Using Magic as a Way to Democratize Force? Talking Magic x Mayhem at NYCC 2019

How do we go about constructing systems of magic that make sense? In what ways can magic and/or science be sources of mayhem? Why is speculative fiction a powerful tool for tackling heavy issues? And how do you write corrupt or morally dubious characters?

These were just some of the many topics discussed during the “Magic x Mayhem” panel at New York Comic-Con 2019, featuring panelists and Tor Books/Tor.com authors Annalee Newitz (The Future of Another Timeline), V.E. Schwab (Threads of Power), Charlotte Nicole Davis (The Good Luck Girls), Tochi Onyebuchi (Riot Baby), and Myke Cole (The Killing Light). Leading the conversation was moderator Lauren Shippen, podcaster and author of The Infinite Noise. Here are the highlights!

Kicking off with something lighter, Shippen wanted to know the panels’ thoughts on constructing systems of magic: 

Schwab said she comes from the “anime school of world-building,” where you will never learn a thing unless it’s relevant to the plot, conflict, or the character. “You are usually thrown in, and you learn what you need as you go,” she said. “I think that’s really powerful, because it puts a lot of faith in the reader to be able to pick up the pieces […] instead of info-dumping on them.”

Onyebuchi, also under the influence of anime, is interested in both how magic systems allow him to play with languages on a sentence level and the exchange of serious consequences for gaining magical abilities. “It’s sort of like when a character will do a super dope thing, especially in Naruto or Naruto Shippuden, they’ll unlock like a certain type of Lotus-Gate or whatever? […] And they have a really meaningful conversation with their sensei about how dangerous it is to unlock that Lotus-gate? It’s like that.”

Newitz, who was told by physicists that time travel is a literary device and not a scientific device, wants their characters to try to figure out the “whys” of time travel and history, not just the hows and the whats. “This is the thing that’s really beautiful about discovery science,” they said. “At the core of that, there’s this sense of wonder, where there’s stuff out there and we just don’t know why it is. We may know what it is, we may know how it is, but why? Why is time? Nobody knows.”

Cole is very adamant about constructing a system of magic that had risks, rules, and consequences that would immediately make sense to the reader. (When this doesn’t happen, you get stuck on why the eagles don’t simply drop the ring in the fires of Mt. Doom.)

Davis says systems of magic were her favorite element of world-building. Some of her favorite works, like Avatar: The Last Airbender and X-Men, have systems of magic that play into the themes being discussed. “Which truths do I want [the fantasy elements] to represent and uncover in an accessible way to understand these things?” In her own book, Vengeants (vengeful ghosts) scream every night, and people just take them for granted. “It was my way of talking about how we also have our past and our history that we haven’t quite confronted,” she said. “We just sort of live with it in the background and it needs to be addressed, because it’s horrifying.”

On magic or science as the source of mayhem: 

Onyebuchi said this was literally the thesis for his book Riot Baby, in which his characters grow up in the shadow of the LA uprisings in the ’90s, moving from South Central to Harlem to Riker’s. “It was sort of like the Magneto thing,” he said. “If every bit of evidence in your life is telling you that humans are literally the scum of the earth, and you decide not to be like, ‘Oh, make peace’ or ‘Coexist’ or whatever, that it’s either annihilate them or live on our own, that was always really fascinating to me. The magical element is literally like, if you have this thirst of vengeance against all these institutions that are ruining your life, and the lives of your family and people who look like you, what do you do with that?”

Newitz’ book involves two women trying to take justice into their own hands, one through peaceful organization and one through murder. They wanted to raise the question of what is the right way to have mayhem, of when should peaceful organization end and mayhem begin. “When do we unleash that?” they said. “There’s no easy answer. We don’t really know who’s right and who’s wrong…I wanted to raise those questions for readers. There is a moment in real life when we do have to unleash the mayhem, and we do have to think about when that is going to be.”

From working in law enforcement and the military, Cole learned that oppressive systems monopolize force. “And what does magic do? Democratize force,” he said. “That’s what the story of the X-Men is. A single individual can challenge the might of the American military. All of a sudden, the NYPD cannot detain this person, because this person can take out a city block […] And that’s why I think now, there’s such a convergence between the social justice movement and speculative fiction.”

In Davis’ book, the bounty hunters gain advanced powers and become really excellent murders by selling their soul. “The idea is that you do have to sacrifice some part of yourself to pursue these runaway women…or political dissidents or other people who are oppressed,” they said. “You have to be willing to say I’ll do whatever it takes to have a little bit of power over them.”

Schwab made sure that the power in her books, despite always making things worse, was a neutral energy that was never bad or good unto itself, but has the potential to be a tool for great evil in the hands of people. “There’s that thing of how the cracks are how the light gets in,” she said. “With my characters, the cracks are how the dark gets out…I’m very interested in the way that when we hand a person power, we essentially shine that light. We see the cracks in them more brightly. We see the ways in which they would act, the corruption and the corrupt influences.”

