Magic and science are generally considered antithetical. You have one or the other, and never the twain shall meet. That’s why one of them is the realm of fantasy and one is the realm of science fiction. Even within science fiction, powers like telepathy are explained using science, and in fantasy, technology like long-distance communication or transport is the stuff of magic. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I think that a society where magic and science exist in some sort of relationship with each other is much more interesting.
Adventure Time takes the real-world tensions between religion and science and presents them as divisions between magic and religion. This conflict is most clearly presented in the Season 5 episode “Wizards Only, Fools”. In this episode, Princess Bubblegum, who doesn’t believe in magic (she believes that it’s just science done up with bells and whistles to seem mysterious) is trying to cure one of her citizens of a cold, but they refuse to take her medicine and only want magical treatment.
PB is understandably frustrated with this, but to honor her subject’s wishes, she travels to Wizard City with Finn and Jake to retrieve a magic cure. Throughout their journey, she grows more and more annoyed as she tries to explain how all the magic in Wizard City can be explained with science. In the end, the trip is a bust—the cold spell they buy turns out to be a weather spell—and they trick the patient into thinking he’s being cured with magic before slipping him a healing injection.
I have mixed feelings about using magic as a stand-in for religion here. It kind of oversimplifies the issue, and since we generally sympathize with Peebles over her subjects, it encourages us to side with her. Magic and science both work equally well in this universe, so the argument that one of them is fraudulent doesn’t hold up the same way it might in real life. However, Adventure Time is a kids’ show, so although I hold it to high standards, I can’t really blame them for simplifying an issue to make it comprehensible to its target audience.
Homestuck is not by any means intended for an audience of children, but it also presents us with the idea that science and magic are opposed. Eridan Ampora’s interactions with the magic-using characters in the series are the best example of this. Eridan has a fascination with wizards, but he attributes his powers to science and looks down on the (equally strong) players who use magic, going so far as to create a “science wand” for use in championing empiricism.
I think Eridan’s standpoint is also interesting, probably because it’s so flawed. Eridan’s hatred seems to be rooted in his own deep-seated insecurities, and it’s even been conjectured that, although he was able to wreak some pretty impressive havoc with it, the wand was less an object of great scientific power and more a conduit for energy that Eridan had accumulated in earlier battles. In this case, the magic versus science debate is less philosophical and more about a thirteen year old alien kid’s desire to feel like he’s the best at something.
Noelle Stevenson’s webcomic Nimona, however, gives us what I think is a more interesting take, simply because it’s so rare: a world where magic and science are more intertwined. I think this is more interesting because when you pit science and magic against one another, it forces you to pick a side, and both choices come off as a little simplistic, especially given the parallels to faith versus science. Either you’re for magic only and you come off like a religious fundamentalist, or you’re for science only and you’re a stick in the mud atheist. I think Nimona presents a better option, because science and magic are considered like any other neutral powers that can be used for good or evil.
Because of this, neither science nor magic come off as the bad thing in and of themselves; rather, it’s the way they’re applied that requires moral judgment. Nimona using her shapeshifting to rob a bank? Probably bad. The Institute using science to poison the population? Definitely bad! Ballister using science to heal the sick people? Definitely good! Nimona breathing fire to beat up bad guys? Definitely awesome. And also good. Nimona takes the tack that instead of one type of power being good or evil, it’s how you use it that matters.
Stevenson ties magic and science neatly into her worldbuilding, and I think that’s part of why I like her take on it so much. Rather than having a certain character be a voice for a debate or opinion about science or magic, both are just a part of the everyday lives of Nimona et al. There’s certainly a time and a place in fiction to discuss the intersection of magic and science, but I feel like it’d be more interesting if these debates were enacted on a societal scope, complete with microagressions and casual prejudice, rather than giving them personification in a single character.