But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -Arthur C. Clarke

Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. -Agatha Heterodyne (Girl Genius) by way of Larry Niven by way of Clarke

La la la can’t hear you. -Me

This is a whine, not a rant. I rant when I’m angry; right now I’m just frustrated and annoyed. It’s hard out here for a fantasy writer, after all; there’s all these rules I’m supposed to follow, or the Fantasy Police might come and make me do hard labor in the Cold Iron Mines. For example: I keep hearing that magic has to have rules. It has to be logical. It has to have limitations, consequences, energy exchange, internal consistency, clear cause and effect, thoroughly-tested laws with repeatable results and –


This is magic we’re talking about here, right? Force of nature, kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken, and all that? And most of all, not science? Because sometimes I wonder. Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system — we’ll come back to this word “system” later — I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they’re going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction? Science fiction has plenty of its own magicky stuff to enjoy (e.g., FTL, “psi” powers). Shouldn’t fantasy do something different, not just in its surface trappings but in its fundamental assumptions?

Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death — things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense. In fact, I think it’s coolest when it doesn’t.

And here’s the thing: fantasy — specifically English-language fantasy since that’s all I’ve been able to read — used to get this. When I read Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea again last year before the Center for Fiction’s Earthsea Big Read, I was struck by the fact that none of the stuff Ged learned at Roke made any sense. OK, it was all about names. To figure out the names of things, wizards basically had to experience enough to understand them, and disengage with their preexisting assumptions — and then, apparently, they had to cross their fingers and wish really hard. Because magic was an experiment whose results were never repeatable, never predictable, and even the most accomplished wizard could only make an educated guess about what would happen any time magic was used. And in fact, magic itself could change as its caster changed. It was an intuitive thing, not an empirical thing, and an intuitive wizard could build a spell out of guesses — or leaps of faith — based on nothing more than gut feelings. Also, feelings mattered. Bring the wrong feelings into a magic-working and it could all go pear-shaped. Le Guin rendered this beautifully, and I loved it, because it felt like magic should feel to me. So did Tolkien’s magic, which had the same all-over-the-place weirdness to it. In LotR, sometimes magic meant forging a ring with a chunk of soul melted into the alloy. Sometimes it meant learning obscure/dead languages, or talking to obscure/dead creatures. Sometimes it meant brandishing a particular kind of stick in a particular kind of way, and shouting really loudly. Sometimes it meant being born with pointy ears, and sometimes resisting magic meant being born with hairy feet. It was organic, embedded, a total crapshoot. And it was wonderful.

Here’s what I think happened between Tolkien/Le Guin and now: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D has a lot to answer for re the modern fantasy audience (and I say this as a fan of D&D). I blame D&D for systematizing so many things that don’t need to be or shouldn’t be systematized: fantastic racism, real racism, gender essentialism — hell, let’s just say all the “isms” — career choice, morality. Yes, yes, D&D has gotten better over the years, and yes all these things happened in the genre (in spades) before D&D, but remember boys ‘n’ girls et al: systems are remarkably effective at reinforcing stupid thinking. This is because systems are self-reinforcing and have internal consistency even when they’re logically or ethically questionable. It’s the way the human brain works: when enough events occur in a pattern, we stop thinking and go into macro mode. Then suddenly we see nothing wrong with saying that of course orcs are evil, because they’re orcs. Or of course magic has to be logical, because how else are we going to simulate its effects numerically and in a fair way that encourages good team mechanics?

That’s game logic, this concern over quantitative fairness and teambuilding. Game logic should not apply to magic, because it’s fucking magic.

OK, let’s get personal. The Inheritance Trilogy. There was a magic system, of sorts: the scriveners had to learn how to write the gods’ language. This was a science to them, very precise, very detailed, riddled with rules and empirical tests — and I deliberately did not focus on it or describe it beyond the most superficial level. Why would I? I wasn’t interested in the mechanics. I created scrivening solely to frame gods’ magic by contrast, and to illustrate the more fundamental differences between mortals and gods. Scrivening: limited, generalizable, a system complex enough to make Gary Gygax proud. Gods’ magic: SMITE, the end. What, you think the Greeks ever rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang? (Please don’t send me links to wherever someone has rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang.) As far as I was concerned, it defeated the whole point of writing about gods to focus on something so pedantic as “how they do what they do.” They’re gods. They work in mysterious ways. Also: fucking magic.

I imagine there will be some who take issue with the narcomancy used in the Dreamblood books, even though that’s a little more systematized, because it’s partially based on stuff Jung thought up during a psychotic break. Well, we’ll see.

Part of my frustration comes from a few incidents lately in which I’ve worked with up-and-coming writers as part of convention workshops, etc. I’ve seen these folks, most of whom are future fantasy novel-writers, positively agonize over their magic systems, taking great care to consider rules, required resources, the laws of conservation of magic, yatta yatta yatta, all for fear that they’ll get published someday and have their magic systems picked apart by the Fantasy Police. In some cases these writers had spent far, far more energy on trying to create a magic system than they had on trying to create plot or characters. Sadly, I’ve seen this same kind of to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus on mechanics in the works of some published writers — and worse, I’ve seen readers going ga-ga over this sort of thing, as if the magic system really is the only part of the story that matters.

Is that all fantasy is? Thin storytelling papered over a players’ guide? Is that all fantasy should be? Mechanistic magic, formulas and figures?

Of course not. Fantasy is, can be, should be, so much more than that. So give me mysterious, silly, weird, utterly cracktastic magic please. And easy on the logic. It’s not like we’re doing science, here.

114 Responses »

  1. I appreciate the sentiment, but I can really only meet you halfway. Without limitations, magic can be largely indistinguishable from Deus Ex Machina.

    I think people crave understanding, regardless of the genre. Part of what is exceptional about magic is that it solves a great deal of problems, but is in the end a tool in itself. A blast of fire solves the problems of protection and warmth for a spellcaster, but you’ll need to take me on a story to explain how he uses it to catch his dinner or boil water, and -that’s- the interesting part. Stories need conflict, and if I can ‘magic’ any old thing, you’ll have a much harder time providing it.

  2. Yes! I blogged about something similar a while back. The more detail the author gives the reader about the fantastic (or the supernatural), the more ho-hum it seems, which defeats the point and diminishes the effect. The author then has to work harder and harder to surprise the reader or create a sense of wonder. There are a lot of books out there that start really strong–but then the mysteries are explained in painstaking detail, and the second and third acts are by-the-numbers plotting.

  3. I see magic as a sliding scale, just like I see plot “tidiness” as a sliding scale. Some people want every single scene and prop to fit into its plot three or four different ways to the point where plot feels like a one-way railroad of shiny tidiness. Others want to be able to stop and smell the roses and get off and wander in the forest for a while before continuing on their way in any real direction or speed they choose.

    I feel like magic is the same. Sometimes it shouldn’t have to make sense, sometimes the awe-wonder is what it should be there for. Other times, I think it should make sense on some level for the very reason that science CAN be explained as magic to anyone who doesn’t know better. Also, the argument for the magic system is that if you want to solve a problem with magic without a deus ex machina, you give it a rule or two so that it’s a plot-tool to use without cheating. So I think the question really is, what sort of story do we want to tell?

    But I completely completely agree that magic systems should not be the whole point of the story nor a source for writer-fear. I read for characters, not for setting trimmings, though it’s true that blackbox theater is not always the best choice for a particular story…. *amused*

    Any time someone says This Is The Only Way It Should Be and calls the Fantasy Police as you say, I think there’s a problem. Such as when hard SF people snub their noses at those science fantasy genre-benders of us out there. We should be able to write what we want and write it well. So well that the way we write it is the way the story “should” be.

    Maybe the actual problem is the rabid fans of a particular style of doing something? Rabid fans of hard SF, hard fantasy, soft SF, soft fantasy, and so on… So concerned with a particular way of doing something that they don’t see any other options beyond the one. Let’s just all get along and be open to different ways without calling the cops on each other? I’ve written both with and without using a rigid magic system, depending on what I wanted for the story.

    Or perhaps it’s a matter of fashion. Right now it’s fashionable to give a system to magic. Anyone clinging to a fad just to cling to it… Yeah, there’s a problem.

    (Woop, babbling. I never can keep replies short. Oops. XD)

  4. Eric, I agree with you; magic is a tool of storytelling. Which is why conflict comes from good writing, not from the way magic is used in a story. A good writer can make something feel magical even if there’s no magic in it — Ellen Kushner’s SWORDSPOINT as a case in point. A good writer can even make a deus ex machina work; there’s nothing inherently wrong with that trope (or any trope), it’s just usually used poorly. A bad writer, meanwhile, can slap every possible magical limitation on their characters and still end up with a story that feels tired, predictable, and utterly lacking in conflict.

    I get that “limit your magic!” is something that all the How To Write SFF books say, right up there with “avoid shmeerps” and so on. But like any writing rule, it’s both wrong and right, depending on the writer’s skill. Sometimes you gotta break the rules.

  5. I’ll agree that, unless magic is the central issue being handled in a book, the writer should not be agonizing over it and it’s mechanics, at least not at the expense of the rest of the novel.

    I feel like there’s a disconnect between what the general advice on consistent magic systems is and your examples though.

    There are many agonize over different details in what they write…those who write historical fiction will agonize with being consistent with known literature on the correct period, those writing police novels will try and know as much about police procedure as possible, every writer tries to have characters that make sense, so the reader can follow.

    If you’re writing magic, magic has to be consistent, and when it’s not, explained.

    That includes the examples of magic without specific rules…in these cases, if the author half way through the novel decides to limit previously limitless magic he’ll have to have an explanation or leave the reader feeling cheated.

    Using your example on Earthsea (which I should really getting around to reading), the fact that magic can’t be perfectly predicted is a rule…and I’m guessing if that rule is broken at any point, there will be an explanation…

    That said, I understand the exasperation you’re suffering…I’m experiencing it with myself. :)

  6. Agreed! Not in all cases–I’m a fan of rules-heavy magic systems much (most?) of the time. But there might be a little too much simplistic hand-waving about rules. “That magic system has costs, it’s internally consistent, and therefore it must be a good one!” No. It does still need a spark that doesn’t come from logic.

    On the other hand, magic of the less well codified, awe-inspiring variety does have that deus ex machina charge to contend with, as Eric mentions before me. Someone (Brandon Sanderson?) once gave Tolkien’s magic as an example for something ineffable and non-rule-bearing that worked excellently, because it wasn’t *also* used as the solution to the major problems of the story. Which I think is also true of the magic in Earthsea–Ged triumphs mostly through self-discovery and understanding, which is part of the magic, but not at all a snap of the fingers.

  7. You’ve doubtlessly seen that blog Pixar put up on the rules of writing, yes? It’s been making the rounds for awhile and I’ve had a lot of chances to revisit it and discover one of my favorites on it (paraphrased):

    “Coincidences to get the characters into trouble are great. Coincidences to get the characters out of trouble is cheating.”

    Doubtlessly, we already knew this as readers and writers. If the villain can be killed by a stray falling anvil, it feels like a hollow victory. There’s no effort or suffering on the protagonist’s part, hence no investment in the character. The tension is dissolved, because if everything can be undone by chance, then what was the point of it all? The reader feels cheated, the writer feels lazy.

    This, I think, is what people decry when they talk about the importance of magic systems. But a trend I’ve noticed in fantasy is the tendency to overcompensate or adopt too-enthusiastically an idea (ie: paying homage to previous authors, rather than just acknowledging influences). The line of reasoning somehow went from “we should avoid the dissolution of tension” to “we should avoid using magic as a catch-all deus ex machina” to “we should put limits on magic” to “we should form magic systems.”

    And frankly, “magic system” is one of those phrases that makes me want to drink. Because I have no idea how it became so ingrained in fantasy to the point that it often is revered and praised more than the importance of the characters’ struggle. “Awesome magic system, dude!” is one of those compliments that (perhaps unfairly) I equate to there being not a lot else of worth there.

    What makes magic systems harmful, though, is that they still dissolve tension. Just in reverse.

    Like you mentioned, if we accept that there are certain “rules” to a fantasy story (ie: orcs are bad because they’re orcs), then we have no real reason to worry what’s going to happen. We can (not always safely, but frequently reasonably) assume that the protagonists will emerge victorious and, if they follow these rules, they will probably do so pretty easily. This is what happens when you condense things into black-and-white or “traditional” fantasy: you establish a set of rules instead of conflicts. It’s no longer about what the character has to live with, but what steps he has to take to succeed. It is procedural fantasy and I think magic systems are a big part of that.

    The way I use them is the same way I use every rule: challenge it. Wizards not only know where magic comes from, they can explain it, observe it and categorize it as scientific phenomenon. This leads to them applying the same logic to everything they see. Thus, when something happens that they can’t explain, be it demons from hell or a mature, adult relationship, it throws their world into a loop.

    That’s not to say that this is the only successful way to use it, natch. But I think the most unsuccessful way to use it is as a guard rail over a steep cliff.

  8. Amen.

    This post is perfect, and strikes at the heart of one of one of my great fantasy pet peeves. For the sake of story, magic obviously has limits. Unlimited magic leads to either instant total destruction, or simplistic solutions to complicated problems. Sam’s “blue sky anvil” above.

    The idea that magic needs to conform to some set of logical rules, laid down like scientific laws, is crazy. Some of the best magic I’ve seen in fantastic fiction does neither of those things. Take JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL. The magic, and how it is truly performed, is never fully explained. The magic there is wonderful, and it remains that way because it remains mysterious. I don’t want magic indistiguishable from science. If I wanted that, I would read SCIENCE FICTION (which I do not).

    The same goes for Tolkien, Robert Holdstock’s MYTHAGO books, or even Martin’s Westeros. What is intended to be mysterious, remains mysterious. That isn’t to say that an explainable “Magic System” can’t be done well. Even extremely well. But it is neither necessary nor preferred.

  9. Interesting point about D&D being responsible for the ascendance of the magic system idea. I play D&D, love it (granting the problems you mention, and more), and see why it has to have a system for magic, but yeah, the fact that a game needs to break magic down to dice roles and clearly stated components and effects doesn’t mean that it has to be that thoroughly laid out in a story. And sometimes it really does kind of take the fun out of it to overexplain things.

    Wild, inexplicable, weird magic is great!

    On the other hand…I kinda like science-magic too, if it works in a story. I remember as a kid reading this book that listed ‘spells’ from folklore like “if you wash your face in a basin by moonlight and then let the water go perfectly still, you’ll see your future spouse’s reflection” or whatever, and thinking, wow, it would be so cool if that worked.

    If you could put the right combination of flowers and ribbons under your pillow and dream of the future, or whatever. It seems like folk magic has always had an element of a system to it, in the sense that if you do something, you’re supposed to get some specific result, and I kind of like that.

    It makes magic smaller, maybe, but that can be cool too. More intimate, more matter-of-fact magic can be just as interesting as the totally wild, huge, unpredictable magic.

