Even Fantasy Needs a Little Science
(Even Magic Needs Rules)

by Tedd Roberts

There is a division within the fandom of SF/F. No, I'm not talking about politics, publishing houses or Star Trek vs. Star Wars. No, the very title "SF/F" or, as the some would have it "FASF," should give it away. I'm talking about the division between Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Elves and wizards and demons would appear to have little in common with science, engineering and space. One deals in the mystical and metaphysical, the other in the scientific and technological. SF is basically speculative fiction in which the speculation revolves around extensions, projections or subtle changes from known scientific and engineering rules and facts. Fantasy involves a different type of speculation, in which properties of mind, magic and mystery combine with themes of good vs. evil, the benign vs. the horrific, and the mundane vs. the magical. Science and fantasy do not mix. They are antithetical, oil-and-water, black vs. white. But are they really? Or should they even be such polar opposites? In the following sections we will explore some of the basic assumptions of science fiction and fantasy, some examples of the genre that blur the lines between the two, and we will explore the idea that even fantasy can benefit from the realm of science and technology.

Clarke's Third Law

Fans of both fantasy and science fiction know that there are a few inviolate rules to the speculative fiction genre:

  • "42" is the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.
  • It is inadvisable to participate in land wars in Asia or go up against a Sicilian "When Death is On the Line."
  • Fans will always argue as to whether Kirk or Picard was the better Captain.
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This last is known as Clarke's Third Law, attributed to his essay "Hazards of Prophecy: Failure of the Imagination in the 1962 book, Profiles of the Future. There are indications that it might not be original to Arthur C. Clarke, since it echoes Leigh Brackett's "Witchcraft to the ignorant ... Simple science to the learned" ("The Sorcerer of Rhiannon", Astounding, February 1942) and Charles Fort's observation in Wild Talents (1932) that something currently unexplainable, may later be explained when more information is known.

This principle is very well known in science fiction – Clarke himself used it with respect to psychic phenomena in Childhood's End. Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels are distinctly fantasy, but later revealed to have arisen from the purely technological origin of a crashed starship. Jack Chalker's "Soul Rider" books initially reveal the mysterious realm of "Flux" ruled by the most powerful of wizards, yet his prequel Birth of Flux and Anchor reveals that Flux is merely an interdimensional energy source manipulated by physics and powerful computers – and eventually by talented individuals capable of interfacing with those computers without conscience direction.

Perhaps the most obvious application of Magic as Technology is in Rick Cook's "Wiz Biz" books in which the most powerful wizard of our world, is pulled through to magical realm to assist in a war of good versus evil. Instead of a wizard, they get master hacker "Wiz" Zumwalt, who quickly figures out that spells are a lot like computer programs. He and a few friends construct a "spell compiler" and they are off and running creating and using spells pretty much the same as any SF/F fan would use a computer, tablet or smartphone.

Another example of science-turned-fantasy is Wen Spencer's Tinker and sequels which detail a magical alternate world into which is thrust the mundane city of Pittsburgh. The means by which Pittsburgh spends twenty-nine days a month in that realm is technological. Tinker herself is just what her nickname suggests, a mechanical tinkerer . . . but Elfhome is clearly a magical world of elves, dragons and orcs. On the other hand, Tinker and Rick Cook's Wiz are great examples of fantasy which relies on a set of rules not unlike science. In such a case, what is the source and substance of magic? For Tinker and her husband Wolf Who Rules Wind, the Spell Stones supply a palpable energy that they can tap to work more powerful magic than they themselves can supply. Wiz runs programs which "compile" magic power into spells. In these universes, is "magic" simply access to an essentially limitless power source?

Larry Niven might disagree. In his Warlock series (aka Magic Goes Away), magic is powered by "mana" (wordplay on the biblical food source "manna" -- i.e. "manna from heaven")which is in danger of depletion. Niven goes on to write about locations of powerful magical spells and duels which depleted the source of all magical power in a region, making it as ordinary and mundane as the world in which we live. Piers Anthony uses a similar theme in The Source of the Magic in which magical power comes from a powerful demon, lost in thought beneath the magical realm of Xanth. While there is no particular danger of depletion of this magical supply (except in the one case where the demon decides to pause its meditation), the concept of a magical source of energy is nevertheless consistent, in that the closer one approaches to the source, the more powerful and wild the effects. Any Dungeons & Dragons (or equivalent game) player will recognize this principle in that magic users are limited in spells until they achieve high rankings. They must spend considerable effort in preparing a spell, and once the spell is cast, that "energy" is gone forever.

How then is this concept so different from John Ringo's There Will be Dragons? In the far future, mankind is freed of mere mortal limitations and exercises a near magical ability to transform themselves and their surroundings via manipulation of a power supplied by the ultimate supercomputer "Mother." Ringo uses Clarke's Third Law to good effect in his description of humans who use the all-pervasive power to change their own bodies, sculpt and mold their surroundings, and even fly -- that is until a civil-war erupts among the Council governing Mother and its allocation of power. Battle is waged with the ultimate in energy weapons -- energy itself -- leaving none for the now-mortal humans who must rely on skills preserved only by "re-enactors" and those who have rejected energy technologies.

