Magical Mondays: Science or Magic? Why Not Both?

We’re big fans of both magic and science on this blog, so unsurprisingly, any time they intersect all our heads swivel in unison like prairie dogs. In the era of the Internet, 3D printing, and nanotechnology, never has science felt more like magic than it does now. While it is expected for science fiction writers to be heavily influenced by the latest inventions and the most puzzling enigmas of quantum physics, it seems that for all the incomprehensible wonders science has achieved, rarely do fantasy authors take advantage of the ever-shrinking median between technology and magic. A notable and incredibly well executed exception is Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, which paints magic more as a slightly fanciful elaboration upon known principles of physics than as a nebulous and unexplainable form of power.

Wands that shoot lasers.

Wands that shoot lasers.

Being an insufferable know-it-all myself, I often have a hard time with suspension of disbelief in both sci-fi and fantasy. If the science that a plot point is based on is too far from the truth, or if magic has flimsy rules and loopholes, I often become frustrated. The skillful fusion of magic and science in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards universe, however, goes a long way in mediating both of those problems by using science to keep a cap on the power of magic. Magical teleportation, for example, makes interplanetary travel possible, but wizards are limited by distance, required energy, knowledge of the destination, and the fragility of the human body. Instead of using machinery to manipulate the properties of matter, as is typical in science fiction, wizards use a universally understood language called the Speech to change the properties and behavior of the matter around them to achieve the desired effect. This spell-casting process is often described as “persuasion”, since in this universe even the tiniest elements of matter have a sort of dormant, unified sentience.

Verily, Mr. Snookums, I must writeth that shit down.

Verily, Mr. Snookums, I must writeth that shit down. (x)

In this way, a sufficiently skilled wizard can manipulate the laws of physics to an extent, provided they have a good reason for affecting the change. Water molecules, for example, could not care less if someone is having a bad hair day, but if their cooperation means somehow sustaining life, or taking a tiny step toward slowing the ultimate destruction of the universe, they can be convinced to change their normal behavior. Charm, finesse, and intelligence are also elements of wizardry in that sense, and a persuasive wizard can be much more effective than a powerful but clumsy one. All of these facets of wizardry in Duane’s books make for not only a fascinating interplay of science and fantasy, but also a very functional and convincing set of universal laws. Laws of physics still apply, but can be manipulated if magic is powerful enough; magic exists but can only be so powerful, because the laws of physics still hold it back. The “persuasive” element of spell casting is also a great narrative device, because it makes any spell’s viability highly dependent on the situation. There can be cases when a character is exceptionally effective or rather inept, all based on their personality, their focus, and whether or not they’re simply having a really bad day and make a weak argument.

Each individual wizard generally has a proclivity for certain categories of matter. One of the main characters, Kit, successfully manages to make a television work by persuading it and its corresponding remote control to set aside their cultural differences. The issue, evidently, was that one was made in Japan and the other in China, and each—in their low-grade sentience—had absorbed some of the animosity of the humans who had manufactured them. Nita, on the other hand, has an easier time talking with plants, and once convinced all the individual sprigs of crabgrass in her neighbor’s yard to relocate to a stubborn bare patch under a tree in her father’s yard where he’d never been able to grow anything at all. Neither of these were earth-shattering acts of magic and neither really did much to benefiting life on the whole, but both were managed nonetheless with just the right application of persuasive charm.

This sure doesn't look like outer space, Steve, I think we've been had.

This sure doesn’t look like outer space, Steve, I think we’ve been had. (x)

While inspired by real elements of science, the properties of such science-magic are—of course—essentially made up. Magic is already accepted as having different rules in different universes, so the tricky part is to bend existing science to the storyteller’s will in a way that sounds just plausible enough to go unquestioned. This is a skill Diane Duane has mastered. Science-magic also allows magic to be creatively integrated into a modern setting, unlike in Harry Potter, which uses a lot of odd anachronisms to keep magic separate from technology. This is not a bad system necessarily, but there is something delightful about modern teen wizards looking up spells on their laptops or posting pictures of supernovae to Instagram while hovering in outer space. Although the first book of the Young Wizards series was published in 1983, which dated the computing technology rather badly, a “New Millenium” edition has recently been released that fixes some timeline issues and sets the first book in 2008 to take full advantage of the changes in the technological landscape and make the science-magic even more science-y. I have not yet had the opportunity to read the new editions myself, but Diane Duane has discussed them extensively on her blog, and the updates sound very promising.

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4 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Science or Magic? Why Not Both?

  1. I’m actually rereading this series right now in preparation for the tenth book being released next year! I’ve just finished A Wizard’s Dilemma, which is a great book but a very emotionally challenging read.

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