Scientific Magic

Fantasy settings commonly have a magic system of some sort. It is often well-thought out and organised and more-or-less reliable. I’ve heard of authors writing themselves a “bible” about how it is supposed to work so that they don’t make mistakes.

Most of the magic in Harry Potter is reliable and repeatable, for example. Harry’s trademark Expelliarmus always fires. Fred and George’s joke candies always work. Yet the need to practice and perfect it is mentioned a lot of the time (it is a school, remember). And we also see the edges of an organised study of what magic can do. A major section of The Ministry Of Magic is for research, after all. And Dumbledore frequently talks about what they don’t know magic can do when talking to Harry about Voldemort.

The magic in most Dungeon and Dragons settings is reliable, too. I think this is because the settings inherit a game system because players use magic very frequently, either explicitly (like if they’re a wizard) or implicitly (a weapon or even a skill). Adding a reliability check to all magic in DnD would slow things down a lot. In the novels, it is common for a master thief to have an arsenal of magic objects, and they almost always function as designed.

There are sometimes multiple magic systems. Lyndon Hardy did this with his novel The Master Of Five Magics. Each is separate and a major piece of the world economy is built around them. In fact, a major industry is built around training for each magic. The whole story is about someone who sets about being trained in all of them, which is unheard of. With so many magic systems, Hardy created a structure for them all, and rules for each of them. He did this so well that with his sequel, The Secret Of The Sixth Magic, he could create a meta-magic system that describes how they could be changed. Both novels have been praised for creating such an organised description of magic.

The magic in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is more than a bit organised, too. The wizards of Unseen University are a lot more like scientists than practitioners of nefarious arts. In the later novels, we have everyday devices powered by magical means: cameras and personal organisers are the visible two Pratchett has fun with. Each have a tiny demon running things inside them and they are mass-market products. This magical-being approach is even lampshaded right in the first novel when Rincewind is given Twoflower’s camera to operate. He knows that there are certain chemicals that react to light and he begins wondering how to get from there to a functioning camera. At that point, the tiny demon inside Twoflower’s camera opens the access hatch for the first time to tell him that he’s run out of pink paint.

Pratchett even lampshades this in the large with four whole books that he co-authored with two scientist friends, beginning with The Science Of Discworld. These use the fictive construct of the wizards and their world to explore the sciences of our own world. And I mean “sciences” in a very broad sense of the word. Early excursions look at nuclear physics and cosmology, but later ones look at social sciences like narrative history, and how belief shapes our thinking.

This takes us back to where magic exists in our own history. And that is usually spirituality and religious practice. I know enough about both to recognise that neither are treated very much like science, though.

Praying to a deity is common in both the real world and in fantasy settings. In most fantasy settings, it is often like a magic spell: you say the right words and the deity automatically grants the supernatural effect you’re seeking. Except when they don’t because the plot requires it. And this also doesn’t work in the real world, either. It would be news all around the world if a Catholic Cardinal in the Vatican could reliably and repeatedly summon a fireball by prayer.

One of the allures of fantasy novels is, of course, reading the characters doing the impossible. Particularly in an analogue of our own world. This is one reason the Harry Potter novels are so popular. Who wouldn’t want to be able to wield magic with a simple stick of wood in their home or workplace? Except if lots of other people have one, too. And Hogwarts does teach a lot of offensive magic.

There are some fantasy worlds where magic is rare. I built one for a gaming campaign, yet only one player really grasped what that meant for playing. It was at least three sessions before they had access to magical healing, for instance. Settings where prayers (usually) don’t do anything, yet those who pray think they do are also rare. The Dragonlance novels had a period where that was the case. This was because the gods had deserted the world for a period of time, and people were calling to new gods that did not actually exist.

So how reliable is the magic in your fantasy worlds?

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Finding a new best Ebook reader

sony ereaderI am, by-and-large, not an early adopter of technology. By which I mean, I am not the sort of person to go after the “Latest And Greatest” just because. Sometimes I’ll be on the leading edge, but it will be for some idea I love, know exactly how I want to use, and intend to stay faithful to it for years. Which doesn’t always pan out the way I envisage. (MiniDisc is a good example – great tech, but the execution was bumbling and the industry moved on before Sony really sorted themselves out. Which some would argue they never really did.)

But it is why I never bought a Kindle years ago. Why I don’t now is a different reason. But I do have a Sony T1, which I find just barely useable. Mostly because it’s just a little bit too slow.

The ebook landscape has erupted in the last few years something amazing. It has also been part of the story of why so many bookstores have vanished, including the collapse of one of Australia’s biggest book chains. Buying on the Internet has helped in both ways. When you know exactly what book you, going to a website is much faster than finding a bookstore that might have it at best, or having one being able to order it in at worst. Buying ebooks this way, where as soon as the purchase is complete, you can download the file then and there, was a red-hot obvious next step.

