Magic and Technology

A few weeks ago, I made the claim that Arthur C. Clarke was wrong about magic and technology when he said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But then this begs the question – how do magic and technology, particularly in imaginative fiction, interact? I thought I would talk about this by using some examples and characterizing how various creators use these two non-opposing, non-complimentary (in my view) concepts.

Dungeons & Dragons

Magic is technology and technology is technology. Magic functions according to defined rules, is highly limited in its effects, etc. This is partly necessitated by D&D being a game, and partly comes from the source material used in creating it, including Vancian magic and tabletop wargames.

Harry Potter

Magic is technology, and sometimes true magic (which is moral and dynamic) intrudes. The example I think of is the magic that protected Harry Potter himself, which was the magic of his parents love and self-sacrifice. There are other examples, but for the most part, magic is technological in the Potterverse. Say certain words with certain gestures and it happens. You just have to know the trick and execute the trick skillfully. The only thing that is magical about magic, really, is that it is innate to a person rather than accessible to anyone. But that’s just like having an ID card that lets you access the magic.

Mage: the Ascension

Magic is magic and technology is magic. In Mage: the Ascension, it is more like what Jason Godesky once said to me – any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.  Once magical procedures become defined and widely used, they become technology. There is even a world-spanning conspiracy organization, the Technocracy, whose goal is to reify magic into technology to keep the world safe from magic’s volatility.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys

Magic is magic and technology is banal, lesser magic. Neil Gaiman has a fantastic ‘feel’ for magic, in my own view, that comes from wide reading in comic books and fairy tales and other speculative fiction. In his stories, the magic arises from the story in ways that seem both surprising and inevitable, which is the sweet spot for me. But in the American Gods universe, technology’s new gods are just arrogant, vapid newcomers, compared to the gods, who are deep and complex but also neglected and increasingly forgotten.

China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council

Magic and technology share space and bleed both ways. Magic is minority technology (the crisis engine), minority culture (the grindylow), and cosmic invasion (Ghosthead Empire, the Scar), but that magic is often manipulated through technological means. Magic seems to arise from people with outsider status, generally speaking, with authoritarians depending more on what we’d commonly see as technology – horrors like New Crobuzon’s punishment factories.

Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

Magic is magic, and morally driven, and technology is banal, and immorally driven. Tolkien’s clear – just ask the elves. What do you mean by magic? Magic is just the way that the world works. Technology is the way the world is broken, exploited, and corrupted by those who are insatiable for power over others.

Brandon Sanderson

Magic is superpowers and technology is technology. Magic isn’t quite technology because it is often innate, or at least subjective, but not always. But I’ve argued that Brandon Sanderson’s magic systems in his books, which are usually fascinating and very skillfully used as part of the plot, are actually more like superpowers than magic. The difference is one that it would take a whole other post to parse out, I think, but think about the differences between Superman and Gandalf. On the surface, many similarities – they are from another world, sent to Earth (Middle- or otherwise) to inspire people, fight evil, and try to make things right. But the how, and the why, are quite different.

LeGuin’s Earthsea

Magic is magic. It arises from the nature of the world, and dragons, and true names, and wisdom, and self-understanding. It is bound up in the world, and the plot, and the characters. LeGuin is a master.

Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear

So far magic is technology, but it is thought through in much more detail than normal for magic, so it is at least very cool technology. We’re kind of back to a D&D style, where magic is technology, but very complex and interconnected technology. You have players, who will lift the hood and poke at the workings of whatever game you put in front of them, and for Rothfuss, you have a main character and protagonist who is highly intelligent and curious, and pretty fearless about experimenting with the world around him to better understand and control it. That is the technocratic drive, right there.

What other examples would you add? Do you think I’m missing the point, or leaving important things out? 


5 thoughts on “Magic and Technology

    • 20 years before Harry Potter got that note from Hogwarts, Sparrowhawk went to the School of Roke Island to learn magic. A Wizard of Earthsea is a superb book in a lot of ways, and it’s followed by three more if you like it 🙂


  1. How about Susanna Clark’s Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell? The opening tension between magic as subject of dissipated amateur parlor room theorizing, and the practical magic of making statues talk, is just dynamite. Pardon my syntax, it’s late and I’m about to go to bed.


    • I haven’t read it, though I was given the book by a friend years ago. I watched parts of the movie with Pam (I think it was on Netflix a while back). I also didn’t mention Tim Powers and a few other good examples of interesting takes on this.


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