This essay suggestion had an unfair advantage, admittedly, because I was considering it a few weeks back. But, oh, well, them’s the breaks.
Just what I said in the cut. I’m treating magic more like technology than science here. I’ve already done a rant on why magic needs some fucking brakes, and why rule systems are effective—or stupid, if you don’t think them through—so this rant is not about that. It is, instead, about magic that helps the world along. If it helps, think of it as magic as computers, rather than computer science.
Not that there don’t still need to be rules in high-magic worlds. But the rules will be a tad bit different.
1) Get rid of the notion that magic is perfect.
I’ve whinged and complained (look at the link above for an example) before about magic that has no rules and can do anything. Yes, “if anything is possible, nothing is interesting.” On the other hand, there seems to be an assumption that magic ascending to a complicated level in another world would automatically solve all of that world’s problems. And I find that assumption stupid. So now I will whinge and complain about that instead.
Why should magic solve all that world’s problems? Our technology certainly hasn’t solved all of ours. And no, need is no excuse. I’ve heard the argument that, “If magic exists in another world, why don’t they use it to just smack down the Dark Lord the moment he comes crawling? They need magic like that, so why don’t they have it?”
Um. Perhaps for the same reason we don’t have a cure for cancer? We need that. That doesn’t mean we can just invent it at a moment’s notice.
This isn’t about magic being supernatural. It’s about it being omnipotent. Why can’t a supernatural force have gaps? Why couldn’t magic exist that allows psychic communication between people, lets them teleport all over the world, gives them the exact time, and enables them to throw enormous amounts of power that can destroy city blocks at one another, but has not eliminated all of society’s inequalities? This kind of magic is present in Steven Brust’s Draegara series, but, guess what, there are still wars, and poverty, and lords treating the peasants like shit. (And nonhumans treating the humans like shit; this is a nonhuman-dominated world). The idea that the advent of high-level magic is going to end everybody’s woes is slippery slope logic. If you do want to write a high-magic utopia, you have to show how it got utopic.
So, if you’re going to write a high-magic world, throw the image of perfection out the window first and stomp on its ugly face.
2) Why have only one magic system?
Imagine an alternate Earth where magic is real. Only, instead of it just being the magic of the Celtic gods or something, every magical system ever imagined is real.
Human beliefs on magic have not been global throughout history. They’ve not even been extraordinarily locally consistent. And they’ve certainly used different bases, values, moral compasses, and materials, and had different applications. The magic of one group in New Zealand is not the magic of another group in New Zealand, and neither are they the magic of one Native American tribe around the Great Lakes, and none of the three of them is the magic of western Wales, and none of those four is the magic of the interior of Australia, and…I think you can see where this is going.
If it really seems counterintuitive to give your world multiple working systems of magic, then consider it in terms of different branches of technology. The existence of biotech does not invalidate the existence of computers. Just because someone studies electricity doesn’t mean he can’t be affected by, or interested in, a sudden advance in paper-making. And even the same kind of technology can be created with different materials and by different paths, or there wouldn’t be different systems of writing in the world. Perhaps in one part of your world people change shape with animal skins and in another they change shape by using herbs and chanting on the full moon and in another part you have to do it with both the herbs and a wolfskin belt. Why not?
Have a world with lots and lots and lots of different kinds of magic, and you’ve increased your potential for plots, for complexity, for interaction with various elements of politics—on that in a moment—and for different kinds of societies, organized around different kinds of magic that work for them. It also gets away from very stupid ideas like insisting that only one kind of group or person can wield magic. I find that annoying because it gives birth to so many protagonists whose only reason for being lead characters is their “special powers,” and to genetic magic, and to isolated groups being persecuted by jealous enemies for being the real magic-users ohmygod.
And, my god, the politics! Imagine imperialism if not only do language and power structures and prejudices and other species and diseases come in with conquerors, but so does their magic. Then what happens? Do the various magic systems fight it out? Do conquered groups form their identities around their magic systems as might happen with languages or religion or skin color? What happens if someone working to give both kinds of magic-users equality discovers that they’re directly in opposition to each other, such as birch forests being essential to the native magic but a block on the continued expansion of the conquerors’? There are so many moral dilemmas to mine there.
Not to mention what happens when your high magic invokes high costs.
3) Attend to the source problem.
Lately, my brain asks cranky questions of SF novels that have everyone buzzing around on FTL ships and the like. The biggest one is, “Where is the fuel coming from?” Oh, sure, sometimes there’s a mention of asteroids being mined, but it sounds like an awfully small number of asteroids for the size and number and length of flight of the ships.
The same thing often shows up with high magic. It comes from burning a certain kind of wood? And it’s magic that surrounds each person with a protective bubble of light and warmth and air and their favorite kind of music, so that wherever they go they’re never really outside, and can travel through deserts and under oceans with ease? How many forests of this wood are there left again?
Know where your magic comes from. Know the limitations. And realize that high magic is probably pushing against those limitations. If it’s not, maybe you really do have a society of people who looked far ahead and increased their magic only slowly, so that the sources that fueled it could keep up. But then explain, please, why people in your society seem to have a keen sense of impatience with limitations, and an ideal of progress and unlimited growth that matches the twenty-first-century Western world’s. Have they abandoned those old ideals? Are they overrunning old limits? What happens when new kinds of magic are discovered, and people adopt it with glad cries without trying to figure out what kind of chaos the adoption will cause? (See point 6). Perhaps those old long-term thinkers had the right idea, but people are no longer listening, and so the magic-driven society stands in danger of collapse.
