Sep 18 2013 10:00am

There Will Be A Quiz: The Importance of Research in Steelheart

David, the young protagonist of Brandon Sanderson’s upcoming YA novel Steelheart, is a devout cataloguer. Faced with the constant threats posed by the Epics, the superpowered beings who have come to dominate mankind, he has responded with spreadsheets, tier charts, and homebrew power categorization systems. The huge volume of data, statistics, and speculation he collects would make any RPG designer or Fantasy Football enthusiast salivate. David scavenges his data from every conceivable source: rumors, questionable newspaper articles, and life-threatening fact-finding missions. The result is literally reams of paper, contraband literature that David has risked his life to create—and will risk it again to keep hold of and out of the hands of his Epic oppressors.

I may sound like I’m poking fun at David and his meticulous homebrew spreadsheets. Well, I kind of am. His earnest devotion to his categories and systems amuse me. But this research serves a vital purpose, and brings David into noble company among Sanderson’s growing gallery of characters. Researchers grace the pages of most of Sanderson’s novels. Vin’s explorations into the various allomantic properties of metals and alloys and Sazed’s devoted search for metaphysic and historic truth drive the plot of the Mistborn series both mechanically and emotionally. Shallan’s entire arc in The Way of Kings comes down to winning and then maintaining a research fellowship, and she and her mentor Jasnah spend almost all their time reading books in a library. Which, by the way, is absolutely riveting, I promise you. This comes to a head with Joel, the protagonist of Sanderson’s previous YA offering The Rithmatist, who is a grade school student trying to come to terms with a magical and cultural system he’s been excluded from by research and experimentation. Even when Brandon Sanderson doesn’t write researchers directly into his stories, their spirit remains. Such is the case in The Alloy of Law; what is a detective, anyway, but someone who researches crimes?

Sanderson has often been pointed to as one of the most systematic and thoughtful worldbuilders writing today. He makes worlds that are complicated, intricate, alien from our own and from each other, and always internally consistent. Such worlds reward researchers. They exist in orderly ways that can be explored through intelligence, sense, and persistence. They reward methodical thought and diligent effort but leave room for inspiration. The application of hard work in an intelligent and thoughtful way, Sanderson’s canon argues, is the truest form of magic—it’s the spark that drives mankind beyond mundane and benighted stumbling through an incomprehensible universe.

That is quite literally true in the Sanderson’s Hugo-winning novella The Emperor’s Soul. Shai, the captive protagonist, is the master of a magic that requires absolute understanding of its subject. She has the potential to transform almost any object, in ways big or small, but to do so she must know all its properties. She can even rewrite a human soul, changing her subject fundamentally. By constructing the narrative of the Emperor’s life, learning not only what he was and who he was, but also why he was those things, she can recreate his identity.

The drive to understand wasn’t always the focus of the fantasy genre, and the magic of our earliest fantasy worlds was intentionally vague. The power wielded by Gandalf the Grey in Tolkien’s worlds was vast, but limited. It is not for hobbits or humans to understand. Even the power vested in the artifacts of Middle-Earth was vague. The One Ring was corruptive because it was an allegory for power-lust, and in that way it was extremely effective. But what power was actually available from the Ring? Invisibility is an extreme social power, but not enough to topple kingdoms for. Rings of invisibility in modern fantasy are often massively outclassed by the other artifacts that casually rewrite the laws of physics, and an Epic who only possessed invisibility would barely crack Tier C in David’s charts.

As the genre matured in dialogue with RPGs, more and more writers began to produce magic that was less ineffable and more systematic. The function of the “wizard” began to shift from the mysterious old man whom it was best not to approach, let alone inhabit from a narrative perspective, to the young person feeling his or her way through a mysterious world with rules that weren’t yet explained, but which could be mastered. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ged became the master of strange and numinous magics, working through how to harness magical power. The true name magic of the Earthsea Quartet was still essentially incomprehensible to readers, but it was nevertheless something for wizards to learn, to struggle with. It was a step closer to research.

The One Power, Robert Jordan’s system of magic in the Wheel of Time series, was yet more detailed. Jordan wrote researchers, scientists, people who longed to rediscover old techniques and technologies and who devoted their time to doing so. Even then, however, almost all of the important discoveries in the Wheel of Time came through guesswork or happenstance, and usually happened off screen. It could be said, perhaps, that Elayne’s experiments with ter’angreal were scientific, but not that they were rigorous, especially when compared with Vin’s metallurgic trials. I’m pretty sure Vin at least took notes of her progress.

In some ways, I think that more scientific magic (or superpowers, as the case may be in Steelheart) is less magical than what came before. Despite the old adage about sufficiently advanced technology, science and magic probably shouldn’t actually be synonyms. But I love the researcher character, and the research plot. And while I doubt researchable magic is enough to sustain my epic fantasy tastes forever, I can’t think of a better fit for it than in YA fiction, where the young protagonist’s quest for self-understanding can parallel their drive to uncover the secrets of the world they live in.