Despite pressure from basically the rest of the industry, Amazon still will not put ePub support into their Kindle ebook readers. Amazon doesn’t seem to like the rest of the ebook industry existing because they are strongly rumoured to want to be the only place all books, physical or not, are bought and sold. You’ll never hear them say this, of course. But it goes quite a long way to explain the whole Kindle ecosystem they built. Their ebook reader is not a standalone device: it is tightly integrated with the Amazon ebook delivery mechanism. They spent a lot of time and money making it stupidly easy to purchase Kindle-format ebooks from them.

Would that someone else had copied that and figured out how to do it better. Apple could, as they also excel at creating an integrated ecosystem. But they didn’t want to become a publisher. Sony could have, too, but they have a bad habit of dithering around until they can successfully hit their own foot. MiniDisc again. However, it’s obvious they actually know how to do it, because they’ve been pretty successful at it with their Playstation Network.

As it happens, I genuinely prefer a physical book, often referred to as “dead tree” edition. But ebooks aren’t going away and there are just enough that I want to read that my T1 was recently exhumed from the shelf it was gathering dust on and recharged for adding new material to.

But is it the best choice? I often have my Surface Pro with me nowadays. And people have been reading on iPads and Android tablets for years. Should I go looking for a good ebook reader for my Surface Pro? The one in Calibre is not bad, but it is quirky. Or should I go looking for another e-ink device?


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Handling Death in a story

Us human beings have a kind of macabre fascination with death. We always have. Maybe this is because death is a part of life. There are always things dying for us and near us. Plants. Animals. People.

Exploring death is a ripe subject for a story. In today’s modern western society, it has been said that we don’t see personal death as much as in other cultures or societies, nor as much as in past centuries. We do see old age death, though. I had a grandfather recently die basically of old age. And although it was sad to see him go, he was 71 and that is generally considered a decent length of life.

An untimely death of someone much younger is often handled differently. You might think that a violent and untimely death of someone we know, whether pre-meditated or an accident of circumstance, is not something the average person will encounter much if at all in their lifetime. But that’s not the case, as many non-caucasian people in the US would testify. So such people can and do tell stories to help share to those who have not. And also to help themselves understand the own reactions.

Anne McCaffrey’s famous novel The Ship Who Sings does that. It is a series of short stories and in the first one, we meet Helva (the titular spaceehip) and watch her story unfold as she begins life as a human brain wrapped in a spaceship. And we also see her as she falls in love and then sees her love killed in an accident basically right before her electronic eyes. It is a strongly emotional scene. McCaffrey is on record as saying she wrote this story as catharsis for dealing with the death of a family member.

The TV series Broadchurch also does this. It looked at what a death of a young boy does to the residents of a small, somewhat isolated British town. We see death dramatised on our movie and TV screens so much more than our parents and grandparents, particularly a most deliberate kind of death: murder. This story was an unusual telling, though. It begins as a Police Procedural. This is a modern version of the classic Murder Mystery story that’s been with us for decades and still makes for blockbuster movies and long-running TV series. Broadchurch takes one or steps in that direction, then does the narrative equivalent of stopping and taking a long look around. It is at that point it then becomes an exploration of how a murder creates ripples and waves in the relationships of the people in the town. Some people have to deal with the deceased not being there anymore. Others have to work out how to talk with others dealing with this. There are secrets uncovered, motives questioned and relationships sundered. There are many and varied reactions.

But that is holding a mirror up to the real world.

In speculative fiction, particularly classic Fantasy, death is not always permanent. Sometimes it almost feels like it comes with the genre. Almost. In settings like The Forgotten Realms there are numerous ways to be resurrected or to live on beyond death. This is kind of expected as its world rules are Dungeons and Dragons and in this world and others with highly pervasive magic systems, it is often possible to resurrect a killed person. This is not always the case, though. In David Edding’s Belgariad, resurrection is a highly dangerous exercise. It only happens when the plot demands it.

J. K. Rowling takes this further. Again, this is a magic-rich world where a lot of medical problems have magical solutions, from broken bones to the common cold. But not death. It is a key story-point in one of the later novels that even in Rowling’s world, death is permanent and irreversible. And it is significant that Rowling puts her characters (and readers) through the wringer over several deaths that happen. In fact, defeating death is the goal of the villain of the whole series. And look at what it does to him!

Rowling’s handling of death is a touch point curiously close to the real world. It was remarkable when I read it and still is when I re-read it.

But do we need to explore death in stories? In a sense, yes: it is an important part of being human. There is a certain fascination with it’s permanence and trying to put it off as long as possible. Or even entirely. And this is why stories get written about it.


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Filed under Anne McCaffrey, David Eddings, J. K. Rowling, meta, storytelling, writing

Another quick look at Show versus Tell

One of the pieces of advice frequently told to writers, particularly new writers, is to show what happens rather than telling what happens. It comes out in all sorts of ways. Things like “show me the frost on the grass rather than just say it’s cold”. Problem is, a lot of writing needs the tell component – it’s a kind of short-hand really and doing so for less important aspects of the story can help keep its pace up.

