Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision

Science and Magic

John Ward

©2001, John Ward

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"  
- Arthur C. Clarke


Many times, fantasy seems to be the Goodwill Store of literature.  “Second-hand ideas at half price on aisle three!  Clichés on aisle six – they’re free.  Take all you like.”  All stories involve a certain amount of recycling.  The themes, the villains, the heroes – they’ve all been done before.  In fact, you know the princess in your story?  Yes, the one who was kidnapped by the evil sorcerer.  Well, let me tell you: that same princess has been kidnapped by the dark wizard fifty-six times before you even met her.  Last time I saw her she was carrying an overnight bag and on her way back to the tower.  Yes, that’s right – she keeps an extra toothbrush in his medicine cabinet.  Oh, and her virtue?  Well, don’t be in any rush to save that either. We’re all familiar with these overly done archetypes.  So, please move on already-- I want to read something new!

Nowhere is this repetition of ideas more apparent than in the magic systems of the worlds that we create. Run down the list in your head: necromancy, blood magic, using someone’s life force as an energy source, using the elemental forces of nature (how many times has that been done?), druidic magic, witchcraft, etc.  Almost everything has been done: from Terry Goodkind’s “Additive and Subtractive Magic” to Dave Eddings use of “The Will and the Word.”  Now, obviously, it is possible to successfully put a new twist on an old idea.  Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Terry Brooks, Jordan, Goodkind, and many others are perfect examples of people who have done it very well.  However, unless you really believe that you are the next Andre Norton, maybe it’s time to stop looking at the magic systems that have already been used.  It’s time for something else.  Magic, and its use, has become a staple in the fantasy community.  It’s part of the genre, and you probably won’t have any luck selling stories that don’t use it quite extensively.  However, it is time for our genre to look beyond the arcane to achieve the fantastic.  We need to look to science as a source of inspiration for our magic systems. 

A great example (actually, a perfect example) of using physics to define a magic system is Holly Lisle's article that explains the magic system of her fantasy world from the Secret Texts series.  Many of the ideas that she used are only a slightly modified version of the Laws of Thermodynamics.  I think her First Law of Magical Reaction is brilliant.  It’s a perfect example of using science to create magic.    Obviously, she has added many other rules, and taken some away; however, she has managed to create a very compelling and realistic magic system.  You can find the article here: 

Scientific thought and theory are waiting to be exploited by the fantasy writer.  They provide an untold wealth of fresh and new ideas that can be incorporated into your story as magic.  Furthermore, there are distinct advantages to using these theories to form the basis of your magic system.  Many are genuinely new concepts.  Very few people read scientific journals and are familiar with these ideas.  For example, consider the many articles that go into specific detail about the energies necessary to create magical gateways or portals to other lands.  You won’t find the articles that I’m referring to in the Occult section of your local library.  No, you need to head over to the sections on Physics, Quantum Mechanics, and Cosmology.  Oh, these articles may use terms like ‘wormholes’ or ‘faster than light travel.’  Occasionally, they utilize strange runes in the midst of the article.  Things like-  

Sp(20)_1 X U(1)^2

Do you need to understand these glyphs?  Not really.  You do need to be persistent and willing to continue looking for the right manuscripts until you find one that will unlock the greater meaning behind these symbols.  Look for what is typically called Popular Science books.  Steven Hawking and Richard Feynman come to mind, among many others.  Find one that you like, and let that scientist explain the cosmos to you in a way that you understand. 

Once you gain access to this material, you will learn that they explain many things that most fantasy writers never stop to ponder.  Consider the hapless mage who decides to use his own living form as a conduit for the very energies of creation.  Don’t you think that that much energy coursing through your body might have some adverse effect on you?  In stories, we frequently see formidable wizards who regularly work with enough power to ignite a sun; however, the worst consequence that they may face is a headache or they may get sick for a little while?  Is that plausible?  Maybe not – but we all buy into those fancies from time to time.  It’s part of the joy of fantasy.  Couldn’t those stories be improved?  Couldn’t they be made to be more interesting?  

Let’s make our magic more interesting by making it more realistic.  I’m not asking to limit your magic in any way.  In fact, I’m proposing the opposite.  Science is looking at ways to extend people’s age well beyond the hundred-year mark.  Extrapolate that a little, and you have a crazed mad man on an immortality quest.  Look at the Genome project – it’s screaming to be manipulated in a fantasy story where practitioners of magic gradually change and alter the world around them until it is filled with dread beasts who walk the night.  That’s genetics.  Okay, so you don’t call it genetics – think up some way of doing this through magic.  What can go wrong with gene-splicing?  What are the benefits of genetic manipulation?  Can any complications arise out of crossbreeding different species?  Would these sorcerers employ similar methods on themselves to augment their own power?  These are all examples of ideas that can be incorporated into your story with just a little research.   

You don’t need to explain -- or even understand -- the math involved, but isn’t it possible that magic systems could be a little more grounded in scientific theory?  Granted, people will say, “-- But, it’s magic!  You don’t need to obey the rules of physics.  That’s what makes it magic.”  However, even magic needs to follow a logical, well-thought-out series of rules to be believable.  Understand that these laws will make up the physics of your world.  Your rules may be different, but, here are a few that I try to follow:  

1.      There needs to be an explanation for the source of this unfathomable power.

2.      There need to be consequences for its use.

3.      And, there needs to be a certain methodology for its practice. 

So save yourself some work next time you begin to think of an original way to introduce magic into your story world and borrow some physics from the real world.  A better understanding of physics will allow you to create a complicated world that is more dangerous or rewarding.  Every world has a certain set of immutable laws that cannot be broken.  Even when it appears that those laws lay shattered, most of the time it is only our understanding of the law that has been redefined.  A better-defined understanding of the physics of your universe will allow you to better manipulate those laws.  This understanding will also lead to new ideas.  Who knows?  Maybe we will finally have a fantasy writer who can come up with a better method of instantaneous travel than the ubiquitous Gateway – well, one can always hope.