    Hm. I guess in the end what I want to say is, I like to read about magic, so tell whatever story you want to with whatever kind of magic makes sense, and I will probably love it since I’ve loved everything I’ve read by you so far. :)

  10. I get where you’re coming from, but it seems a bit like insisting on scientific rigor in sci-fi. You can do it, but there’s room enough for hard and soft sci-fi, right? There should be plenty of room for hard and soft fantasy as well. What’s important is how well it’s used within the broader context of the story. I personally love stories of both stripes.

    I’m curious what you think about Brandon Sanderson’s post on this from a few years ago. http://www.brandonsanderson.com/article/40/Sandersons-First-Law

  11. It’s funny that you point to Earthsea for an example of magic that doesn’t make sense, because to me, it makes a lot of sense. A combination of Chaos Theory and sports, where the wrong emotion will throw a player’s game and end up in results no one saw coming.

    I think anyone who thinks science (or magic) is a list of iron-clad laws probably didn’t think about science beyond their high school lab classes. But go into real world applications, particularly where variables are less controllable, and predictability gets a lot more shaky. Take medicine; the exact same medication to treat the exact same symptoms won’t react in the exact same way with every person. Or meteorology; generally my weather channel gets things reasonably close, but there’s always the occasional crazy storm (or lack thereof) that goes completely against what anyone predicted.

    Science is fabulous, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great way to explore questions and get decent answers, but that it doesn’t mean everything is known. And at the end of the day, if you try to describe something to a three-year-old, whether it’s magic or science, eventually they will say “why?” enough that the only remaining answer is “just because.”

    So to hold magic to a standard that doesn’t even exist is pretty dang silly.

  12. I blame gamers. For magic to be game-able, it needs to follow rules. QED.

  13. Carlos,

    I totally agree that historical fiction should be accurate and consistent. It’s based on the real world and real events. Magic, however, is not. Magic by definition is not based on anything we can measure or readily grasp. So it seems a bit silly to me to insist that it be consistent and explained.

    I see magic the way I see scenery description; some people prefer more or less. I’ve seen readers who’ve read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms absolutely rage at the amount of description I used there — some raging that it’s too much, others raging that it’s too little, in about equal amounts. Likewise I imagine there are readers who really really really want lots of detail and near-scientific rigor in their fantasy. Maybe you’re one of those. I am clearly in the camp of people who’s more comfortable with MAGIC: IT MIGHT WORK, BITCHES as a philosophy. And I’m tired of being told that my taste for non-rigorous magic is somehow a weakness.

    In Earthsea, magic can be predicted, most of the time. That’s the rule.

  14. Well duh. That’s what I get for skimming. So obviously you’re right :)

  15. Stephanie,

    I would disagree about magic in Tolkien being used as a solution to the major problems of the story. The biggest problems of the story — Frodo’s weakening, the need to toss the Ring into Mt Doom, Aragorn’s need to claim his birthright, etc. — were people-problems, nothing to do with magic. In fact they were not solvable by magic. That’s what I meant when I replied to Eric upthread — the essentially limitless magic of that world was meaningless because Tolkien was a good-enough writer to base the story’s conflicts on something completely different.

  16. Sam, agreed!

  17. Brian F,

    Of course there’s room for both “hard and soft” fantasy. My point is that the genre as a whole insists that only hard fantasy is desirable, and that needs to change. Le Guin gets praise for many things, but not (that I’ve seen) for the way magic is used in the Earthsea books, and she should be.

    I’ll have to read and respond to Sanderson’s post later; no time right now.

  18. Amy B,

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I think you might be contradicting yourself. There’s a difference between incompletely understood science and magic. You mention meteorology as something we don’t understand, but you also mention chaos theory, and chaos is one of the newer scientific (well, mathematical) developments that’s helped us gain a better understanding of meteorology. In other words, we still don’t fully understand meteorology, but it’s only a matter of time until we do. So that’s not magic. It’s just science we haven’t figured out yet.

    There are many things science doesn’t understand, but science cannot by definition be satisfied with “just because”. (Or God did it, or any variation thereupon.) Science is the search. Science does not stop. Magic, on the other hand, by definition is rooted in things that cannot be understood beyond a certain level. It can be satisfied with “just because”, and sometimes must be, because looking under the hood might make the magic stop working.

  19. Funny that you mention magic in D&D, as I just had a really long conversation with my husband about that! It’s had such a huge influence hasn’t it? I love D&D and the ideas in it, but I do sympathise about the rules thing.

    Brian F, that Brian Sanderson link was interesting. I think he’s right about there being space for every kind of magic system, from ‘soft’ magic to ‘hard’ magic, but that even the soft magic needs at least some form of consistency. It’s frustrating to read a story in which a magic user can do something one minute, and then suddenly can’t the next, right when he/she would have really needed that particular power/spell to get out of trouble. And deus ex machina magic just makes the reader angry.

    But in general I think I prefer the ‘softer’ approach to magic in a story, just as I tend to prefer softer sci-fi too. Yes, it’s all about that sense of wonder, which to me is so important to fantasy. It’s interesting to note that Brian Sanderson listed George R R Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series as having soft magic. His books are so gritty and realistic, but he still maintained a sense of mystery and awe in his presentation of magic. On the other hand, it’s nice to see more ritualistic magic now and then, the stuff that needs circles and runes and rites, and that takes a lot more effort to accomplish. Perhaps fantasy has become saturated with magic that feels a little too easy.

    I agree about Earthsea – the magic in those books is beautiful and mysterious. I also like the magic in Trudi Canavan’s books, anything by Diana Wynne Jones, Discworld, the Harry Potter series, and many more that I’m probably forgetting right now. Not sure where on the hard/soft scale those lie, and not convinced it really matters. When you read a book, you know if the magic feels right for you.

    I think, in the end, that the magic in a story should reflect the world and feel of that story. Some people are more comfortable writing about one kind than another, and there will always be readers for all types!

  20. @my earlier comment–Right, the magic in Tolkien *isn’t* the solution to major problems, and is a higher-order sort of thing. But I think at its heart fantasy is (almost) always about people problems. Both vague magic and system-based magic can coexist with that, if done well.

  21. Notice for everyone commenting from here forth — myself included, because I’ve used it too at this point — but can we not use “hard” and “soft” as descriptors for magic? For one thing, those terms are rooted in a distinction that’s one-third arbitrary, one-third academic politics, and one-third bullshit (the use of “hard science” and “soft science”). For another thing, that distinction is a primarily scientific one, and given that my whole point is that we should not treat magic like science, well. Maybe we shouldn’t use the language of science to discuss it.

  22. I kinda think that even magic needs at least a minimum of consistency, if only for the sake of the story. If part of that consistency is that the magic is by nature inconsistent, then so be it.

    But the reader should probably be made aware of that.

    Besides that, presumably the story world has had magic-using characters for a while. Surely they’d approach it with some measure of study and experimentation. There’s bound to be some rules that they can pretty much depend on, even if it’s only, “you have to be born a wizard”.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a story where the magic MIGHT work….

    I don’t think magic in fantasy needs a ‘system’… but it should have some rules, however loose, and some limitations.

  23. Can we, instead of hard/soft unse such terms as greater and lesser magicks? Or hedgewitchery v. The Numinous?

    I have said that in a fantasy novel, the magic must work in that world as surely as gravity does in ours. But how many people in our world understand gravity absolutely? We walk about without slipping off the earth, birds aren’t flung into the Milky Way, and tall buildings, like trees, stay rooted. For me, that is already a kind of deep Earth magic. I don’t need to understand it mathematically or scientifically to use it. Or be used by it. (You have to be an older woman to really get that!)

    So thanks for the not-quite-rant. I will be sending folks to this post.

    Jane Yolen

  24. I remember as a kid reading this book that listed ‘spells’ from folklore like “if you wash your face in a basin by moonlight and then let the water go perfectly still, you’ll see your future spouse’s reflection” or whatever, and thinking, wow, it would be so cool if that worked.

    That story is “The Hundred Light-Year Diary” by Greg Egan, from his collection Axiomatic.

    Science is the search. Science does not stop.

    Yes, absolutely!

    I think setting science against magic is a category slip. Whatever the natural law in a fictional universe, people can engage in science, engineering, and technology: Science, to figure out how the universe works, using statistics and the scientific method; engineering, to build custom-designed, one-off things like bridges, factories, or palaces in the sky; technology, to produce multiple girders or computers for unknown future uses.

    The distinction between “hard” and “soft” doesn’t need to come from unreliability built into natural laws. It could just as easily come from the engineering or technology—more precisely, from the character’s level of understanding and the author’s level of exposition. A fully realistic novel could feature characters confused by a bounced email in one chapter and an internetworking expert in another.

    … looking under the hood might make the magic stop working.

    That would be horror, not fantasy!

    With passive natural law on one side and intelligence on the other, scientists will eventually figure out how to look under all the other hoods just to see what keeps working. (This has happened in our universe.)

    I think this can only be prevented if something—gods, aliens, monsters, ancient technology—is actively disabling scientists. For example:

    • In Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter trilogy, ancient satellites zap any attempt to build modern technology.
    • In Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, evil spacefaring aliens carefully monitor a planetbound species’ science to avoid detection.
    • In Charles Stross’ Laundry series, computing mathematical equations summons Lovecraftian horrors. This even works if you do the math in your head.

  25. I largely agree. Over explaining or mechanizing magic is usually, well, disenchanting. In the original Star Wars when the Force was some vaguely spiritual yet physical power that “surrounds us and penetrates us” I totally bought it. Later, when it was revealed that it had something to do with the level of space germs or something in the bloodstream, I immediately checked-out, and not just because I was a few decades older. I think only a minimum a “rules” are needed: What magic can and can’t do it can reanimate a corpse, say, but can’t return the dead to true life), who can do it (do you have a study or is it a natural gift?), and what, if anything is needed for it to work (is a sorcerer powerless without his wand, amulet, ring, etc.?)It’s also fine to break those rules, as long as those in the know recognize that something unprecedented has happened. In particular, I’ve always liked Patricia McKillip’s approach to magic; it feels true and believable, yet is always filled with wild surprises.

  26. I tend towards “Magic is a force of nature. It can cause amazing, not-yet explainable effects in nature, but if humans want to use it, there needs to be some kind of consistency so they CAN use it.” Same as electricity, chemistry… doesn’t mean they fully understand what’s going on, or the models they have, if they have any, won’t be surplanted, but I have no trouble with it.

    I haven’t read Earthsea, but from your description it makes sense to me. A human who wants to work magic must follow the rules: a) they must understand what they’re working on and b) they must work in a “compatible” state of mind/emotion, or end up with unintended effects.

    Similar for the Inheritance Trilogy – gods have a more direct approach to magic, humans need to work through a rigid system. That’s rules.
    Focusing too much on the mechanics would probably have a similar effect on me as, say, that pages-long aside on the history on the development of FTL travel in the middle of a chase scene had in the last military scifi I gave a try – that is, exasperation and frustration that the story is interrupted for info that belongs into an appendix or RPG manual – though I guess it could be done well, too.

    Hm, thinking about magic in Discworld, which can be pretty chaotic, let me put it like that: I don’t care what magic does all through the setting, but if there are humans who use it for anything, I need to be shown that they have some way to grasp it. If it’s all totally random, there’d be no way to get a desired effect.

  27. I’d heard the whole ‘magic needs rules’ or at least ‘magic needs internal consistency’ spiel, but never heard of the term ‘magic system’. I guess that’s what I get for reading lots of fantasy but not reading much about fantasy. For me, personally, I think it depends on the type of story one is trying to tell and what one wants the magic to be able to do. (For example: is there a school to learn magic? Then the magic needs to be a bit more ‘systemized’ in order to be ‘learned’. Earthsea does this by having the different ‘kinds’ of magic, summoning, changing, weatherworking, etc.)

    Have you read any of Patricia A. McKillip? I love the way she handles magic — it’s mysterious, unpredictable, and yet it still feels right to the story.

    I have to be honest and say that for my own writing I haven’t given much thought to the ‘rules’ of magic. My current novels are creative outlets for my PhD thesis — I’m studying fairies in 14th & 15th century literature, so my novels are, in a sense, the texts I wish existed in Middle English so I could study them — and so the magic is drawn directly from how my sources understood magic to be like: inexplicable, occasionally able to be learned, but definitely fantastic. Who am I to say what the Faerie King can and cannot do?

  28. I love your post, and agree with it, but want to add a bit of genre here.

    The American fantasy publishing genre (unlike the British fantasy publishing genre) grew (along with science fiction and horror) out of American pulp magazines. In the 1970s and early 1980s, a large percentage of adult fantasy was written and edited by people who had whet their teeth on the pulps, and who were primarily interested in science fiction. This of course influenced the kind of fantasy that was written and published in the genre’s early days.

    Back then, Ellen Kushner and I were editorial assistants (successively) to the Ace Books SF editor Jim Baen, who was proudly promoting what he called “fantasy with rivets,” written by SF writers like Larry Niven. He left the more numinous kinds of fantasy (the “girly stuff” — his words, not mine) to lowly assistants like me and Ellen — in other words, it was published at the bottom of the list, where it didn’t get the same kind of money or publicity attention. (Le Guin’s Earthsea books and their ilk, meanwhile, were published as children’s fiction — in those pre-Harry Potter days when fantasy for children and teens was marginalized in terms of sales, respect, and adult reader recognition.)

    Then a new generation of fantasy editors came along who hadn’t grown up in the pulp magazine tradition. Some of us (like Tor’s Beth Meacham, for example) were interested in both SF and fantasy but were comfortable with the differences between the two genres; others of us (well, me) specialized in fantasy exclusively. Throughout the 1980s, we all worked hard to broaden the American fantasy field, including actively seeking out and promoting writers of the more numinous kinds of fantasy.

    Of course, there are individual exceptions to everything I’ve just said (Lin Carter’s wondrous “Sign of the Unicorn” series at Ballentine, for example; and editors like David Hartwell & Jim Frenkel who, though primarily focused on SF back then, also had an understanding of fantasy)…but nonetheless, the “fantasy with rivets” ideal, which is such a strong strain in American fantasy, can be traced back to the genre’s earliest, pre-D&D days, and to its roots in the pulp magazines.

    Today, the American fantasy field has plenty of room for both strains of the literature: fantasy-with-rivets and numinous fantasy…along with works that fall somewhere on the spectrum between the two. They tend to appeal to different kinds of readers, and I don’t think one is inherently better than the other. But I personally prefer (and thus professionally champion) fantasy of the numinous sort — and so I’m very glad to read your defense of such works here.

  29. Er….that was meant to be “add a bit of genre history here.”

  30. Ehm… I don’t think that magic SHOULD make any sense… I think magic SHOULD cause a sense of wonder.

    I know, that this is about personal taste, just like everything, but right now, it seems to me that we live in an age of quirky and over-explained magic systems, which are the accepted approach (this denomination is not a condemnation on my part, I love quirky magic systems, I just don’t like the notion, that for now, that one branch is good, other is bad).

