Some thoughts on magic

MTG Alexi Briclot

Art from Magic: The Gathering, used without permission. The artist is Aleksi Briclot

Magic comes in many shapes and sizes. Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London and show you some of its forms and functions.

The Legend:

Magic is tough. It might even be in total abeyance, a rumour to be dismissed. To be a magician requires intense study, usually through an apprenticeship – and, if we’re in Dungeons & Dragons territory, you’ll forget the spell as soon as its cast.

It was this that Pratchett was parodying in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic: that a wizard could spend his whole life studying how to summon a paradise of willing women only to not know what to do with them once he’d the knowledge.

Stories with this type of magic tend to be tales with enchanted objects – The One Ring is the best example, but here abound magic swords, mystic portals, hidden scrolls, and so on ad infinitum. Thus they tend to suit Quest-style stories and coming-of-age tales. Terry Brooks’ Shannara books provide a good solid example.

High-fantasists love this kind of setup. Create a world of ‘normal’ people and give two people (the protagonist’s mentor and the antagonist) special knowledge. Et, as they say, voila.

The Legend also works in a dystopian world, with magic replaced by technology of a lost Golden Age. Hunting for the secrets lost to the mists of time, the intrepid archaeologist hunts the tools to defeat some great evil.

Or she might voyage deep out into the stars to find the artefacts of an alien race whilst dark forces race to stop her. The balance of power of the very galaxy is at stake.

The Limitless:

Your magical power is innate and you only need a little teaching a la Harry Potter to unleash your abilities. This is much more modern in feel (magical shields are so last year) but also much harder to write because you have to start with one question: why don’t magicians rule the world? If there’s no limit to magic then you can do (literally?) anything.

So the writer has to impose their own limits on power. This can be something like Will, so only the strongest can thrive. Or it can be practice, or research, or closeness to a source…

Thus this sort of magic tends to produce a hierarchical setting – the God-Emperor lies in the centre, her acolytes around her, the powerless in the outer darkness. Until a poor peasant girl of uncertain lineage is discovered in mysterious circumstances…

The Limitless gives everyone a share. Sure, the rich have more powerful lasers but everyone has access to advanced technology in some form or other. See how egalitarian Star Trek is; all those races (unless they’re doing one of their ‘noble savage’ episodes) have a similar tech level. Disruptors? Phasers? Same thing different name.

The Laissez-Faire:

Superheroes don’t fit either of the above categories. Sure, there are odd societies of the latter kind, and I believe Thor (in an old incarnation, at least) got his power from a mystic artefact of the Type One variety. Mostly, however, superheroes have ‘magics’ that are thoroughly and completely individual. Thus we have a third category of magic: The Laissez-Faire. No two the same, the state frequently the villain, complete and utter irrelevance to the wider populace except as predator or prey.

In fantasy we see this too; in Piers Anthony’s ‘Xanth’ series everyone has a unique magical talent, some more powerful than others. Any freak born without one was banished. No-one wants those dossers hanging round scrounging off all the right-minded entrepreneurials with the correct birthright*.

We’re so used to the free market that this often slips by unnoticed. It’s become more common in science fiction where it takes the form of ‘upgrades’. Firefly is a good example, though the crew never got much upgrading done. Any story that sees the protagonist grow stronger by conquest, salvage or acquisition is laissez-fairing it right up.

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The divide is not, of course, clear-cut. Harry Potter has its magical devices, its Marauder’s Map, its Deathly Hallows – so many, in fact, that it’s a wonder that none of the characters ever really looked at creating them themselves (maybe Hermione had a go but I don’t remember it being mentioned. The polymorph potion is probably as close as she got).

Star Wars is an odd mix. At its heart is the Legendary Force and its Death Stars. The feel, however, is quite monoculture; this is probably down to design aesthetics rather than story. It also has its Laissez-Faire backwoods planets and bartering for repairs – and the transformation (upgrade) from Anakin to Darth Vader.

