Sci-fi, fantasy, and magic (of the lack thereof)

Anyone making headway on this month’s reading selection, Gormglaith by Heidi Wyss? (An e-book you can read it online or download as a pdf.)

I asked Heidi to talk a little bit about magic and the supernatural in science fiction, and how she approached that in her book, which sounds (on a quick skim) like a fantasy book, but after further reading turns out to have nothing magical or supernatural about it at all. I’m actually a big fan of all kinds of sci-fi and a lot of fantasy, even those full of magic and those that become blocbuster movies, like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I don’t have any problem with magic in fiction, because I generally assume that most adults, like children, can tell the difference between reality adn fantasy. (I know, what a silly thing to assume, especially with fundamentalist Christians trying to get Harry Potter banned because it might cause children to become real witches!)

Back to the book of the moment, I think it’s interesting the way Heidi made her book sound like a magical fantasy but it’s really something quite different.

Here’s what Heidi said:

Gormglaith has no magick (or stuff one might think of as “paranormal”). For example, the words and notions taken from Norse myth show up here and there in Gormglaith’s world as cultural echoes applied to a very modern, naturalistic (or scientific) outlook. On that thread, the language in Gormglaith in itself builds her world and I meant very much for the culture shock of the first two chapters to be startling. Some readers take to it like ducks to a pond, others have no time for it. I knew that would happen, by the bye… a trick to reading Gormglaith is understanding (and trusting) that there are no made up words.

Meanwhile it’s true, some readers may not grok straight off that this is hard science fiction, since the characters don’t muck about much with gadgets for example and there’s no space flight. The former’s because their technology is so far forward it’s wontedly transparent (which let me zoom in on the “cultural science fiction” I wanted to write), the latter because their ancestors long ago learned that for them, most kinds of space exploration weren’t worth the burn, so to speak.

The tale is five days and nights close by Gormglaith’s side (but for a few lines when thousands of screaming girls think someone else is her)… as she botches up her life, then deals with it. There are no internal monologues, not a shred of Latin and anyone called a witch has been way schooled at something helpful. I guess I did do a lot of research in writing it, anthropology and biology along with some physics and chemistry, never mind the linguistics, to make the setting both tight enough to bear what we know yet loose enough to carry what we don’t.

For those sci-fi and fantasy readers among us, how do you feal about magic and the paranomral in fiction, and what’s your favorite sub-genre?


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. There's a typo in your last sentence, and possibly one in the title…

    But anyway. I enjoy magic and the paranormal in fiction when it's clear that magic and paranormal is fiction. It annoys me when it creeps up on you in what is otherwise hard sf. Here are some examples off the top of my head:

    Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden universe is a mix of fantasy and space opera. Fun, and I've no problem with mindreading and magic.

    Rider at the Gate (CJ Cherryh), telepathic fauna on another planet and how this affects the colonists. Integral to the plot. Slightly annoying to me now, but not at all when I read it ten years ago.

    The Mule in Asimov's Foundation saga, otherwise hard SF, the paranormal swoops in from the wings. Didn't annoy me back when I read it, would have me grind my teeth now.

    Basically any time telepathy is discovered, accepted, arises due to mutations etc. in an otherwise hard SF world, it grates on my nerves.

  2. I have no problem whatsoever with magic in fiction. It is a plot device like any other. It depends on what they do with it, the message the fiction sends.

    If I may be so crass as to use television as an example:

    Good: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

    There are demons, spells, heavens, and hells, but it is all a metaphor for growing up and being strong.

    Bad: The Ghost Whisperer

    Belief in the supernatural is part of the message. Being skeptical about the supernatural is closed-minded and bad. (Oh, and Jennifer Love Hewitt can't act…)

  3. "There’s a typo in your last sentence, and possibly one in the title…"

    Oh well. I'm a lazy blogger.

  4. Even though the series is absolutely anti-science, I find myself greatly enjoying the Dresden Files…

  5. Unlike many skeptics, perhaps, I actually wish that things such as magic and much of the paranormal were real. I don't believe that they are, nor do I anticipate ever encountering evidence that would change my mind in that regard, but I am forced to admit that we'd be living in a very different world if there were ghosts, psychic powers, or magic. If such things were ever found to be true, though an extremely unlikely proposition, the discovery would fundamentally alter everything (which, really, is another good reason why it's extremely unlikely for them to be true).

