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Systems of Magic And Politics

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 7, 2012 | Comments ()


hogwarts.jpg

What an election, huh? I can't believe that Dewey pulled it out in the end. Sorry, I'm a political junkie, but I've tried very hard to write an entirely non-political article since strictly we're an entertainment website and we have a responsibility to those who are exhausted by the news cycle, and are coming here for the sweet escape of something besides politics. Everyone say hello to Donald Trump, he's had a bad couple of days.

I've argued before that there are two types of magic in fiction, particularly fantasy. There is magic that is nothing more than science under another name, that is, the universe of the story has different physical laws which provide for things to be possible that are simply not possible in ours. But this magic still follows its own rules, and its rules can be mapped by trial and error because it fundamentally follows the rationality of cause and effect. Because such magic can be systematized, it is not the opposite of science, it is actually the precise equivalent of science, meaning that under the right circumstances, sorcerers are scientists. Like Nate Silver.

On the other hand, the magic of some fiction cannot be so systematized, it truly lives independentally of rationality, in a reality in which it is not fact but belief that governs outcomes. Immune to empiricism, the practitioners of magic in such worlds are subject to the vagaries of a universe that violates rules on a whim. What worked before might not work again, and as cause and effect shift with the wind, such wizards are left powerless and naked before the storm of irrationality that has turned its fickle favor elsewhere. Like Karl Rove.

Ah, but systems of magic are fantastic. I have a strange hobby in which I like to read the rule books of role-playing games. I don't think I've actually played a tabletop RPG with other people and actual dice and character sheets for going on fifteen years or so. But I love to read them for their descriptions of how the rules of their worlds work. Hell, the discovery of Google directory, and my subsequent descent into the sub-sub-sub-sub-directory of free to download role-playing games probably should earn me a place on a watchlist somewhere. The amount of PDF files on my hard drive describing imaginary worlds is staggering. Only a third of them are Jack Chick tracts and old Rand Paul newsletters.

It's gorgeous the way that different imaginations set up different arrangements of magical systems in order to make the world more interesting, to make it conform to some fictional but far more dramatic narrative that we don't experience in every day life. Like talking heads who think that the margin of error means that everything inside the margin is a tie, and thus think every race is a toss-up.



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  • Dragonchild

    FWIW, you're welcome at my gaming table any time, Steve. Though these days it's done over Skype, so it's a metaphor, but you get the idea.

  • BierceAmbrose

    I have a strange hobby in which I like to read the rule books of role-playing games.

    Not so strange.

    For a few years I played a series of mostly RPGs with a crew mostly interested in how the rule systems worked in practice. We'd get bored with a system once we figured out how to game it. A couple times we even borrowed the rules from one system over the milieu and inventory from another because the original rules sucked so hard.

    Your last (struck) sentence struck me as saying something about the two kinds of magic. When you're innumerate, stats looks like your second kind of magic, while when you have the math lobe in your brain it's the first kind.

    You remind me of some writing on Medieval worldviews and Julian Jaynes' batshit speculative essay "The Origin of Consciousness ..." Both speculate that people had profoundly different world views - not collections of opinions but frames holding their experience - at other times. There's another, similar idea that algorithmic thinking is so profoundly different it's inexplicable to people who don't get it. Empiricism itself also counts as one of these inexplicable world views to folks who don't get it.

    Sorry, that was on-point. You just wanted to gloat in peace in this fourth of the political posts on free-from-politics day.

    Carry on.

  • idiosynchronic

    I played Magic:The Gathering for an embarrassing amount of time following college, but I had my first real flashback this last week courtesy of politics:

    "And nothing says "Fanfare for the Common Man" quite like nosing your private jet into an airplane hangar full of adoring supporters. As Aaron Copland blasted over loudspeakers, the Republican crowd, which had come by the busload and had waited in a line a quarter-mile long to get in, roared One more day!, and the giant doors of the hangar opened, and with a great gust of freezing air, there was Mitt Romney's ride. "

    Aaron Copleand was gay, a socialist, a liberal, and jewish. And the universe should have imploded from the sheer Paradox invoked Monday night.

  • e jerry powell

    I'd tell the kid in the header photo to look into Clortho, the inner-city public school of wizardry.

  • Tinkerville

    Another great read, Steven. It's not my favorite fantasy series, but I think the magic in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth books is incredibly fascinating since it's all based on theories of additive and subtractive magic. I remember my teenage self thinking that was much more interesting than vague throwaway rules I'd read before.

    I also love Arthur C. Clarke's theory that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It's weirdly poetic and speaks to the wonders of science.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I wonder if there are any magic rules in the Doctor Who RPG, or if it's that all tech stuff.

  • Protoguy

    No, you just get a box that does everything and a screwdriver that fixes anything.

  • BWeaves

    Speaking of magic. I voted for a dead guy, and he won.

    In Florida, Earl K. Wood has been Orange County Tax Collector for almost 50 years. He's the only Tax Collector I've ever known. He was 96 when he died a couple of weeks ago. He would have been 100 if he'd have lived out his last term. He has such an efficient team that when you pay your taxes, you get the receipt the day before you mail your check in. That's magic for you. I voted for him because he seems to run a good office and has never had a scandal. Plus, it excited me to vote for a dead candidate, since "none of the above" is not an option in the USA. (I stand corrected. It's not an option in Florida.)

    Oh, and I did visit Hogwarts last week.

  • Wembley

    Rochester, MN elected a post-life individual to the City Council. He made his transition over 4 months ago, but after the ballots were set.

  • Drake

    Actually, in Nevada, "none of the above" is an option on the ballot.

  • HMDK

    Is this some sort of swine-flu cosplay?

  • BWeaves

    Nope. Reality.

  • HMDK

    Yes, sorry. I was just making a joke about hogs with warts.
    As in swine flu... ah. But at least we can all agree that a lot of swinish fucks got the boot last night.

  • HMDK

    It also coincides with a different problem with sci-fi/fantasy. That sometimes idiots overleap. You can't smash the generally accepted conceit. Okay, an example: You have the real world. Then in your story you add vampires. Fine. But then you can't later add smurfs who need to fuck unicorns, without breaking my willy suspension.

  • BWeaves

    But isn't that the whole plot of the Twilight series?

  • HMDK

    Yesss... your point being? Heh.

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