Now I want to write a novel about a magical environmental crisis, damn it.
4) The magic is not necessarily free and equal, no more how powerful it is.
That’s certainly the case in Brust’s Draegara. To work sorcery, you need a link to the Imperial Orb, a glowing ball of energy that revolves around the head of the current Empress, who can obliterate you if she looks at you sideways. Members of certain noble Houses have this, most of the time. Members of House Teckla (the peasants who make up 95% of the population) have it, but they don’t have the leisure to study sorcery and become powerful, as the nobles do; they have to grab undifferentiated energy and do what they can with it. Humans don’t have a link unless they choose to become Teckla, or buy their way into House Jhereg, which contains people like mob bosses, owners of illegal gambling rackets and brothels, and assassins, and purchase a link to the Orb as part of the deal. Did I mention that pulling too much energy from the Orb, especially if you’re untrained, will destroy the body of the sorcerer who pulls it? Also, pre-Empire sorcery, which works with amorphia, or formless chaos, is even more dangerous, and outlawed by the Empire, which takes a very serious interest in anyone trying to study it.
High sorcery exists in Draegara, but it hasn’t made everyone’s lives an idyll.
Rather like our world, really.
Consider who has access to your high magic. How have existing power structures glommed onto it (because you know they have)? How does wealth affect it? Gender? Religion? Ethnicity/race/species? Other hierarchies? Who controls the materials that give rise to the magic? What new power structures have grown up around it?
There are two easy fixes to this problem. I think they are both cheats. One says that every group has equal access to some kind of power, so the shapechangers can’t be in power because there’s a group of people with the power to see in the dark over here. The other says that mages are noble, noble, noble people who would never rule others like that, or at least one person—the protagonist—is, and he goes around being a maverick and offering free magic to everybody.
I think it’s much more fun to set up a problematic world and see how it works. That’s how stories grow. And if you’ve got competing systems of magic, as in point 2, that still doesn’t solve the problem. Someone could be a shapechanger but want to be able to see in the dark, so she has to deal with those who have the power to do so. One system of magic could be weaker than another. Magic could be a true wild talent, but whenever it does show up outside the established hierarchy, the people in power promptly offer a life of luxuries and rewards and shared power to the new mage. I bet you that not all of them are going to refuse and become rebels, particularly if their old lives are horrible.
Let magic complicate inequalities, not just solve all of them.
5) One, two, three, fight.
Even groups of mages who are equal to one another are not necessarily going to be best buddies. Perhaps you have a democracy, with magical special interest groups. Perhaps you have a monarchy, with various groups of nobles wanting to insure that their children get instruction in a certain kind of magic and that kind only. Perhaps one group of mages was made a political scapegoat by another in the recent past, and now that they’re gathering power in the city-state’s council, they’re not in the mood to forgive.
Know how magic could work in war, yes, by all means, but more than that, know how it will work in conflict. How will magic as powerful, adaptable, and flexible as high technology be used to fight political battles, to discourage people one doesn’t like, to settle family disputes? It doesn’t have to copy the effects of our own technology. And even if you insist on making magic noble and pure to the point that only noble and pure people can use it, I bet someone will figure out a way to use it against people they disagree with anyway. There’s always the case of two misguided people both believing their intentions are good, and if the magic reads intentions, well…
Now have multiple systems of magic. Yay.
6) Draw ideas about high magic from human attitudes towards technology.
My very favorite example is the way that people will talk to computers, cars, and other objects as if they could hear them. (Yes, I do it, too). We laugh about this, but I wonder what would happen in a world where magic actually is sentient, and can hear the people scolding it, and does not like being mistreated:
Owner of magical teleportation wand: I said work!
Owner: Now, damn it! I’m late to the werewolf hunt!
Magic: Say please.
Owner: I’m burning you when I get home, see if I don’t.
Magic: *cries* *blows up house*
But your magic doesn’t have to have the personality of a sulky child. I would imagine that magic having the personality of a dignified judge could still get pretty damn tiresome, as it argues every nuance of ethical use of thaumaturgy with you. And what about items that pick up the personal quirks of their owners? If they refuse to let someone else use them in times of danger, that could be a problem.
If you don’t want sentient magic, that only diminishes the range of possibilities by one. There is still magic that causes unexpected side effects. To take a problem that I’m intimately familiar with, the Internet has increased the chance that my students will plagiarize their papers by approximately one million and three-quarters. What happens if someone invents a new system of telepathy in a previously non-telepathic world? Well, lots of things, but I bet that somewhere in that world there’s a teacher sitting at her desk and bitching about having to check the thoughts of everybody within a mile’s radius and see if the mental essay the student tossed into her mind is actually an original creation or someone else’s daydream. (But I cannot help but envy her a little; at least she does not have to deal with bad spelling).
If you have rapidly advancing magic, consider what tossing those magical advances into a new environment will do. It will cause discussion, reactions from those using older magic, grassroots movements, false statistics—how many times has teenage violence been blamed on violent video games and movies?—diversification of existing magic, ethical objections, crossbreeds of the new advance and older ones, and on and on and on. You can have a wonderfully lively and busy high-magic world if you just think about it a little.
Also, damnit, now I am wondering what the equivalent of “LOL!” would be in a telepathic flamewar.
I think the next one will be on creating a world via extrapolations from deep changes from Earth, because that sounds interesting.