Counterpoint - Niven's Law

While it is questionable whether the inverse of Clarke's Third Law was actually coined by Larry Niven, the commonly attributed "Niven's Law" states that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. Perhaps no author uses this principle better than Terry Pratchett (in fact, some attribute this "law" to Pratchett rather than Niven). In his Discworld fantasies, the "High Energy Magic" students have created a computing device powered by magic, ants, honeybees and a small stuffed bear. Wizards regularly measure "thaum" units of magical energy with a "thaumometer;" druids fly-in replacement standing stones for their henge-computers and the anti-entropic properties of the Futures Market provides refrigeration for food storage.

Thus we set up a situation where fantastic events and abilities can exist with both a scientific/technological or magical origin. We have SF "superheroes" with near-magical powers attributed to scientific explanations, and fantasy heroes dependent on more mundane, but nonetheless technological, advances in blacksmithing, weaponry, armor and food preparation. Consider the dichotomy of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling: The magical and mundane world exist side-by-side -- radio, newspapers, transportation, food preparation, domestic cleaning -- each world has an equivalent ability that is nearly unbelievable to the other. Arthur Weasley is fascinated by electrical plugs and sockets, because he cannot believe that the ordinary world has to physically connect to a power source. The "muggles" of Rowling's world are in no danger of truly discovering magic, because they simply ignore or explain away any sight or event which does not conform to a more scientific world –- much the way the mages Purple and Shoogar of David Gerrold and Larry Niven's The Flying Sorcerers explain each other's respective technology and magic to suit their own views.

The fact that there is even a dichotomy reiterates the premise of this essay -- that there exists a type of fantasy that uses or even requires that spells, devices and abilities follow scientific principles (or at the very least, what we might consider "normal-world common sense"). Magic requires power; heat and light sources require some form of on-off switch; news is delivered by print and voice, and any effect defined by technology can have a magical equivalent which works in a very similar manner to the technical one. Arthur C. Clarke is also reported to have said: "Science fiction is something that could happen - but you usually wouldn't want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn't happen - though you often wish that it could." With respect to examples used here, it would be hard to argue that the scientific world is the more desired one. After all, we are still waiting for flying cars, yet the Wizarding World delivers exactly that and more.

The Psychic Connection

Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in the supposition of mental or "psi" powers in both SF and fantasy. In the absence of a current real-world equivalent to telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation and precognition, any story incorporating such powers must be fantasy, right? Is X-Men fantasy or SciFi? It has mutants, and that's science -- but Professor X, Jean Gray and others have psi powers, so it must be fantasy! The concept of psychic powers taps directly into a gap in our real-world scientific knowledge -- namely, metaphysical properties such as the distinction between mind and brain, the sense of self, and the scientifically unanswerable questions of faith and belief.

A measurement of brain function can show us the regions and sections of the brain which are active with each activity, every song we hear (or perform), and even the images we sense in dreams (Kay et al. Identifying Natural Images from Human Brain Activity, Nature, 2008, vol. 453, pp 352-356). We can even detect patterns associated with thoughts, but cannot explain how those thoughts arise. We understand mental disease well enough to point to the biochemical imbalances and anatomical changes -- but cannot explain the disturbed thought patterns that arise as a consequence of the disease.

It is actually fairly easy to devise a technological means of implementing some psi powers. A transducer on the muscle control regions of the brain, interfaced to manipulation of electromagnetism and atomic forces would duplicate telekinesis. Implants on the speech and hearing centers could provide "telepathic" abilities. Even so, postulating a means of directly connecting the brain (and the mind) with those forces requires an element of the fantastic which is hard to reconcile with straightforward scientific knowledge. Travis S. Taylor has a theory that such phenomena can occur as a result of the brain interacting with quantum wave functions (as he wrote in The Quantum Connection and The Science Behind the Secret), and that each brain not only receives but generates quantum waves. While I have many disagreements with the examples and specifics of the Doc Travis' theory, I don't necessarily think he is wrong (we'll hash this out at a future date!). This we have a possible scientific explanation for an arguably fantasy ability. While the science to confirm the theory does not yet exist, projecting possibilities into the future is the hallmark of Science Fiction.

One of the more scientific treatments of psi abilities presupposes that use of ability depletes neurotransmitters, metabolites, or is otherwise equivalent to physical exertion. This is rather common in SF, and to a certain extent, it survives in fantasy in a manner similar to the D&D Magic User's need to spend a long period of preparation, to "concentrate the mind," and to use the ability once, then require a "recharge" before it can be used again. All too often, however, fantasy treats mental powers as accessing a nearly limitless power -– much as suggested in the beginning of this article.