    Instead of arguing back and forth, I just list those works, where magic did not have any real magic system, yet it worked for me.

    The Last Unicorn: the character of Schmendrick actually spoofs the concept, that magic has any other role or “life”, than moving forward the plot. But it was cool and funny.

    The same goes for Discworld. Actually, there is not any magic system, but clever people – like Granny Weatherwax – can turn the table with using their brains (like headology), not just in the case of magic, but in the case of anything, where preconceptions can apply. Still, when magic appears, it is wonderful.

    The magic in the works of Neil Gaiman are not explained, either… they are haunting forces beyond mortal ken. But this is what it makes so enchanting, it heightens the vulnerability of the characters for supernatural power. Yet when for example Morpheus uses his power to reprimand and punish the serial killers, it is freaking awesome.

    In The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, Bastian can wish anything to come true, but in turn he lose one of his memories – this is the price, and only rule. If there is a logic behind this magic, is purely metafictional – but TNS is all about metafiction.

    Do we know, how the magic works in Osten Ard? The information about the Words of Making, Changing and Unmaking is very vague.

    And I also wish to mention a comic book example – despite I would not live in a world where The Authority reigns, I actually really love the magic of the Doctor, which is just changing things like in a whimsical cartoon. Sometimes he uses magic through associtation… but it is not how his magic works, it is how he uses his magic.

    Yeah, the above mentioned Earthsea magic also works, because it is imaginative – not the system behind it, but its effect, for example, when Ged learns to cast powerful illusions.

    And I also wish to mention, that the magic of the Dying Earth, on which the D&D magic system based, did not have any explained system at all, sans memorizing and forgeting spells after casting. When one of the would-be users, Cugel the Clever screws one, we do not know, what was the problem. But the spells of DE are memorable because of their quirkiness, and because their names reflect the large egos of magicians, who “created” them.

    These examples above do not have any real magic system behind them – you can rather feel, than know, that some rules might apply to them. What we might know about them, is the tip of the iceberg.

    Regarding films, I love the magic of Stardust and Labyrinth, because of the sense of fantastic, a sense of imagination – a sense, that anything can happen. Is it not the greatest appealling power of magic? To do whatever you want?

    Okay, I cut myself short, because I do not wish to anyone bore to tears, but I shall also mention Brandon Sanderson, who popularized the “quirky and over-explained magic system”. I love the works of Brandon Sanderson, because of his IMAGINATION. I love allomancy, not because I know its rules, but because I can feel the imagination put behind that form of magic.

    However, note, that there is a catch behind this kind of magic. When you go into that long details to explain your magic system, the reader – or at least me – prone to be acting like a stickler, and not willing to give any real amount of suspend of disbelief. For example, when Vin travelled in a muddy road, leaping great distances with magnetically pushing on horseshoes – or, other times, with coins, which is a more traditional form of “wuxia-leaping – I always wondered, that why not those instruments are buried down to earth due to the magnetic forces pushing them, since they weigh far less than a human being… they would move, not the allomancer. And one of my friends also complained, that he misses the mystic feeling from the work of Sanderson. While another one complained, that she finds those systems too mechanical.

    So, all in all, I do not think, that approach is inherently better, it is just different. I love Brandon Sanderson’s magic systems, because they are unique and imaginative, and they make the genre of fantasy more versatile – but if this approach is chosen as the approach that everybody shall follow, then fantasy becomes poorer.

    BUT! And this is a major but! Why shall we even argue about this topic*? :) Literature is all about personal tastes and not about what one should do or should not, but what one can do (just like magic)… the best thing about literature is its versatility, and despite there are trends, we all know, that they change like the curse of wind.

    I just wish to say with this, that DON’T BECOME FRUSTRATED, if one person does not like your work for one reason, other will do BECAUSE of that reason. What I have written down, it is only my personal opinion of course, I do not hold the Holy Grail or the Philosopher’s Stone. I have not written down this as a person who knows better, only as a reader with his own set of personal tastes. It is subjective, and what I have written is subjective, but I hope, that you can feel that I do not wish to force my opinion on you or anybody.

    Do, what you want, write your magic as you feel it. Some people will love, some won’t. But what I love about magic besides imagination is infinite possibilities. All in all, magic shall not be subjugated by a norm or anything – because part of the awe and wonder is surprise. And by the way, a lot of people’s opinion can be changed very easily, no matter, what they say at first. :)

    This forum is great to discuss topics like this, but don’t take these issues to your heart… people might sceptic at first, but if you cannot persuade them here, you can also persuade them with your books. :) Do as you wish – just like in TNS – since what I personally hate is, when somebody follows a trend out of fashion, because “it made other people successful”.

    So, all in all, that is my highly subjective opinion about this topic. :)

    *Rhetorical question, actually. :)

  31. So glad you wrote this, Nora, and delighted to see it generating so much good discussion here and on FaceBook.

    Instead of the objectionable “hard/soft,” howbout “[whatever....]/numinous? It fulfills all the requirements, including that it sounds right, with its hint of “luminous” – magic is part poetry, after all. When that’s too much of a mouthful, I sometimes say I like “mythic” fantasy, again implying a distance from the “nuts’n'bolts” scientified, quantified school of magic-wielding.

    Delighted to see Terri’s post, above, on the history of the genre. Since I preceded her as Jim Baen’s assistant at Ace Books, I can say that I remember the precise moment When It Changed: It was the publication of Larry Niven’s THE MAGIC GOES AWAY in 1978. I remember the excitement around that as a new way of engaging with traditional fantasy – and I remember observing that it was scientists playing dress-up with swords, or something similarly snarky.

    Before that, there were some terrific adult mass-market post-Tolkien new fantasies that meant the world to my generation (some published by Ace!), including Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Grey Mouser books – and Joanna Russ’s feminist response to them, the ALYX stories. . . Peter Beagle’s novels, Elizabeth Lynn – and, of course great including Le Guin, published as kids’ books, all set the bar we thought we were aiming for.

    Thanks for carrying the torch. We may not be the big money-makers, but we are the dreamers of dreams. And when culture-specific crowd-pleasers have bit the dust, we can hope that some of us, as Stoppard says in ARCADIA, will be picked up by those behind along the march.

  32. I just wonder if, in the present state of Western thinking, it’s perhaps much easier for us to grasp and relate to a magic system with rules, making sense of the place of magic in the world?

    We’ve got used (again, in the West; I don’t believe it’s quite the same in other places of the world) to thinking that we can find, or should look for, a unified system to make sense of the world as a whole. Science tries to look for universal models, religious people try to reconcile their faith with science, even esoteric disciplines like astrology try to justify themselves in terms of “energy” and things like that: not always very “scientific”, I grant you, but still, always in the spirit of making a seemingly irrational system of thought fit into a unified worldview. And since science is today credited with the supposed ability to Make Sense Of Everything, these systems seek to find scientific-sounding justifications for their own principles.

    It wasn’t always like thing, though. In the Middle Ages, when magic was widely believed in, it was also commonly believed (as far as I know), that some things just wouldn’t fit in any sort of rational explanation, Christian, scientific or otherwise. Fairies, for instance, were beyond any possibility of rationalisation, period. And that didn’t bother anybody, whereas today, anything that cannot fit into the wider unified model for Making Sense Of Stuff is instantly suspicious.

    So that’s why I wonder if systems with deductible rules might simply be easier to enjoy for many readers, because they correspond to the dominant worldview in the West, ie. that the whole world has to fit into one system with consistent rules for everything. That may be why magic without rules sounds like “cheating” to so many people: imagining a world where some things are just not supposed to follow the same rules (or just plainly follow rules) is quite hard for most of us, and may sound “irrational” and “contrived” more than anything else.

  33. As to the writers in your workshops – It’s not just fantasy. At a mystery writing workshop, when the discussion turning to character bibles, there was a even split between gasps and laughter when Jess Lourey warned students – Remember you are a novelist, not a scrapbooker!

    For me, magic described is magic debased. The exception being when a character is learning about themselves (or others) through the learning of magic. Half my joy in Hong Kong movies was not knowing what the magic behind the ghosts and demons and monsters were. The Chinese Ghost Story movies, The Mad Monk, Bride with White Hair, on and on. I am a total nerd, and Chinese friends filled me in on some, but I found myself holding back from learning about the Buddhist folk magic in the films. Even while I was watching Magic Cop, Haunted Cop Shop and other films based directly on it. I didn’t need to know more than the films taught me.

    I think some of the audience issue with fantasy is that the books become topics of discussion, and the magic “rules” become an important subset of that. It’s a conversation starter and people want to have an opinion.

  34. Thank you for your igniting this discussion. Also, I’m still smiling over your comment that magic is “the non-meat by-product of existence.” :)

  35. Jonathon,

    I’ve been reading (and loving) the Matthew Swift series by Kate Griffin, and I think it’s a great example of magic without rules. In that world, magic is the by-product of life. Wherever life is, and whatever form it takes, magic will follow — so now that life has become modern there are spirits in the phone lines and imps who feed on pollution, and sorcerors who once drew power from ley-lines and the forces of nature instead drag energy straight from power-sockets and car exhaust. No one is born a sorcerer there; it’s a tendency toward a certain kind of creativity or perspective on life, and that frame of mind can kick in at any point in a person’s life, randomly. You can also become a magic-user by studying how magic works, or not studying it and just needing something badly enough, or getting lucky (or unlucky), or clean living, or staying up late, or really, whatever. It’s wonderfully chaotic, and the only real rule is that “life is magic”. I think Griffin does an amazing job of conveying it.

  36. Jane,

    (Holycrap, Jane Yolen! ::fangirl faint:: OK, just had to get that out.)

    I’m hesitant to use any kind of hierarchical terminology here. It’s the same reason I don’t like “hard” and “soft” — there’s whiffs of sexism all over that language given the way it’s used in academia to insist that certain sciences (social sciences, biology, sometimes even statistics) are weaker or faker or girlier than “real” sciences like (say) theoretical physics. “Greater” and “lesser” implies a efficacy or quality issue, when I don’t think there’s a qualitative difference between the two kinds of magic. I think there’s a problem with the value accorded to one or the other — and that’s a problem of perception, not anything intrinsic in the magic.

    I’m leaning toward “mechanistic magic” and “numinous magic”.

    But massive agreement on the fact that magic doesn’t need to be understood/delineated in order to be effective in a story. It does need to be if that’s partially the point of the story, to show off the magic system — and with some mechanistic fantasies that is the point. Works for some. I’m just tired of the mechanistic being held up as the goal toward which we should all aspire, as if every numinous fantasy out there is just something mechanistic that failed.

  37. sfisacity,

    Re looking under the hood = horror — no. As you say, the search for truth is not an inherently bad thing; we call it science, and it’s usually cool as hell. (What we do with that knowledge is another matter.) But we’re talking about fiction here, not science, and in fiction the wonder that accompanies magic often depends on it remaining mysterious. Also, as I said, magic isn’t a how-to in many interpretations; it’s a why. Science doesn’t do why. It does how and we can speculate on what that means, but at best we’ll only come up with a theory; something as nebulous as meaning can never be definitively proven or disproven. But I can easily imagine a magical form in which choosing a meaning diminishes the magic — like taking something vast and cramming it into a jello-mold. Sometimes, trying to understand a thing only limits it.

  38. Brian Holgin,

    Yes, those goddamn midichlorians, or whatever they were. Great example.

  39. Anke, it’s not as clear-cut as you’re suggesting. In Earthsea, how do you understand a thing like “wind”? Do you study meteorology? Do you walk around and feel it and think about it? Do you read poetry about wind? The process was individual to the wizard, AFAICT. In a few cases, Ged didn’t even do that — he guessed. So there was no rule there.

    In the Inheritance Trilogy, humans didn’t need to work through a rigid system. They chose to, because that was the way the culture that developed scrivening tended to think about things — mechanistically, orderly, imitative (of the gods). Later in the series, it becomes clear that other cultures and people have tried different methods, some quite intuitive, and those have been effective as well. That’s the difference; gods understand that magic is simply a force of nature, and humans think there has to be some kind of method/trick to it.

    So in both cases you’ve got something that seems superficially bound by rules, but which in reality is far more chaotic.

    Haven’t read Discworld, alas. -_-

  40. Chera,

    I’ve read The Riddlemaster of Hed, but not for several decades. Need to re-read it, and also her other works.

  41. Terri Windling! ::another fangirl faint:: Gotta work on that blood sugar, starting to get bruises.

    Thanks muchly for the history, and it’s saddening to see another example of how a whole genre can be warped by the prejudices of a few. But awesome to see how that trend reversed itself within a generation, and massive agreement on the notion that there’s room for both forms of fantasy. What I want to see, though, is not just room but appreciation for both, on a popular level. I have no idea how that might be achieved.

  42. Ok, hadn’t heard of the Matthew Swift books, and it sounds like I’ll really need to take a look at those. That sort of magic may not work for every story, but if it’s done THAT well in those…

    I guess I’m kind of on the fence here. Like I said, I think there should be SOME rules and consistency, but that’s mostly a storytelling point of view and not an actual analysis of the possibilities of magics. Or magicks, if you prefer.

    Like, for instance, Neverending Story, where the magic is bounded only by Bastian’s imagination, but he loses a memory every time he uses it. There’s no need for any rules beyond that… but if it’s established that Bastian needs the Auryn to funnel through, and later on he does more powerful wishes without it… the readers might feel a little cheated. Unless the point is that the Auryn was never actually needed, it was just a crutch or tool to get him going.

    For my own good as much as anyone else, I prefer to hedge away from ‘anything goes’, even with magic… especially, gods help us, ‘anything goes because it’s fantasy’.

    But I think there’s room between ‘rules’ and ‘anything goes’ for a lot of wild, chaotic magic.

    I also think the difference between magic/fantasy and science/scifi is that there will almost always be an element of ‘just because’ about the magic. Science delves into the interaction between particles and atoms and electrons… But even in Mistborn, which has a very rigid set of rules for magic, there’s a ‘just because’ element to it. Certain people born are born with an innate ability, such as Pulling on metal items, which they need a reagent to activate/power…. but the root cause of THAT is because an extremely powerful being called Preservation made it so.

    The Dreamblood books establish (at least in Killing Moon, haven’t read Shadowed Sun yet) that there are four humours, which can be used by particular types of priests in particular types of ways. While that sounds a little mechanistic, at the root of it is ‘because they can’, which makes it more numinous. HOW do Gatherers gather Dreamblood? As an act of will, I suppose, but trying to explain it more scientifically than that would probably be futile and frustrating and diminishing…

    … and the story does not NEED that explanation. Dreamblood, Gatherers, check. Hananja makes it so, alright then. On to adventure!