On developing characters who are corrupt or have different views on morality than they do: 

There’s no way we can paraphrase the following quote from Onyebuchi better than he said it, so we’re just going to let it stand on its own. “We carry it in ourselves the potential to do heinous, heinous, heinous acts,” he said. “A person with superpowers is a person with superpowers. …And also, if you throw that person into a situation where they’re part of an oppressed class, where survival is almost more important than morality? … What if survival is itself a genre or aspect of morality? How are you going to be a good person if you’re dead?”

For Schwab, she was particularly interested in the “powerful creature” of self-interest in stories. “All of my heroes are in the process of becoming villains, and all of my villains are in the process of becoming heroes,” she said. When constructing a character, she builds them out of three pillars: what they fear, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it. From there, she comes up with the “mantra” of their person and identity. “Because my whole thing is about moving them from one place on the spectrum to another, my goal over the course of the story is to make them break their own mantra.”

Newitz is interested in the way that systems manipulate us through belief systems, what we might call “mind control” or “being mesmerized,” if we’re talking about the realm of magic. “I think that that’s a very powerful way to make people easy to manipulate,” they said. “Once you’ve got them believing that they don’t get to control their own bodies, that they don’t know best how to drive their bodies around, then you can start telling them other things, like ‘Um, actually, you should kill those people over there,’ or other people are in charge, and they’re the good people. Maybe they have a certain color skin, or they have a certain biological configuration, those are the right people.”

One of the main themes that Davis wanted to tackle while writing her book was the idea that self-defense is not violence, as well as combating the stereotype of the “Angry Black Woman,” showing that this anger is indeed valid. “I wanted to make it clear that these girls aren’t acting out of any kind of malice,” she said. “They just really are defending themselves from violence. The wealth they’re taking back are what they were owed this whole time. Is it wrong as far as the law is concerned? Yes. But is it wrong morally? No.”

For Cole, the most important critical faculty that any writer must have is empathy. He talked about how, in law enforcement, he had his empathy “trained out of [him] and replaced by judgement.” “Every time I work on developing a character now, I sit down and have that personal confrontation,” he said. “I sit down and sketch out the motivations from the character’s perspectives. I catch myself in these trained cycles of judgement.”

On why they chose to tell stories about social issues and big topics through speculative fiction, rather than non-fiction or fiction without supernatural elements: 

Onyebuchi finds speculative fiction especially powerful because it can simultaneously act as metaphor and reality. But while the speculative elements in his story were doing important things for his thesis, he didn’t want to have a metaphorical prison, but a real one. “I want to see more stories that are set in prisons and jails, that deal with the people who occupy these spaces humanely. Because I want to walk through a bookstore, and walk through a library, and see those books.”

Davis chose fantasy because they wanted to “have [their] cake and eat it too,” to explore heavy issues while also writing a book that was fun. “Kids of color, especially girls of color, only get to see books about suffering, and only get to see books about being down,” they said. “I just wanted to have a dragon book. Where’s my Harry Potter, or whatever? So I was like, okay, I’m going to try and write a book where people who normally get to see themselves in Westerns, they get to have the fun this time. They get to rob a bank, they get to steal a train. At the same time, we are exploring deeper issues. It’s just, instead of having actual anti-blackness, there’s fantasy anti-blackness. [Their characters don’t have shadows in this world and are accordingly othered and oppressed.] I didn’t want them to deal with the actual racism they faced in the real world, I wanted it to be an escape of sorts.”

Schwab wanted to create an “avatar of wish fulfillment rage,” in writing a woman who can literally reduce people to ash. “I think the reason I write speculative fiction sometimes is because I want to take characters who’ve always been on the outside of the narrative and set them at the center, or redefine what those rules are,” she said. “But for Vengeful, I was just angry.” (Bonus points for having the best Freudian slip of the panel: when talking about her character, she had the whole room laughing when she accidentally said “myself” instead of “herself.”)

Newitz says speculative fiction is a way to tell the truths that you can’t in non-fiction. As a journalist writing about environmental issues, they could see people’s eyes rolling back in their heads whenever the topic of climate change was brought up. “But once you invite people into a story, and it can be fun and escapist,” they said, “suddenly, in the process of getting to know these characters and seeing them in their environment, you can start to talk to your audience about topics that are too hot to touch in real life, things that feel too personal.”

Cole says he didn’t think he consciously set out to write in speculative fiction, which he was writing the whole time he was trying to drum up courage to quit the military. “What I realize now is that speculative fiction […] allowed me to work this stuff out without having to look in the mirror,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with it now for 7 years. There’s a reason I’m going into ancient history now. It’s reality, but it’s still reality that’s far away removed for me. It’s still safe. […] I’m baby-stepping into the reality of confronting a life as an imperial stormtrooper.”

On what supernatural abilities they would want: 

Shippen: Teleportation

Schwab: The ability to manipulate time, but only moving forward

Onyebuchi: Flying

Newitz: Breathing fire

Cole: Reading and speaking all languages (“My God, please no more Ancient Greek.”)

Davis: “Cloning myself so I can be at home playing videogames at all times.”

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