Category Archives: J. K. Rowling

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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Filed under Anne McCaffrey, J. K. Rowling, The Edges Of World-Building, writing

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

Why do we love werewolves?

Western popular culture has a special relationship with certain Medieval European folk myths. The history of religious and spiritual beliefs across the continent as well as how Christianity developed and coloured a lot of them makes for interesting reading, to be sure. So when popular culture went looking for scary things to mine for stories, there is lots of material ripe for re-imaging.

Vampires are one example of that. Werewolves are another. Both have been frequently re-used and re-invented over the last few decades. I don’t even need to list any titles. The best writers come up with new angles, like Jandar Sunstar in The Forgotten Realms – an elven vampire who actively and successfully fights his vampiric compulsions to the extent a vampire hunter ends up badly misjudging him. Or the vampires in Sanctuary who actually bear little resemblance at all to the popular tropes (and it is such a delight seeing Jonathon Young portray a vampiric Nikola Tesla). The more average ones either disappear with little trace, or come in for considerable amounts of ridicule. Twilight‘s sparkling vampires are a good example.

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Filed under J. K. Rowling, monsters, Stephanie Meyer, Terry Pratchett