“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says Clarke’s third law. But the reverse is true, too, especially in fantasy. It’s a staple of the genre that magic exists (at some level), but there are few authors who take the time to truly illustrate that fact. If magic exists in any predictable form (not just, for example, as the powers of capricious gods), then it can and will be predicted, if human evolution is any indication. In a few thousand years, we’ve gone from hunters and gatherers to spacefarers, and we’ve used everything at our disposal to get there. Why wouldn’t we use magic, too, if we could?
Fantasy, particularly high fantasy, apparently doesn’t work that way. Magic is often seen as a natural force that can’t truly be harnessed, even by those mages who wield it. Very rarely are its effects on society shown, and then usually as something like an evil wizard overlord terrorizing his subjects or a land made inhospitable by a magical explosion.
But we can do better. Indeed, some authors do go to the trouble of working out the consequences of their world-building. (Whatever your opinions on his writing and stories, Brandon Sanderson is certainly one of these, and he’s only one of the most popular.) Fantasy doesn’t have to be restricted to the generic European Middle Ages setting, nor should it be. In science fiction, it’s common to take a single development (the invention of faster-than-light travel, say) and write a story around the fallout of that development. My argument, then, is that fantasy authors should do the same kind of world-building, even if it’s only for background, because it creates a deeper, more immersive world.
So, we’ll assume that we all agree that fantasy needs world-building, too. And fantasy’s replacement for advanced technology is magic. Thus, it stands to reason that magic is the focal point for our world. Now, we can ask a few questions about that magic, and we can follow a logical path to a magical world.
How many mages?
First, just how common is magic? Are there only a few mages in the world? Or even a single one? Lord of the Rings, for instance, only has a handful of magic users in all of Middle-Earth. Although they’re pivotal to the plot, they don’t really affect the world all that much. By contrast, a series like Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera has a world where essentially everybody uses magic, and it’s a whole different place.
If magic is all-powerful (or even just plain powerful), and there aren’t that many mages, then those lucky few are probably going to be in positions of power. There’s no real reason they won’t be. Think of Watchmen, but imagine that they’re wizards instead of superheroes. For that matter, think of Sauron. If there are only, say, a dozen wizards in the world, but they can call down the wrath of the gods, they won’t be advisors to kings. They’ll be the kings. You’ll need some serious contrivances to make a realistic case that a handful of powerful mages won’t be the leaders of the known world. Gandalf, for example, is truly good, but even he admits he can be tempted by the power of the One Ring. The same for Galadriel, with her “in place of the dark lord, you would have a queen” speech.
Give the world more magic users, and things begin to change, as long as their power is “diluted” by numbers. One mage in every city, easily killed if you can get the jump on him, might still lust for power, but he won’t be able to get as much of it. Put a low-level mage in every village and town, and it becomes just another craft like smithing. This is the default assumption of the sword and sorcery genre, especially that based on tabletop RPGs.
With magic slightly uncommon (somewhere on the order of one wizard for every thousand people), users will be respected, but not deified. And that’s a lot of mages: that same ratio would give us seven million magic users today. In other words, everybody in Hong Kong is a wizard. Somewhere around this point, the medieval/D&D assumptions go out the window. Sure, you’d probably have magical schools and guilds, but the world would change drastically.
Go to the extreme, let everybody tap the power of the arcane, and the world is a totally different place. At this point, you’re not really writing about the human race anymore. You’re writing about a race of mages that look human. If magic is that common, it won’t live alongside technology at all. Instead, it might entirely take technology’s place. Why invent a lighter when a fire spell works even better? If you can concentrate energy into a tiny ball of lightning, then who needs electricity? Working out the specifics of a “ubiquitous magic” setting is a topic for a later post, but you should try to imagine the repercussions of giving magic to the whole world.
What kind of magic?
What does magic do? Can it be used to create, or only destroy? In Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series (and its sequels), it’s an overriding theme that sorcerers can only mar the world’s perfection, like a child’s scribbles across a painting. They can’t make things truly beautiful. They can’t remake things. Magic is, to a first approximation, only destructive. (There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the general idea.) D&D’s Dark Sun setting is another take on this “creation and destruction” dichotomy.
In a world like this, where magic can only be used to harm, not help, it will certainly be weaponized. That’s just human nature. We’re always looking for better ways to kill (and to protect ourselves). But destructive magic will also have use outside of warfare, just like guns today. Destructive magic could still be used for the benefit of society. Think building demolition, clearing weeds from a field, mining, and even simple hunting.
If you allow for creative magics, then a whole new world opens up. Magic can become an art form, a craftsman’s tool, in addition to being a weapon of conquest or defense. In a “binary” world of creative and destructive magic, users of either side might actually work together, each using their own specialties. After all, building a house takes more than a construction crew. Sometimes, you need bulldozers.
With a magic system that divides the arcane into smaller pieces (elements, colleges, or whatever you want to call them), you start to get a rich background ripe for factional conflict. But there will also be knock-on effects in society at large. Fire mages would be awfully popular in the frozen wastelands of the north, while water or weather wizards could take the place of irrigation systems in arid regions. Magic then becomes a trade, and therefore subject to economic forces like supply and demand. (Again, the full ramifications can wait until a future post, but feel free to speculate.)
There are so many “what if?” questions one could ask about magic that a single post can never answer them. I couldn’t even begin to try. But here are a few that I feel are worthy of note. What if…:
…magic is technology? Namely, it’s the machinery of a long-lost civilization. This neatly ties back into Clarke’s law by making magic and advanced tech equal, instead of merely equivalent.
…magic is new to the world? If we discovered magic next year (i.e., 2016), then the world in, say, 2066 would be far different than if magic was first found in 1066.
…magic is religious? Honestly, I don’t see that changing much. Clerics and wizards aren’t that different. As long as it’s predictable and testable, it doesn’t matter whether magic comes from God, the earth, ley lines, or solar radiation.
…our enemies obtain magic? It’s no different from any other weapon of mass destruction, really. Sure, the idea of ISIS with guns and fireballs might be terrifying, but, unless magic makes them invincible, there’s only so much they can do.
…magic changes you? Plenty of authors have tried this one. (Hopefully, I’ll be guilty of it by this time next year.) The use of sorcery–since it’s usually called such in those settings–taints your soul, destroys your mind, or wrecks your body. In that case, yeah, mages might limit the use of their power, but that would actually serve to make magic seem more…magical. Fireworks would lose their luster if they weren’t limited to the Fourth of July and New Year’s. Plus, magic that can only be used so many times would be saved for the times when it’s really needed, and that sounds like an interesting story to me.
I’ll write more on this subject later. An idea I have (that I may not actually do) is a whole constructed culture, similar to the “Let’s make a language” series, but exploring the ways a culture is shaped by its environment, its history, and itself. That’s for later, though. For the next post, I want to take our idea above–magic as technology–and run it to its logical conclusion: “magitech”.