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Addition, subtraction, numini...tion? - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Addition, subtraction, numini...tion? [Apr. 13th, 2010|12:38 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Not an entry about numinicious.

And in other caveats: I have very few absolute deal-breakers in terms of tropes. I know there are intelligent and sensible people--some of them right around here, in virtual terms--who will not read a book if it has vampires in it, or elves, or FTL travel, or something. That's their prerogative, but I'm having a hard time thinking of anything on which I'm like that. Also, I am clear that I am talking about things that bug me or throw me out of a story rather than grand universals of storytelling for all of humanity.

That said: I am a very, very tough sell on books where magic is a substitution or subtractive force rather than an additive one.

That is to say, if you try to tell me that science does not work in the fantasy world you have set up, or that a particular scientific force does not work, or that a particular technology does not work, you have just made it several million times harder for me to enjoy your fantasy novel.

"Science doesn't work" makes me think that the writer--or, if this is put in the mouth of a character, the character--has no idea what science is. Science: we make theories, we poke them, we adjust the theories. That is what science is. If you have a universe where this is not at all functional--where observing and theorizing and observing some more gets you nowhere at all--it is more or less the ultimate in horror stories for me. And it is in the direction of horror where I will put the book down and walk away quietly, and probably not pick up very many of your other works, either. But the thing is, you will almost certainly not be able to do this. Why do our houses and other forms of shelter stay up, and why do our clothes stay together? Science, people. Somebody said, "What if I prop this up this way, can I take shelter under it? No? How about this way? How about like this instead?" It's entirely possible that all such advances in technology--yes, knitting is too a technology--were divinely revealed in the universe you've set up. If you manage to do that consistently, I will be a) impressed at your extensive worldbuilding and b) totally uninterested in your characters, who huddle waiting for the next revelation or smiting. We don't generally score that a win.

"The electroweak force doesn't work"--okay, so actually nobody has ever phrased it this way, because the people who want electric fields not to function are not often the same people as the ones who care which fundamental forces have unifying theories and which are bizarre outliers. But there's a lot of "electricity doesn't work." Here's the thing: the electroweak force, charged particles and all? This is important stuff. This is really important stuff. Your nerves run on electrical impulses, but also, have you ever taken a chemistry course? Or a "physical science" course that talked about chemistry? Ever notice how those chemical reactions are talking about either ionic or covalent bonds? Do you know what those are? Those are the electroweak force in action--it is the same stuff that makes electronic devices possible. It is the very same stuff. What makes us able to digest things? What makes some materials ductile, some materials malleable, some materials hard and some soft? Electroweak force, my ducklings. You may not be able to trace "why can we make a sword out of this stuff?" to "how are the protons and the electrons in this substance interacting?", but other people can. And I am those other people.

So at that point you can jump in and say, "Well, but a magic force steps in and does those things in my imaginary universe instead." And I say, okay, really? It is a magic force that behaves exactly like the electroweak force on those things you-the-author don't really understand, but not those things you didn't really want? Your characters still eat and drink and breathe and have sex and whack things with swords someone has forged in a vague pseudo-medieval way, all in very recognizable ways, but motors and generators don't work? Isn't it a lot easier to just say, "In this world I've invented, no one has come up with motors or generators yet"? You run a lot less risk of me dubbing your magic The Force Of Authorial Convenience, I tell you what. Most people in the history of humanity--the overwhelming majority, really--have not independently formulated theories of electromagnetics, or even practical approximations of same, so "nobody came up with that" is a lot easier to defend than "the basic forces all happen to work in exactly the same way except when I didn't want them to."

"X technology just arbitrarily doesn't work" is even worse, because not only does it always come with a bunch of other things that work on the same principle, but it reminds me of ignorant people, many of them Young Earth Creationists, blithely stating, "I don't believe in carbon dating--I don't know, I just don't," as though radioactive decay is Tinkerbell and all the other fairies, and you can just stop clapping and it will drink poison for love of Peter Pan. As though carbon dating is completely separate from any other understanding we might have of the natural world. If you have gods running things, you can have them step in and zap whatever technology they don't like; that's fine as long as it has other consequences. If you have a world that is itself semi-conscious or in some other way directed, I can cope with that as well as long as it has other consequences. Having a god or some other principle who/that will squish your characters for figuring out penicillin really seems like it will have other consequences in the world. Having a character who notices that and tries to figure them out is a big step forwards for me.

This is beginning to look suspiciously like I am a sucker for following through consequences. See also: why I hate Veronica Mars Season 3.