But sometimes you come across an example of show that can exceed what novice writers think is possible.

The following is a music video from a Korean group. Never mind if you can’t understand Korean. In fact, it works better here if you don’t because it tells a powerful story in five-and-a-half minutes with almost no words. Yes the song is actually relevant, but that’s beside the point.

I dare you to not feel the emotion.

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The Uptime of Downtime.

One of the standard qualities of most white-collar working lives is what you get paid to do – the so-called “day job” – versus every other thing you spend doing in life, is the often sharp division between the two. There is the implication that “work” is not enjoyable whilst “play” is. Sony even called their gaming console a “play-station” all those years ago as a deliberate subversion of the idea of a “work-station” which is often the computer you have on your desk at work.

But it’s not so simple. If your paid activity – note that I carefully did not call it “work” – is the same thing you do to enjoy yourself, then the division tends to dissolve.

The actor-turned-director Ron Howard was a guest on British TV program “Top Gear” a few years ago. The general format of that segment is that the guest spends a day learning how to drive a very ordinary car as if it were a racing car around the show’s famous timing circuit. At the end of this, they do a final lap to see how fast they can do this. Then they appear in the program being variously grilled and entertained by Jeremy Clarkson’s banter before viewing their lap and what their time was. It’s great television. Being a skilled writer, Clarkson always turns his attention to finding out interesting things about the guest. With Ron Howard, he asked about his hobbies.

But Howard said he doesn’t have any. He said his work as a director was his hobby.

Imagine that! To live life making money doing something you love – so much so you struggle to believe people will pay you (sometimes handsomely) to do it! It is hard to grasp what “downtime” might mean for someone like that when that’s not me.

My downtime is filled with lots of different things, and there are many others I just do not have time for. I have movies and TV series unwatched. I have home art projects barely designed, let alone attempted. I have fiction writing that proceeds at a glacial pace. I have a “to be read” pile of books that goes back at least five years. And all that is on top of the things I actually must do to live, like my washing, grocery shopping and feeding the cat.

Even so, I still don’t plunge myself into all this frantic leisure the moment I get home from work. I need my downtime.

I’d love to get paid to read books. Or write books. Or one of any number of things I currently do not get paid to do. The problem is that it is really difficult to shift from what I am currently paid to do (program for a web-based business) to, well, anything else. And so such things remain in my “downtime”.

At least I don’t have the pressure to Get Things Done with them that I have at my dayjob.

But maybe, just maybe –  that’s not really such a good thing.


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Let there be conflict.

There are many pieces of potted advice given out to writers. This is the sort of two or three sentence idea that is intended to address a specific problem. Or sometimes a favourite observation. Or just a favourite response.

Not that they can’t be helpful. One reasonably common one is that every scene needs a conflict.

Usually when people hear the word “conflict” they think of two people in strong disagreement, perhaps so strong as to warrant a physical altercation. Trench warfare is a conflict. Armed robbery is a conflict. Domestic violence is a conflict. But so is a mild difference of opinion. In writing, the term seems to have a unique definition.

Of course, a lot of conflict will be heated and/or violent. In writing, this is where weapons often come out and characters can be injured or killed. In real life that tends to bring down the force of the law on to you in the first world (not always, I’ll admit). In fantasy writing, you often find out who is quicker or more accurate with a sword or crossbow. Or who is just luckier.

But conflict in writing can and will take many forms. There is a conflict if someone has incomplete information and says something that betrays that. That could lead to another conflict if they don’t want to be corrected, but it could also be a process of gaining understand that involved a to-and-fro as they grasp it. There could be a conflict of motive, where two people want to achieve the same task for entirely different reasons. At first they could work well together, but because of the difference of motive there is a chance that this will devolve as they approach completion.

Sometimes the conflict itself can be mis-characterised. This might happen if one person sees two points of conflict whilst the other sees just one. You’ve probably seen this in real life where two people disagree over a fact, and then one makes it personal, which is rarely helpful and they don’t always realize they’ve done that. Now we have more than one conflict in play.

Writing conflict is not easy for me. I do not have a good physical reaction to the stress associated with high-levels of conflict and I struggle to not take verbal conflict personally. So writing scenes where this is needed can be stressful all by itself. Oddly enough, writing armed conflict is easier, as is a simple transfer-of-knowledge scene.

Still, that’s what learning to write is all about:  figuring out where your weaknesses are and bettering the skills. I know enough to realize that when a scene is not working it is because there is no “conflict” hinging the interaction.


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Road Trip!

Well, sorta. Kinda.

I’m going to Conflux 10 this year. For various complicated reasons, this is a whole 18 months later than Conflux 9. But it’s here and I’m driving 3 hours this afternoon to stay with a friend to be there.

I imagine I’ll be re-inspired to write. And thus to blog…

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