Dr Who is also mostly Legendary – how many personal possessions did Rassilon leave lying around anyway? – but it pretends not to be. The Doctor himself is a Legend, as is The Master/Missy. But it wants to be Limitless. It maintains a veneer of science; that anyone can do anything with enough training. The Doctor’s mission is to make people better, not just situations. Oh, and as for the cybermen – can you get any more Laissez-Faire than that?

All this and I haven’t even got to the role of sidekicks, familiars and magical beasties of many stripes. Lying Cat is worthy of a column all on its own.

So: enough from me. I’m sure you’ll tell me all I’ve forgotten or where my crowbarring is all too obvious.

Write on!

*This sounds like I’m hatin’ on Piers Anthony but all this only occurred to me as I was writing this post. I loved Xanth when I was thirteen and never saw a problem with this, which just goes to show. Anthony’s still going strong and is thus an inspiration to us all.

A punch in the gut

Punch me in the gut. Go on, hit me hard. Wind me, knock me down. Make me weep.

That’s what I expect from a novel. I want to be moved. I want to surface, gasping for breath and blinking at my surroundings. I want to feel. I want to be reminded of my humanity. I want the experience to have meaning.

Not all novels have a punch-in-the-gut moment, but many do. It usually falls either just before the climax as a driver for the protagonist’s final absolution (ie revenge) or in the climax itself at the bittersweet ‘won the war but lost what really matters’ moment. At its best it’s a leftfield blow that leaves you devastated and numb. At its worst it’s cheap melodrama. You can find good examples in Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Cole & Richards’ Dr Who: Shadow in the Glass. Bad examples probably include everything I’ve ever written.

The punch-in-the-gut is so common as to be almost ubiquitous. It’s what gives the novel resonance and depth and bind you, the reader, into the emotions of the survivors. It’s not quite the same as the plot-twist although there is a lot of overlap, and often they’re combined. And I love it.

Except I kind of don’t.

Just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable. I had this argument with a die-hard literatus regarding McEwan’s On Chesil Beach; yes, I can admire the skills and talents and feel like I’ve gained as a person when I’ve hit a tragic ending. And it is a great book. But that doesn’t mean it’s a fun experience.

Working-class people go to the theatre to be entertained: middle-class people go to be made miserable.

So the saying (or quote; or simple homespun wisdom – I only ever heard from my Dad and was never sure of its original provenance) goes. It’s wisdom I’ve always wondered about. Because it’s not true. Is it? Was there ever such a division – when the workers would go to the music halls to be entertained whilst the prosperous would go to Shakespeare and opera to be reminded of their humanity?

I am poor but educated: although my wife roundly mocks me when I deny my middle-classity, I have never felt like I belong. And I like happy endings. Sorry. Can’t deny it. Which leads me on to the next piece of wisdom that has never seemed to quite fit in my soul:

Write the book to want to read.

I read widely. I try to get as diverse a diet as possible, make an active effort to fit ‘classics’ into my body to make it as fit, strong and flexible as possible. But I have my favourites. My cake-books: the ones I read purely for pleasure. I like wit and intelligence, and adventure and if all these can be combined with something I can learn from the experience then so much the better. It should come as no surprise, then, that I love Pratchett. I love Gaiman, especially Neverwhere. I feast on Dr Who novels, although they tend to be empty calories: the SFF equivalent of Mills & Boon.

Also cat books. I like cats, okay? Sue me.

But I don’t write like this. The books I produce are dark and fear-filled; lost little orphans with nightmares and visions no mortal mind can hold. And I don’t know why. There always has to be a punch-in-the-gut moment near the end, where either a hero dies or some revelation breaks her heart. Possibly both.

I don’t know why I do this. Is it because I’m so deep in character that the fundamental tragedy of the situation needs to be felt, or is it just because I’ve been inculcated to think that this is what a novel needs to be ‘good’? Or is it just a manifestation of the darkness within my soul?

What do you think? All you writers and readers; I’d be interested to hear good or bad examples you may have come across in your literary voyaging. Do you enjoy being punched, or do you seek out comfort and warmth?