When I had a brief beginning of this conversation (and it was my fault it didn't go further--sorry, guys, Minicon sort of intervened), my friends pointed out that if you are having a fantasy world at all, some things have to work differently than they do in our world. And that is absolutely true. But what I like best in fantasy novels is the feeling that there is something else, something more--sometimes something right up front and sometimes something just out of sight around the corner, but in either case more. Sometimes this is the sort of thing people mean when they talk about the numinous in fantasy, and sometimes it's a cool alternate-science. But when it starts being less than what we've got in this world, it appeals to me a great deal less, more than proportionately less--when it's this world minus, or this world with a cheap plastic substitution, I tend to end up disappointed and not much want to spend more time with that book or those books. Carl Sagan spoke derisively of people whose idea of religion was "the god of the gaps," trying to use the concept of the divine as some sort of spackle on inferior scientific theories. I'm afraid I feel that way about the magic of the gaps: it just doesn't shine for me if it feels like it's only there to patch the holes in half-assed worldbuilding.
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From: orbitalmechanic
2010-04-13 05:50 pm (UTC)
Have you read C. S. Friedman's trilogy-whose-name-I-can't-remember*, in which (as I recall) a lot of technology doesn't work because it's a product of human intention? I'm vague on the logic after many years, but I remember specifically that the physics was untouched, it was people building things that made trouble. I found it clever and satisfying, so I wonder whether you would as well.

*Okay I couldn't bear leaving it there. The Coldfire trilogy, _Black Sun Rising_, _When True Night Falls_, and _Crown of Shadows_.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-04-13 05:56 pm (UTC)
They are on my library list, but I haven't gotten there yet.
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[User Picture]From: pnkrokhockeymom
2010-04-13 05:52 pm (UTC)
I like this post. I am thinking that this post illuminates something that I agree with. But I am also editing antitrust books, and my brain is a bit foggy with IP licensing theory. So, you know.
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[User Picture]From: wldhrsjen3
2010-04-13 06:02 pm (UTC)
I love, love, love this post.

My brother is a particle physicist working on his PhD and my dad is a nuclear engineer. All three of us are fantasy readers, and my _favorite_ family discussions involve a game we like to call "The (il)logic of magic," wherein we poke holes in stories and have a grand time.

And it's always such a treat to find a specfic story that incorporates magic and logic/science in a rational, credible way because then we cannot get enough of it. :)
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2010-04-18 12:22 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2010-04-13 06:02 pm (UTC)
YES THIS. I am a stickler for consequences; I would like the author to have thought things out sufficiently thoroughly that it would take real work for me to ask a question that breaks the worldbuilding. A lot of the time this does seem to be too much to ask, and it's not as though I'm trying to ask hard questions, either.
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[User Picture]From: roadnotes
2010-04-13 07:09 pm (UTC)
Agreed.
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[User Picture]From: blythe025
2010-04-13 06:11 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. I don't think it offends me as much, but I do love worlds that incorporate magic into science and where magic follows its own clearly defined scientific laws, rather than those which are arbitrary.
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From: swan_tower
2010-04-13 06:36 pm (UTC)
But what's arbitrary?

I ask that because I personally hate magic that's been so defined and science-ified that it's become utterly mechanical. Real-world ideas of magic do often have underpinning laws, but they're of a very different sort: their basis is symbolism, or desire, or morality, or something else not terribly scientific in nature. Which is why I often don't even talk about the "logic" of a magical system, because of the rationalist connotation that has. I want the magic in a story to make sense, yes -- but it can be irrational subconscious sense, so long as something clicks.

Where I get off the boat is where the only visible sense that can explain why the magic worked that way is external to the story: the author needed the character to be able to do this thing, so suddenly they could, even though that doesn't jibe with anything that's gone before.
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From: swan_tower
2010-04-13 06:28 pm (UTC)
I am very interested in this because I'm currently playing with the way that magic and science often don't get along, and trying to imagine different ways to present their interaction.

So I'm trying and wrap my head around exactly how you see this situation, because I don't think it's quite how I see it, and it would be useful for me to have a different angle to consider. In pursuit of that, let me present a test case, and ask you what your feelings are on the different way of handling it. Let us discuss dragons.

We've got pretty good scientific rules in the real world for why dragons couldn't work, at least in the sense of being able to fly, because they're just too big and gravity says NO. So if you want flying dragons, you have to do some kind of handwaving: you get pseudo-scientific and talk about them having lightweight bones and helium sacs or whatever inside their bodes; or you defer the question by saying they cast natural levitation spells or something; or you basically say "gravity works except in the case of dragons because I WANT FLYING DRAGONS, DAMMIT."

The first problem with the pseudo-scientific thing is that the handwaving often, I suspect, is not actually sufficient to address the problem. Birds already have light bones, but they still don't grow to dragon-size; as for the helium, if you did the equations it still probably wouldn't be enough to account for the necessary effect. On the other hand, this has the virtue of being an additive explanation: it creates new material to answer the question, rather than just cutting material away.

The major problem with the "levitation spell" answer (and equivalents) is that it doesn't actually answer anything; it just defers the question. Okay, how does the levitation spell work? If they're actually levitating, not flying, why do they need wings and employ all the flight tactics of birds? Etc. It's an substitutive explanation in that it takes care of the things the writer doesn't really understand, but doesn't do the things they understand and don't want.

In practice, most of the dragons I recall reading about (those that haven't just been shrunk down to cow-sized flightless creatures in response to these problems) go for option C, which is to simply ignore the question. There are dragons. They work. Go with it. And this, to me, seems like the equivalent of saying that the electroweak force still works but nobody can build machines that function on electricity: gravity still works, except for dragons. Or rather, it works enough for them that they have to wave their wings to take off and can crash if they fly badly, but not so much that they can't fly in the first place. It's a subtractive explanation, cutting away the bits that get in the way of the desired story.

