Magic versus Science?

Through the magic of previously-scheduled posting, my ghost is able to post this entry, linking to the recent io9 post on magic and science (also reproducing below a post from the old blog on the same subject) while simultaneously working on my novel:

The original comments to this “old blog” post can be found here.

Evil Monkey:
So, did you see this post by Ted Chiang about science fiction versus fantasy?

Jeff:
I did.

Evil Monkey:
What did you think about it?

Jeff:
It bothered me. I don’t know why.

Evil Monkey:
You don’t know why?!

Jeff:
Itjust seemed too simplistic somehow.

Evil Monkey:
That’s the best you could come up with?

Jeff:
Yeah. What’ve you got?

Evil Monkey:
Well, let’s pull up the post and talk about it.

Jeff:
Do we have to?

Evil Monkey:
What else are we going to do? You locked us out of the house and I don’t have the car keys. All we’ve got is this lame-ass wireless laptop.

Jeff:
Ann’ll be here soon to rescue us. But fine–fire away.

Evil Monkey:
Chiang says it’s useful to examine the difference between science and magic to understand the difference between science fiction and fantasy. But there is no such thing as magic!

Jeff:
If you read more carefully, you’ll see he says that “This isn’t a question of conforming to current scientific understanding; we can imagine an alternative set of physical laws without calling them magic.”

Evil Monkey:
So then what the hell is magic? Some random happening with no logic behind it?

Jeff:
Magic doesn’t exist, remember?

Evil Monkey:
Right. But surely we can imagine an alternative set of physical laws and call it magic?

Jeff:
I’d rather not. What I find more peculiar is this bit: “Magic has a subjective component—the intention, desire, or willpower of the practitioner—that is explicitly excluded from scientific experimentation.”

Evil Monkey:
Magic doesn’t exist, dude.

Jeff:
I know. That’s the subjective component.

Evil Monkey:
Is he saying that magic is willfully subjective while science is only incidentally subjective?

Jeff:
I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. But what do you mean “incidentally subjective.”

Evil Monkey:
Well, science is subjective even if scientific process is not. I do a lot of reading when I’m not eating bananas and it seems to me that scientists are just as human as the rest of us. Scientific process gets bent to the will of the individual a lot more than you might think. And we wind up with theories that we use as truth that later wind up to be false. That’s damn subjective–and interesting from a fictive perspective. Hell, look at the grief Wegener went through trying to get people to believe in continental drift theory.

Jeff:
You’ve got a point. So you’re saying science isn’t nearly as logical as Chiang is making out.

Evil Monkey:
Yes. And that magic doesn’t exist, so to compare magic and science is kind of silly. Unless you’re talking about religion. Religion exists. That’s empirical, in a way.

Jeff:
Except—Chiang says that “scientific result can be replicated by a mechanism and that mechanism can be mass-produced; thus, we all own products containing electric motors, lasers, etc., even though such things were once objects of wonder found only in laboratories. This is generally not true of magic; no one expects that a great magician’s ability to turn a pumpkin into a carriage will, decades later, result in cheap shape-shifting gadgets.”

Evil Monkey:
I’m still having a problem with this. He’s comparing what is done in the real world with science to what is done in the fictional world with magic. Because, as I keep saying, magic doesn’t exist in the real world. So why doesn’t he compare what’s done with science in the fictional world to what’s done with magic in the fictional world?

Jeff:
Maybe he thinks that’s exactly what he’s doing. Or that what’s done with science in the fictional world is identical to what’s done with science in the real world. Except it’s not.

Evil Monkey:
Pass that bottle of vodka, will ya?

Jeff:
Which one?

Evil Monkey:
The goose one. Thanks.

Jeff:
This would go better with a cigar, but they’re inside the house. Sorry again.

Evil Monkey:
No worries. Let’s just hope the wireless connection doesn’t go out…So—look at this next bit. Chiang says, “…magic is esoteric while technology is egalitarian, because only select individuals are able to call down lightning, but electricity works for everyone.”

Jeff:
Hmmm. By that logic lightning itself is esoteric because only some people get hit by it.

Evil Monkey:
Don’t try to be clever. Again, though: MDNE.

Jeff:
Huh?

Evil Monkey:
I’m sick of saying Magic Does Not Exist.

Jeff:
Oh. So then there’s this part—a disagreement he got into with Nisi Shawl, who pointed out that there are “traditions of folk magic and communal magic that are available to anyone.”

