Tuesday, March 25, 2008


So I'm standing here at the corner of Gygax and Clarke, and thinking about Clarke's Third Law and how so many people hear it, nod, and go off in the wrong direction.

Here's how it goes - you've heard it before:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

As laws go, its pretty succinct, and from a writing standpoint, it frees you from dragging the reader into the nuts-and-bolts of explaining your stardrive unless said stardrive has a purpose within the plot as opposed to getting your characters from A to B. And it provides a nice point of us dumb cavemen trying to understand the sippystraw technology of the advanced aliens.

But the thing is, indistinguishable is not identical. There may be a way to determine the difference between the two, but you just don't have it at hand, or haven't had the chance to examine it. We can breed an orange to be indistinguishable from an apple, but it doesn't make it an apple.

And the problem is that once we think indistinguishable = identical, then if science = magic, then magic = science. And there the fun begins, as we attempt to classify magic, and in doing so, ground it into some framework of reality. I'm more guilty of this as anyone else on the planet.

D&D is partially responsible for this domestication of magic, but it is by no means the only culprit. Writers and game designers are comfortable with the concept of "If you do A, then you should always get B". It is safe, dependable, and fair. But magic is traditionally portrayed as an art, which means that the incantations and enchantments don't always work the way you expect them to. That can create some interesting stories if the stories are about how magic is tricksy. If you want it a component for a larger tapestry, and a dependable component, then it has to be tamed, and follow laws.

A good example of these laws is the Vancian Magic System embraced and expanded by D&D - spells of particular power levels, loaded into the brain like bullets in a gun, using a magical energy field through particular verbal, material, and somatic components. Its a bit of a sprawl, but has served very well for years. But it is a set of rules, and one that tames the wild fires of spellcasting to make it fair for the players.

But once comprehended, magic can expanded and utilized and taken in unintended directions. The fact you have a teleport spell opens the door to teleporation devices which results in the abandonment of roads for magical power. If detect lie is readily available, your magical mystery novel has to dodge that particular bullet in order to succeed. I've said in the past that the Realms is more like the year 1870 than 1370, in that we understand the principles of magic and are starting to use them for our own ends - Arcanapunk, if you will, where the magic meets the street.

But magic does not have to be that way - it can be closer to art than to component technology. Where, when you start the incantation, you are not quite sure where you will end up. Tolkienesque magic feels that way - rare and misunderstood and never there when you need it. By the time we get to Harry Potter, we have schools and ministries on the subject, trying to boil it down into easily-understood components, a variant of advanced technology. But magic is not technology, and to treat it as such we may be diminishing it.

But that's just a thought for a rainy Seattle evening.

More later,