    Now, while I dislike the shows like "Ghost Whisperer" and others that attempt to pass off phony things as real and legitimate, I absolutely love fantasy and sci-fi where magic and the paranormal are, well, normal. I don't get bent out of shape, say, when Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged comes down to earth and calls Arthur Dent a jerk, even though I don't believe aliens are visiting the earth. And even though the book went absolutely buck-nutty by the end, I didn't dislike Palahniuk's Lullaby, even though it involved magic spells.

    It's all about the way in which things are presented, and the world that is created in the fiction. Like Bjornar said, if it seems like paranormal powers come from out of the blue in an otherwise materialistic, fictional world…well, I'll probably be miffed. But if the story is well-told and the world well-crafted, I've no problems with a bit of escapism. Hell, I could do with more of it.

    Does including paranormal or magical concepts give some people (particularly children) the wrong idea about reality? Maybe, but FICTIONAL materials shouldn't be the sole source for knowledge of the real world and critical thinking. That's a matter for parents and schools. While there's certainly room for both, I think the world would be an impoverished place without magic and the paranormal in fiction.

  6. I've tried "Gormglaith", but the jargon used by the characters is just too opaque to me.

    As to fantastic (which I use to mean science fiction as well as "fantasy") fiction, I usually prefer SF, but this isn't set in stone. I particularly like authors who can write well in both genres: Cherryh, Lee, Modessit, etc.

    I'm not crazy about Harry Potter, but anything that gets people (especially kids) to read more is a Good Thing. I like magic best in literature when even its practicioners see it as mysterious and dangerous. The stereotypical "wizards' academy" leaves me a bit cold.

  7. I have to disagree with jmcqk6 on the Dresden files. Well, disagree slightly. It's a bit anti-science, but only as far as it _has_ to be to work as a world where magic and elves and vampires exists and only a few people are aware of it, and I actually prefer that to worlds where "the telepathic center of the brain is located in the …"

  8. I tend to perfer Sci fi to fantacy. This stems from an observation that too often ins fantacy the hero magics his/her self out of impossible situations, victory should come at a cost and often with aid of magic the cost seems to low compared to the obstical being faced. A large exception can be made for Harry Potter.

    Space opera I enjoy for the fun of the Cowboys and Aliens style adventures.

  9. write said,

    I particularly like authors who can write well in both genres: Cherryh, Lee, Modessit, etc.

    Do you mean Tanith Lee, by chance? If so my fondness for you just went up a few notches. She's one of my favorite authors but I literally (hah! Pun) know no one else who likes her.

    As for the thread, I've actually put down books that have characters closing doors or lighting candles with a flick of their hands. I don't mind magic in my fiction. I do mind if there's too much and it comes too easily. I loved a character in a JV Jones novel who couldn't help peeing himself just a little every time he performed magic.

    Has anyone read any Warhammer 40000 books? (Or played the game?) I think the use of religion and the psychic navigators is interesting.

  10. Expatria said, "Unlike many skeptics, perhaps, I actually wish that things such as magic and much of the paranormal were real."

    Well, me too. Wouldn't that be fun?

  11. Briarking, how kind of you… yes, I did indeed mean Tanith Lee. She really doesn't fit into any pigeonhole; she can do it all. Her style is one of the most distinctive I've come across.

    I have nothing against "magic" in fiction as long as it's used well, as others here have said.

  12. To expand on TheCzech's point about Buffy vs. the Ghost Whisperer (ooh, hey that might make a fun cross-over episode) – I think the difference is that in Buffy we know up front we aren't supposed to believe any of it is really happening. Whereas on Medium, for instance, they even go so far as to state that it's based on a real person! That really pisses me off. It's not only that belief in the supernatural is part of the message, it's that the viewers are told basically point-blank that stuff like this is going on in the real world, regardless of whether or not we believe it.

  13. I agree with kellbelle1020 – the presentation is very important. I love the whole urban fantasy genre (our modern world but various supernatural creatures are real) but it has to be presented as an ALTERNATIVE world not our real world. So Buffy and Supernatural are good fun but Medium sucks.

    I also agree it would be cool if magic were real – who doesn't think that would be fun?!

