Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

A Little Bit of Science...

by Kate Paulk
2004, Kate Paulk


...makes your fantasy go round.

In my experience as an as-yet-unpublished fiction author and a member of several critique groups, one of the biggest mistakes new fantasy writers make is substituting magic for serious plotting. If a character can do anything with magic, there's no need to show other reasons why she could do what she did. She can rescue the protagonist from an impossible situation without breaking a sweat, then go and do something equally miraculous for an encore.

Not only does this destroy the credibility of a plot, it also violates more laws of science than I care to think about. Those laws are encapsulations of "how things work" rather than decrees from On High and if the rest of a fantasy world follows the laws of science, then the magic had better do so too.

Let's consider what would happen if just one law of science didn't work. I'll take one of Newton's Laws -- "For each and every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." What this means (for those who suffered from indifferent science teaching) is that if you push on something, it pushes back just as hard. To make it move, you have to push harder than it can push back.

Now, suppose that wasn't the case. What then? First we need to consider the options. Does the reaction vary at random or to a consistent pattern? Is it always the same or not? Is it greater than the action or less, and by how much? What rules, if any, apply?

For the sake of argument, I'll say that it varies randomly between all possible extremes. This means that every step becomes an adventure. With one step you could get bounced into orbit. With the next, the surface under your feet collapses. In the meantime, you're trying not to die, because every time your heart beats anything from blood vessels rupturing to them collapsing could happen, and probably will. Your skin is leaking because every time a blood cell bounces against a capillary wall it could rupture and the effect of millions of blood cells has left your blood vessels a porous mess.

In short, it doesn't work.

I find that trying to fit magic to scientific laws -- and treating magic as a science -- gives much more interesting results. Not only does magic become more versatile, I'm forced to be more imaginative about how it's applied. It is truly amazing what can happen when you combine the basic laws of physics with the application of magic. Thermodynamics and magic are a good combination, too. For a start, they can be used to develop a magic system that is rigorous enough to be believable, while still allowing the odd surprise.

If magic follows scientific rules, then some of the consequences can include miscast spells rebounding on the caster with as much force as they'd have had if they'd been done right, a magic user needing to apply the appropriate push to make the spell work -- and being appropriately tired afterwards -- reflective magic that bounces spells back to the caster at the same angle as they hit the mirror, spell energies that are unique to the caster because they came from a unique individual... The possibilities are endless, and much more fun than unlimited hand waving magic.

Besides, when you've got a magic user who knows that a little shove here is all it takes to make the volcano outside town blow up, you've got a really dangerous antagonist -- and that's what every plot needs. Taking this idea further, while remembering that with very few exceptions lava from continental volcanoes flows slowly (look at footage of the Vesuvius eruption in late WW2 for a good example) and the real danger is from ash and flows of superheated gas mixed with partially re-melted ash particles, we have the beginnings of a magic-based plot.

The antagonist -- let's call him EO for short -- holds the townsfolk as his virtual slaves, because he can cause an eruption at any time. He can also loosen things up to prevent eruptions he doesn't want, working a bit like the regulator on a pressure cooker.

The protagonist naturally wants to free the town from the EO's clutches. He has to find another way of controlling the volcano, which means he's got to find himself a magic user willing to resettle in town and devote part of his time and energy to playing regulator. He's also got to find a way to take EO down.

In the meantime, EO can make life very difficult indeed for Our Hero. EO is smart, so as soon as he finds out Our Hero is sniffing about, he cranks up the propaganda so that people don't want Our Hero to rescue them. Then he can use magic to make Our Hero's search for a willing mage difficult -- all without violating the laws of science. Enough water diverted into a sandy streambed will make quicksand. Fruit can be poisoned (EO is evil, he doesn't care about collateral damage), and so can standing bodies of water. Sharp pointy things can be arranged beforehand on the main road to the city so that they can be launched when Our Hero is in range.

Anyone who has seen the movies remembers the scenes in The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones where the Force is used to hurl heavy objects around as though they were made of Styrofoam. Why bother when you can remove the support from a section of ceiling with much less effort? A few key nails, the keystone of an arched doorway, and splat. Gravity will do the rest of the work for you. Naturally, EO would make use of this knowledge in the Ultimate Confrontation, possibly even injuring Our Hero.

What makes this (admittedly rather crude) scenario more believable than the all-powerful magic user who can only be stopped by some obscure weakness? It makes sense. Even if you don't know science, you can watch how the story unfolds; the magic slides in under the credibility threshold without a trace because it's leaning on all the rules we see working every day of our lives.

At some level every one of us believes that if we do something extraordinary, we should be correspondingly worn out. It doesn't matter if the extraordinary deed is climbing Mount Everest, running a mile in under four minutes, or casting the spell to banish all evil from the face of the Earth. We should be exhausted. Climbing the hill out the back or running a mile in ten minutes or banishing a minor demon shouldn't tire us out as much, but we should still feel it.

So dig out those old Junior Science texts and take a look at the principles they teach. Look up information on the Internet. Apply some of the principles to your magic, and see what comes out. At worst, it'll be fun. And who knows, it just might be what's needed to breathe new life into that trilogy sitting on the hard drive.