Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writer of true science fiction must know the difference, and never “let the streams cross.”
Egon: Don’t cross the streams.
Egon: It would be bad.
Peter: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean “bad”?
Egon: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
~ Ghostbusters, Screenwriters: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, for Columbia Pictures, ©1984
Magic is not an accepted trope of hard science fiction so don’t even try to justify it. If you are writing a sci-fi fantasy mix, don’t try to pass it off as hard sci-fi. It is science-fantasy at that point, a subgenre of spec-fic.
Mushy science is just as offensive to fans of hard sci-fi as magic is, maybe more. Mushy science means the author didn’t research the possibilities thoroughly. When science fails the truth test, hard sci-fi fans will voice their opinions in bad reviews.
Those of us who are physics-geeks know what the cutting edge of propulsion technology is. We read publications that tell us the new advances in laser tech. We know what is being discovered about exoplanets, how nothing truly earthlike has been discovered as of this writing.
We know all the ways currently being discussed regarding terraforming Mars. This planet is in our backyard and is within humanity’s grasp if we can work together and keep the greedy hotheads running our many different countries from screwing it up for the rest of us. So many possibilities, so many stories to imagine and write.
But what of Interstellar Propulsion? After all, we want to get to these newly found exoplanets and see if we can either adapt to them or make them fit us. My current favorite way to bring humans to another world is through the use of generation ships. Entire colonies living for generations on a moon-sized ship, traveling through the cosmos offers so many opportunities for drama. For some good research-reading and a plethora of ideas to investigate further, check out Futurism: Here is the Future of Interstellar Spacecraft.
When writing science fiction, the science is fundamental to the world:
Communications – This is the Future of Communication Thanks to Technology
Transportation – What’s the Future of Transportation?
Agriculture – High-rise Urban Farming
Waste management – The future of waste: five things to look for by 2025
Resource management – Resources for the Future: website https://www.rff.org/
The environment of any spacefaring society must be created of technology, or they would not be able to leave the safety of this world. Earth is the only world known to harbor life as we know it.
Know the limits of whatever theoretical tech you are exploring in your work, write stories that stretch them, but don’t ignore them “for the sake of the story.” Limits are what keeps science from feeling like magic.
So, now we agree that science should never feel like magic. But shouldn’t magic feel like magic? Yes, but just like science, magic shouldn’t confer absolute power.
In both science and magic, forcing our characters to work around the limits is the key to good stories.
For me, as a reader, magic should only be possible if certain conditions have been met. This means the author has created a system that regulates what is possible. Magic works
- if the number of people who can use it is limited.
- if the ways in which it can be used are limited.
- if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every kind of magic.
- if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
- if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
- if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
- if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
- if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
- if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.
These conditions set the stage for you to create the Science of Magic, an underlying, invisible layer of the world you have built, one that possibly won’t get mentioned. But if you create this “science” and follow the arbitrary rules you have designed, your story won’t contradict itself.
For example, if in chapter three you declare that lightning mages cannot sense their magic in the rain, then it stands to reason they cannot sense it if immersed in a river in chapter twenty-three.
What challenges does your character have to overcome when learning to wield magic?
- Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
- If that is so, what is the block?
- How does that inability affect their companions, and how do they feel about it?
- Are the companions hampered in any way themselves?
- What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?
Even if this aspect does not come into the story, for your own information, you should decide who is in charge of teaching the magic, how that wisdom is dispensed, and who will be allowed to gain that knowledge.
- is the prospective mage born with the ability to use magic or
- is it spell-based and any reasonably intelligent person can learn it if they can find a teacher?
This is where science and magic converge. Magic and the ability to wield it confers power. Good technology does the same.
That means the enemy must have access to equal or better Science/Magic. So, if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school,” you now have two systems to design for that story. You must create the ‘rules of magic’ or ‘the limits of science’ for both the protagonist and antagonist. Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.
In creating science technologies and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within either system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.
An important thing to consider whether using magic or technology: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when it affects the characters and their actions. Dole information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.
Science and magic are two sides of the personal-power coin we who write the two radically divergent sides of speculative fiction give our characters. In either sub-genre, these fundamental tropes offer your characters opportunities for success, but those opportunities must not be free and unlimited.
In both sci-fi and fantasy, the struggle is the story. How the characters overcome the limitations takes a person out of their comfortable environment. Roadblocks to success forces ordinary people to become more than they believe they are.
They become heroes.
Credits and Attributions:
Quote from the movie, Ghostbusters, Screenwriters: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, for Columbia Pictures, ©1984, Fair Use.
Ghostbusters theatrical release poster, Columbia Pictures ©1984, Fair Use.
Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons