In imaginative fiction, and in the many ways that people engage with and talk about imaginative fiction, this is one of the most-often referenced quotes that I hear time and time again:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s a great quote. The main problem with it is that it is wrong. Or, to be more precise, if it is correct, someone is doing something wrong. For it to be true, I would have to add an addendum: “…poorly imagined magic.”
A technological device that is activated by waving one’s hands around effortlessly is an impressive piece of hardware. Magic that is activated by waving one’s hands around effortlessly is poorly imagined magic. Magic and technology are not the same – they are not two sides of the same coin, nor are they different approaches to the same thing. When I say this, I am saying it in reference to the examples we all share, examples of technology and magic from human societies, but I think these differences should also apply to imaginative fiction.
Which brings me to one important difference between magic and technology – technology has a much higher success rate in solving problems (and a much higher success rate in creating problems, but that’s probably another blog post entirely). While human societies have all practiced magic and practiced technology, it is technology that has built on the past and which has the proven track record of predictable, replicable, and sometimes staggering results.
Magic, on the other hand, as a real-world way of solving concrete problems, is at best unreliable if you believe in its efficacy at all. And when I talk about magic, I am talking about all different ways of interacting with the supernatural – religion, spirituality, psychics, fortune-telling, geomancy, mediums, faith healing, etc. This is leaving aside, for this post, moral problems, theoretical problems, etc.
In our imaginative fiction, though, magic and technology can both be redefined and re-imagined. Magic can have tremendous efficacy, and technology can accomplish things that as of now we understand to be patently impossible. We might imagine them as opposing forces, or as comparable approaches to the same problems – but in my view this is to imagine them as other than they are.
Magic and technology both arise out of the particularities of culture (though that is often harder to see for us today, in the context of cultural and technological hegemony). Magic and technology both require a procedure to use, but magic differs in very important ways. No matter how advanced a particular technology becomes, it should remain easily distinguishable from magic.
Beliefs have no impact whatsoever on the functioning of technology, but in almost every way magic has been imagined (and practiced) throughout history, belief has been at the center. The strength of one’s belief, one’s wisdom and understanding, one’s trust in the subtle forces in the world, directly correlates with one’s ability to use magic, or even understand its function.
Almost always implicit, this connection to belief is sometimes made explicit as well. Mage: The Ascension is the game and world that come to mind that best exemplify this aspect of magic. In Mage, magic is enlightened belief, period. It functions because someone who has an Avatar believes it will function, and those beliefs shape its function at all times.
Historically, magic has been the purview of particular cultures and societies. In the Western world, “magic” has been, in many cases, simply minority religious practices, sometimes “occult” or secret and at other times simply the religious practices of minority cultures like druids or hunter-gatherer medicine men.
The More-Than-Human World
This is a phrase on my mind lately, mostly because I ran into Jason Godesky at Save Against Fear and it got me thinking about The Fifth World again, but this phrase, the more-than-human-world, fits in with the distinctness of magic very well. Technology, especially the way that my society practices it, treats the world as an object, whether that world is full of living things or non-living things, matter or energy – every single bit of it is there to be used by human beings by way of technology.
Magic differs from this view in many ways, not the least of which being what “the world” contains and includes. I’m not aware of any magical worldviews that include philosophical naturalism or reductionist assumptions. Most, if not all, include a non-material world of some kind; a spirit world, or a realm of the gods, heavens and hells, elemental planes, even alternate universes and timelines.
Magic is also almost always imagined to impact the natural world and to connect human beings with it. People transform into trees, or speak with animals, or breathe water like fish, or fly like birds. People ask questions of the stones, learn songs from plants, or worship giant bears in caves. Animals are more likely to be seen with human characteristics in a magical worldview – they have thoughts and speech and will and memory. Magic might even be driven by a fully animist worldview, wherein all living things are people, and everything has a spirit.
Drama and Story
Technology doesn’t care about what story it is a part of. Technology can certainly be used in powerful ways to fuel narrative (HAL and Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, among innumerable other examples), but your smartphone doesn’t care whether it’s part of a story, or what’s dramatically appropriate. Its functions are always determined.
The opposite is true of magic, at least most of the time. Magic is much more likely to happen in the nick of time, or at the climax of the action, or at the “all is lost” moment at the end of Act 2. Magic is in part driven by what is right and wrong, and by what is supposed to happen at a particular time. Some cultures reflect this with the idea of magic needing to be “auspicious” – this is particularly true in cultures influenced by Daoism for example, and is one of the core concepts behind feng shui and many kinds of fortune-telling.
Brandon Sanderson writes stories that feature interesting magic systems, and he talks about how when the magic system is used to a character to solve a problem, he wants for it to be a surprise, and also to feel inevitable. A combination of “I can’t believe that happened!” and “Of course that had to happen!” These moments are the purview of the way magic is imagined, not technology.
Magic and technology differ in other ways as well, but these are three that I wanted to highlight. The point is that magic and technology are not connected in the way that the Arthur C. Clarke quote reflects. Writers, gamers and game designers, technology should always be clearly distinguishable from magic – if not, it is a failure of how we are depicting either the technology or the magic.