Evil Monkey:
Back up. That’s not the point. The point is that the comparison is flawed. Let’s say for a second that MDE, at least in fiction and as part of some cultures’ belief systems—and that science and a belief in magic are incompatible, which I don’t think is true—that magic exists.

Jeff:
I’m with you so far.

Evil Monkey:
Well, people use magic. They use it by going to the magician or wizard or shaman, right? So they still have access to it. People have more immediate access to electricity, but that doesn’t make them shamen—or, in this case, scientists. They don’t have the understanding of it. So the comparison is flawed. Irrational, in fact. A point made to prop up a failing thesis.

Jeff:
I think that’s harsh. The comparison may be off, but it’s not off by that much. It is true he says “I do think that magic is commonly depicted as being unavailable to people lacking certain innate gifts.” Which is close to a comparable situation in science, where you have to have a certain innate gift for logic and logical processes.

Evil Monkey:
But “commonly depicted” is so vague anyway. I don’t think I buy it at all. Commonly depicted where? In fiction? Which fiction? In folklore? Whose folklore? What about all of those sorcerer’s apprentices? They still have to learn something. They have to learn a system. Which is why this bit “In fantasy, successfully interacting with the universe requires acknowledging that you’re dealing with a person and not a rule-bound system.” also doesn’t ring true.

Jeff:
I think at this point what we need to acknowledge to successfully interact with Chiang’s post is that he’s mostly talking about certain forms of heroic fantasy.

Evil Monkey:
Which leaves out surrealism, magic realism, urban fantasy, and all kinds of other things that don’t dominate the best-seller lists but that do constitute the core of the really cool cross-genre stuff being done. God, this is good vodka.

Jeff:
You need to lay off that hootch. The post is very long. We have a ways to go before we’re done.

Evil Monkey:
Yeah—I’m drinking because the next part deals with this whole idea of “mass production” and how that affects how we view our fiction or how you weirdoes write your fiction or whatever.

Jeff:
Seriously, give me the bottle. Now.

Evil Monkey:
You’re no fun.

Jeff:
Thanks. Now, about the mass production. He says that being a person doesn’t mean being arbitrary or inconsistent, so that means a fantasy universe isn’t necessarily ruled by a capricious god or gods—

Evil Monkey:
Wait. I don’t get it. He’s dealing with magic as if it’s real, but now he’s saying that people aren’t arbitrary so the gods people make up aren’t necessarily inconsistent? Or?

Jeff:
I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. I’m not really sure what he’s saying. The actual sentence is: “This doesn’t mean that a fantasy universe is necessarily ruled by a capricious god or gods; being a person doesn’t mean being arbitrary or inconsistent.”

Evil Monkey:
Yeah—that’s what you said before.

Jeff:
Note the semi-colon. Hmm. Actually, that doesn’t help. So I think he is saying the god or gods we make up aren’t necessarily arbitrary or inconsistent. But perhaps he means “god or gods” in terms of the systems we set up for ourselves.

Evil Monkey:
But he’s just said there’s no system to magic. That it’s people based. People power!

Jeff:
That may be a willful miscomprehension, Evil.

Evil Monkey:
My head hurts.

Jeff:
That’s the vodka.

Evil Monkey:
No it’s not. Then he says “But one consequence is that, in a fantasy universe, certain things are not susceptible to mass production.” Consequence of what? Of living in a capricious god-filled universe? Of being arbitrary or inconsistent?

Jeff:
No, dummy. A consequence of not buying into scientific process as your belief system.

Evil Monkey:
I guess that’s what this part means: “For example, you could say that, in order for your magical radio to function, you need to appease a certain deity, and so you say a prayer each time you make a radio, and your radios always work. But if you’ve got a machine that is stamping out functional radios by the thousands, it’s no longer reasonable to say that it’s appeasing a deity every time. Instead, it makes more sense to say you’re dealing with impersonal laws of nature; your radio is an example of applied science, not applied magic.” Hey—go easy on that vodka yourself, my friend!

Jeff:
Sorry. Just needed a couple of swigs…Where to start? Okay. So we’re making radios individually, apparently in the same way you make a normal radio, except we’re saying a prayer over it to imbue it with magicality. But, if you’re doing that, then—

Evil Monkey:
Hypothetically, magic is available to everyone through prayer!

Jeff:
Exactly. Mixing magic and religion here, I think. So he’s assuming religion is available to everyone but magic is not available to everyone? And yet the magic radio is made magical by way of prayer. To a god. But is he talking about fiction or in the real world—like maybe in certain cultures they do say a prayer over the radio as they make it.

