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Science-Fiction Matters, Too

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Brian Staveley

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The Battle of Science and Magic – Part One: Particles and Pixie Dust

Green Fairy and the Sorcerer by SebasketFor a long time we have separated magic and science, drawing a line between fantasy and science fiction, associating magic with the past – usually a pre-industrial society – and seeing certain man-made inventions as the bane of magic, portraying science as the destroyer of dreams.

This position is understandable. If magic represents the unknown, the spiritual and the numinous, then science represents the destruction of the unknown by explaining it in rational terms. Science destroys myth and magic because it turns them into science. Because of this, magic and science have often been seen as incompatible.

This is a common trope in fantasy, manifesting in a number of different ways. The idea itself, as well as reactions against it, has informed a lot of the familiar elements and sometimes whole sub-genres that we see on our fantasy shelves.

I Don’t Believe in Fairies

The most obvious way in which science seems to be incompatible with magic is that the former often disproves (or seeks to disprove) the latter. Science leads to disbelief and it is disbelief that destroys magic. This is summed up in the often repeated idea that every time a child states they don’t believe in fairies, a fairy dies (from Peter Pan).

Lullaby to the Mother by Asako EguchiDisbelief as the nemesis of magic pops up a lot in fantasy, particularly fairytale inspired fantasy stories or those including fairies and folktale elements. It is less common in secondary world fantasy, where there is no ‘real world’ to be opposed to the ‘magical world’. Perhaps the best example comes from The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, in which an all-consuming force called The Nothing is destroying the magical realm Fantastica. Fantastica is the world of human dreams and fantasy, and The Nothing is the apathy and disbelief of children who are no longer interested in stories of magic and monsters.

Disbelief destroying magic is an idea that was particularly popular in Victorian literature. It was symbolic of the death of childhood innocence on approaching puberty and adulthood. Magic and fantasy, being irrational and unconnected to the real world, began to be seen as exclusively the interest of children, something that had not been the case with fairytales in the past. Magic might also be seen as something almost ‘pure’, representing faith and belief, whereas science is a symbol of knowledge and understanding. Taken to extremes, science represents human hubris, connected to ideas of the Tree of Knowledge and the fall from Eden. Although it’s not Victorian, a very clear example of this can be found in the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, in which childhood and magic are idealised, and an interest in growing up is punished.

A reaction against this can be seen in the His Dark Materials series of Philip Pullman, in which the idea that science is opposed to faith and magic is explored, and in particular its connections to childhood innocence and the changes of puberty. Pullman’s books can be seen as a kind of anti-Narnia. In the series, magic and ‘Dust’ are strongly connected to knowledge and science, rather than being destroyed by it.

Although secondary world fantasy tends to be less concerned with the opposition of magical world with real world, the legacy of the Victorian belief that fantasy is a child’s domain is still apparent. Many secondary world fantasy authors deliberately create a setting based on the real past of our own world, and insist on a feeling of realism wherever possible. This can be seen in Tolkien as much as in the ‘gritty’ fantasy of today. Connecting fantasy to the real world is perhaps a way to prove its relevance and believability; this is not a fairytale for children, but as close to reality as we can reach when writing fantasy.

Iron and Steel and Modern Invention

Blacksmith workshop fix by ChekydotStudioConnected to the idea that science and disbelief will destroy magic, is the idea that inventions of mankind – the products of science – are harmful or even deadly to magical beings. This concept is rooted in the folktales of fairies and other supernatural beings. According to folklore, cold iron will hurt a fairy and stave off certain monsters, and silver will kill a werewolf. Even as far back as Roman times, iron and steel could ward off ghosts.

This seems to be a combination of the mystical properties of such metals that harm magical creatures, as well as their importance to humans as materials to mould into modern tools and especially into weapons. Carving wood and shaping clay is relatively easy, but to craft objects with iron requires a lot more knowledge and a lengthy process, a forge and the ability to create extreme temperatures. Whereas the former represents humans shaping the world around them, the latter seems to represent the human ability to pound the world into submission.