    And on the Dresden Files which jmcqk6 and Bjornar were discussing I think the series in general is not too anti-science except for when the main character goes off on an anti-science rant. "Science is so arrogant but they can't explain everything – look at me doing magic – they can't explain that – hahaha!" However (thankfully) that is pretty rare. I love these books and can't wait until I can get a look at the TV series but the anti-science bits do get up my nose. Mainly because in a world were magic was real some scientists at the very least would be studying it!! Of course that is the weak point of the genre because there is never a very good explanation why all this stuff exists but most people don't know about it. You kind of have to gloss over that point and suspend belief to enjoy the setting!

  14. Yeah, Monika, I don't think it's ever possible to get rid of those types of problems. But some of it is just carelessness. For instance, even though Buffy is one of the good ones, there's an episode where Willow looks at a chunk of a cookie under a *microscope* and can determine what chemical it was laced with. I'm cringing right now at the memory.

    On the other hand, that's the same universe that has 100% realistic do-able robots. That's gotta be pretty freaking advanced technology. So maybe what I thought was a microscope was really a portable instantaeous GCMS. Or something.

    But hey, at least Willow was never anti-science. She was a science nerd & a witch! Rare combo.

  15. Yes – Robots did seems to be freakishly easy to build in Buffy. But that was OK because, really, robots are cool! I am willing to forgive quite a lot in robot story lines.

    I guess I would sum it up by saying if your general attitude and environment make sense then the occasional "cookie under the microscope" moment can be forgiven. I like your idea it was more advanced tech that just *looked* like a microscope. Something along those lines could also explain how Willow was always able to find so much info so quickly over the internet. I mean the internet is a great resource but seriously!

    An ability to be tongue in cheek also helps immensely. Buffy was written so as not to take itself as seriously as the shows like Medium do.

  16. My preference lies with sci-fi. It's how I got started into the whole fantastic fiction genre anyway.

    I got into fantasy roleplaying and battle games like Warhammer, but for some reason, apart from Lord of the Rings, I never really read any Fantasy books, although I like fantasy movies.

    I read lots of sci-fi stuff, but couldn't tell you who wrote it.

    I don't really mind the occasional "magic" use in sci-fi (or telepathy or other ESP abilities for that matter), because the essence of a sci-fi story is to explore the edges of a subject, finding ways to cause some kind of paradox for example, or discovering the inconsistencies in the concept.

    One particular story I can remember is abaout a mind-reader who works for the police, kills someone, then brainwashes himself and ends up being assigned his own case to investigate. You don't figure out that he is the killer until near the end of the story, but once he finds out, the story takes a few interesting twists as he tries to cover it up again, and some interesting concepts are explored that way.

    I think that any writer who puts his characters in a difficult situation, makes it look like everything is totally lost, then has some character whisk everyone out with a single spell, is just putting his characters in the wrong situations. If somebody's using magic, and knows what can and cannot be done with it, then what appears like a totally dead end situation will simply not be perceived as such by the character who knows what his magic can do.

    Any author who's pulling "devine interventions" out of his ass like that is just a bad writer.

    That's the essence of sci-fi too BTW: Something might be completely different from our universe, but to the characters inhabiting it, it's the only universe they've ever known, so they won't perceive it as being special at all. That includes extraordinary abilities they may posses, and the things they can do while using them. It's who they are, so why would they not think of using their "special" ability to save their life when the situation demands it?

  17. I agree with kellbelle1020's observations. Another thing to note about Buffy, is that they never portrayed unbelievers as idiots.

  18. There's a lot of things to say about Buffy. In my opinion, it's top quality television. I think not taking itself too seriously is a key factor for its success.

  19. My only real problem with that sort of stuff is when they solve some trivial problem at the end with something that would have been much better used earlier on, for instance, at the end of the lord of the rings, after all that hardship and struggle trying to get to the big volcano they finally chuck in the ring and then sit around until a big eagle gives them a ride home……… WHERE WAS THE F*$KING EAGLE EARLIER?!?!?!?!?!?!?

  20. Not that I'm honestly imagining the eagles' coming as anything other than the deus ex machina Tolkien likely conceived it to be, but…

    I think the main reason they didn't rely on the eagles throughout was that they would make far easier targets, particularly in the final stages. There'd be no way that Sauron and Co. would have allowed a hobbit-laden eagle to randomly fly over the walls of Mordor without simply shooting the thing down and collecting the ring from the detritus. Not to mention the risk an aerial Ringwraith attack would have posed…simply knock the Ringbearer off and you're home free.

