Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Magic Goes Awry

Just a random thought here: a term used of many modern fantasy stories is "Magic as technology." Aka, treating magic as a semi-rigorous science that leads to applied engineering. Among the most visible early permutations were those written by computer-literate people who played with the idea of magical spells as computer language.

(That said, the most clever and effective variation on this was Rich Cook's "Wiz" books, which explicitly took head-on the conceit that magic can never be made into an orderly technology by having his hero concentrate on very minor, simplistic spells which could be repeated successfully -- and then used computational tools to apply these minor effects over and over very, very fast and in large arrays. His hero could thus achieve the power of the large, complicated spells that took a lifetime of study to master, but achieve them with a script that any Script Kiddie could run.)

Anyhow...what I'd like to see tried is magic as real-world technology.  Too often it seems magical technology achieves all the conveniences of the developed world, but with fewer costs. Steampunk makes a similar mistake; steam technology in too many stories is cheap, clean, and efficient, capable of powered flight and the functional equivalent of television, and the environmental and social costs are downplayed to the extent that they have no real functional effect.

Well, there are writers who have flirted with it. "The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump" stands out, at least in title. And even old Bob Heinlein's "Magic, Inc." took a hard look at the potential costs of magic technology (making, it seems to me now, loose analogies to what at the time of writing was only a nascent nuclear power industry). And PTerry blazoned the way into the annoyance of consumer electronics and other modern inconveniences, achieved with appallingly simplistic magical tools (imps with paint brushes instead of digital cameras).

What I'm thinking, if my inchoate musings can be called that, is magic with all the costs and inconveniences of actual modern technology. Of a lack of standardized parts, of late-night service calls, of unexplained crashes, of fly-by-night third-world manufacturers, of DCMA.

It is easy to miss the solid functional and mature technology that underlies our daily lives; buildings that stand up and roofs that don't leak, electric lighting, indoor plumbing. And miss the way that, generally speaking, cars and lights and bridges and refrigeration work pretty durn well. It is perhaps too easy to concentrate on the leading edge; of consumer electronics, for instance, which delivers largely meaningless content wrapped in tedious confusion with a frosting of lies and failure.

Perhaps, indeed, it would be better to achieve the transport of people, goods, and services which so transform modern society, as well as the plumbing and lighting and so forth that made modern life in the developed world so different from that of most past societies, with some older technology, and reserve magic for an analog of the computer revolution. Because the Information Age and all its detritus is still new and experimental and not a little problematic, and the fruits of it are still fresh to many of us.

Thing of it is (something I tried to talk about in my Tomb Raider/SG1 fanfic, of all things!) it is very hard to rationalize a seriously schizo science and technology. If you understand metallurgy well enough to produce the bridges and railways and ships and cars that forever changed global society by making movement across the globe essentially trivial (whereas in a medieval village rare was the person who didn't live and die within a handful of miles of where they were born), then you by implication understand associated science, such as Maxwell's laws, and the technologies for long-range communication are within easy grasp.

I simply can't see achieving the quality of life of modern suburban living, from fresh fruit to off-the-rack clothing, without there being almost all of modern technology behind it, as well as modern society (if nothing else, you need the middle class of technical workers and artists and financial people to make it possible).

So, no, I don't know where to go with it. Just stuck down at the point where a character in a story is trying to repair a flying carpet, but the spell kit they have is all Latin and the carpet is all woven in Aramaic and the user's manual was apparently translated from French into Farsi, badly. And they could re-purpose the weft module from a pair of Seven-League Socks, except the Socks are under a EULA and all the physical spell components are potted, anyhow. And the service desk is trying to sell the new triple-decker carpets and First Tier support is a Golem physically unable to deviate from the script to give any useful advice.

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