Practical Magic

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Last year I was very lucky to able to chair a panel on ‘What would magic look like in the real world?’.

There were a number of experts on the subject present, not least Anne Bishop and Jim Butcher. A lively debate and plenty of audience engagement drew this conclusion from the panel: Once you someone knows how it’s done, it’s not magic, it’s science.

People came up to me afterwards and asked if that’s what I thought. And my answer was: No. Because I think that for most of us, science is a kind of magic.

Let me let out my Inner Geek here. (She’ll go back in the box later.)

What, honestly, is the difference between a magic want and a remote control? So one is made of Willow with a Core of Unicorn Hair. The other is Plastic and uses a LASER to emit infra red. Someone knows how the LASER works, probably the person who coined it from the phrase: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. I don’t. I know if I point it at a wall, the light beam I can’t see will bounce and still work to turn something on. Not so different to swish and flick though, is it?

And don’t get me started on how thrilling it is to watch jumbo jets fly. It may be all to do with Bernoulli’s Principle and lift but you don’t think that when you’re on one or even when you’re on the ground looking up.

(Putting Geek Girl away before she stops looking smart and starts sounding ignorant.)

This leads me to a question I was recently asked on whether I was a fan or not of structure magic systems.

A great example of such a system is the one underpinning most of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. In her world-building, there are leylines of power which meet as nodes. Those with mage-gifts have the ability to see these. If correctly taught (important point), the mage can manipulate the energies from such sources to perform wonders. She also uses a system of mind gifts that rely on an individual’s physical and mental energy.

It’s a well thought-out structure, easily understood and with enough real-world checks and balances to make it believable.

At the other end of my acceptable scale, is Magic Realism. Alice Hoffman is an expert at this in her novel, Practical Magic, and most of her others. In Magic Realism, magic is never explained. The story is in the real world and magic slips in and out, dream-like yet undeniable, always accepted the way we accept we breathe air not water. The trick to getting away with this is not draw attention to the flaws.

I like to read both versions. I don’t write either.

Maybe I don’t think about the subject as consciously as I ought to.

David Eddings, for example, in his Belgariad, used a very simple system he labelled “The Will and the Word” and basically wrote his novels as a means of expressing how he felt magic ‘should’ work. In his view, not everyone had the ability to become sorcerers, but those who did had to be able to focus and then execute – always taking into account the laws of physics. (Unlike Garion, his first time, trying to lift a boulder and sinking himself to the waist in the ground from the counter-force.)

Or take Terry Pratchett, who probably thought about this more than anyone. He even gave magic a colour: Octarine. He created a deliberately daft world with small gods and large, sourcerers and wizards, and – best of all – witches. What sticks with me from the Discworld is Headology. Witches can use real magic but they prefer to mess with people’s minds. It’s easier and lasts longer.

So where does that leave me?

I think my version is more ineffable… with a dose of reality. Words matter but belief and intent matter more. I like a slippery slope between ‘headology’ and ‘magic’ – sometimes it could be real, sometimes it’s all in a character’s head. I particularly like the ground between these two points: where it might be real but the character thinks it isn’t, or vice versa.

If it is real though, there are real consequences: energy and mass and Einstein and all that can’t be ignored – unless it’s completely out of this world and happening at another level. (i.e. In dreams, in spirit, or in an alternative dimension such as an Otherworld.)

I also typically use familial abilities because my experience is that children tend towards their parents’ belief systems unless they actively explore alternatives. That and genetics – although I don’t subscribe to trying to pin it down to a particular gene or, more squeamishly unscientific, an extra set of chromosomes.

And, I’ll admit it, I like word-plays and metaphysics. Ever since Diana Wynne Jones made Howl heartless and gave Cat nine lives, I’ve loved the fairytale twist. And if you can beat a metaphor into airy thinness like John Donne, why wouldn’t you?

As a footnote, off the scale and in the pits are Marvel superhero movies.

Now I’ve watched enough ‘Bewitched’ and ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ to mentally accept fully-fledged full-on magic-in-the-real-world if it’s light and funny, or done well like in Harry Potter.

Just don’t try and make it what it isn’t. Marvel’s whacked-out pseudoscience half-arsed explanations drive me bonkers, they are so bad. Thor is their only ‘super’ character that I accept wholeheartedly – because they don’t bother explaining him: he’s a demigod, ’nuff said.

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