    The Fellowship's hope, supposedly, was in secrecy and uncertainty. Sauron didn't think they would destroy the ring, but rather seek to use it. While they were all marching together, he assumed them to be heading east to set someone up with the Ring as its new master, which would have meant his ultimate victory. Blatantly flying people into his own lands would have tipped Sauron off and likely ruined everything.

    I don't recall now whether any discussion had been given earlier in the books to the eagles' doings through the majority of the story, but I believe they had been fighting orcs/worgs in one of the other besieged lands, defending their own. Regardless, it is still one of the cheesier and most contrived moments in the trilogy. It's also one of the plainer references to religion: Three (trinity) eagles fly in with Gandalf (resurrected savior) to collect Frodo (long-suffering redeemer) and Sam (faithful companion).

    OK. No more LOTR-speak for me. ::zips lips::

  21. I loves me some Neil Gaiman, I tell you what. He definitely does magic and the fantastic right in his books, I think mainly because he's working on a sort of meta level. At least in American Gods and Anansi Boys, that's true. The fantastic in those books is in a lot of ways a realm of metaphor that maps to — but is not the same as — our every day non-magical world. Same goes for his writing in Sandman, really.

    On the other hand, I thought the ending of Good Omens was complete dreck. I've been blaming Terry Pratchet for that, perhaps unfairly. But, seriously, you build up the Horsemen the whole book and then the climactic moment of their defeat is a bunch of kids touching them with junk? And the Horsemen just stand around and let it happen?

    Feh. I don't know what I expected there, but what I got was extremely unsatisfying. At least in Anansi Boys, Fat Charlie had to actually do something at the end.

    I really enjoy the idea of "magic" as a kind of meta-reality layered on our world that introduces an extra layer of meaning to everyday actions. I suspect this is something like what people say atheists are missing about religion. Trouble is, religion misses its own point. The moment you personify God by talking to "him" or speculating on "his" desires or commandments is literally (*cough*) the moment he's not a metaphor any longer.

  22. I'll go with Dr. Who's corollary to Clark's Third Law: Any magic sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from technology. If the author is basically waving his or her hands over technology and calling it "magic", then it is possible for him or her to write good stories. Buffy, for example, meets this criterion nicely. I even like Butcher's Cursor series in which there are "magical" furies that give people elemental power. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in the introduction to his book of science fiction mystery stories, it's all about laying out a set of ground rules and letting the reader follow the logic of the narrative.

    I'm a big Buffy fan, but what bothered me about Buffy, and a lot of other shows and stories, was their anti-scientific attitude in the sense that everything could be found in old books. This is 12th century scholasticism, not 19th century technologism. Why didn't Willow ever build a combinatoric spell searcher? They knew that a scanner could "read" a spell and instantiate a demon. Why not use the fact?

    Another aspect of this attitude is the singular creation. That is, there are some things that only one master artisan could build, but that no one else could manage, even given the original artifact and a reverse engineering team. Data, the android in Star Trek: The Next Generation, was an example of this. Why couldn't Willow make her own Jar of Osiris? Why did she have to buy it on eBay? If Roger Bacon could build a great talking brass head, so can I, especially if I follow the instructions in Make magazine.

    For an interesting take on the magical as just technology in disguise, take a look at Batton Lash's Supernatural Law, in which he views the legal process as merely a slightly more familiar form of a more extended magic. Where else might one threaten a doppleganger with ex parte proceedings.

  23. June 21, 2007 at 10:37 pm, kaleberg wrote:

    I’m a big Buffy fan, but what bothered me about Buffy, and a lot of other shows and stories, was their anti-scientific attitude in the sense that everything could be found in old books. This is 12th century scholasticism, not 19th century technologism.

    I suppose that picks up nicely where Monika left off:

    In the Buffy universe, the internet is this magical ubiquitous resource that only differs from the 12th century monastery's library by the fact that information comes not in the shape of old, moldy, forgotten tomes, but as electronic websites with pretty pictures and interactive content.

    But you make a good point. It's as if 12th century scholars knew much more than we do today. It verges on the same argument that some of the woo-folk make when praising "ancient Chinese healing arts".

    And in Angel, a common plot device when the gang got "stuck" was to just look into the book of ancient prophecies. In essence, they were bound to find the script of today's episode and know exactly what to say next. Sort of.

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