are no magical universes, to my knowledge, that have no connection to our scientific understanding of the world. It would take an immense amount of worldbuilding to do without gravity, fire, or the basics of mammalian biology. Could we have ye old beer tavern if humans didn’t know how to brew hops? What if we didn’t metabolize alcohol in that certain special way? And remember—gravity, fire and booze were all at one time inexplicable mysteries in their own right.
So far, so good. Enchanting a sword or a book is, in its way, a literary precedent for Willow sucking up the internet using magic. But even if we have been layering spells into our tools from day one, creating Excalibur, or the seven league boots that are the stuff of fairytale, the sophistication of our fictional enchantments has increased along with the devices themselves. The Palantír of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is an elegant, dangerous wireless communication system. Lyndon Hardy, in the rigorously worked out magic system of Master of the Five Magics, uses sympathetic magic—voodoo dolls, really—in a military field hospital. A few years later, Stephen King haunted a car in Christine.
(This interaction between the impossible and science goes both ways, of course—even hard SF is usually about a technology that’s a bit beyond our grasp.)
As the number of things we can do with our handy affordable devices increase, fantasy writers become ever more inventive in finding applications for mixing and matching. DD Barant spins off a world where firearms were never invented in Dying Bites. The result is an alternate Earth where vampires, werewolves and golems form most of the population and we garden-variety humans are facing extinction. In M.K. Hobson’s upcoming The Native Star, we see a frontier America built by magic, whose practitioners are trying to codify its properties even as they develop everything they can get their hands on. One of my favourite characters in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books is a gremlin mechanic who works with metal and iron. In Indigo Springs and Blue Magic, I create dozens of little mystical objects—watches, pencil sharpeners, make-up and kaleidoscopes. Early on, I also decided electronic items couldn’t hold enchantment, that the mystical energy required to power the magic would fry their delicate little chips. It seemed reasonable, and the magic in this story is plenty powerful already.
That decision also addressed a challenge that all urban fantasists face in melding technology with magic in the here and now. We are trying to render a world both recognizably our own and still imbued with the fantastic, you see, to sell the proposition that the dryads or unicorns or demons are right there, singing in the garage band next door or going to the hospital each day to perform surgery with the assistance of government-licensed sorcerer-anaesthetists. We are creating the illusion that the magic so many of us long for is folded in with the stuff of our daily lives, present yet never humdrum, within reach, and still mysterious, wild, perhaps uncontrollable. It is part of what makes this genre so fun.
It also means we’re constantly racing to keep up with the tech.
As our inventions continue to improve and evolve, our literary technomagic runs a peculiar risk of obsolescence. Remember the killer video tapes in Ringu? They’re a little quaint now, aren’t they? Horror filmmakers have already moved on to haunted websites and text messages. Tweets that Kill! In Imax! can’t but be around the corner...and all of these things will become outmoded in their turn, probably faster than their creators ever guessed.
I am delighted by this insatiable human thirst for the impossible, our collective desire for stories that stretch the boundaries past what we cannot currently achieve. It is a particularly childlike hunger, I think, that desire to fly, to be invisible, to read the thoughts of others. It shows that we remain, very much, a world populated by dreamers. No matter how much we imagine and create for each other, there will always be room for more. Impossible, astonishing, magical ideas will continue to flow from our minds, pens and computers, to be eagerly received by readers and viewers whose hunger for mystery and the impossible can never be exhausted.
Alyx Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.