Monday 2 July 2012

At Last The Truth! We're Going To Need a Bigger Truck!

I tried being carefree but all that resulted was a list of influences in no particular order - those halcyon days are over, ORDER must be imposed.

N.K. Jemison recently asked: But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense? To which the answer, of course, is that the magic works the way that the magic needs to work to further the aims of your story. Genre is a description not a prescription and in the final analysis the trappings of a story are not what sets the good stuff apart from the bad.

 In Rivers of London I decided that while I understood the way magic worked, I am the creator after all, the practitioners of magic both Newtonian and natural, had to work within an incomplete and, in some cases, erroneous theoretical base. 

It's still possible to achieve great things with an erroneous theory. Bazalgette's sewer system in London was built on the understanding that bad smells caused disease but still had the required effect of ridding the city of cholera. And bad smells as well.

But these ideas didn't just pop into my head like a slightly irritating know-it-all prophecy or the warrior in Jet and Gold they were influenced by the work of the giants(1) that came before me.

Making Magic Work
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. - Arthur C. Clarke(2)

The Incomplete Enchanter
L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's 1941 book of magic and dimension hopping was the first time I was exposed to the idea that magic might be determined by the underlying rules of the universe.

In the first novella 'The Roaring Trumpet' our hero, transported to a world of Nordic myth, confidently steps forward to slay a dragon with his pistol only to find that it doesn't work. There's nothing mechanically wrong with his gun it's just that in this particular universe the chemical reactions that facilitate firearms don't work.

When you're 11 years old this is heady stuff but more importantly it teaches you to think critically about how magic will fit into your world. 

A Wizard of Earthsea
Ursula K. Le Guin once said in an interview that she wrote A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) because she'd always wondered where all the wizards that populated fantasy actually learnt their magic. The answer is the school on Roke which is, as far as I know, the first wizarding school in fiction.

As Jemison points out in her blog that the magic they learn at Roke is more than memorising the true names of things and that being both conditional and situational was much more an art than a science. And while it's explicit that 'rules change in the reaches' I always got the impression that Ursula knew why(3).

Ars Magica 
It's been just under thirty years since I played an RPG in earnest and yet I still have several shelves full of them. I can claim a certain utilitarian value for things like the GURPS historical source books and Call of Cthulhu supplements and some of them are beautiful artefacts just in themselves.

But the truth is that you'd be hard pressed to find a more concentrated form of ideas anywhere else. For writers of a certain bent they are the crack cocaine of research materials. You know it might be bad for you but the hit is fast.

It was Ars Magica's use of Latin words to describe the building blocks of Hermetic magic was a direct inspiration for the formae Nightingale teaches Peter in Rivers of London. This set me thinking about what exactly is it you are doing in your brain when you speak a magic spell and the idea that the words were abstract labels, like musical notes, whose purpose was to regulate the way you formed the shapes in your mind.

The Science of Discworld II
The founding of the Folly and the codification of magic by Isaac Newton owes itself to a throwaway remark in this book. In it they discuss Newton's interest in religious philosophy and alchemy, which the writers make clear is a waste of Newton's time, one of them, in the footnote, does point out that if anyone in the history of science was going to discover the principles of magic it was Isaac Newton.

A light-bulb went off in my head and voila. The moral is be careful what you say in your footnotes lest some jobbing writer rebuild his entire career on the basis for your throwaway remark.

Making Magic Wild
     Madouc performed a prim curtsey, and Shimrod bowed. ‘It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I do not meet princesses every day!’
      Madouc gave a rueful grimace. ‘I had rather be a magician, and see through walls. Is it difficult to learn?’
       ‘Quite difficult, but much depends upon the student. I have tried to teach Dhrun a sleight or two, but with only fair success.’
    ‘My mind is not flexible,’ said Dhrun. ‘I cannot think so many thoughts at once.’
     'That is the way of it, more often than not, and luckily so,’ said Shimrod. ‘Otherwise, everyone would be a magician and the world would be an extraordinary place.’
       Madouc considered. ‘Sometimes I think as many as seventeen thoughts all together.’