    (I also suspect, after this conversation, that it’s not the only form of magic in the world of Gujaareh)

    One thing I have noticed more and more lately is that the more innovative and detailed a magical setting is, the more that the story becomes ABOUT that magic, about exploring it and discovering its secrets. Dreamblood dabbles with this a little, where Reapers are a myth…. and stories like Mistborn depend on it. The resolution of the Mistborn books is very much tied into where the magic comes from, what can be done with it, and what can be done that they don’t know about.

    Then there’s the Eli Monpress stories by Rachel Aaron. In those, the most common form of magic is spirit-magic, where a wizard (or Spiritualist) can talk to the spirits residing in this tree, that rock… that door, the fireplace, your sword… On one hand, the rules are very light: you must be born a wizard. That gives you the ability to talk to spirits… whether or not they help you is up to them. Spiritualists make contracts with different spirits, essentially building up a team of specialists that they take with them everywhere. Want fire? I have a fire spirit in this ring! Need wind? My pendant holds a wind spirit. And so on.

    And yet each book in the series is, besides being a fantastic story, an exploration of the different ways this magic can be used… and abused. An exploration of the rules, as it were. For instance, the first book presents us with the difference between a Spiritualist and a Dominator (imposing one’s will directly on the spirit, enslaving it), the next book demonstrates how a wizard can Dominate spirits without using magic, and so on.

    The advantage to having rules and mechanisms of magic, at least in Sanderson’s books, is that it gives the characters a sort of freedom. Within the rules and limitations, they are free to coming up with creative ways of using the structure. Like the horseshoe-enabled jumps mentioned earlier.

    On the other hand, I have noticed that in stories where magic requires a particular resource, they never run out of it unless the plot calls for it in a big way. This kind of draws me out of the story a bit, ‘oh, how convenient’. A good writer may be able to put in plausible ways for them to get more, even during battle, but I rarely get the feeling that the writer has actually been tracking how much the character has used up.

    It’s like counting bullets in a movie. They always seem to shoot as much as they need, and there’s rarely a sense of urgency with regard to how much ammo is left. Sure, they’ll run out or the gun will jam… but that’s usually just as the big bruiser arrives to wallop Indiana Jones into paste, or something. It’s played for comedy and tension, not because anyone actually made a decision how much ammo the hero actually has.

    In my view, anyways.

    Personally, I like the idea that there are different approaches to magic, both in writing it and in the fantasy world iself. I’m a little wary of stories in which there is only one form of magic and all cultures use it and there are no variations. Not that we need to be SHOWN each and every magic… just nice to have even a hint that different people came up with different things.

  43. Wow. Longer than I thought.

  44. Ellen! (I fangirl you all the time, won’t do it here :P)

    Again, thanks on the history. But why can’t we be the money-makers? OK, so “scientified” fantasy has had its day. These things go in waves. What can be done to encourage the fantasy-reading audience to give some love to the numinous stuff? Numie gets awards, sure, but what is it lacking that would make the Jordan/Martin/Brooks/etc fans take notice? (Besides “more penises”.) There has to be some balance between numinous magic and realistic adventure/politics/whatever that will attract them. I’ve tried, and the fact that I haven’t had to change my name and start my career over is a positive sign. But I refuse to believe numinous fantasy cannot be a bestseller in the fantasy category. I refuse to believe the audience is that tainted by “scientified” stuff that it can’t change.

  45. Jonathon,

    While that sounds a little mechanistic, at the root of it is ‘because they can’, which makes it more numinous. HOW do Gatherers gather Dreamblood? As an act of will, I suppose, but trying to explain it more scientifically than that would probably be futile and frustrating and diminishing…

    Well, technically speaking the reason they can do it because of (social) science — utilizing lucid dreaming techniques to access the collective unconscious, per some branches of psychodynamic theory. Which is utter bullshit to some people and practically a religion to others, and a science that can be empirically tested and proven to yet more. But why does it work? Why does that collective unconscious exist? Why are there dreams to use in this manner? Magnets. (Works as well as anything else as an explanation.)

    (I also suspect, after this conversation, that it’s not the only form of magic in the world of Gujaareh)

    The World of the Dreaming Moon, for lack of a better name. And no, it’s not. :) I had some thoughts about Gujaareen contact and trade with proto-magical ancient pseudo-India (as existed in the real world), but I need to do a metric asston more research before I ever tackle that one. But anyway, other civilized parts of the world, any place that’s had time to study and develop various disciplines, has its own form of magic, to varying levels of efficacy. As per the real world again.

    Anyway, don’t get me wrong; I don’t have a problem with mechanistic magic/fantasy. As a reader I’ve enjoyed it (Sanderson’s Mistborn is a great example), and I’ve used mechanistic stuff myself to varying degrees; as you note, it provides lots of convenient plothooks. My main concern is with the denigration of non-mechanistic fantasy (or numinous, or lyrical, or “just because”, or whatever it ends up being called), and the assumption that only mechanistic stuff has any hope of selling well. In my OP I asked whether fantasy was that limited, but maybe what I’m really asking is: is the fantasy audience that limited? I get that there’s a certain value in comfort food, and it’s a natural segue for kids who grew up on D&D (or Baen collections) to want D&D-esque mechanics in their fiction. But is the numinous that threatening/challenging?

  46. Well, technically speaking the reason they can do it because of (social) science — utilizing lucid dreaming techniques to access the collective unconscious, per some branches of psychodynamic theory. Which is utter bullshit to some people and practically a religion to others, and a science that can be empirically tested and proven to yet more. But why does it work? Why does that collective unconscious exist? Why are there dreams to use in this manner? Magnets. (Works as well as anything else as an explanation.)

    Magnets, atmospheric disturbance, the Great Mole living at the centre of the world… Wasn’t actually asking, just trying to make the point that going into that kinda detail wouldn’t have added anything to the book. :)

    As for the limitations in audience… maybe. You’ve posted on how limited the genre can be in other ways. And let’s not forget that Lord of The Rings spawned a wave of imitators as much as it spawned anything truly original.

    We go with what we know, I guess.

    I suppose that what it comes down to ‘how well it’s done’. If a reader has come across too much badly done numinous work, they probably won’t look for better examples…

  47. Sounds like we’re actually agreeing, apart from what constitutes “rules” for magic. :)

    The process was individual to the wizard, AFAICT. In a few cases, Ged didn’t even do that — he guessed. So there was no rule there.
    “You need to understand it” to me is a rule. The way of “understanding” being individual to each wizard is to me more like different learning strategies, or people using different mnemonics for the same topic, or people writing the same alphabet in different handwriting.

    Your description of the magic in the Inheritance Trilogy sounds quite similar to how I set up one world I play with.

    Magic is a force of nature, a form of energy created by living beings, and a human can use it to manipulate matter under certain circumstances, by shaping the energy as it leaves the body. To get a desired effect repeatedly, it’s very useful, for most people neccessary, to link it with some repeatable action, like gestures or words or a complicated ritual. Those can be taught to some extent, though not all magic-users will be able to use exactly the same, partly depending on how the surrounding culture has taught them to think about magic, partly by natural inclination. (There are more limitations-with-individual-variations, but this is long enough.)

    The flexibility is fun, certainly more fun than having everyone use the same “throw a pinch of bat guano and say these words” kind of rote-spells, but there is an underlying framework I can build on.
    Rules akin to “metal conducts electricty, rubber doesn’t”, without getting into orbitals and free electrons and whatnot.

  48. I’m reminded of the McSweeney short story collection “Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Other Things…” In the introduction Lemony Snicket offers several examples of the kind of “tedious” stories you won’t find within the book, including this one:

    “But if you’re a wizard,” asked Henry, “why can’t you just defeat the Shadow Lord and his army of vicious porcupines with a wave of your wand?”
    “That’s a good question, young Henry,” replied Thistlewing. “You’d better sit down, because I’m going to take the next nine pages to explain what wizards can and cannot do in this particular magical land.”

  49. This is a fascinating discussion. I’m going to throw in some thoughts from a different perspective, that of a student of historical occult practices. My background is western-European, so these observations may or may not apply to other cultures. But I suspect most of the readers and critics who want to talk about magic “systems” are coming from the western-European perspective too, so it may not be much of a deficiency when it comes to addressing them.

    I don’t think we should blame D&D for the systematization. The roots of that concept lie with the Victorian era occultists who spent untold hours and reams of paper devising systems and taxonomies and tables of equivalencies (Jupiter = Zeus = Thor, etc. ad. nauseum). This sphere on the tree of life is represented by that color, and that zodiac sign and that gemstone and so forth, and the good student should memorize them all. That thinking is still prevalent in a lot of modern occult books, and in fact some of those Victorian occult groups are still active and influential today (the Order of the Golden Dawn, for example).

    All too often when someone wants to write fantasy they pick up and skim a few of these books and then devise something based on that. And readers (and I suspect from anecdotal personal experience that there’s a lot of overlap demographically speaking between readers of fantasy and students/practitioners of paganism/wicca/new age disciplines/etc.) also expect this sort of organization, because that’s what they’ve been taught magic is.

    Magic having limitations is another thing that I think is culturally built-in. Historically in any story I can think of involving magic (and I’m looking at the epics of the ancient world, traditional fairy and folk tales, and the like) there are limits. They vary, and some of them seem arbitrary and capricious to the modern eye, but there are always reasons why the tribal wizard can’t just fix everything. Thus we unconsciously expect limits, and it feels wrong when there aren’t any.

    Personally I also want some consistency in the magic in stories I read. I don’t need to be told what the rules are in detail, but I want to feel that there are rules under there somehow. I think it would be hard to do that if you don’t have a least a general sense of how/why things work.

    However when I say that I don’t mean you need a taxonomy and mathematical model. It could be something as simple as the Earthsea example where the concept is that knowing and understanding a thing’s name is power over it, but that you will get variable results because applying the power that knowledge gives you is an art, not a science, and that the results are really about the relationship between the thing and the mage, so of course the state of mind of the mage matters.

    And, for the record, I thought the magic in Hundred Thousand Kingdoms worked very well. It’s all subjective of course, but I’m fairly fussy about these things, and it felt to me like there was a cohesive whole behind the pieces which we got to see in the story.

  50. “Haven’t read Discworld, alas. -_-”

    I think you shall take a chance with Small Gods. Not just because it is about gods and their worshippers and faith, but because I think it is one of the best Discworld novels as well.

  51. I largely agree with your points – I spent FAR more time worrying about continuity and backstory to make my book’s universe live and breathe than the system of magic. In point of fact, I deliberately did not use the over-used word “magic” once – neither did Tolkien.

    But interestingly, there IS a Sci-Fi element to the magic in my book(s). I see no reason that science and magic are mutually exclusive, in the same way that gods and science aren’t either – I have based a lot on known and theorised scientific principles on the back end, but the front end it’s just… other forces at work. In the end you could explain everything through science, but I’m not doing that in my books. I’m doing it for myself so I KNOW why things happen.

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says Arthur C. Clarke. True, and when you drill down into anything science eventually takes over. But I also admit I am not a fan of magic for the sake of it – Earthsea and Tolkien are PERFECT examples of mysticism, and Harry Potter (for me) is a perfect example of deus ex machina with inconsistencies and magic that feels like cheating.

    Regardless of your stance – my dragons are more than mortal, and have powers normal men can only guess at beyond the physical. Yet they are also physical, and science can describe them to some large degree.

    The last thing I’d say is that the magic/science divide is subjective in this instance – the science we have developed may not be the same as that of the cultures in the book!

    Basically, as an esteemed influence says, everything comes down to Quantum.

  52. This is such a great article and I completely agree with you. Part of what makes magic magic is that it’s magical! Great post and I hope it’s okay if I reblog it on my blog since this is a very interesting piece both in terms of the theory behind fantasy and on a more personal and practical level since I’m writing an urban fantasy novel now and have been moving away from magical “systems” to a more organic magic.

  53. The interesting thing about the Dungeons & Dragons rules of magic is that a significant percentage of the way it worked was taken from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books (learn magic from your spellbook, each spell works once then you forget it, etc.). Of course, this does not invalidate your complaint.

  54. I totally agree with you. I’ve been complaining for years that in modern fantasy magic often seems more like a pseudotechnology than something organic, intuitive, ineffable, and ultimately mysterious. This rule-obsessed approach to magic mundanizes magic and fantasy in general. The notion of a boarding school for magic is the logical expression of that systematizing, bureaucratizing trend. I would blame not just RPGs but also videogames, as well as the conflation of superpowers (as in superheroes) and magic. I think the pseudosciencing of magic is part of a larger trend of fantasy itself evolving from more dreamlike/surreal to conventional action-adventure.

    I don’t agree at all that without hard rules stories will devolve to Deus Ex Machinas. Actually, that’s just as likely to occur in rule-focused systems with the introduction of some super-object or uber-spell. After all, that kind of thing frequently happens in science fiction too.

  55. “…it felt to me like there was a cohesive whole behind the pieces which we got to see in the story.”

    And that, I think, is the crux of the matter. The readers of mechanistic magic don’t need you to place visible, measurable limits on your numinous magic, but they do need to know that YOU (i.e. the author) have placed “internal” limits on your numinous magic.

    Because otherwise, you’re just cheating.

  56. Welcome to all the new io9 commenters! Gonna mass-reply for time’s sake.


    True, and when you drill down into anything science eventually takes over.

    I don’t think that’s a given, actually. In stories in which gods are the source of magic (cough), how does science encompass that? And so on: magic as the dreams of dragons/spirit world (e.g. Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalkers), magic as the life trapped in interrupted phone conversations (e.g. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books), and so on. It really depends on how the author handles it.


    Feel free to link and excerpt, of course, but I only gave permission to io9 to reblog; please don’t post the whole thing.


    I made the point upthread that deus ex machinas occur because of bad writing, not because of unrestricted magic. And even deus ex machinas (or other writing techniques often derided, like self-insertion) can be done well, in the right hands. I think people are conflating “bad writing” with “unrestricted magic” — and my whole point is that this association is wrong.


    I keep hearing this idea that it’s “cheating” to have rule-free or numinous magic. Again, this feels like game logic. Cheating is bad because it harms fairness, in a game or negotiation. It means someone wins unfairly. But who wins or loses, with numinous fantasy? What game is compromised? And why must even numinous magic serve the mechanistic paradigm? Why does it have to be fair?

  57. I think it’s worth noting that, up until the 1600′s (Galileo, Newton), the vast majority of people on _this_ planet (you know, the one that’s not part of a fantasy world) believed that the world was basically numinous. Newton’s theory of gravity was world-changing, not because it explained apples falling, but because he had the audacity to claim that there was a rule about how matter interacts that applied to everything, stars, planets, people, apples, you name it.

    All that to say, if you want to read some examples of numinous magic, (other than the excellent ones already mentioned above) read the really old classics: the Odyssey, Beowulf, the Old Testament (forget the rules-based interpretation your sunday school teacher put on it, the Bible is full of unpredictable magic). Those authors lived in worlds they believed to be numinous.

    Also, if you think that type of magic is cheating, then you’re left thinking that all of the fountainheads of western literature (or eastern, for that matter) are “cheating”.

