Recently best-selling author Dave Farland wrote this article about the cost of magic. It’s an argument I’ve encountered before, and the short version is, everything must have a cost. If you cast a spell, the power has to come from somewhere. It’s the basic Law of the Conservation of Energy, one of the rules that keeps the universe ticking along.
In other words, it’s science. Not magic.
Leigh Brackett wrote in 1942, “Witchcraft to the ignorant … simple science to the learned,” which famously inspired the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But I’m not sure that’s true. We seem to have achieved a basic understanding of how the universe works, and even when we don’t comprehend particular aspects of it, we don’t automatically assume it’s magical.* We just accept that, at this point in our development, we lack the information to fully understand it.
So I don’t buy the insistence that magic have a cost.
To me, if your magic system has codified rules that explain how and why everything works–if there’s a book, or a tool, or a list, or anything like that–it’s not magic. It’s science, just against a different background. Magic should be something that operates by inexplicable rules, in which cause and effect are only tangentially related: in short, something beyond science, and scientific understanding. I mean, why can’t magic make the magician stronger instead of weaker? Why, instead of a debit, can’t it be a credit?
One of the most horrifying magical events I’ve ever read was in the opening chapter of Seanan McGuire’s first October Day novel, Rosemary and Rue. The protagonist is turned into a koi goldfish, and remains that way for fourteen years. McGuire is such a good writer that she establishes October’s life with her husband and baby girl so quickly and vividly that you feel the awful loss with an intensity that’s actually kept me from finishing the book (I have issues about parents being separated from kids). There’s no discussion of cost to anyone except October, and the magic is powerful and essentially arbitrary (the villain just happens to be next to a koi pond). To this day, I can’t see a goldfish without thinking of that scene, so to me, that is real magic. (The depiction of magic may turn out differently later in the book, but like I said, I may never know.)
The most well-known SF/F depiction of magic is, of course, The Force. In the original 1977 film it was suitably mysterious and yes, magical, but by the time Lucas got done with it, it was simply the byproduct of microscopic organisms, no more magical than bioluminescence. Or poop. And there’s nothing more science-y than that.
When I write about magic, I try very hard to capture the fearful arbitrariness of it. In my Tufa novels, the magic that’s expressed in their music is never clear: songs have effects, but often it’s not the effect the character wants, or it manifests in a way they didn’t expect. The Tufa’s deities, the Night Winds, seldom make their wishes known in plain terms; they offer signs, and portents, and occasionally take a direct hand, but their motives and methods remain as mysterious as their identities. That, to me, is magic.
On the other end of things are my Firefly Witch stories, about a modern Pagan priestess. The depiction of magic here is slightly exaggerated for effect, but ultimately based on real Pagan beliefs and practices. One of those is the idea that you never have to use your own energy to work magic; the earth, in the cosmic sense, has an unlimited supply, and a good witch knows how to tap into that.
Now, to be fair, Dave Farland has legitimately written a book called Million Dollar Outlines, which I could not do. So his advice is not wrong, nor bad for your career. If his take on magic appeals to you, by all means, pursue it. But for those like me who find that approach too concrete and tangible, think about the things in your life that you consider magical, and then try to figure out why. I suspect that in most cases, the answer will be something along the lines of: “Because it’s inexplicable.”
Science always has an explanation. Magic never does.
*I’m not speaking for or against religion here. Religion is indistinguishable from magic, but that’s a whole separate topic.