Friday, 22 December 2006

My problems with magic

One of the great problems I have as a writer is that of identity. When people ask me what sort of thing I write I often mutter, ‘well, fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’. (Actually I sometimes worry that I have slipped down the gap between the two terms. I have too much science for the fantasists who want the occult to ooze off every page and too much supernatural for the scientists who are desperately allergic to any hint of the paranormal. I think the phrase speculative fiction is much better, but it hasn't really caught on.) Anyway, one of the problems with using the word fantasy is that it is assumed that magic is a major element.

Now,I don't really do magic. There are no witches or benign wizards in my books. (Actually in Dark Foundations magic does occur, but it spectacularly backfires in a manner that I would like to think would get me undying praise (and purchases) from the Christian Right.)

But why don't I do magic? I have three objections; theological, scientific and literary. The theological objection is pretty mainstream; magic is manipulation and God is not a god who we can bend to our purposes. The scientific objection – and I am a scientist – the fact is that successful magic rarely occurs in this age of the world. God in his wisdom seems to me to have largely restricted its use: we are pretty much left with those forces governed by the so-called ‘laws’ of physics. And I think that is for our good. A world with magic set loose would be a pretty terrifying place for the weak.

My main objection however, is literary. For me, the problem of magic is that everything is possible. And if everything is possible, the one thing that is not possible is tension. In order to create tension, there must be some sort of resistance, some kind of challenge. And unless you make it (by creating laws of magic etc) there is no such resistance in worlds steeped in magic. In this way magic corrodes reality. Why plough fields to make crops when you can create bread by a spell? Why work to learn medicine when you can heal all ills with a whisk of the wand? Has anyone ever seriously considered the mechanics of say, Hogwarts? Why bother even learning when knowledge could presumably be instantly transferred by magic? Authors of such books get round this by creating various laws and rules of magic so that the very things the hero needs to do cannot be done magically. Consider Lord of the Rings. The Chris Walley Shorter Version has Gandalf turning up on page 20 or thereabouts and saying to Frodo: ‘You have a magic ring that needs destroying but I however have found the Famous Item Transporting Spell.’ And with a few arcane words and a wave of the wand, the ring is transported into the heart of Mount Doom. End of book. I think actually Tolkien realised that this was a problem. Have you noticed how rarely Gandalf uses magical powers? He is far more a prophet (in biblical terms) than a sorcerer. Interestingly, the same principle is at work with Superman, who because he can do almost everything, is actually far less interesting than some of the superheroes with inferior powers. So I don’t do magic. Or even the sufficiently advanced technology (such as matter replicators or transporters) that achieves the same purpose as magic.

As this is Christmas it might be worth pursuing these thoughts in a theological direction. In the Bible, the miraculous is really rather uncommon and when it does occur – it is rarely – if ever, ordered from below, as if it were magic. There are no good wizards in Scripture. The miraculous is only granted by God on his terms and in his time. I like to think that in being wary of magic I am in good company.

Have a good Christmas!