Science and Magic are Two Sides of the Same Coin

 

by Ryan Decaria

 

After much contemplation about writing magic systems, I’ve decided on a new writing philosophy. These guides work for me, but should in no way be considered “writing rules”.

  1. In fantasy, I’m going to treat my magic systems like a science
  2. In science fiction, I’m going to treat my “pushed” science like magic

Magic

Magic in fiction can create a sense of wonder and be a tool for the characters. Also, it has the potential to create a Deus ex Machina ending, or make the resolution to the conflict be a wave of a magic wand. In order to avoid this issue, writers can spell out the “rules” of the magic. The reader should understand what is possible and what the characters know about the magic.

Rules, guidelines, laws are all words associated with science. In a world with magic, that magic would and should be studied by someone at some point, though not necessarily as part of the story you are telling. Often the POV character is learning the rules of the magic as she goes through the story.

The best example on magic as science and magic as say “religion” is the Lord of the Rings. Gandolf has an endlessly unknown and powerful magic that he uses as needed to get out of the situations the character find themselves in. He is a religious character and often acts as a savior figure. No one could tell you how his magic works.

The One ring on the other hand (`snicker`) does work like a science. It was constructed. It always works in the same way. It has rules: can only be destroyed in one place, corrupts, turns the wearer invisible. It is a constant.

Within this framework, you can still have surprises. Someone can figure out new ways to use magic, but they still have to follow the rules. Foreshadowing goes hand in hand with this. You are building up to something awesome, but if you don’t put the pieces in first, the resolutions is going to feel cheap.

So, in my fantasy writing, my goal is to treat the magic scientifically. I’m going to invent rules, and the characters must use the magic within the set of rules.

Science

Sciences fiction works a little differently, and this whole point depends on how much science knowledge you have and how much of that you want to build into the story. My  science education ended with high school chemistry. So, in my science fiction stories, I don’t dwell on or explain the science in the story. I’m only talking about the parts of the story that are different from our current reality.

Faster than light (FTL) travel is a good example. Me trying to explain the science of FTL is going to sound amateurish no matter how much research I put into it.

Unless the story is about the scientific effects of FTL, what I choose to do is present FTL as a thing that exists and no one in the story universe questions how. It just works. Kind of like magic. It just works. No one ages differently. Reality isn’t bent. There are no consequences. No side effects. (Unless those are a part of the story you want to tell). Likely, I will never write a story where the effects of FTL are central to the story because I don’t want to try to get the science right.

One could argue that if I don’t delve into the science than the story isn’t really science fiction. That type of story is only a part of the science fiction umbrella. Some call it Hard SF, or at least the more a story focuses on the science, the harder the SF.

In many science fiction stories, only one or two things are different from the way science is understood today. These differences have many consequences on how we as humans would think, speak, behave, interact, and react to the world. These human experiences do not depend on an explanation of how the science works.

Those human experiences are what I like to explore in my science fiction. The science just works, like magic.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Ryan Decaria is the author of Devil in the Microscope and co-host of the Meeple Nation Boardgame Podcast. You can follow his musing at madsciencefiction.com and @ryanpdecaria on Twitter.

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9 thoughts on “Science and Magic are Two Sides of the Same Coin”

  1. It’s definitely interesting how frequently science fiction pretends to have an explanation, but the reality is the characters just spout a bunch of known scientific terms, slightly tweaked, and call it a day.

    I definitely agree that some stories don’t need or care about the why behind what happens, scientifically or magically, but I also think that is more acceptable when the effect is an extension of something we are already comfortable with. In our world, traveling by car or plane allows us to move much more quickly than anything found in nature. Faster than light travel simply becomes an extension of that same concept.
    But when we encounter something that has no analog in the physical world, like instantaneous transport/teleportation of matter, the story offers a brief explanation to help us make the leap.

    In a lot of ways I think the key is to what extent the magical or futuristic world feel similar or alien to our own. A world where people can move objects with their mind is easier to accept than one where people can transform into other creatures.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I totally agree, Ryan. The line between rule-based magic and made-up soft-science (versus hard) is thin. And the rules, in my view, give both science and magic substance. The techno-magic systems, when they’re core components of a story, may help, hinder, have limitations and consequences. Excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

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