Ixthos

Magic and Technology

8 posts in this topic

We all know Brandon's laws for coming up with magic, including the zeroth law of making the system cool. How do you come up with magic and technology?

I've been using a combination of approaches which seem to work well together. As I am writing a connected setting I am making a list of abilities and technologies that exist and which interact or can produce effects that interact, but which also vary in their degree of complexity and capability, which form a bases for systems. For example, one ability is a vague ability to make connections to things, with varying levels of connection or types of connection, while another is the ability to sense and move through flows - not generate them - to produce effects that might seem impossible but could be argued as being the result of natural physics, all the way to complete magic systems. The complete systems, however, are built up out of these smaller parts, and can take inspiration from things in the real world. For example, see a light switch and come up with a system involving being able to switch things on or off at a distance, or to be able to control how bright a light is, or ... and so on.

Part of the reason for this is because it gives a consistency while still providing flexibility in the abilities, with more possible abilities and logical expansions based on new interactions, as well as meaning a unique effect in one system is free to be applied to another if it fits.

 

So, how do you come up with magic or technology? And what is your favourite basic ability, such as the power to phase into other worlds, project energy weapons, or teleporting?

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I approach magic the same way I approach just about any other aspect of a story I'm writing. I consider what themes, ideas, philosophies, subjects or concepts I'm exploring in a particular story and see how magic can be used to enhance and further develop those aspects. The role magic plays from book to book varies wildly for me. Sometimes it's an integral plot device and sometimes it's barely present. As I read and write more I'm beginning to move away from magic 'systems' and focus more on to magic that's unpredictable and unknowable. I write mostly fantasy so technology has never really been something I've developed to any significant degree beyond considering what technology levels my setting would have.

In regards to my favourite magical ability... I'd have to go with telekinesis,

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Technology involves causes that can be mass copied, but magic seems more personal by itself, maybe, like the effect needs to happen only at some unique time maybe, to even happen at all.

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@Pagliacci Makes sense :-) which type of telekinesis do you prefer though? Long range, close range, strong, weak, fine control, brute force, multiple objects, single object, can be blocked, can't be blocked, needs line of sight, doesn't need line of sight?

 

@Ripheus23 Based on that, would you say Brandon's fabrials and medallions, or awakening, would be a technology rather than a magic, or any of his systems which can be reliably used? In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf was able to hold a door shut with a word of command while the Balrog tried to get in - the situation was special, but the act could have been done to any door by Gandalf - would that count as magic or technology? The doors to Moria, however, were only shown by moonlight, yet that would be a type of technology also by its mechanical nature, and the implication Dwarfs can use it on any door they build.

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2 hours ago, Ixthos said:

Based on that, would you say Brandon's fabrials and medallions, or awakening, would be a technology rather than a magic, or any of his systems which can be reliably used?

It seems to go either way: one, Sanderson defines his genre as science fantasy, which collapses the distinction; but two, he involves the theory of Connection, which seems inherently proto-narrative, in the mechanics of the system, with Connection resonating(!) with those personal-moment kinds of things.

I actually have never come up with a really "good" definition of "magic" in general, besides, "Something that allows willing/feeling to affect the physical world in a 'non-natural' way." For example, divine power would seem technological (God is reasonable/orderly/etc.) as well as magical (God can do whatsoever He can will), and yet also irreducible to either or maybe even to a conjunction of both?

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@Ripheus23 I think it mainly has to do with what we define as magic - Arthur C. Clark is famously quoted with regards to this, and ultimately it seems that for some definitions of magic it covers whatever technology does not yet cover, and itself can be viewed in several ways. I view things differently, in that if there is magic in the real world, then its extent and capacity is restrained by God, who defined what can and can't be. Some might say that Moses or the prophets had "magic", but God demonstrated that the power He gave them, or demonstrated through them, was stronger than the magic of the Egyptians. Yet I don't think that is magic. Some might say that the visions he showed the prophets, and what he showed John, are magic or divination, yet clearly God draws a distinction between the sorcery others performed and the visions He gives. Was the witch at Endor practising magic? What then of her surprise when Samuel was there? 