Evil Monkey:
So how would the mass production aspect of it be any different for a “magic” radio than for a “non-magic” radio?! Give me that vodka!

Jeff:
Take it! I don’t want anymore! Drink it all!

Evil Monkey:
I will! I will, damn you and your terrible way of losing keys.

Jeff:
It’s not that cold!

Evil Monkey:
It’s getting colder! It’s easy for you—you’ve got a jacket. I’ve got no fur to put over my fur. I am a creature of the tropics!

Jeff:
Focus, Evil! Focus. We’ve a post to finish discussing. Ann will be here soon.

Evil Monkey:
You keep saying that but she’s not here. Not even a little bit!

Jeff:
You’ve got to get a grip. We’re in the driveway of the house, not Antarctica, you big ole wimp.

Evil Monkey:
I’m gonna bust a window wide open. And hop inside.

Jeff:
No, you’re not. Read the rest of the post.

Evil Monkey:
Ow! Stop it! You don’t need to shove my head into the computer screen, moron!

Jeff:
Read!

Evil Monkey:
Okay. Okay. I’m fine now. Okay. So—where were we?

Jeff:
Impersonal laws of nature. Applied science. Not applied magic.

Evil Monkey:
Arggh! But the impersonal laws of nature still apply in fantasy novels. There’s gravity, generally. There’s….ack! Why doth it bother me so?

Jeff:
Too much vodka. Let’s move on.

Evil Monkey:
Next paragraph. Next paragraph. Sarah Monette quote. Oversimplification to say science fiction deals with the Industrial Revolution while fantasy denies that ever took place. Wow. I’ll say. And then Chiang agrees, says grain of truth, shift from god-centered to scientific viewpoint sparked by it because you could see the mass-produced products of applied science.

Jeff:
I guess we could give him that, but what about the Enlightenment? 18th century England wasn’t exactly a hotbed of anti-science, was it?

Evil Monkey:
I dunno. I’m just a monkey.

Jeff:
Right—I’m just going to quote the next two paragraphs in their entirety. We’re almost done! Ann’s almost here!

Before mass production, technology usually involved the personal touch. Every artifact was the product of an individual’s care and attention; every tool was born of a conscious act. If a device worked well, it was usually because someone had been concentrating really hard when they made it. After mass production, that was no longer the case. The personal touch vanished from many aspects of daily life.

This perspective helps illustrate why, even though fantasy doesn’t have to be pre-industrial, fantasy works so well with a pre-industrial setting. Before industrialization, it was easier to believe that we lived in a universe that recognized persons. And even though fantasy doesn’t have to be nostalgic, it’s easy to romanticize the days when an individual’s labor mattered, and you couldn’t be replaced by a machine.

Evil Monkey:
I like that first paragraph. That’s definitely true. And it’s an interesting point. That second paragraph…I just don’t know. How much science fiction do we actually see in which the characters are cogs in a system that they can’t get out of? Dystopian or even utopian science fiction, sure. But that’s a small sampling of what’s out there. Most science fiction functions the same way as most fantasy: hero/heroine or anti-hero/anti-heroine. In other words, the characters not cogs. They are self-determining, even if affected by events beyond their control.

Jeff:
Remarkably cogent considering the amount of alcohol you and I have just consumed. But what I dislike about the second paragraph is its absolutism: things are this way or that way, but no mix of things. It’s not nostalgic to value individual labor—we just do individual labor in different fields than in the past. And if you’re an autoworker in a factory, I’d imagine you still take pride in what you’re mass producing. Whether you say a magical prayer over it or not.

Evil Monkey:
So does fantasy work really well in a pre-industrial setting?

Jeff:
If it does, it’s because lazy writers are using old tropes and old backdrops and just dusting them off before they use them. Yeah, there’s a lot of heroic fantasy with pre-industrial settings. I don’t know, though, that the setting is as important as the mind-set behind it. The minds creating these books are still from a post-industrial world. That has to affect how the writer writes the book. Some more than others, obviously.

Evil Monkey:
Then there’s this:

Similarly, this perspective illustrates why, even though science fiction doesn’t have to be about technological advancement, it is so often concerned with the notion of progress. Once conscious intention was removed from the creation of devices, inventions could spread so rapidly that you could see society change within a single lifetime. And even though SF doesn’t have to be cautionary, it’s easy to worry about the dehumanization that can result when conscious intention is removed from too many aspects of life.