Carl Engle-Laird is an editorial assistant, Way of Kings rereader, and resident Stormlight correspondent for He would probably read David’s notes if they were put in front of him. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Walker White
1. Walker
The reason why this approach seems so unusual is because of the long shadow of Ashton Smith and Vance. In those early fantasies, magic was (largely) the technology of long forgotten civilizations. What made it "magic" was the fact that its adherents were able to use it with understanding how it works. They studied the forms and rituals, but not the why.

Somehow we got it in our mind that, once it became explained or explainable, it became science fiction. Or at the very least, space opera (e.g. the psi battles that are just magic battles in another name).
Vague magical powers are always best in stories where the protagonists are without magic and the magic is creating trouble: LotR, all the Narnia stories, and today Song of Ice and Fire.

I think the specified magical powers have become more popular because they allow the protagonist to be the magician and keep the solutions from being Deus ex Machina.

But I guess I'm really just restating Sanderson's First Law.

It's an interesting distinction because for all the research done in Steelheart on specific heroes, from the samples I've read they still don't really know what's causing all this or what other powers might be possible. Which puts it firmly in the first category in both respects.

Thinking of today's fantasy series with wizardly protagonists there are a lot of researchers like Bob from The Dresden Files. I can't think of another book/series other than The Rithmatist where the researcher character is somebody totally without the power they're researching.
andrew smith
3. sillyslovene
@2 - one other example could be the Watchers from Highlander (the TV series), a little dated though. While they play a central role in some of the story arcs, they aren't necessarily one of the main issues (i.e. the show still revolves around Immortals killing each other largely)
Adam S.
I haven't read Steelheart (yet) but I do have to say that while the protagonist in The Rithmatist is non-magical, he still knows all about the magic, and the magic clearly follows certain rules that are well-delineated. I assume that Steelheart follows that same trend. Sanderson always develops his magical systems with rules and limitations, though these are not clear to the reader (or the protagonist(s)) until late in the story/series. That makes Joel in The Rithmatist quite unlike Frodo Baggins or Jon Snow, who not only have no innate magical knowldge/power, but who live in worlds where magic is unpredictable and mysterious even to its practitioners.

Clearly if you put a person with vaguely defined powers as the protagonist you risk deus ex machina, see Sword of Truth, which I still enjoyed btw. On the other hand, I think by putting a protagonist without powers in a world with specifically defined magic you risk slowing down the plot explaining a complicated system that's not a core part of your protagonist.

Credit to Sanderson for managing it well and really making the magic system a character in its own right.
6. KiKirsten
I agree that it's less magical, but instead i would describe it as a diferent type of writing. A genre of fantasy that reads like science fiction.
Erica Collier
7. scifibard
Two points:
A) I'm not sure I'd intirely see well-ordered rules-based magic as a more "mature" trend. There is still room in modern fantasy for magic that is mysterious and hard to predict or understand. But as Sanderson's Rules of Magic point out, there is a spectrum, and the more ordered and knowable the magic is, the more the magic can be used to "solve" the problems of the plot in an emotionally fulfilling way. Rothfuss pointed out that he introduced two magic systems, one that was well ordered, that could probably be mapped out by fans with calculus, and the other that was more ellusive, harder to grasp hold of...because each fills a different purpose in the narrative.

That said, I love the researcher characters too, and they do fit much more easily in well ordered magic system worlds though they do crop up in more mysterious magic worlds too.

B) To nitpick, Alloy of Law also has a prominent researcher:
Marasi Colms who in fact researches crime and law enforcement and is thus thrilled to get to work with the main character and do some field research as it were.
Adam S.
10. MDNY
@7 BWS has other examples of researchers in his work. like Shallan and Jasnah in the Stormlight books, not just Marisi.
@8 I think sceince fantasy exists already, from Ray Bradbury to Frank Herbert to Robert Heinlein.
11. Joshua P. Smith
The concept of a structured, understandable, rules-based scientific magic system is quite fascinating. In the writing of my own novels, I've adopted that approach...but I'm also looking forward to seeing how far the rules can stretch. What can be done that previously was considered impossible? The researcher character, whenever included, is always interested. Elend and Sazed from Mistborn and Verin from Wheel of Time are some of the most fascinating characters I've enjoyed in fantasy. As my own series progresses, I plan on including at least one "researcher", who, of course, is a librarian. They are some of the most fascinating people I've ever met. I also live by a rule: Love you librarian and your barista.
nate adcock
12. natestera
Maybe so... I guess I id more with Kaladin. Mucho research, I presume, to create such a real and tragic, yet triumphant character, but the effect gives the reader the impression of one gleaned from experience. The contrast being between those that need to RTFM, and those that can intuitively overcome with OJT, I guess...
13. susan kay king
Would love to read ! Thank you for the chance to win it !!
14. Lequita Schwegler
Great comments, however the ring in the "Lord of the Rings" was limited by the wielder's power. Bilbo, Gollem and Frodo had no power. If Gandolf had used the ring it would have enhanced his abilities more profoundly and therefore control him more quickly.

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