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Systems of Magic And Politics

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 7, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 7, 2012 |

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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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.