Fantasy (usually urban fantasy) involving fairies has had a real surge in popularity recently, and this idea naturally goes hand in hand with it. Fairies are harmed by iron in almost every instance, but in many stories the magical world is also incompatible with any modern invention. In the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, Dresden’s magical side means that certain technology does not work well around him. In the Borderlands series created by Terri Windling, in B-Town – the town between the real world and the fairy world – neither modern technology nor magic works reliably. In the Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa, the fey aversion to iron is combined with the idea of disbelief destroying magic. In an interesting twist, a new kind of fairy has emerged – the iron fey – who reflect human innovation and technology and are not harmed by iron or gadgets. Unfortunately, however, human progress also means the death of the ‘Nevernever’:

“As cities grow and technology takes over the world, belief and imagination fade away, and so do we.”

Curses, Inc. by Tristan ElwellThis theme makes a lot of sense when applied to stories about fairies and folklore, as it’s based on the real mythology of these creatures. Combining it with the idea that disbelief is destroying fairyland is a way of connecting to the Victorian fairy stories that have come before. However, when expanded to include all human invention, the idea suddenly starts to become a little nonsensical. Why do computers not work around fairies, or gadgets repel them, when they seem to be fine with the wheel? When does invention and innovation become too much? – explosives, steam power, electricity, medicine, philosophy, mathematics…? In many cases the arbitrary line seems to be drawn at Victorian technology, usually before the discovery of electricity. More about this in Part Two.

Perhaps the most befuddling part of this idea is that if fairyland and the magical world thrives on human imagination and dreams, then why would science and invention destroy it? Humans have achieved so much through the power of dreaming and fantasising about the future, and then finding ways to make their dreams a reality. Invention and discovery requires just as much imagination as fantasising about unicorns and dragons. Modern progress, in a lot of cases, is not something opposed to imagination and fantasy, but a different expression of the same thing. Science isn’t necessarily killing magic; it’s just a different kind of magic (and not that new after all).

In the next article – rural nostalgia and Tolkien, gritty and ‘grimdark’ fantasy, an obsession with realism and the past, magic as technology and technology as magic, urban fantasy, and why the Victorian era represents a boundary between magic and modernity.

Title image by Sebasket.

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6 Comments

  1. Louise says:

    I find that it’s not necessarily technology that is the antithesis of magic, but science itself – chemistry and physics – those which explore the fundamental nature of the universe.

    Of course, it comes down to the “willing suspension of disbelief” and readers are willing to put aside elements they know to be false (existence of magical creatures etc) for the sake of the story, but when it goes too far, this “disbelief” is shattered and it looses all meaning and impact.

    To use an example, in the film Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, there is a scene in which Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are chasing an assassin through the city of Courscant in a flying car.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdSUKIFnYc8 the scene in which I’m referring starts at around 4:25.

    The audience can accept that cars can fly in this universe, but what shatters the disbelief is when Anakin spots the assassin below (also in a car) and jumps out to fall several feet onto it. Fixed physical laws (gravity, velocity, speed etc) in our universe are so ingrained into us, that when they are broken it crosses over into something the audience cannot accept. E.g: how is it possible for Anakin to fall that far and not get hit by oncoming traffic? Even more incredibly, how does he successfully land on the car that just so happens to be the assassin’s?

  2. Andrew says:

    This concept of magic vs science is an interesting one. As you allude to several times, it seems to spiral out from the Victorian romances that decry their technology as ruining innocence and childhood.

    I bit disjointed, but I want to point out a few examples as to how modern writers are moving beyond this.

    Steampunk in general seems to be a mixing of whimsy and technology. Magi-tech has also flourished in books lately too. I like this kind of stuff.

    The big example that comes to mind when reading your piece is from White Wolf, the old Changling books. Fae are cut off from their magical homeland as the technology in the world grows shuttinf down the doors. Then at the point of the moon landing the doors are thrown open again as so many people at once start to imagine again watching a man walk on the moon.

    Good piece, looking forward to part 2.

  3. Wendy says:

    I have nothing more to add than say, excellent article.

  4. […] the previous article we looked at the idea that science destroys magic through encouraging disbelief, and how this has […]

  5. In reality, there isn’t any meaningful difference between magic and science. The only real difference is that magicians kept their knowledge secret, while scientists generally share it with everyone and want their discoveries and methods to spread around the world. The quest to discover the rules of the universe and using them to your advantage is the same in both kinds of people.

    Also, for most of human history, working metal was just like magic. The big difference is that it is human magic. Nature does not create bronze and steel, that was an ability known only to a very small group of humans, which they did not share with anyone (thus making them more magicians than scientists).

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