I love space. I am absolutely obsessed with outer space, exoplanets, and various other things that I don’t fully understand because I don’t science for a living or even go to school to learn how to science. But as someone who reads every science journal I can get my hands on about space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, I think I’ve reached the point where I have at least a rudimentary understanding of things like gravity. Since I find science super fun, I’ve always been interested in exploring it through a fictional medium where I can vicariously travel to different planets and meet alien life. Stargate, Star Wars, Star Ocean, the new Star Trek movies—why do so many titles have Star in them?—and even Dark Matter and Jupiter Ascending are all right up my alley.
But one of the things that has always annoyed me about these stories is the lack of variety on the planets they go to visit. This is significantly less true for Star Wars and Star Trek, which feature a wide array of alien life and habitats, but in the end, the only way I can conclude that physics works the way it does in too many of these stories is because of magical plot convenience.
Time travel is not my favorite storytelling trope, if only because if not done well it can leave a narrative more than a little confusing and hard to follow. This can especially be a problem when a narrative jumps around in time completely out of order and without warning, which is something that both Final Fantasy XIII and The Grudge did. This trope’s big crime, however, is that it all too often results in plot holes or creates events that either cannot happen or that nullify the importance of other events. Worse yet is when the time travel in question has no actual impact on the rest of the story and ends up being a pointless waste of time. A good example of this would be Star Ocean: The Last Hope, where Edge goes back in time to an alternate reality of Earth, blows it up, and the entire subplot serves no purpose other than to turn an otherwise generic protagonist into a detestable murderer.
That is not to say that time travel itself cannot be used well. Plenty of stories have utilized it in ways that improve their narrative and add to the plot and worldbuilding. There is, however, a wide chasm between creative and cliché, and for every good use of time travel, there’s a dozen or so bad uses.
Harry Potter will forever be in all our hearts, but the narrative leaves a lot of important questions unanswered. For an entire series based around an evil wizard who wants to conquer the world and subject Muggles to his oppressive rule, we don’t see a lot from Muggles in the whole story. In fact, the few Muggles we do spend time with are reprehensible bigots. Muggles greatly outnumber wizards, and because this non-magical community is so widespread, it’s hard to believe that they don’t have a greater influence on wizarding society than what the books would have us believe.
We see wizards copy a lot of Muggle inventions—cameras, for instance—and imbue those things with magic, but comparatively speaking, the wizarding world lacks the same kind of innovations that Muggles excel at, for whatever reason. Whenever we see flashbacks to events in the past, or hear of long-past wizards, it doesn’t seem like magical technology has changed all that much. Every once in a while, someone invents a new spell, but the quality of a person’s life, or even how they live their life, doesn’t change. Muggle society and scientific advancements change and grow at such a rapid pace, that by the time books start, science is starting to make magic obsolete. Furthermore, Muggle technology is also going to expose magic to the world.
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.
Many of you probably think of religion and science as always constantly at odds. And while it’s true that religion and science often disagree with each other, many of you probably don’t realize that devoutly religious people have contributed to science. Catholic Jean-Baptiste Lamarck developed the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics (a sort of early theory of evolution). Fr. Georges Lemaître was a cosmologist and Catholic priest, and is the father of the Big Bang theory. Of course Catholics aren’t the only religious people to contribute to science. Obviously, Albert Einstein, one of the most famous and influential scientists in history, was Jewish and was agnostic but strongly identified with his Jewish heritage, and Judaism was a major influence on his life. Jonas Salk was devout in his Jewish faith (and often seemed annoyed by the religion vs. science debates) and a medical researcher. He is famous for developing the first polio vaccine. Jābir ibn Hayyān is both Muslim and the father of chemistry. Abdus Salam, another practitioner of Islam, won the Nobel Prize in physics for his electroweak interaction theory. In fact, it’s because of his faith that Salam pursued science. He said:
The Holy Qur’an enjoins us to reflect on the verities of Allah’s created laws of nature; however, that our generation has been privileged to glimpse a part of His design is a bounty and a grace for which I render thanks with a humble heart.
So there are a lot of scientists throughout history who contributed greatly to their field and still loved and professed their faith. But you wouldn’t know that if you looked at our pop culture. Almost every science-minded character is an atheist. There is nothing wrong with having a lot of characters be scientists and atheist or agnostics (in fact, it’s important to have characters like that), but I worry that if every science-minded character is an atheist or agnostic, we end up perpetuating the conflict between religion and science.
A Song of Ice and Fire is slowly but surely replacing The Inheritance Cycle as my favorite series ever, and now that I am finally almost done with the last book and about to start a reread, I’ve also been spending my days on forums and gobbling up numerous fan theories to be my own personal canon. I find this series interesting and compelling for a number of reasons—good characterization and awesome worldbuilding, to name a few—but I also like what it does with the fantasy genre as a whole. Though, like many fantasy stories before it, A Song of Ice and Fire takes place in a medieval setting, has dragons, and is probably going to end with an epic battle between the forces of good against the forces of evil, it is not a typical fantasy story. One of the reasons for that is its use of magic.
A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t expose its readers to that many magical elements. There are dragons and skinchangers, but what else? The vast majority of the books have no magic in them whatsoever, so some of the more fantastical parts of the books—such as the Wall—can easily make a reader wonder whether or not it can be explained by magic or science.
A few weeks ago, Saika wrote a post on magic and science, where she talked about how the two are often pitted against each other with one side shown as superior to the other. She also mentioned that sometimes this is not the case. Every once in a while, we get a story about magic and science coexisting. Like Saika, I love stories in which science and magic work together. The combination of these two elements can make a pretty fascinating setting—because of the existence of magic, sometimes a world that is less scientific than ours will occasionally end up with inventions that are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years more advanced than their current level of technology. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes magic has the exact opposite effect and its use stunts a people’s technological growth. We get a wonderful example of this in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.