  58. Hi! First off, I am a huge fan of the Inheritance series, I really did enjoy that magic duality you put in. I like to think of it as the difference between Magic and Power. The thought of humans using rituals, blood, etc as a lever to move the big forces, while the gods simply DO it. I thought Steven Erikson did a great job with it in his Malazan series also. He had a very detailed world of magic, but it seemed that the line between burning someone to death using a warren and going into that very warren to converse with its denizens was thin, and he never seemed to get too immersed in the recipes, just the finished meal. Leaving some mystery in does seem to expand the interest, keep it up!

  59. I love old Arthur C. Clarke but I hate that quote of his because everyone misquotes it. What Clarke meant by it had nothing to do with fantasy fiction at all. He was talking about science fiction and he was addressing the gripes of hard SF fans who were whining that really wild, speculative, far future, weird science like quantum physics, aliens with extraordinary powers, and alternate dimensions, etc., in some science stories wasn’t “real” science and “real” science fiction, and therefore should count as fantasy instead. And he was saying that’s not true, that this was the wrong perspective of the type of science theory being used in the stories. That science is an exploration of understanding the universe that evolves over time and with discovery, and science fiction an exploration of thought about the universe.

    His response was concerning the seemingly endless battle between the demands of many for surety (rules) and the actual course of a writer, which is exploration with both language and ideas. The “rules” that people tout are not rules, but stylistic preferences, and they tend to be willing to throw over those preferences for a book they like that doesn’t follow them, with such arguments as the person is so good they can “break” the rules, or the rules have changed, etc. That the rules don’t actually exist in the first place is firmly rejected, no matter how much data you might present to them of the fact that authors don’t follow any rules. That way apparently lies chaos that must be denied. They reject the idea that instead writers have tools that can be used any number of different ways to explore both stories and methods of storytelling and language use. They reject the idea that their rules can be wrong, even if another person’s set of “rules” entirely contradicts their own — which happens frequently.

    One of these rules used to be that women can’t write any sort of fantasy that isn’t a romance, and therefore that such stuff is perfectly fine but not very good, and that idea is still often put forth. Rules are supposed to exert pressure after all. Somebody somewhere at some point, possibly in a writing class, possibly in a lecture, put forth the stylistic preference that magic had to be grounded in reality and have real world like limits as the way to write good fantasy fiction, and some of those seeking surety of what is good fantasy fiction accepted that preference as in line with their own and passed it around. This might be because of the magazines in America as Ms. Windling suggested, but I’ve seen plenty of the same from Brits, so I suspect it’s more a matter of personal orientation. Either you are okay with writers running around free, going into whatever cracks of writing and ideas they want to explore, or you’re not. If you’re not, you’ve probably got a set of rules you want them to follow before you accept them as legitimate.

  60. I was an astrophysics major, once upon a time, so I really enjoy the rules-based magic systems for what they provide me in terms of being able to chew on the implications and the consequences for a long time after I’ve finished reading the story.

    But, but, BUT.

    It drives me NUTS when a rule is imposed, but then later violated, with no explanation and no rational cause save that this got the plot where it was going. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, I guess, and I’m not really inclined to make myself mad by trying. (Sorry for the straw man. BUT I GET REALLY MAD.)

    I like numinous magic, too. It doesn’t give me quite the same chew-over factor, but if it isn’t supposed to make sense, then it doesn’t make me OMG FROTH AT THE MOUTH when it turns out not to make sense. I think that’s a sizable benefit.

  61. I think perhaps there is a problem of misunderstanding here. It seems to me that everyone is arguing different things.

    The article mentions ‘rules’ as being mechanistic but also mentions explanations for how magic works as being mechanistic. To me those are two completely different things. For instance, as far as I am aware (correct me if I’m wrong) D&D does not have much explanation as to what magic actually is and how it works beyond ‘it’s magic.’ But it DOES have a lot of rules. Rules galore. Rules like not wearing armour when spellcasting, how many seconds it takes to cast a spell, what kinds of spells different people can use, etc. In other words, I don’t really know how a computer works (it’s electricity and programming) but I could give you a bunch of rules for using it, and I could tell you what just isn’t going to work.

    Saying how something actually works is different. I imagine for magic you might have to say that it is down to movements of particles or whatever (or maybe Midichlorians, cos everyone LOVES midichlorians). To me, THIS is the bigger issue with fantasy and magic, as it is this that ruins the mystery if taken too far. I’ve never actually read a fantasy book that attempts to define magic to this extent, which is why the only example I could think of was Star Wars. I actually thought the numinous kind of magic was more popular. Perhaps I’m just missing the books that do this.

    To me, the latter example (what causes it/how does it work) is the mechanistic ‘scientisty’ example. That’s the one that’s all about explaining stuff. The former example (rules) is more about consistency. This one goes deeper than being an issue of games, or of fantasy. It’s a basic storytelling rule. All stories must have internal consistency or the reader will become frustrated and think you are copping out (to avoid the word ‘cheating’ since it is loaded with gaming associations).

    So it seems we are arguing two different things:

    1) Some people like everything to be explained and some people don’t. This is an issue shared with science fiction. I think that’s been covered fairly well in the comments so far. All the examples of numinous books given so far seem to fit into this argument. They don’t explain their magic; they just get on with the story.

    2) Most people agree that stories should have internal consistency. N.K. Jemisin is suggesting that this should not necessarily be the case when magic is involved. I.e. no rules, but no hidden rules either. Magic = chaos and truly anything can happen. Now this is a VERY interesting argument. Could a story actually work with absolutely no hidden rules and no consistency? I can actually only think of one story I’ve read where I’ve seen this attempted, and it’s technically not a magic example, but it works: Jack Vance’s short story ‘The Men Return.’ And even that had to explain fairly quickly that the ‘rule’ is ‘no rules’ and then re-establish normal order at the end. As for all the examples listed already of numinous magic, I do not consider any of these to lack some kind of internal consistency. Most of the examples are simply either stories with hidden rules, or stories where the magic itself is not explained (i.e. they actually relate to argument number 1). Does anyone know of ANY examples of any kind of story where there are really no rules at all, hidden or otherwise? Where the author has managed to get away without having internal consistency and still achieved a satisfying story? I suspect it would be very hard, if not impossible, and I think I would find it frustrating, but I would love to see a good writer succeed. As KatG pointed out, storytelling rules such as ‘your story must be consistent’ are only considered unbreakable until someone breaks them well.

    My own view – I prefer very little explanation (numinous), and hidden rules. I have to say that I like consistency, not for the sake of having rules, but because I think stories in general work better when there is some internal consistency. Hope all that made sense, and sorry if I was stating the obvious at any point!

    P.S. Do you have any examples of this mechanistic/numinous snobbery in action? E.g. forums where people are criticising stories where the magic isn’t systematised enough? I genuinely didn’t know this was an issue in fantasy and I’m interested to see the arguments.

  62. Oh wow, didn’t realise the post was that long. Sorry!

  63. Victoria H,

    It’s interestingly mechanistic that you seem to want to categorize and simplify this conversation. ;)

    I’m feeling the all-over-the-placeness of it too, though, and I agree; there are several things being discussed and conflated. I would argue that part of the problem is that we’re arguing taste here, especially as regards to your point 1. Some of the magic examples I’ve cited here as being unexplained has been pounced upon by readers as, “But wait! There’s plenty of explanation” because reasons, and some of those reasons come down to, “the world has a basic structure and that’s enough to qualify it as ‘explained’”. There’s no real arguing that, because who’s to say what’s “enough” structure? Does even the loosest degree of structure = rules? I’d been thinking of magic systems in which the structure is firm, very visible, and indeed a key plot element of the story. But not everyone seems to feel the same way, and I can’t say they’re wrong.

    And part of the problem we’re having is that structure — rules — is a continuum, not an absolute thing. How much structure makes something mechanistic? How little makes it numinous? To a degree it’s possible to argue that any story that’s comprehensible in the English language has some sort of structure.

    Which brings me to the third problem we’re having — the fact that the whole “magic must have rules” thing has been conflated with quality of writing. This is because it usually gets mentioned in writing books as an admonition to aspiring writers, and is therefore associated with writing quality/degree of publishability. (Is that a word? I’m a writer. I say it is.) When it really shouldn’t be. Magic having rules or not has nothing to do with whether a story is publishable. Internal consistency, the successful use of cliches like the deus ex machina… good writing does these regardless of whether the magic has rules or not. Bad writing fails at all these things even with the most regimented of magic systems. (As I saw with some of my students.)

    For the sake of clarifying the discussion, let’s just talk about good writing.

    I’ve mentioned a few examples of what I thought constituted rules-free magic upthread. You’ve asked about examples of the numinous vs mechanistic debate too, and I would urge you to read the comments thus far — several events defining this debate have been mentioned. The debate has been a deep divide in fantasy for several decades. The battle is mostly over, though, and the mechanists have won, for now. Visit any reader reviews of any popular fantasy novel on Amazon and I can guarantee you’ll see some readers praising (if it’s structured) or complaining about (if it’s looser/more numinous) the magic system. It’s in the fantasy mainstream now.

  64. VictoriaH,

    You try to make a distinction between magic that is mechanistic and magic that follows rules, but I don’t think that there is actually a difference there. All rule-based systems ultimately get to a point at which they throw up their hands and say, “That’s just the way it is!” To take an example from science, our best understanding of what happens when two electrons get close to each other is that they interact through virtual photons. Why do they do that? “That’s just the way it is!” There isn’t really a better explanation, but it doesn’t make the scientific theory any less rule based.

    Whether you posit rules that operate at some small, “fundamental” level, then build up larger rules, or simply start with the larger rules, may make a difference in terms of the enjoyability of the story to a given person, but doesn’t, to me, make a qualitative difference in the numinous vs. rules divide. The essential question is, can a character, given the right training, reliably produce an effect, or is the outcome somewhat random regardless of the character’s magical competence? The rest of it, to me, is detail (albeit very important detail if I’m going to enjoy a story).

  65. Here’s the thing — most of you authors do not have detailed, highly systemitized magic systems. I have encountered very few outside of D&D tie-in books maybe and even there, it’s largely in the background. You all have methods by which things fantastic happen in your worlds, whether it’s a secondary world or contemporary Earth, etc. For instance, you have a particular method in the Inheritance trilogy — the gods can be enslaved. There is a way to do this. It involves jewelry. In other authors’ stories with gods, the gods cannot be enslaved. In LeGuin’s Earthsea, names are important in the magic. In other stories by other authors, names are irrelevant to magic. These are essentially different “systems” of magic. But few of you really worry about limitations of magic, having very stringent rules, trying to make the magic as inconsequential or structured as possible with characters leveling up, etc. Whatever magical stuff you have, it’s a tool and one you play around with to whatever degree you stylistically prefer.

    And publishers, editors, in the majority don’t really give a fig what sort of magic methods you’re using or what type of magic and magic beasties you have. John Silbersack, who headed up Roc and then became a literary agent, once wrote an essay called “The Importance of Calling Everyone Fred” which was about how he advised his junior editors and agents to just call all the characters in fantasy stories “Fred” when they had problems with remembering and pronouncing the complicated names such characters often had. Because the names didn’t matter and the magic didn’t matter. It was the story that mattered.

    And they don’t really matter to the readers either. Some readers do have very detailed preferences and won’t read a book that has a lot of magic or won’t read a book that does not have magic popping up every second. But overall, for most, it’s not the magic, but the characters readers get obsessed with in the context of that magic.

    But new writers don’t know this. They tend to go with whatever anybody who might seem to know something tells them and which then fits with their own preferences or fears about writing. And so they’re absolutely convinced that their magic systems are critical to editors and getting published, when the editors could care less. And they are absolutely convinced that their magic systems are critical to the readers, most of whom could care less (but are less vocal about it.) And so they’re desperately working out their magic systems because they’re terrified. They want to “do it right.” It becomes their own sort of magic talisman. And yes, I do think a lot of it comes from gaming, which is where a lot of folk first develop an interest in fantasy past children’s books.

    But the reason that dreamier, mythic fantasy gets less exposure sometimes versus war epics (although mythic fantasy can sell as well and better and certainly has a better shot at awards perhaps,) has nothing to do with magic systems, as far as I can tell. It’s simply that some fantasy stories have less broad war violence and dark broody warriors killing folk. And there is a good chunk of the audience, both dedicated fans and casual non-fans, who like that dark violence in large amounts and on a large scale. Of course, then you get into the readers who are absolutely set on fantasy novels only having casts of hundreds of characters or it’s not good versus the readers who think various authors have too many characters for it to be good, and so on. And when you are a new author, or even one a bit further ahead, you can imagine what hearing all these demands does. Either you turn those voices off and write what compels you, which it’s fair to say that Jamison, Windling, Kushner, Sykes, etc. have mostly done, or you frantically try to find the magic formula of success and goodness.

  66. KatG,

    Thanks for your earlier context on the Clarke quote! I’m not sure it matters, though, because Clarke’s context isn’t what’s used anymore; most people use that quote simply to emphasize that magic and science are really not different. (Or to protest the linkage, as I’m doing.)

    Not sure what you mean about jewelry, in 100K. Are you referring to the Stone of Earth? (Not exactly jewelry; more like a grisly relic.) But Itempas only uses it as the “padlock” for the gods’ chains because it was convenient at the time. He could’ve used something else. What enslaves the Enefadeh is the fact that they lost the war and were chained at that time — a circumstantial thing, not a material thing, and not something anyone could do. There’s definitely structured magic in the Inheritance Trilogy, but that part isn’t.

    And I would argue that mechanistic fantasy sells better (Sanderson’s Mistborn books have been mentioned several times, and I would agree with the characterization of these as mechanistic; I haven’t read his other books, though, so others will have to chime in on those). So obviously readers do care, or this kind of fantasy wouldn’t dominate the bestsellers. I can’t think of a numinous fantasy that’s hit the bestseller lists in fantasy in the past 10 years. (Cat Valente just did, but that was in children’s fiction. King — his Dark Tower is pretty numinous — always has, but that’s in horror.) Rothfuss’ books’ magic has to be taught in a school; mechanistic. Martin’s magic is used so sparingly that it almost doesn’t qualify for this conversation; we don’t even see it ’til the end of the first book, and then it’s just the rebirth of the dragons. So probably safe to say readers aren’t embracing him for his magic. Anyway, Jordan’s mechanistic. Eddings is mechanistic. Haven’t read Brooks. And of course there’s game tie-ins like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms; those are routinely on the bestseller list, and I suspect they outsell Martin.

    So it’s logical to conclude that on some level, mechanistic stuff is what the bulk of the fantasy audience wants. Numinous stuff wins lots of awards, but it doesn’t gain the widespread adoption by readers that writers need if they’re to have a lasting career in this business. The days when an author could have a lasting career on the midlist are done; for most publishers you either go big or go home. So I agree with you that writers should write what they’re drawn to and not seek some sort of winning formula… but I don’t blame new writers for thinking about what it takes to survive once they manage to break through. They’d be foolish not to.