 

Tolkien noted with the Elves when Sam asked if they had been given magic rope that they do not call what they make and what they do magic, for to them magic is what Sauron and his master performed. But they understood what Sam meant, so even though it wasn't "magical" as they called it, as Hobbits didn't have a word for it, they understood and agreed that it would be what he thought of as magic.

For stories I view magic and technology as related but distinct, with one able to be the other, or be mistaken for the other. Magic and physics are related in setting based ways, and some technologies use magic, and some magic can use technology, but not everything that is magic is magic, as the Elves in The Lord of the Rings would say, and some is evil and some is not - not necessarily good, but not always evil, even if it sometimes is called magic.

 

If exotic particles exist, and can affect the world from some other dimension, is that magic, or physics? These particles shouldn't have been in the universe, but got there through some process in another dimension, or some process which normally doesn't affect that world - does the result count as magic, or technology? I think the situation then becomes key for distinction. Or maybe it would be both.

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10 hours ago, Ixthos said:

@Pagliacci Makes sense :-) which type of telekinesis do you prefer though? Long range, close range, strong, weak, fine control, brute force, multiple objects, single object, can be blocked, can't be blocked, needs line of sight, doesn't need line of sight?

 

Um... yes. I'd never given much thought to it really. Limited telepathy I guess?

 

In regards to how to define magic, well it can be surprisingly difficult. If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic then it could be also said that any sufficiently understood magic is indistinguishable from technology. I think each and every author and story has their own approach to how they define and approach magic really. The most broad definition I suppose is the impossible made possible, I suppose (But then that encapsulates fantasy as a whole, doesn't it?). One way you could look at it is as a spectrum of soft and hard. Dunsany and R.E. Howard utilise pretty soft magic whereas Brandon uses hard magic 'systems'. @Ixthos do you feel that because of Brandon's use of 'systems' that a certain sense of wonder is lost from his magic?

I suppose what is viewed as 'magic' is relative compared to a person or people's level of technological advancement. Magic is really just what we don't yet understand. Of course with modern science it could be said we could potentially understand everything. So fantasy gives us a chance to witness something beyond our understanding and comprehension. This can leave us with a sense of awe (Dunsany) as we gaze with wonder at something so complex and beyond us or can drown us in fear (Lovecraft) at something that dwarfs us because of how impossibly immense it is.

Oh dear, this has become a bit of a ramble. ;)

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@Pagliacci That is a good point with the sense of wonder - I think Brandon actually does manage to have both soft and hard at the same time in some ways: in Mistborn, before we learn about Hemalurgy and its details, the Inquisitors seem strange and disturbing (and get more disturbing when we learn more about them, and also get more understandable), and in Well of Ascension and Hero of Ages, with the power of the Well and taking up the mists, we again are shown a power that seems to have no limits, but is balanced against another, so it both is amazing yet has a logical restriction, even though it is more nuanced and powerful than the magic already shown - we don't know the full extent of what it can do, but we know it can change a planet, change a people, and power other systems, but it is being blocked by another power, and both are "ideas". Later books give new abilities to the metallic arts - or show abilities the metallic arts already had - and so there is wonder in new abilities being shown even if in the end of the story they are now something we see as more of a tool.

On the whole however, I do agree Brandon tends towards the powers being much more hard and so easier to take in stride, less something to make you stop and wonder every time it is used, mainly because of how often it is used, and used as a tool for the characters. As Brandon said, the more well understood a system is the better it can be used to solve problems, but the less wonderful it seems, the less it makes you think in wonder.

That is a good point for what fantasy lets us see - and that is I think why we like it so much, any story which can make you see something and think on it is potent. Horror or awe, something we can't grasp or use is often called magic, even if some people can grasp the mechanism behind it. You know the engineering joke about magic smoke? :-) in the end its all about exposure, and how others treat something as well.

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