Magic in Technological Society

What is this? Unfamiliar with the topic? Perhaps you know it better as Urban Fantasy. The UF genre is somewhat unique in blending what used to be the province of gothic horror with modern "civilized" life. Wizards, witches, vampires, werewolves and ghosts live side-by-side with cars and computers. In many ways, I prefer the approach of Jim Butcher in his "Dresden Files" books. Harry Dresden is a modern-day wizard living in Chicago –- strong magic and modern technology do not mix. Allow Harry too near a computer or television and it stops working. Sooner or later, elevators cease functioning and light bulbs burn out around him. He drives a 1960's Blue Beetle (that was no longer blue) simply because electronic ignitions and computer chips would not long function in his presence.

Still, the fascination with UF leads to stories with vampires and werewolves in public schools, and no one concerned that ancient curses are somewhat at odds with semiconductors and genetic engineering. Still, the latter field provides an out for the fantasy/SF crossover. A recent TV show "The Strain" treats vampirism as a parasite, and werewolf legends read much like a description of viral infection. In fact, it is quite possible that historical (and hysterical) legends of vampires resulted from a blending tales of albinism (lack of skin pigment leading to red eyes, white skin and extreme sensitivity to sun) with possible enzyme deficiencies best met by consuming blood and raw meats. Werewolf legends could have likewise resulted from cases of rabies passed from wolves to humans. Zombie legends actually arose from two sources – primitive religious practice which induced hypnotic/suggestive states in humans via drugs, and reports of the "madness" induced by prion diseases as a consequence endemic to cannibalism practices.

Thus urban fantasy can easily point to semi-scientific foundations for their fantasy. Werefolk may simply be amnesic aliens who "shift" from human to animal forms to better adapt to their new homes on Earth – as in Sarah A. Hoyt's Noah's Boy. With urban fantasy, it is not just easy, but expected to blend romance, history, and adventure. Nevertheless, when such fantastic monsters become too much for the mere humans to endure, one can always call on the technological armament of Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International where former school teachers, paramilitary operators and a combat accountant can whip ass, take names, and collect their PUFF bounties!

I am deliberately skirting past horror fantasy in this article, simply because the essence of horror is to shock and catapult the reader from his or her safe cocoon of normalcy. Horror is certainly a genre unto itself, Hollywood movie descriptions notwithstanding. Psychological horror/thrillers of the sort written by Dean Koontz and Stephen King do contain an element of science in how they treat the very real effects of psychological stress on their protagonists. Such stories require much more of science in the writing than perhaps in the stories; but the fantastical elements of horror can still draw on the scientific building blocks of mutation, alien technology and energy source as described above.

Hobbits and Wizards and Elves, Oh My!

The connection between science and fantasy is weakened somewhat in the area of epic or high fantasy. Good vs. evil, elves vs. orcs and epic quests owe more to mythology and legend than to technology. For these stories, I am reminded of a panel discussing how to put real science into science fiction at an SF/F convention a few years ago. Panelists included writers with various scientific backgrounds including a chemical engineer who wrote epic fantasy. I asked how she put science into fantasy, and was immediately informed that for her – science meant systematic methods, rules and principles, and that for her fantasy to be consistent, the magic had to follow rules and be consistent. This is much the same approach taken by Professor Sir John Ronald Reuel Tolkien who spent a decade developing his signature alphabet and languages for his legendarum High Fantasy. Tolkien was certainly a scholar and an academic in the classical style. In his writing he demonstrates an application of scientific determination in the rigors of his language and story.

Still, the magic of high fantasy brings us back to the original premise of this essay: If we view use of magic as tapping into a previously unknown source of (limitless) power, does it necessarily unite SF and F into a single theme? Perhaps not, for as Clarke once said "Fantasy makes the impossible probable; science fiction makes the improbable possible."

Both fantasy and science fiction are suited to speculation as well as caution. In the final analysis however, the division between fans -– and the distinction of the genre -- may be moot. Frankly, it is, and should be, the story itself that ultimately sells and entertains. Analyses such as this are a fun way to look at how common themes are handled differently by fantasy and science fiction. In addition, it is also useful for the writer to understand that an Atlantean fable can still be told whether the city floats in the air on antigravity beams, or swims in the ocean on the back of a giant turtle. Ultimately, the story is king, no matter whether science, fiction or fantasy; and no amount of literary hand-wringing will change the enjoyment readers gains from their favorite books.

Copyright © 2014 Tedd Roberts

Tedd Roberts is the pseudonym of neuroscience researcher Robert E. Hampson, Ph.D., whose cutting edge research includes work on a "Neural Prosthetic" to restore memory function following brain injury. His interest in public education and brain awareness has led him to the goal of writing accurate, yet enjoyable brain science via blogging, short fiction, and nonfiction/science articles for the SF/F community. His web site can be found here.