Tag Archives: science

The Science of Magic in Fantasy

by Andy Peloquin

The Flying Carpet (1880)
by Viktor Vasnetsov

We’ve all read books where magic is used as a tool to accomplish the impossible. The hero finds himself in peril or the heroine is confronted with insurmountable odds, and magic saves the day!

What rubbish. That sort of magic is unbelievable, not to mention lazy. To be realistic, magic has to be more of a science.

In truth, magic is sort of a pseudoscience. Well-crafted magic systems have their own very clear rules. For example, take Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic:

  1. An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

  2. The limitations of a magic system are more interesting than its capabilities. What the magic can’t do is more interesting than what it can.

  3. “A brilliant magic system for a book is less often one with a thousand different powers and abilities — and is more often a magic system with relatively few powers that the author has considered in depth.”

Magic varies from book to book. What one fantasy author writes may be disdained by another. But a well-presented magic system is as clearly-defined (at least in the author’s mind) as the laws of gravity. If X happens, Y is always the reaction. Combine X and Y, and Z will always happen. There is a certain raw, elemental force to magic, but just like fire, water, air, and gravity, it must be understood in order for it to be effective.

As readers, we’re being asked by the author to suspend disbelief long enough to believe that magic exists. Fair enough, right? It’s why we love fantasy in the first place. But if the author doesn’t give us a sort of magic we can wrap our head around, it’s TOO unbelievable.

We may not understand how the magic works, but we have to understand how the magic works! Sounds silly, but let me explain:

  1. We don’t understand how the magic works – We don’t know where magic comes from. It could be wild magic from the earth, innate sorcerous abilities, mutant powers, or any number of magical sources. Seeing as we don’t have access to that magic, we don’t really know how the magic works. We just know that it does because the author has told us it does.

  2. We have to understand how the magic works – We have to know that when the mage waggles his fingers just so, it’s channeling magic from his mind, from the earth, from his deity, or from some talisman. We may not understand exactly where the magic comes from or how the person taps into it, but we understand their struggle with it, their limitations, their abilities, and their strengths and weaknesses.

It’s easy for an author to say, “Magic works” and trust that we’ll accept it. But that’s not the case! Magic needs to be as well-defined as the science of the world we’re reading. Just like we know that “what goes up must come down”, so too there have to be constants in the magic systems, something we can wrap our minds around. The more defined, the easier it is to suspend disbelief of what we know to buy into the premise of “magic”.

Check out Andy Peloquin’s books here.


Is it Science or is it Fiction?

by Robert Scanlon

What do you prefer in science-fiction? Do you lean toward the science, or do you like the fiction more?

Of course, it’s all fiction. But some people prefer their science-fiction closer to the hard science and to what is hypothetically possible, or just a small stretch from what is possible given our current knowledge.

And then there are some who prefer to have their science-fiction completely imaginative — which some say is merely swords and sorcery, or pure fantasy, but in a space setting.

Take Star Wars, for example. It’s a combination of some science (maybe not much), and a lot of fantasy. I mean, Jedi mind tricks, lightsabers, improbable aliens, and plenty of planets all of which seem to have the same gravity as Earth. So Star Wars is a lot of fun, but certainly not hard science.

Contrast that to Star Trek. Although it appears to be just a low-budget Space Opera TV series from the 60s, the writers did try to get some of the science correct, especially in the modern movie adaptations. Although once again, we do seem to be visiting an awful lot of planets with the same gravity as Earth.

Some of the sci-fi classics have taken a hard science approach to developing an imaginative setting. For example, Larry Niven’s Ringworld. In Ringworld, an entire ring-like structure encircles a star at roughly the distance of Earth’s orbit from the sun. It spins or “orbits,” and generates gravity in this fashion. Niven built an entire spectacle from one premise.

Having said that, Niven was then taken to task by fans, possibly physicists themselves, who pointed out many flaws in the hard science, and Niven was forced to rewrite his premise in the second book, The Ringworld Engineers. Nonetheless the hard science behind Ringworld and its sequel makes it a much more curious read, where much of the conflict is driven by the science.

And perhaps that’s what it comes down to, a question of what generates the conflict. Does the conflict in the story arise because of the science, or does the conflict simply come from the interplay of characters and plot, and it wouldn’t matter whether the setting was science or fantasy, it just happens to be set in “space” or some futuristic setting.

Perhaps you’re like me, and you sit somewhere in between. You don’t mind if some of the science is at present impossible; for example, faster than light drive. Or hyperspace. Or galaxies peppered with multiple types of aliens, all of whom are able to converse with each other. Somehow this tickles my imagination. I enjoy being transported into a future where perhaps this is all possible.

It’s not too much of a stretch to take ourselves back into the medieval world, show the people of that time our cars, planes, computers and iPhones, to have them exclaim that it is simply magic and not provable by science.

Perhaps so, but it does seem as if it would take someone to completely bust Einstein’s theories to get us to faster-than-light drives. One day, I hope.

But I do like some of the science in my science-fiction to be reasonably accurate, particularly where it is portraying something we know to be true today.

For example, if your spaceship does not have artificial gravity (yet another functionality that has yet to be developed without the use of centrifuges or rotational space stations), then it makes sense that people should be floating around the spaceship, using anchor points or magnetic boots or some form of device to allow for easy movement. When a fight breaks out on board, it should be realistic and believable within the zero gravity setting.

We shouldn’t be expecting folks to be running along the ship’s passageways as if they are on Earth. So if they do, it does tend to take me out of the story a little. But if the story has already grabbed me, my mind will somehow switch over to thinking, “well it’s just swords and sorcery in space and that’s okay.” As long as it is consistent I guess!

Equally, acceleration, relative speed, gravity (I seem to be fixated on gravity) and other current-day physical science should be realistic and reasonable, or within reason in a science fiction story. We shouldn’t expect that every planet visited in a science-fiction Space Opera epic would have identical gravity to Earth’s.

Nor should we expect that every alien being is bipedal. (Though I am guilty of this in my stories.)

At the end of the day, whether you prefer hard science or speculative fiction or something in between, it’s all about believability. Any science-fiction is going to require the reader to suspend their disbelief for some period of time, because after all it is science-fiction and it is meant to represent something that isn’t possible today, but only possible in our heads.

And is that the fun of science-fiction?

Robert Scanlon is the author of Constellation, a Space Opera Science-Fiction Epic with plenty of debatable science, some hard science, and of course the obligatory bipedal aliens. Constellation is a fast-paced adventurous galactic escapade, featuring a daring female space pirate.