brainstorming about magic tech 🔮⚡️
Even if you've never read a word by Arthur C. Clarke, you probably know he wrote any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. For this week's Substack, I'm imagining the reverse: what might it look like when sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology?
As a preliminary tangent, I'm a huge fan of the growing genre of SFF that combines magic and technology. She-Ra, N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy, and Steven Universe are a few off the top of my head. These stories reveal the basis for Clarke's point; in at least the majority of fantasy stories, magic is technology.
Wikipedia's rather dry definition of technology is "the sum of any techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives." The short version is that technology is something humans have developed to achieve their goals; it is the use of tools that distinguishes us (but not really) from other animals.
Magic is that! Spells are basically computer commands for the universe. A wand or staff is an even more recognizable piece of technology, since they let a magic user focus their connection to magic. Even tapping into a universal source of magic is basically like using electricity for light. (And if we're talking about science that's indistinguishable from magic, what better example than electricity?)
Artificial intelligence is one of the most obvious parallels between magic and technology—in Chamber of Secrets, Arthur Weasley tells Ginny: "never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain." That was about a magic diary, but I'd say that about GLaDOS, HAL 9000, or that sexy Scarlett Johansson character. Conversely, Elon Musk compared AI research to "summoning a demon." I mean, he also said the Hyperloop was a good idea, but you get my point. These creatures are manifestations of our desire for power, and our suspicion of the consequences.
It seems like The Bartimaeus Trilogy was a less popular series than I realized, but I was obsessed with it; the deal is that it's an alternate history timeline (the fascinating details of which I do not have room to relate) where the British Empire is run by magicians who keep power with the help of demon servants. These demons have to be given extremely explicit instructions, because they'll use any loophole to kill the magician and as many other humans as possible before they're sucked back into their dimension.
Demons, genies, the devil, the Fair Folk, and lots of other tropes like that feature magical beings that offer humans power, but at a perilous price—and to get the power/ avoid the peril, humans must follow rigid rules for controlling their magic. Kind of like the laws of robotics?! The genie in Aladdin has a strangely analogous set of rules: he can't kill people, he can't bring people back from the dead, and he can't make people fall in love. The first one is basically the same as the first law of robotics.
Demons and genies usually exist independently of humans, but every now and then there's a Sorcerer's Apprentice or a golem-centric story where the magician learns not to fuck around with creating life. I wonder though, it mightn't be an interesting story for intelligences to develop in human tech systems without humans consciously creating them? They would then have the power to either help or hinder humans in this domain, like the native magical creatures of a forest.
I'm also interested in what the "sufficiently advanced" part of this equation means for magic. Many fantasy stories depict their systems of magic as having been static since the beginning of time. Some mention developing new spells, though that isn't on the level of a jump from horses to cars, or mail to email. N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy features magic-tech development that isn't a straight line; characters in the story's present have to work out how magic crystals from a prior civilization work in order to harness their power. To do that, they have to make a jump in their magical capabilities that no one knew was possible!
That still leaves the fact that magical advancement was not known to be possible in the Broken Earth's world before this happened. Generally, while sometimes a hero's Big Quest™ changes the magical paradigm of their universe, it's often considered a one-time thing rather than part of a continuum of magical advancement. I don't know that I've read many stories about magic inventors, mad magical scientists, or morally bankrupt magical billionaires.
Relatedly: I see tech being painted as bad more often, and magic being painted as good more often. Likewise magic is aligned with nature while tech runs contrary to it, and except in stories where magic is a metaphor for being gay or something, magic is aligned with the status quo in a fairly benevolent way while tech-aligned status quos are cyberpunk dystopias. I'd be interested to write a story that reverses this dynamic, and uses it for an intra-narrative conversation about change, stasis, nature, and "progress."
I'm circling around a fascination for how different forms of power collide, and a desire for rigor in how they're worldbuilt into a narrative. The world is so much bigger, and humans are so much more inventive, than a system of magic that's like "these are the only spells, and this is how it will be forever." I mean, math is more magical than that! With quantum physics being a thing, we really have no excuse for boring magic.
I also think more sci-fi stories could take a leaf out of fantasy's book when it comes to portraying the good and bad possibilities of technology. Many sci fi stories have a single concrete opinion on whether tech is Good or Bad, while many fantasy stories involve heroes and villains using the same exact magic. Magic gets to be morally flexible in a way that tech often does not!
I've reached 1000 words now and I'm very tired, lol, so I'm just going to abruptly break off here, and maybe go on more tangents on this topic next week ✌️