The Nature of Magic vs Science

Waterhouse Cauldron

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.

enchant-burne-jones-1874-beguiling-of-merlinWhen 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.

12 Comments on “The Nature of Magic vs Science”

  1. Ah, see, I love this. As an unapologetic acolyte of Ray Bradbury, it would seem to me that he operates in the same way. His magic just “is.” He rockets to the moon, zips back and forth in time, and sometimes even has entire carnivals from the pit of hell pitch their tents in rural Illinois. No science required. Ray believes it so I believe it.

    Or as Drive-In Movie Critic Joe Bob Briggs used to say, “No plot to get in the way of the story!” 😉

  2. I like the way Thor put it – “Your Ancestors Called it Magic, but You Call it Science. I Come From a Land Where They Are One and the Same.”

    That said, I tend to think of Magic in fiction as the things that don’t follow traditional rules of science, but I also think in some world, at some time, those things might have an explanation, and we just don’t know it or can’t understand it yet.

  3. I’ve always seen as the cost of magic as serving two purposes, one conceptual, one plot based. Attaching a cost to magic “balances” it as a plot device. You can have magic that has its own consistent, internal rules and still maintain a sense of wonder. A large part of that is by showing these rules, without explicitly stating them (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell did this, and Gaiman’s work slips around it at times). By having magic require a cost (and it is important that the cost be somewhat ephemeral and mysterious, and not immediately apparent), as well as codified rules (which should exist in your head. If you ever explain them all explicitly, the reader will be much more likely to notice if you violate them) you keep magic users from turning into “I wish my problems away because I wrote myself into a corner”, a trap many modern writers fall into (Harry Potter was very bad about it).

    Conceptually, of course magic should have a price. Mage: The Ascension did it very well with the idea of Paradox, so we’ll go with that example. When you perform magic, your are changing reality. Whether by beseeching a greater power, manipulating the universe’s own inner working through knowledge carefully wrought, or by simply forcing reality to serve your will, you change it. And there’s a backlash against that in the form of a cost. But that’s just one example, and it’s a rather clear cut one.

    Magic should have costs, but it should be deeply personal, and it shouldn’t be readily apparent. Think of Ravenloft’s Darklords (If you know of the setting. If not, it’s an old gothic horror D&D setting, and a rather excellent one to pull ideas from even today). Each Darklord is granted great power, but in return they are sealed into their domain and afflicted with a curse. To some of us, reading, that curse seems negligible, but to the Darklord in question it’s a living Hell.

    Citing an example in my own writing, one of the mystical characters in my writing is a family man. He’s fairly old, powerful in his own way and influential. He’s achieved an incredible amount in his life, not all of it through magic, but some of it. He has a wife he adores, a daughter who takes so much after him he finds it worrying, and a son that takes even more after him to the point that they haven’t spoken in five years. His cost? It’s not the entire cost, the minutiae of which would be too much to get into, but here’s part of his: he is immortal, and ageless. In his youth, he found the Philosopher’s Stone, and after a great deal of research with it, found the Elixir and drank it. He intended to make a dose for his wife, but lost the stone soon thereafter, and thus could not make it for her. He has spent the last thirty years watching her slowly age while his clock is stopped, as well as that of his own children, and he knows that there’s nothing he can do. For many people, immortality would be a boon, the ability to have all the time in the world to do whatever you wish. For this character, a family man, a husband and father, who despite great power, wealth, and influence, considers his family the most important thing, it’s a burden. There are other characters in the setting who, through various means, some previous owners of the Stone, some through dark bargains or twists of fate, are also ageless, and they’re pretty cool with it. That’s the point. The cost is personal. The cost is for you. You may think you’ve gotten away with it, you may think you’ve gotten power for free, but in the end, the “Other” (could be the universe, old gods, dark spirits, it could be forever undefined, and in many cases it should) gets his. You pay the price, and you may never notice it, or realize that’s why it happened. But it happened, and you are lessened in some way for the experience.

    Just my two cents. Cheers.

  4. If all magic in the physical world has a price, then there would be an awful lot of maimed or dead folks out there… And just try to explain some of these politicians…

  5. I think it is a matter of semantics for me. Cost = consequence. It’s not necessarily a subtraction from the source of action, but rather an equal reaction. The older I get and the more I practice, the more magick and science look similar. They both take an overwhelming amount of faith.

    1. Cost = Consequence – that’s exactly it. In many of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy shows (Buffy, Charmed, Witches of East End, etc.) there is a cost to performing certain types/aspects/levels of magic. You bring someone back from the dead, another spirit can piggy back; you do something selfish, you end up with a side effect; you gain the ability to hear thoughts, you go crazy from the overload. It’s a cause/affect type thing, and science has it too. You combust this, and gas spews out; you spin the ball that way and it travels in an arch.

  6. Science doesn’t require faith. Science works whether you believe in it or not.

    I agree with Alex’s points made in his post. Magic is magic because it is inexplicable. Science is science because it can be explained. If you can not understand the science, and have to take it on faith, that’s on you. Science is, by definition, those ideas, concepts, and actions which are describable by observed facts and tested against other known areas of science.

    1. I would say that magic works whether you believe in it or not, too – especially in fiction. Hell, even Harry Potter himself didn’t believe in magic at first, but he was still doing it. I would also say that working with science does require faith; faith in oneself (or one’s calculations), faith in the laws of physics, faith in chemical reactions, etc. Have you seen the new Cosmos? The part where Neil swings a heavy ball on a chain and lets it swing back to within an inch of his nose? That’s faith in science, right there.

      I don’t think of science as a thing that can be explained, I think of it as a system of explaining other things. Science explains the changes of the seasons, the images of Pluto, the reasons for diabetes and more. And there have been plenty of times in the past when people thought something was magic because they did not yet understand the scientific aspects of it, so how do we know there aren’t still things that could seem magical but will one day prove to have scientific explanations?

  7. You’ve just restated Alex’s paragraph above:

    “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.”

    I agree with this, and Alex’s post overall, but was disagreeing with the comment that science requires faith. Science doesn’t require faith; magic does. Magic that works in the absence of faith, as you yourself point out, is just science we haven’t suffienciently yet understood. At the point something is explainable, it’s not magic. Magic is the unexplainable.

  8. Ah. But even magic that works for the expediency of the narrative functions by the rules of drama, by the immutable rules of plot. Thus the characters of my stories, genre savvy as they are, have codified the rules of narrative, convinced themselves that they have discovered the “fundamental particle” of magic which they named the Fiction. And since their magic works through narrative they call themselves Dramaturges and measure the flow of Fictions in Words per minute. Because that’s how our minds work. We think in stories, we seek to understand and codify the unknown. From the very beginning humans are natural storytellers and scientists.

    So you might say that magic is untamed and unknowable but I counter that; we will always seek to tame the untamed and learn the unknown and if we can’t we’ll slap our own perceptions on it and lie to ourselves job done. Until something happens to prove otherwise.

    And isn’t that where our great conflicts arise and our best stories are to be found?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *