How “Hard” Is Your Magic? (plus book giveaway)


I’m about to respond to a post that’s nearly a week old so that makes me totally behind the times, right?

I’m always behind on everything.

Anyway, last week N.K. Jemisin wrote a post about magic making sense (her take: it shouldn’t have to because it’s magic and not science). I think it’s a great post and I agree with much of what she says. There must be space in the genre for magic that is inexplicable, that is ill-defined or not truly understood.

Yeah, I know: the natural first response is to assert that magic needs limits because hey, if everything is possible, nothing is interesting (check out the first comment on Jemisin’s post). But that’s not the same thing at all. Yes, magic can be mysterious or non-rational without being omnipotent. It’s just a matter of how it’s written.

To be clear, I don’t think we should do away with so-called “mechanistic” magic. I haven’t tossed my Pat Rothfuss books into the donation bin, after all, and I certainly enjoy that Harry Potter fellow. But I continually see an emphasis on the rules and limits of this magic “system” or that one–or even the idea that there has to be a specific system–and I agree that too much emphasis is put on it.

The one place I disagree with Jemisin’s post is where she lays the blame for this at the feet of Dungeons and Dragons. First, the idea that magic was a super-complicated but vaguely-mechanical process where people drew certain symbols, said certain works, used certain objects with the plan to get a specific outcome predates Gary Gygax’s great-great-grandfather. Hell, Conjure Wife beat The Players’ Handbook by a couple of decades.

Which isn’t to say that D&D hasn’t had influence. It most definitely has. I mean, it’s a fun game and a lot of folks in the genre play it, how could it not have an effect?

But I think the real culprit here is science fiction.

SF and F have been lumped together for years, with science fiction getting most of the respect and cultural cachet while fantasy gets most of the sales. They’re in an odd relationship, with a lot of crossover among the readers and writers, and from what I can tell as an outsider to fandom, devoted science fiction fans largely holds fantasy in contempt.

Fantasy is “playing tennis with the net down”. It’s supposed to be anti-progress, pro-monarchy, reactionary, irrational… blah blah blah. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that, if that’s the tenor of the conversation inside that community, it’s no surprise that fantasy readers and writers would start to adopt the idea that the best sort of fantasy would be “hard.”

Since I’ve been online, I’ve seen two separate movements to push so-called “hard fantasy.” The first was fantasy that stuck close to the original folklore. The second was fantasy with world-building that felt so solid you “knew that the sewers worked”.

Both times it came up I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would want to emulate a niche genre like hard science fiction. My best guess–once again, talking as an outsider here, so I am open to correction–is a version of Stockholm Syndrome.

Still: more of the numinous! Less talk about “magic systems.”

Regarding the book giveaway: The response has been amazing. Thanks, you guys. The winner, selected by a roll of many-sided dice, is Mark Martinez. Your book will be thrown into the U.S. Postal Service in a few days.

Thanks again.