    (‘Course, plot and characterization are kind of important to survival too.)

  67. “It’s interestingly mechanistic that you seem to want to categorize and simplify this conversation. ;)”

    Heh, yes I saw the irony of that too, but still felt it needed doing :)

    And I do still think people are arguing different things. Your reply to KatG demonstrates this. I think your definition of what counts as ‘numinous’ is very different from that of most of the people posting replies. You say that there has not been any numinous magic in the bestsellers for a long time, and you consider books where characters have to go to school/university to learn magic to be ‘mechanistic.’ So for you, it’s actually implied rules that make the magic mechanistic. In other words, if you can study and learn it, there must be rules?

    This would make A LOT of the books that people have already been listing count as mechanistic: Harry Potter, Discworld, Trudi Canavan’s Magician trilogy (and her new books in that series), to name just a few that have been bestsellers. A lot of the commenters here have been considering these books numinous because no-one really knows how magic works in them. In Discworld magic is pretty erratic, in Trudi Canavan’s books it’s, er, energy I think? In Harry Potter… I have no idea, it’s just an innate ability in some people. But in all these books there are institutions where people study magic and learn how to use it, which implies some kind of rules, which for you is making it mechanistic. Surely even Earthsea would now have to be considered mechanistic, since there is a university where magic can be studied. And this is exactly why I was drawing a line between ‘how does it work’ and ‘rules.’ For the sake of sanity, just WHAT is ‘numinous’ magic? Is the numinous/mechanistic division even helpful if so many people are interpreting it in completely different ways? Trying to put works of fiction into categories is always fraught with difficulties because stories never fit neatly into one, but if we can’t even agree on what those categories actually mean then the situation is a bit hopeless.

    I agree with a lot of KatG’s points. I’ve seen fantasies criticised for not being ‘gritty’ enough, or for being too ‘mystical feeling’. But this isn’t necessarily to do with the actual magic found in them. You can have magic without rules, universities, or explanations of how it works, in a very gritty and realistic fantasy. You can also have magic with more rules in a very mystical or mythical feeling fantasy. Your own examples seem to me to be more about atmosphere than actual magic. Earthsea FEELS mystical, so the magic seems more numinous, even though it actually does have rules, is semi-explained, and the characters can go to university to study it. Brooks FEELS more real and ‘epic battley’ so it’s being considered mechanistic when the magic is actually more mysterious. I could be wrong on Brooks – that was my impression from reading one book, and one book was quite enough for me. So perhaps the people demanding ‘mechanistic’ magic are really demanding gritty atmosphere?

    I realise this argument is in danger of getting bogged down in semantics and being pulled off track a bit, but it’s hard to avoid that when trying to draw a line between two different kinds of fiction. In general most commenters are agreeing with you though, in that trying to say any one kind of story has merit over another is absurd. And I completely agree with you on that. There should be room for every kind of magic, and anything that’s different from the norm should be welcomed rather than criticised.

    And thank you for the fascinating discussion! It’s obviously something people really do care about, based on the comments.

  68. I think you’re a little mixed in what you’re arguing.

    Mechanistic vs numinous is a description, same as soft and hard above. But it is a desciption which revolves around how the magic is presented to the reader, *not* how the magic works within the setting as far as the author is concerned. The key requirement for fantastic literature is that the magic is consistent within its setting. Usually this results in the classic Magic A is Magic A – you perform this incantation and that happens. It can also result in the opposite – performing incantations has unpredictable effects – but those effects have to be consistent for story purposes. As Cracked put it so well – “We don’t ask that you stay within the bounds of physics, but at least follow the rules you freaking made up”

    A good example would be Questor Thews in Brook’s Landover – his spells never work how he wants them to, but they do always work how the plot wants them to. The consistency *is* his lack of control. If he ever actually gained control over his spells, there would be no story as he could magic everything right again.

    The one thing that tends to kill a story dead is the idea of new rules as the plot demands – for example in Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, where each successive book violates more and more the ‘laws’ set up in the previous books and by the end everything feels cheapened as anything is allegedly possible. You kind of wonder why the super knowledgeable mentor didn’t just go ‘oh by the way you can do this’ around book 2 or so and save us a dozen sequels.

    As a contrast, Erikson has his intricate system of Warrens & Holds, High Mages and hedge witches but while the mechanics were carefully played out by the creators, the reader never actually gets the explanation, they just see the actions and effects. Because the system is consistent though across the books, you readily accept new actions that are supported by what you’ve seen before in a new way, rather than questioning how it should be possible. It retains the feeling of awe rather than jolting you out of the story.

    Lyndon Hardy probably took the mechanistic classification of magic furthest with his Master of the Five Magics and Thaumaturgy/Alchemy/Sorcery/Magic/Wizardry where each school follows its own rules rigidly, but what is possible for one is not for another.

    Another route is the classical mythological division into High Magic / Hedge Magic / Wild Magic. High is usually consistent, ritualised and relatively strong. Think nobility, craftsmanship, wands and artifacts of power. Low/Hedge is usually very reliable, relatively weak, and able to be done by anyone with a few bits of string. Think healers, midwives, camouflage. Wild Magic is usually innate to the caster, highly unpredictable, and extremely powerful. Think unicorns, dragons, lightning.

    Any magic system can be mechanical, and any can be numinous, the extent depends entirely on how much you want to reveal to the reader. If your plot revolves around some clever manipulation of the rules of magic, then you need to explain them so we can appreciate the trick.

    If it simply requires that the party get from A to B then ‘A Wizard Did It’ works fine, so long as you don’t then have the same situation crop up and have the reader go ‘why doesn’t the wizard do it *again*?’
    A magical conjuration of a bridge for example, unrepeatable 10 min later at the next creek because …
    We don’t care why, so long as it is consistent. Martin gets away with this here – the seasons in ASoiaF are absurd, yet all he needs to say is ‘its magical’ and that’s all the justification we need for now. Erikson did the same – he had glaciers & ice sheets on the equator, which we later found to be due to a spell which was finally failing, and even later still turned into a morass of broken ice clogging the shipping lanes as it melted.

  69. I think you do misunderstand me, more in that I’m talking about science at this very moment rather than a far flung time in the future where we understand everything. Yes, science is determined to be able to answer every question with something other than “just because” but, if a book world was actually real, you could bet there were people within it studying magic to figure it out (unless the magic is strictly contained or the beings in that world don’t have humanity’s curiosity).

    The only difference is that magic isn’t real, and the book world is more finite, so they don’t have uncounted numbers of people spending millennia looking for answers. These people don’t have to appear in the book at all, and I’m sure there are plenty of people in the book satisfied with “just because,” just like there are plenty of people in our world satisfied with that answer for our unexplainables (and even some of the explained *sigh*).

    Mainly I’m saying that it’s silly for people to expect magic to be fully explained and known in the context of a book world where, when you look at any time in our history, humans cannot fully explain and know the phenomena of their own world.

  70. Victoria H,

    You say that there has not been any numinous magic in the bestsellers for a long time, and you consider books where characters have to go to school/university to learn magic to be ‘mechanistic.’ So for you, it’s actually implied rules that make the magic mechanistic. In other words, if you can study and learn it, there must be rules?

    Not exactly. It’s more that if the book is about the mechanics of magic, or if a significant proportion of the story focuses on same even if that’s not the overall purpose, I would count that as mechanistic. In a school story, the reader as well as the characters must understand the rules and structure of magic, because the story’s conflicts will often revolve around learning this. I would indeed count Harry Potter as mechanistic, although it’s sold in the children’s category. The magic there is simple (speak pseudoLatin word/phrase, point wand made of special materials, think certain thoughts, be a wizard), but the mechanics are key to the plot (Harry has to pass his Apparition exam! He hasn’t had time to practice Apparition!), especially in the later books with the Elder Wand, etc. Likewise Sanderson’s Mistborn books; much of the first book revolves around Vin learning to use her power, so the reader learns along with her. A crucial plot element in the later books is the characters figuring out the complexity of magic and realizing how their misunderstanding/incomplete knowledge gave their enemies an advantage.

    Earthsea, however, isn’t about the mechanics of magic, despite the time Sparrowhawk/Ged spends on Roke. The story doesn’t spend much time on explaining how magic works (because Ged is some kind of prodigy; Le Guin basically handwaves the mechanics and says “Ged learned a lot of stuff really fast and wowed his teachers”); it’s focused almost exclusively on what kind of person Ged is as he learns, and how his arrogance/self-absorption causes problems. There’s assumably a structure to the magic because there is a school, but given that the magic Ged learns goes wrong because of his personality, there’s no need for the reader to understand how the magic works; the reader needs to understand how Ged works.

    Numinous is hard to define. :) The best description I can come up with is embedded magic — magic that simply is, that doesn’t have a purpose other than beauty or divinity or reflecting personality. The numinous is simply accepted rather than questioned or classified or analyzed. Most fairy tales are numinous, for example — of course witches build gingerbread houses that aren’t devoured by a gajillion ants, of course wolves can talk, of course swans turn into princesses, of course mermaids are real. There’s no logic to the existence of a mermaid; no one tries to figure out what kind of evolutionary path could possibly have produced such bizarre creatures. They just are.

  71. Actually, there are people who do stuff like speculating what evolutionary path could have produced a mermaid. http://ask.metafilter.com/53885/Red-fish-blue-fish-big-breasted-fish

  72. What, you think the Greeks ever rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang? (Please don’t send me links to wherever someone has rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang.)

    No, but the idea is thoroughly mocked in the earlier Percy Jackson books, when a tiny kid goes up to Dionysus and tells him he has terrible stats in a Magic: The Gathering-style Greek gods trading cards game :)

  73. This is why I have always been more of a fan of fantasy (specifically numinous fantasy, though Rothfuss and HP are favs) than “hard” science fiction. Fundamentally, I don’t CARE how the magic in the world exists as long as the writing is good and the characters are believable and I care about them. I’m a huge fan of Star Trek, but I never understood the people who wanted to find how how the warp coils actually worked or dissect each line of engineering dialog. In my mind, all I need is “they fly around in a magical ship and go to different places and happen upon interesting cultures. Sometimes the ship breaks down and they need some guys to fix it. Every once and a while the crew discovers hidden secret things about the ship they didn’t know before.” Sound like fantasy to you, doesn’t it? But..but.. but.. dilithium crystals! Whatever.

    I am actually surprised that Gaiman hasn’t come up more in this discussion because his books are widely popular and the magic in them is decidedly unexplained/ mysterious as it should be. His books have certainly cracked bestseller lists, and while he’s mostly been writing children’s/ YA books of late, Anansi Boys was a recent one that was up there in the top 10. I also enjoyed the Riyria books by Michael J Sullivan because they had the epic sweep and scope of more mechanical fantasies, but he allowed the magical element to remain somewhat unknowable and undefined, though his books were only on top 10 lists on Amazon.

  74. Perhaps I should clarify – I simply mean that if you drill down into anything far enough patterns emerge and organisation and understanding of those patterns as a verified thoery is science.

    That doesn’t mean an author will necessairily do that for readers, of course!

    But I totally agree that magic, although it as a concept needs some form of limit or else it can make no sense at all (even Tolkien’s and LeGuin’s had limits), it needs to remain mystical and intangible to a large degree… or it simply isn’t magic any more.

  75. N.K. Jemisin,

    Ahhh, ok, I understand what you mean much better now, thanks! I can see what you mean about there not being much of that kind of magic in the bestsellers recently then. Maybe this will change soon?

    However, I don’t think this is how most people understand numinous vs mechanistic, as many of the comments suggest. I think Mayhem’s comment demonstrates why (and this is also why I was confused at first). People are assuming you’re talking about stories that explain things vs stories that don’t (see Joanne’s comment). Or they think you are talking about stories with a lot of very specific rules rather than the slightly more vague rules we see in Harry Potter, etc. (as I did at first). Still, while all of these different arguments are really focussing on different issues, they’re all interesting to the wider ‘how magic is presented’ debate.

    But yes, it really would be nice to see some more fairytale magic for a change :)

  76. I’ve always thought that the reason magic had to have rules is because that’s what people do. Even if the underlying power thingie itself doesn’t have rules, people will invent them to try to understand what is happening.

    It’s the same thing that happens when someone says “If I leave the bus stop, the bus will come for certain.” It’s a rule, but it doesn’t make any sense.

    If you aren’t writing humans, then fair enough, but I’ve yet to run across a human society that doesn’t try to codify things. I think they’d do the same with magic.

  77. I have to admit I’ve started skimming toward the end, so I may have missed some of this…

    When I read fantasy, though, I find that magic systems (and I use the word to differentiate the magic of one literary world from another) that work for me are those that have internal consistency and those that don’t work for me are systems that are just used by the author because of the rule of cool or as a deus ex machina. I know above someone mentioned the bridge over one river and not over the next, and that is really galling.

    Lucas was brought up as an example of how explaining is wrong, but I’d argue that it was wrong because the explanation was not only not needed, and was also *incorrect*- it didn’t even fit with the rules of its own world that we had seen for ourselves, as viewers, in the previously created movies.

    Tolkein, I’d say, is an example of an author whose magic also worked on the rule of cool rather than from any internal consistency. There’s no particular reason Gandalf couldn’t have hucked the ring into Mordor, after all, except that the book would’ve been over in the first paragraph. Readers were given an authorial claim that the ring corrupts… but we never saw it happen to our slow-witted protagonist who wandered through the landscape at a snail’s pace, other than as a developing desire not to get rid of the ring. Basically, what the author told us about the magic, and what we actually got, were two vastly different things. Magic without consistency in this case is really just a specific name for the plot hole.

    I think for me it really comes down to three points:
    1) Your magic must have rules about how it operates. They need not be logical, but they absolutely must be unbending and inviolate. If you tell me magic doesn’t work on people who wear purple unless it’s a full moon, that’s fine, but never go against it.

    2) I don’t, as a reader, need to know these rules unless they are important to the plot. If the rules of the magic prevent our characters from taking the quickest, most effective route to solving the problem, then we need to know why. Or if the characters are going to use the rules as a plan as to how to accomplish their goals, then we should know that as well.

    3) As a corollary to 2, *anything* that drives the plot needs a well thought out explanation behind it. This might be character motivations, how magic works, or any other plot point. Humans are generally curious creatures, and human brains are pretty much pattern-recognition machines. Any story that depends on large populations of people never once thinking about or trying to explain something -even if they get it *wrong*- will bend suspension of disbelief enough to make it go sproing.

  78. When you mentioned a lack of recent bestsellers in the “numinous” category, I immediately thought of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was a huge success by any measure. Its magic may seem mechanistic and ordered,(has any book ever had more footnote about the history and practice of magic?) but that’s only on the surface. In the book the source of magic remains an utter mystery (other than having something to do with Faerie, and to a lesser extent, being English.)and its applications and permutations seem limitless. In fact, on a certain level the novel is an argument between Norrell, who believes and practices a mechanistic approach to the subject, and Strange who intuits that magic is much more wild, strange and powerful than anyone has imagined.