Lyonesse III: Madouc
Magic in Jack Vance's fantasy has always been exotic, extraordinary and deliberately obtuse. Vance makes it clear that magic has rules, lots and lots of rules, it's just that they are as vague, contrary and fantastical as the strange beings that practise it. 

As with much else in  a Vance novel success in magic is as much a question of negotiation and verbal dexterity as it is adherence to formulas. From Vance I not only took the notion that the magic of the genius loci, and others, was wilder and more fabulous than the structured magic of the newtonians but also a looseness of definition to avoid that 'got it out of the monster manual' feel.

The Lord of the Rings 
By some Oxford professor whose name escapes me(4). The magic in Tolkien's work is subtle and often works at an intangible, spiritual level. As when the Black Riders are driven into the river by Glorfindel(5) despite there being no physical battle as such or the lack of distinction by the elves between 'craft' and 'magic'. 

I drew upon both aspects for Rivers of London where craft lies at the heart of human magic and the power of the Rivers is often intangible and difficult to distinguish from the natural world.

Before anyone asks I have no intention of explaining that in any more detail - spoilers. Let's just say that human agency and activity is a key part of the way magic is produced.

Quatermass and the Pit 
By Nigel Kneale. Some of you are no doubt saying - 'But Ben, surely this is science fiction not fantasy?' Which is what makes it interesting. In this story of man's discovery that his evolution has been shaped by aliens some three million years before the release of Ridley Scott's Prometheus  Kneale artfully weaves together science and folklore in a way far beyond that of your purveyor of tired second hand tropes(6).

At one point the legend of the wild hunt is explicitly linked to the culls of ancient Mars and then to the increasing mob violence of an overpopulated contemporary Earth. In this instance science (or rather biology) becomes the instigator of the wild magic itself.

Once again this blog has got too long and will be continued in next weeks instalment - Now At Last! I Can't Believe I Don't Get A Bulk Discount.

(1) They weren't all giants. The best that could be said of some of them was that they were dwarves with step ladders but they tried hard and that's the main thing.
(2) The corollary; that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology, was coined independently by me in 1988 for the Doctor Who story Battlefield - only it got cut from the broadcast version and I can't find my scripts. You're just going to have to take my word for it.
(3) In fiction it is entirely sufficient for an author to give an impression that they know what  what they're doing regardless of of whether they do or not - the exact opposite of Engineering. 
(4) Definitely not the one who wrote the Narnia books though. 
(5) I can't believe his name was preprogrammed into my factory standard spell checker. 
(6) However beautiful it looks.


Unknown said...

on no.2: From memory, the "sufficiently advanced magic" line does appear in extended scenes on the DVD. Or maybe I'm even more confused than usual and it was broadcast in that Kevin Davies "30 Years of..." documentary. Either way, I've seen it.

Pilgrim Jake said...

Hi Ben,

Finished 'Whispers & went rumaging on the web for some small details about the next installment. Found a small wiki entry on 'Broken Homes' ... BUT some of the very few comments about this said it was the final of the series. Is this true? Was rather hoping that this world might get a good chance to grow and breathe in detail.

Kestanan said...

Ok, so you raided my bookshelf for inspiration, clearly. Surprised Wizard of the Pigeons isnt in there tho

Unknown said...

The trick with Ars Magica is that it ends up being formulaic.
I have noticed that our man Peter is light on Intellego in general. You would think that divination magic would be dead useful for a copper....

Nancy B said...

Re "indistinguishable from magic":
In one of the following biographies of Dr John Dee, or maybe both of them, is the story that his reputation as a (dangerous) wizard came from a stage effect he created for a play at Oxford U. Stage perspective and illusions of flight were well-developed in Italy but unknown in England where the Renaissance took some time to arrive. As an Oxford student Dee, as part of a play, made a bird fly across the stage by string and pulleys. This was so stunning to the audience that it was taken as magically bringing a dead bird to life, or worse, making a dead bird fly! So the 'advanced technology' only needs to be advanced for its environment. (If I remember rightly he was kicked out of Oxford for this.) Wonder if Arthur Clarke knew this story?

Benjamin Woolley, The queen's conjuror; the science and magic of Dr John Dee, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. 2001

Richard Deacon, John Dee scientist, geographer, astrologer, and secret agent to Elizabeth I. 1968