We often hear people criticize fantasy books for not having clearly enough defined "systems" of magic. Rules, formulas, strongly defined sets of cause and effect. But why does magic need to be treated like physics? Why does magic need to have rules? asks N.K. Jemisin, author of The Killing Moon and its new sequel, The Shadowed Sun.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -Arthur C. Clarke
Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. -Agatha Heterodyne (Girl Genius) by way of Larry Niven by way of Clarke
La la la can't hear you. -Me
This is a whine, not a rant. I rant when I'm angry; right now I'm just frustrated and annoyed. It's hard out here for a fantasy writer, after all; there's all these rules I'm supposed to follow, or the Fantasy Police might come and make me do hard labor in the Cold Iron Mines. For example: I keep hearing that magic has to have rules. It has to be logical. It has to have limitations, consequences, energy exchange, internal consistency, clear cause and effect, thoroughly-tested laws with repeatable results and –-
This is magic we're talking about here, right? Force of nature, kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken, and all that? And most of all, not science? Because sometimes I wonder. Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system - we'll come back to this word "system" later - I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they're going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction? Science fiction has plenty of its own magicky stuff to enjoy (e.g., FTL, "psi" powers). Shouldn't fantasy do something different, not just in its surface trappings but in its fundamental assumptions?
Because this is magic we're talking about. It's supposed to go places science can't, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death - things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It's the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there's no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense. In fact, I think it's coolest when it doesn't.
And here's the thing: fantasy - specifically English-language fantasy since that's all I've been able to read - used to get this. When I read Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea again last year before the Center for Fiction's Earthsea Big Read, I was struck by the fact that none of the stuff Ged learned at Roke made any sense. OK, it was all about names. To figure out the names of things, wizards basically had to experience enough to understand them, and disengage with their preexisting assumptions - and then, apparently, they had to cross their fingers and wish really hard. Because magic was an experiment whose results were never repeatable, never predictable, and even the most accomplished wizard could only make an educated guess about what would happen any time magic was used. And in fact, magic itself could change as its caster changed. It was an intuitive thing, not an empirical thing, and an intuitive wizard could build a spell out of guesses - or leaps of faith - based on nothing more than gut feelings. Also, feelings mattered. Bring the wrong feelings into a magic-working and it could all go pear-shaped. Le Guin rendered this beautifully, and I loved it, because it felt like magic should feel to me. So did Tolkien's magic, which had the same all-over-the-place weirdness to it. In LotR, sometimes magic meant forging a ring with a chunk of soul melted into the alloy. Sometimes it meant learning obscure/dead languages, or talking to obscure/dead creatures. Sometimes it meant brandishing a particular kind of stick in a particular kind of way, and shouting really loudly. Sometimes it meant being born with pointy ears, and sometimes resisting magic meant being born with hairy feet. It was organic, embedded, a total crapshoot. And it was wonderful.
Here's what I think happened between Tolkien/Le Guin and now: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D has a lot to answer for re the modern fantasy audience (and I say this as a fan of D&D). I blame D&D for systematizing so many things that don't need to be or shouldn't be systematized: fantastic racism, real racism, gender essentialism - hell, let's just say all the "isms" - career choice, morality. Yes, yes, D&D has gotten better over the years, and yes all these things happened in the genre (in spades) before D&D, but remember boys ‘n' girls et al: systems are remarkably effective at reinforcing stupid thinking. This is because systems are self-reinforcing and have internal consistency even when they're logically or ethically questionable. It's the way the human brain works: when enough events occur in a pattern, we stop thinking and go into macro mode. Then suddenly we see nothing wrong with saying that of course orcs are evil, because they're orcs. Or of course magic has to be logical, because how else are we going to simulate its effects numerically and in a fair way that encourages good team mechanics?
That's game logic, this concern over quantitative fairness and teambuilding. Game logic should not apply to magic, because it's fucking magic.
OK, let's get personal. The Inheritance Trilogy. There was a magic system, of sorts: the scriveners had to learn how to write the gods' language. This was a science to them, very precise, very detailed, riddled with rules and empirical tests - and I deliberately did not focus on it or describe it beyond the most superficial level. Why would I? I wasn't interested in the mechanics. I created scrivening solely to frame gods' magic by contrast, and to illustrate the more fundamental differences between mortals and gods. Scrivening: limited, generalizable, a system complex enough to make Gary Gygax proud. Gods' magic: SMITE, the end. What, you think the Greeks ever rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang? (Please don't send me links to wherever someone has rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang.) As far as I was concerned, it defeated the whole point of writing about gods to focus on something so pedantic as "how they do what they do." They're gods. They work in mysterious ways. Also: fucking magic.
I imagine there will be some who take issue with the narcomancy used in the Dreamblood books, even though that's a little more systematized, because it's partially based on stuff Jung thought up during a psychotic break. Well, we'll see.
Part of my frustration comes from a few incidents lately in which I've worked with up-and-coming writers as part of convention workshops, etc. I've seen these folks, most of whom are future fantasy novel-writers, positively agonize over their magic systems, taking great care to consider rules, required resources, the laws of conservation of magic, yatta yatta yatta, all for fear that they'll get published someday and have their magic systems picked apart by the Fantasy Police. In some cases these writers had spent far, far more energy on trying to create a magic system than they had on trying to create plot or characters. Sadly, I've seen this same kind of to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus on mechanics in the works of some published writers - and worse, I've seen readers going ga-ga over this sort of thing, as if the magic system really is the only part of the story that matters.
Is that all fantasy is? Thin storytelling papered over a players' guide? Is that all fantasy should be? Mechanistic magic, formulas and figures?
Of course not. Fantasy is, can be, should be, so much more than that. So give me mysterious, silly, weird, utterly cracktastic magic please. And easy on the logic. It's not like we're doing science, here.
N.K. Jemisin's books include the Dreamblood duology (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun) plus the Inheritance trilogy, starting with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She's been nominated twice for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and won a Locus Award for Best First Novel. This post originally appeared on her own blog.