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_.
They are on my library list, but I haven't gotten there yet.
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.
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. :)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jack Vance wrote the sequel: "The Men Return."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
This is a great post, and I love the way you put words and ideas together.
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.)
knitting is too a technology
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.
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.