Jeff:
Before I forget, I meant to ask—you don’t think he’s attacking fantasy, do you?

Evil Monkey:
No, I don’t. I think he’s genuinely interested in defining the differences between fantasy and science fiction.

Jeff:
Me, too. But I’m not sure about this statement about science fiction concerned with the notion of progress. What is “progress” first of all? Technological progress? Because as we’ve seen over the last hundred years technological progress means little in terms of personal and collective wisdom or ability to use technology properly. But let’s say “progress” means in terms of “technology” or all the gadgets technophiliacs have wet dreams over. Does science fiction really concern itself with progress? I think it assumes progress many times. It assumes it, but it doesn’t engage in the implications of it. Which may be one reason I think of science fiction and fantasy as being more or less interchangeable.

Evil Monkey:
I’m sorry. I missed that. My core body temperature is falling rapidly.

Jeff:
Very funny.

Evil Monkey:
So you’re saying that SF takes progress for granted.

Jeff:
Yes. Just as most fantasies take the physical laws of the universe for granted even in those books in which “magic” is paramount, with big old systems of make-believe created for that magic. And because most science fiction takes progress for granted we have a dearth of novels that actually deal with the “applied science” of our current problems with global warming, finite resources, pollution, etc.

Evil Monkey:
Now you’re just lecturing. And buying time.

Jeff:
Ann’ll be here in a second!

Evil Monkey:
Uh oh. Here comes the disclaimer.

I don’t claim that this distinction between magic and science is the ultimate explanation of the difference between SF and fantasy. There are countless examples of SF/F for which this doesn’t apply at all, and anyone looking for gray areas can find plenty in any discussion that mentions consciousness. But I do find it a fruitful way to think about these two subgenres, so I figured I’d write a post about it.

Jeff:
Nothing wrong with that.

Evil Monkey:
Yeah, I guess not. I just hate the way he mixed magic and religion, the real world and the fictional world. There’s some kind of mixing of metaphors going on there.

Jeff:
I don’t care for the simplification of it. I guess it just goes back to the idea that when you try to label something you simplify it to such a extent that it can only be one thing or another thing. When most good fiction is more complex than that—fantasy included—and contains a cross-pollination of the rational and the irrational, the magical and the scientific.

Evil Monkey:
So you find Chiang’s comments more or less irrelevant.

Jeff:
I guess I do.

Evil Monkey:
Yet we’ve spent all this time talking about them!

Jeff:
We’re locked out. We’re waiting for rescue. What else was there to do?

Evil Monkey:
Have you read Chiang’s fiction?

Jeff:
Love it. Great stuff. Horrible cover on that last book, though.

Evil Monkey:
I kind of liked the cover.

Jeff:
I hated it.

Evil Monkey:
I loved it.

Jeff:
Pass the vodka.

Evil Monkey:
We’re going to die out here, aren’t we?

Comments

  1. Arthur says

    Hi Jeff

    I had a totally unrelated question, about Finch. When exactly is this coming out, is this known? Looks like a great book.

    Or do I need to ask the guys at Underland?

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Arthur: It’s scheduled for late May 2009. The writing is going very well.

    Jeff

  3. says

    I wish Ann had gotten there sooner! I am not sure this is Progress. Laughing. In my opinion, it’s all really about two languages, one of words and one of numbers. Both are magical and misguiding. And you and the Evil Monkey need something stronger than vodka…

  4. ebear says

    I find Ted’s thesis just a little… weird. Because there are certainly scientists in SF who operate much like mad magicians, and there are certainly magicians who operate like scientists, with experiments and geeking and mass-produced magical widgets.

    I’m just not sure that anyone can make those kinds of blanket statements about the use of magic or science in literature.

    Magic can be mechanistic. Totally so. That’s how D&D works, after all….

    And science can seem pretty subjective. How many of us have prayed to and pleaded with our stalling cars on a cold January morning?

    It… yanno… it’s just not that simple….

    (How do you manage to lock yourself out of the house with a laptop and several bottles of vodka? Were you on your way home from the coffeehouse AND the liquor store?)

  5. says

    Motorized prayer wheels! A la “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

    It’s true that there isn’t a lot of fantasy with mass production of widgets, but I think that says more about the nature of fantasy writers than it does about the nature of fantasy. It’s not that magic CANNOT be compatible with industrialization, it’s that most fantasy writers don’t want to go there–in much the same way that scientific work isn’t objective, but scientists want it to be.

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