  79. “I’m not sure it matters, though, because Clarke’s context isn’t what’s used anymore; most people use that quote simply to emphasize that magic and science are really not different.”

    I know, which drives me insane. :)

    I’m getting a slightly better handle on what you mean by numinous and mechanistic then, but I think it’s something that starts to get easily muddled. For instance:

    “The story doesn’t spend much time on explaining how magic works (because Ged is some kind of prodigy; Le Guin basically handwaves the mechanics and says “Ged learned a lot of stuff really fast and wowed his teachers”); it’s focused almost exclusively on what kind of person Ged is as he learns, and how his arrogance/self-absorption causes problems. There’s assumably a structure to the magic because there is a school, but given that the magic Ged learns goes wrong because of his personality, there’s no need for the reader to understand how the magic works; the reader needs to understand how Ged works.”

    This is pretty much exactly what Patrick Rothfuss does in his trilogy. In fact, Rothfuss does a lot of borrowing from Earthsea, though this is in part because a layer of Rothfuss’ books are satirical in approach. But if that’s the case, then Rothfuss’ trilogy is numinous and it was a large bestseller. Likewise, fans of Mistborn have far less interest in Vim and often dislike her parts of the book. What they like is that it’s a devastated world where the Evil Overlord rules, the mutilations and violence, the rebellion and attempt at a supercharged overthrow war — the dark stuff. I’m not saying the mechanistic stuff about the metals isn’t in there and central; I just don’t think that’s the driving force to its popularity. Likewise Susanna Clarke’s bestselling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — which one is that? Charlaine Harris’ bestselling Sookie Stackhouse mystery novels are definitely not mechanistic under this rubric. Other books it would be something of a toss up which way you’d put them. King’s Dark Tower series is not horror. It’s dark fantasy, in much the same way as Valente’s Pamplisest, and it is a massive bestseller. It’s also dark, violent, partly a western, lots of war stuff, etc. Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Robin Hobb, Terry Pratchett — all major bestsellers I’m not sure I’d see as mechanistic, nor Tad Williams either. Laurell K. Hamilton, Kelley Armstrong, Lev Grossman, Lynn Kurland, Gail Z. Martin, maybe Brent Weeks, would all be more of a toss up perhaps. Where would you put Mercedes Lackey, who is #33 on the NYTimes list right now? Elizabeth Moon? Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels are toss ups perhaps; I haven’t read his Codex Alera novels. I’m willing to bet they have big battle scenes, though. I’m not really sure that the data supports the idea that mechanistic fantasies “dominate” the bestseller lists. In fact, you could make a convincing argument at the moment that contemporary fantasies (more suspense, less mechanism,) and fantasy published outside the imprints but cross-market through them — fantasy titles that tend more to the numinous — are dominating the bestseller lists. If you include the YA titles, which are also still dominating, then mechanistic has an edge there, as the coming of age learning of the powers is a staple of YA — and adult fantasy too of course with its orphans. But so too are simply a girl and her dragon stories that may not be that mechanistic.

    Martin is the top seller right now behind Jordan, devoutly worshiped, boosted by the t.v. show, and loved again for his characters and his war, violence and darkness, and certainly doesn’t fit the mechanistic idea. (And the D&D tie-in novels don’t outsell him, although R.A. Salvatore is probably tied or a bit ahead of Neil Gaiman.) In Martin’s world, magic either exists or emerges/re-emerges and isn’t much explained. But it’s also quite present. In the first book, long before you get to the baby dragons, you have zombies and their mystical White Walker masters, dream visions and prophecies, including a spirit visitation of the three-eyed crow (who’s real,) the direwolves — accepted to exist magical creatures mystically linked to the Starks who in various degrees exhibit magical powers of transferable consciousness, the giant ice wall which was made by magic from the First Peoples long ago and no one knows how it works, blood magic out in the desert with Dany’s captive witch with demon spirits, mention of other magic and magical creatures such as giants, magic Martin sneaks in such as the magical greyscale disease, and so forth. What’s interesting is that people do tend to forget how much magic is in the book and series and how the whole central conceit of the book — winter is coming — is built around magic and a coming war of magic. Instead, what they tend to talk about in what they like is, again, the characters, the battles, the violence, the dark political intrigue. Mostly, in secondary world fantasy, it is a fascination with military war. In contemporary fantasy, it runs to thrillers in parallel with suspense fiction.

    I agree that mid-list fiction writers have a much harder time now. The wholesale market that sustained them died off to a trickle in the 1990′s, the specialty bookstores struggled in numerous recessions the last thirty years and the list slashings of mid-list titles by publishers, etc., many factors have lead to individual titles selling less numbers out front. It’s not easy what writers do.

    But if that’s the survival mode, then instead of an elaborate magic system — which large swathes of readers, both fantasy fans who applaud Martin’s “low” magic use and non-fans drifting into fantasy novels of all stripes, say they don’t like — new writers would be better served by concentrating on the forms of story that tend to draw readers. In secondary fantasy, that’s military war — very detailed battle scenes with soldiers, preferably broody ones. In contemporary and historical fantasy, that tends to be thriller suspense with violent fight scenes. Doing these stories does not guarantee success at all, but it’s likely to have a larger impact than whether your protagonist rides a dragon whose existence is never explained or must study how to do complicated bindings in a school.

    People really don’t remember the details of these magic systems, just as I didn’t remember precisely about the chains in your book. If you round up a bunch of fans of Mistborn, I’m pretty sure a lot of them can’t tell you about the whole metals system and what each power is from them. But the characters, they’ll tell you about them, and maybe a fight scene that particularly struck them or an interaction. So from my experience, I agree with you that the new writers are barking up the wrong tree. (Sorry to be long winded — was catching up.)

  80. I find this article incredibly interesting. Going back to the Clarke quote, I’ve always found the sort of dichotomy of science and magic fascinating. In my own mind fantasy is just science fiction in which the physical laws of the world aren’t understood on a mathematical level and proven as fact. Hence it’s magic. On a personal level I crave the mystery of the unknown and I read science fiction and fantasy for different reasons. When an author writing fantasy tries to bridge the gap between the two, in my mind he/she has stopped writing fantasy and has started delving into science fiction territory.

    Google definies magic as “The power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.” The key word here is mysterious. I don’t, and won’t waste a reader’s time defining rules for a system of physical laws if I’m writing fantasy. When you start attaching laws to your magic and slapping giant appendices to your novels which take a physics degree and 3D rendering software to understand you have taken the magic out of the fantasy. You’ve dropped a Newtonian bomb on the sense of mystery which no amount of clever writing will really retain. Yeah, you can add other mysteries but the work as a whole just seems lesser for it. If an author is going to routinely do this he/she should relable their works as something other than fantasy.

    On the other hand, when I’m writing science fiction these laws are essential. The scientific method must be observed. The fantastic technologies are definied as such and the implication that science is somehow involved in these fictitious gadgets and gizmos is maintaned.

    Like I said above, we read these genres for totally different reasons. I think the annoyance comes when we go into a work expecting fantasy but are given science fiction and in some cases vice versa.

  81. I just finished reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms last night, and I remember thinking that the magic was perfectly pitched. In a couple of instances, I remember thinking that the magic was too tidy — she heals especially when Sieh cleans up for her like Mary-Fucking Poppins. But as a whole piece, the irony of these instances is powerful: all that magic and they can’t make peace, they can’t break free without mortal assistance, they can’t avoid suffering, and so on.

    AND! AND! AND! I don’t know if you, the author, intended me, the awed reader, to leap to this point, but here I go: isn’t that the truth and magic of this world? You can wield all the power you want, but, without compassion, you can’t ever be truly free and you can’t ever be truly at peace.

    So, I think magic has to make sense, but maybe not the way that you’re ranting about.

  82. With regards to magic, all I ask of any fantasy story is that if a character struggles to create a campfire with magic in one chapter an explanation is given if later he easily destroys a entire building with magical fire.

    He could believe that magic was the will of the gods and completely unpredictable, or that its affected by his belief etc… The character himself would have an answer even if it wasn’t the truth. The truth doesn’t need to be decided or given to the reader, but I feel the characters thoughts on the subject/reaction should be.

  83. Your point is kind of incoherent.

    By saying “it’s magic,” you give it a logic. It might not be the same kind of logic as is present in a scientific system, but a logic nevertheless. Any time a character experiences a phenomena and says “that’s magic,” their observation of that phenomena is theory-laden. They have an idea of some thing called “magic” (albeit mysterious and supernatural), and this idea has a logic to it. They might not know all the details, it may be obscure and mystical, but nevertheless the word “magic” serves as an explanation of the phenomenon, and some understanding comes with it. Hence semantic holism and the Quine-Duhem thesis. This is not a bad thing. Something being logical simply is something that is meaningful. We can’t actually get away from logic if the words we use are intended to communicate anything, that is, that they have any semantic relevance. It’s one thing to assert that magic “shouldn’t make sense,” but quite another to say it should be meaningless. By asking to make magic independent of logic, you’re actually asking for something that is impossible to do, and no fantasy writer has actually done it or ever will. A fantasy writer could not make reference to the concept of “magic” if that concept were not in some way meaningful, otherwise the sentence would be gibberish.

    The problem is that you’re using the word “logic” and you don’t really know what it means. What particularly clued me in is how you contrasted “logic” with feelings and emotions. This is a very common distinction that gets made in our culture, and one that is completely ignorant. Logic is not the same thing as rationality. Feelings and emotions have a logic to them, too. Otherwise they couldn’t be the feelings and emotions that they are.

    I can agree that magic should be mysterious in some way. There are, perhaps, some magical systems which, because of their resemblance to science, strip away the mysterious enchanting effect they are supposed to elicit in the reader. The word for this is “entzauberung.” I love fantasy as a genre because I love how it can make use of concepts of the mystical and transcendent which seem out of place in sci-fi. But that doesn’t mean that I should object to magic having a basis in some metaphysical system. In my opinion, an intricate metaphysical system can contribute even MORE to the feeling of magic being obscure and esoteric than if it is simply vague. Even real world religions and mysticism have a theology, and real world magical traditions always have systems, too. The fact is, it’s human nature to seek understanding and there’s really no way that a bunch of humans would live in a world of magic, experiencing, interacting and using magic, and not generate some kind of explanation for it. Similarly, the reader is going to do so implicitly by reading the supernatural events in the plot, even if their ideas at the conscious and explicit level are not part of a coherent system. We go to fantasy as a genre because it invites us to set down being critical and experiencing child-like wonder.

    What it comes down to is that our concept of science today is a relatively recent phenomenon. Science, magic, and philosophy were more or less indistinguishable from one another only centuries ago. The fantasy genre typically romanticizes the earlier period because we associate old beliefs and myths with a feeling of mystery that we don’t associate with our current rational explanations (there’s that word again, entzauberung). But those old beliefs *were* rational at the time they were generated. The “demonic possession theory of epilepsy” made perfect sense to the ancients. Now that we’re confronted with more precise and rigorous methods of scientific inquiry, we implement a concept like demonic possession not in the goal of being rational to the same degree but to suggest that there is more to the world than what science can uncover. And perhaps these aspects cannot be fully understood because of their transcendent nature. But they’re logical even still, if for no other reason that we can draw the negative boundary, which defines where the natural ends and the supernatural begins.

  84. I think part of the issue here is that there are (at least) 2 continums here that we are treating as one.

    Any magic that fits into a narrative structure has to have some limits/rules placed upon it. These may be as loosely defined as “if I the author think it makes sense its good” or a very tightly defined and restricted system(e.g. Sanderson). ( I’ll call this Axis I)

    The other continua is how much information the reader is given on the system. This can be anything from basically no information, to a multi-page appendix that details the system down to brass tacks. ( I’ll call this Axis II)

    Good fiction can be written in any of the possible combinations of these ( though the brass tacks explanation of how “If I the author thinks it makes sense” may provide a slightly higher level of challenge to the writer)

    I agree people get too focused on defining the rules( Axis I issues) though this may be handy later in the process of writing by providing useful challenges for characters, and consistency issues with the plot. I think that this leads to a tendency in modern fiction to go too far into the detailed explanation end of Axis II. However, if Magic is to provide a plot point, the reader has to have at least some intuition of Magic’s operation to prevent this form seeming like either a deus ex machina or wondering why the actions taken weren’t done in the first place. Thus even if you are at the fast and loose end of the spectrum, you still need to have some ability to give the reader some intuition of what should/should not happen. However, this doesn’t prevent you from having the numinous magic, it just means that the reader has to have some intuition as to its action if its plot/character relevant. If its not directly bearing upon the plot/character then it can be totally freeform or restricted as needed.

  85. Up until the past few weeks, I probably would have been willing to argue the point here. As a reader, I typically enjoy a system of magic that does contain some pretty clear rules.

    But earlier this month, I read THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON by Saladin Ahmed. He handles magic very much in the manner you’re advocating. There weren’t any clear rules as to why a certain thing worked one way or the other. The magic dudes just did their thing and things happened in order to move the plot. Normally, this would have irritated me, but for some reason, I recognized what Ahmed was doing and said, “Who cares? It’s still a good story, and it works.” It also spared me, as a reader, from the inevitable info dump scene which amounts to “‘How Magic Works’ by Really Cool Magic Dude” that happens in most fantasy novels.

    I think part of what made it work was that he was consistent. If Ahmed had turned around halfway through the story and started applying a system for how the magic worked, that would have bothered me. Once the writer recognizes which way works best for the story, I’m on board with them. All I ask, as a reader, is that the writer keep consistent.

  86. Just wanted to bop in and say I just discovered your books, I have read the first two books in the Inheritance trilogy this month and have a request in for the third. LOVE< LOVE< LOVE your books! I guess having grown up on Tolkien, Donaldson and others whose story is much more important than the structure of their magic, I feel right at home reading your work. I wonder if the need for systematization in the magic of fantasy books might be a self delusion on the part of some readers/critics who somehow think if the magic in a story can be understood, it can be duplicated. Maybe they are just hoping to find a way to make it work as a game, or maybe they hope that somehow they can learn the system and therefore do the magic. Seems to me they have missed the point of a good read, to take us somewhere we have no other way to visit, to entertain us, to make us think, not to teach us how to handle the world we live in. Just my thoughts for the moment. I really just wanted to say Keep up the amazing work, you are awesome!

  87. I very rarely get into this kind of blog response, however you might want to talk to Steven Brust. He was dealing with this kind of thing more that fifteen years ago, and has no sympathy for this kind of hyperbole. And incidentally, his magic system is quite weird. If you haven’t read Steven, you actually might want to give him a try (he’s been on the New York Times top 100 hundred list more than once). He’s most famous for his Jherig series. I should mention that he can be a Harlin Ellison type asshole (and would be tickled by that), but he would give you some excellent ammunition for further discussion.