So my question to you is: if you were putting dragons in a story -- big ones, the size of a truck at least, which fly just fine -- what would be your preferred method for dealing with the scientific problems that get in the way? Would it be the ultralight bones (maybe composed of a special magic material) and the helium sacs (maybe filled with a magic lighter-than-air gas instead)? And how would you address this explanation in the story, particularly in a pre-Enlightenment kind of society where stopping to explain these things would threaten to be a very out-of-place infodump? Or are you okay with it just being ignored -- dragons work, go with it -- so long as the author doesn't try to explain it in a way that draws your attention to the flaws in the explanation?

Or possibly I'm misunderstanding something fundamental in your point, and asking the wrong questions. But as I said in the brief beginning of the discussion, all fantasy magic ultimately draws a more or less arbitrary line where we say the real rules of science stop applying -- because if we didn't, then we'd be writing realism instead. I have a general sense of what arbitrariness passes my test and what doesn't; I'd like to figure out where that division is for you.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2010-04-13 06:35 pm (UTC)
gravity still works, except for dragons. Or rather, it works enough for them that they have to wave their wings to take off and can crash if they fly badly, but not so much that they can't fly in the first place. It's a subtractive explanation, cutting away the bits that get in the way of the desired story.

I'm suspect that if you showed Isaac Newton an airplane, this would have been pretty much his reaction. There's a difference between "something that we don't understand works" and "something we understand doesn't work." Dragons flying and ray guns firing are essentially the same phenomenon.
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From: voidmonster
2010-04-13 06:36 pm (UTC)
Okay. Now I want to write a horror story wherein science doesn't work... Because that would be a seriously terrifying place to be, and it would be a really fascinating thought experiment to build it right.
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From: dsgood
2010-04-13 07:08 pm (UTC)
Jack Vance wrote the sequel: "The Men Return."
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[User Picture]From: houseboatonstyx
2010-04-13 06:44 pm (UTC)
This came up somewhere else and I suggested applying the science of Semantics and there were a lot of interesting comments one way and another.
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From: swan_tower
2010-04-13 07:01 pm (UTC)
Were you the one who started the riff I got involved in, or was that a different discussion? Because the notion of building something off the Law of Sympathy/Law of Contagion/Law of Names as Icon/Index/Symbol has kind of stuck in my hindbrain, and may produce something eventually.
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From: ex_truepenn
2010-04-13 06:51 pm (UTC)
Also, if your world has magic and technology, many COMPLETELY AWESOME things can then be imagined. Technology does not make the magic less cool. It makes it MORE cool.
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From: swan_tower
2010-04-13 07:01 pm (UTC)
I have two separate stories (one of them being the Onyx Court books) in which I'm trying to do exactly this -- hence really chewing on this topic.
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From: tournevis
2010-04-13 07:08 pm (UTC)
Halleluiah!
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[User Picture]From: matociquala
2010-04-13 07:08 pm (UTC)
How do you feel about something like Zelazny's Amber, where it's obvious there is science, but it somehow works differently than ours does? (Our gunpowder doesn't work, but this other stuff does.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-04-13 10:10 pm (UTC)
It usually depends on how much time is spent on it. In the Amber books I can make displeased skeptical noises and keep reading; for a lesser writer, the latter action is a great deal less certain.

I like well-done alternate science, and I'm okay with certain applications (even implied applications) of the word "somehow," but the middle ground can get dicey.
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[User Picture]From: roadnotes
2010-04-13 07:09 pm (UTC)
This is a great post, and I love the way you put words and ideas together.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-04-13 10:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2010-04-13 08:57 pm (UTC)
Yet more proof that when readers know a subject well, it's inevitable they will be bounced out unless the author knows it equally well. (This wouldn't bother me a nanosecond if the rest of the story hangs together.)
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2010-04-13 09:35 pm (UTC)
knitting is too a technology

*Loff*

It's all technology. Chipping flints is technology. Twining grass into nets and mats and baskets is technology. Steam engines and atomic reactors and electric lights are all technology, too, but so is knocking a sharp edge into a chunk of rock, and breeding new or improved plants and animals. And if there's technology, it's taking advantage of the things science explains for us. Some rocks are better for knapping, some metals make better swords. Some potential fuels work better in nuclear reactors. Some materials shield against radiation better than others. Not believing in science and technology does not make it go away.

<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3<3.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-04-13 10:11 pm (UTC)
Yes!
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[User Picture]From: numinicious
2010-04-14 02:57 am (UTC)
As you are probably aware, I have recently fallen off the LJ wagon because of this very Science of which you speak, and I was therefore incredibly amused to see this post when I checked LJ for the first time in weeks, in my brief few moments of downtime.

Alas, I do not have time to go through the comments, but I'm sure they're excellent. My only contribution so far is, "Hear, hear!" and such.


Except for this last note:
Electroweak force, my ducklings. is the best sentence I've read all week.
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