  88. I admit I get sick of fantasy novels that try and attribute too many rules to it’s “magic”. Long-windedness is a reason I avoid a lot of fantasy and science-fiction and while I think it CAN make certain world and lore interesting it usually feels like I’m reading the musings of a crazy person, not a story. Unless it’s going to come back later in the plot as some kind of conflict what’s the point? Why bother readers with the rules of non-sense?

  89. Nora (thank you for not swooning, but for implying that you want to – I’d feel so hurt otherwise! ;) – I’d like to see you be right about the possibility of getting the numinous to be commercial. But that would be a New Thing. The beloved numinous fantasy that was published in the past was popular with a small subset of the reading populace. Fantasy fiction became a money-maker when it intersected with more general popular tastes. It would be a mighty deed to change that, and I will gladly work alongside you in the noble enterprise.

    …And the horse may talk.

    Here’s to us all.

  90. @Bill Blume

    I still haven’t read THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON (not out here yet), but I’ve read the short stories that tie in to it, and I think Saladin Ahmed may have hit sort of a sweet spot with his magic. It’s strange and fascinating and cool (She blows on a bit of knotted string and stuff happens? WTF) but at the same time, there’s a sense of structure and order to it. Blow on knot = stuff happens. Or, in Adoulla’s case, say the right prayer, with the right ingredient…

    I just finished The Tide Lord series by Jennifer Fallon, and while I’m of a few minds about the ending, I think the magic fits what NK was talking about in terms of numinous stuff.

    For a start, the magic is never REALLY explained. It’s called the Tide, presumably because it ebbs and rises like the sea. It grants powers to those who wield it… and it may or may not make people immortal. However, you can only safely wield it if you are in fact immortal.

    And while the basic description of ‘Tide magic’ is ‘elemental’, there’s a few occasions where things are just shrugged off as ‘done with the Tide’ without getting into the mechanics of how it was done. It’s not until the third book that there’s even a hint of any kind of instruction on how it all works, too.

    And the larger questions such as how exactly some people become immortal in the first place are never actually answered…

  91. It just occured to me, that even Sanderson received criticism for one of his magic systems not being realistical. It was the magic system of Warbraker, and the criticism came from Orson Scott Card:

    “Well, in the opening chapters of Warbreaker, Sanderson shows us a magic system in which power comes from draining the color out of objects.

    Draining color? Yes, I know, it’s fantasy, but puh-leeeeze. The metal-metabolizing made a kind of sense; our bodies really do metabolize metals in tiny quantities. But colors? How do you get power out of that?”

    Source: http://greensboro.rhinotimes.com/Articles-i-2009-06-25-197027.112113_The_Proposal_Warbreaker_Cups_Yogurt.html

    Which stroke me, since, yeah, color magic is kind of abstract, but why cannot be magic abstract?

    (And by the way, I don’t think that one cannot explain “pseudo-scientifically” power from colors, since, for example, plants are green for a reason… but this is not my point know!)

  92. Yeah, Card’s not one to talk about that issue re his own work, not that too many listen to him anymore anyway. But it does relate to the issue that people have been bringing up that there’s maybe more than one set of axes involved. There’s intuitive unexplained supernatural (numinous) versus practical delineated supernatural (mechanistic) with a good deal of overlap and the issue of centrality, and then there’s “realistic” magic (science-based) versus wildly speculative magic. And then there are issues of poetic-mythic style versus modern vernacular (again with a great deal of overlap between the two,) military action versus personal engagement, and so on. But there does seem to be a basic difference of view on the amount of explanation involved. I had not before this conversation considered that in terms of “making sense,” but rather just amount of detail information, so this has given me an interesting perspective. And I remain in agreement that these newer writers are barking up the wrong tree if they think there’s a magic key in obsessing about their magic systems. I think there is a direct link there in that viewpoint to gaming, not that gaming hasn’t led to many interesting stories. But I don’t think that gaming influence is as strong on actual published fantasy fiction as some here do.

  93. What a brilliant post! I agree wholeheartedly.

    Let the magic flow, and damn the logic.

  94. Just a week ago I started reading your Inheritance series. I have a Kindle and read two or three books a week. So there are few plots that aren’t too unpredictable anymore. I had no idea of gender or race when I read your first book of the series. I was amazed, bewitched (that’s magic, right?) and totally thrilled by your characters, the whole premise of the book and reminded constantly that this was another world… a fantasy world but it had all the relativity of our world and the human conditions – both good and bad!! I had to read all three. Not since LOTR have I become so imerssed in a series. Bright, witty, sassy, different and loved it all!! So in spite of my mispelling errors and all, I’d like to say I have found a writer to treasure. We all need magic. Until the last 150 years, magic was real, we have tried to “scientific” everything and become so far from the every day magic that it makes be sad. A birds trill in the morning brings the “Magic” of a new day. A field of corn stalks in the wind whispers magic of the soil, rain, and sun. Magic is not a set of rules. Magic just is!! Thank you for putting magic where it belongs!! And please keep doing it!

  95. I agree that magic should basically have no rules and limitations. My mind just naturally asks why and how when I’m world-building, so I have rules, but they apply to the magic users and their limitations rather than the magic itself.

    Huh. Thinking about this helped me answer another question I’ve been asking myself. Doubt 1% of it gets into the book, but oh well. I understand it.

  96. Wow, this got a lot of attention! I tried to read all comments across a few days; I’m sorry if I missed some.

    Something you said stung a little, about why people who like mechanistic systems don’t just read scifi.

    I’m pretty sure a lot of that is ‘trappings’. I like both science fiction and fantasy. I like both stories with wonder and unicorns and Jonathan Strange’s magic, and stories that explore how changes in the operating rules of the universe affect the development of society. And I like magic as a metaphor, sometimes. But I don’t enjoy the trappings of science fiction, and I don’t like the grimdark tone that often seems to pervade whatever I last tried to read off that shelf.

    I’m truly sorry if your wonderful writing has been criticized for not being Mistborn, by the way.

    As a writer and a gamer– I have never, ever tried to develop a magic system based on D&D, because D&D has a ludicrous, illogical magic system that has no connection to describing the world. Vancian, apparently. I _have_ tried to develop a magic system because Orson Scott Card told me to do so in his book on How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, but I quickly decided that his ideas about magic having a price were… limited.

    These days, when my settings have a ‘magic system’, the ‘system’ is a human-imposed method for understanding the underlying structure of the world. It is, yes, a form of science. But I am also okay, and even excited about, having unicorns appear. (Unicorns are my shorthand for what the conversation started calling ‘numinous’. I guess ‘miraculous’ would also work?)

    And to be fair, while I hide science under my magic, I’ve also embedded magic within my aliens and AIs. People can wave their hands and cite Clarke’s law, but the fundamental truth is that in that setting, I was content not to know how things worked, even under the surface. They just did.

  97. I like Terry Pratchett’s “rules” on magic. To do magic, you have to be lucky enough to get away with it, and arrogant enough to believe you can bend the universe around you. If you are only one, but not the other then the results will be dangerously unpredictable. Or to put it another way, predictably fatal.

  98. “Magic by definition is not based on anything we can measure or readily grasp.”

    I think that’s a rather limited definition. There’s lots of things that get called magic. Magic tricks, that have mechanistic explanations we the audience don’t know. Magic spells, that might or might not have some conceptual basis, but are hoped to work reliably (and usually do in fantasy.) Magic that’s very mechanistic, but using mechanisms very different from real ones, possibly with some moral or emotional or spiritual component.

    Earthsea magic seemed quite replicable to me. Learn the names, and you can change things into each other; it’s pretty systematic. Ged can make a light or turn into a hawk or dragon or go into the afterlife on demand. Conversely, D&D spells are individually replicable, but collectively show pretty much no logic or structure, they’re all sui generis.

    RPG.net has repeatedly had discussions about this, with some people wanting games that give a feeling of “real magic”, wondrous and unpredictable. Insofar as there’s a consensus, it seems to be that you can only reliably do that by mostly keeping magic out of the hands of the players, so it’s something their characters weakly interact with, or something that happens to the PCs. Just going symbolic, like Ars Magica with ranges like “voice” or “sight” or “name” rather than “X meters”, seems to only work so far; once you’ve got a reliable system you can “do science” to it, however weird.

    I note that the books I think of as numinous magic are mostly standalones. Lud-in-the-Mist, Strange and Norrell, most things by Robin McKinley. These books often have mages who presumably do have an understanding of magic, but it’s not explained, and over the length of the work the author can get away with it.

    So that’s an alternative explanation for the prevalence of “mechanistic” magic: not that readers prefer it, but that readers prefer extended series, and extended interaction with magic is going to take the numina and mystery out of it, unless it’s kept very arm’s-length and, over longer lengths, perhaps rare. Familiarity breeds contempt and all.

    Alternately, maybe you could have lots of arbitrary magic, but then it’d start feeling like a horror novel, as stuff just keeps happening. Or like magic realism like Hundred Years of Solitude. And that’s not particularly popular, at least to fantasy readers.

    Hmm, maybe that’s the difference between fantasy and magic realism: whether the characters use magic or are used or just randomly affected by it.

  99. I like your post a lot, Nora, I heartily agree with your defense of numinous fantasy, and I’ve had this complaint myself often. One reason I’ve never managed to read any farther than the first book of Harry Potter is that, while I found the book engaging, fun, and well told, the comparison with The Wizard of Earthsea was so inescapable for me that the gap — and it was precisely a gap between numinous, awesome, inexplicable, fearsome, bigger-than-we magic, and a Flinstonelike magic which cozily replaces every modern convenience with its reliable magical equivalent (owl post!) — was so painful. It’s not that it wasn’t fantasy, but it wasn’t feeding me with what I crave and go to fantasy for.

    Plus, while I greatly appreciate Ellen and Terri’s contribution of historical perspective, I have to say that D&D couldn’t have *helped*. I suspect far more modern mechanistic-style authors, and readers, played D&D than ever read Niven…

    That said, I have two… I dunno, not quibbles or reservations exactly, but maybe qualifications.

    One is that I think what’s actually more interesting, about real, historical ideas of “magic”, than simply clasifying it as unordered, unsystematized, and numinous, is to look at the historical, and permanent, *tension* between the systematized and the numinous. Because in fact the word “magic” already suggests stepping beyond a purely *religious* attitude of propitation of the divine. “Magic” comes from the Magi, a sect of Zoroastrians or term for Zoroastrians, and the association comes from the fascination of the Hellenistic world with the Magi as supposed inventors of astrology and alchemy. Note that astrology and alchemy stand at a border between worship and science. Their attitude is that the world is ruled by mystical, mysterious, nonmechanistic forces that have personal wills and cannot be fully understood — and yet, rather than seeking merely to woo and propitiate them, alchemy and astronomy attempt precisely to systematize, to construct models and formulas around numinous events. What distinguishes alchemy in its late phases from science in its early phase — what Newton-the-alchemist was at pains to conceal from the Royal Society fellows of Newton-the-scientist — is that the model is never fully sufficient, the rules are never complete, the experiment never fully reproduceable. A chemical experiment is independent of the will, soul, and state of mind of the experimenter (yes, new age quantum folks, it still is after Heisenberg, sorry!); an alchemical one is not. Transumting lead into gold requires the proper recipe, the proper equipment, AND the proper state of mind — a spiritual transformation and refinement of will on the part of the alchemist. So you cannot call alchemy purely mechanistic; but nor can you call it purely numinous. It is, rather, the *intrusion* of the systematic into the numinous.

    Obviously, “magical” traditions vary in this regard. Alchemy and astronomy and “magic” in its etymological sense are born at the birth of the Eurasian philosophical tradition (that continuous body of thought and inuiry, stretching from Greece to China, which we used to so quaintly divide into East and West), and this tradition might be particularly interested in systematizing (along with some others — Mayans, anyone?) Our broader meaning of “magic” certainly includes other traditions, shamanic or animist practitioners say, who are perhaps less likely to reduce things to formulas.

    Even there, though, the line between what we (we urban, writing-fixated, moderns) from the outside, anthropologically, are likely to call “religion” and “magic” has something to do with the idea, not merely of coming close to unseen powers, asking favors of them, etc., but of figuring them out and building systems and artifacts to — if not compel them to do our bidding — then at least raise the likelihood thereof in some kind of systematic way. Where we get recipes, spells, incantations, diagrams, secret traditions passed down from master to apprentice, and where those traditions attempt not merely to contact or honor entities, but to control them or to produce effects more or less reliably, we begin to talk about “magic”.

    So rather than (or in addition to) talking about mechanistic *vs.* numinous magic, I think what’s interesting is thinking about magic as the place where the mechanistic and the numinous meet.

    This comment is ridiculously long now, but the other thing I wanted to say is I think sometimes when people tell writers “your magic must be logical!” they actually don’t mean it in this scientific mechanistic sense of logical; they mean narratively logical. When magic happens in your book, it should feel right; it shouldn’t be too predictable, it can surprise, but it should surprise in a way that has that retrospective feeling of inevitability that harmonious creations produce. We need to understand the constraints on characters’ agency, not for the sake of geeking out about the details of those constraints, but because the constraints define what’s at stake and what’s possible, and therefore the characters’ narrative universe.

    The magic in 100K Kingdoms passes this test with flying colors. The way in which, for instance, godlings are constrained by having to follow their natures — at the price of being wounded or diminished — sets up very adeptly what we believe they can and cannot do. Or take the different levels of power that godlings, scriveners, demons, and the Three have — I don’t need character sheets, but I do need (and you give me) a precise sense of who’s likely to get their ass kicked when this one and that one go toe-to-toe. Consider the threat of an upset in the basic universal structure of powers, on which the plot of the third book hinges: you had to carefully set that up so that, on the one hand, I wouldn’t see it coming — it has to be truly shocking that such a threat can exist — and on the other hand, that it doesn’t seem throw-the-book-across-the-room implausible, that we don’t say “WTF? First you tell me these characters are all-powerful and now all of a sudden some two-bit nobody can…”

    You had to do a lot of careful management of clues and expectations to make that all work so smoothly, and I think it’s often that kind of management, not systems-for-their-own-sake, that people are trying to point too when they say “magic needs rules”. Rules may be the a misleading word; but it’s overstating the case to say that numinous or fairy-tale-like magic is anything-goes rulelessness. Even in a fairy tale, there’s an implicit structure behind that “of course”.

  100. Great discussion. I like the idea that, even if there are rules behind a universe’s magic, the humans using it don’t understand them and have no way of or inclination to find out. This playing with something beyond understanding or predictability gives the story the sense of thrill and danger of the unknown which is going to stay unknown, which is a large part of the appeal of the genre, at least for me. :)

  101. there always a rule over there its just the author doesn’t tell us. maybe is not systemized as DnD, but their is a rule. for example, black magic in harry potter can be countered. That’s the rule. i think its all depend on what type of book you want to write. if its like a DnD type with system then stick with system, and avoid as much as possible with not make sense. if the book is started with does not make sense then it does make sense for the book, because the book it is about does not make sense.

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