(This will be my last formal Bittercon post for ConFusion
. However, I'm going to keep the list of other topics for inspiration for future posts.)
Most of us are familiar with Clarke's Law: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to the uninitiated. But what about the opposite: the carefully systematized magic that operates in predictable ways to get the desired result. Doesn't it start feeling more like a parallel system of technology than the magic of folklore and fairy tale? Sometimes to the point where you start wondering if the Big Reveal is going to be that it's in fact taking place thousands of years in the future, so far that the characters have forgotten they are the descendants of technological humanity after a long Dark Age.
Jack Chalker's Soul Rider
series is a good example of that last (although I spoiled it for myself by acquiring Book Four at a garage sale and reading it first, and only then reading the first three with the knowledge that these people were the descendants of the people who settled an exoplanet). So when I read Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan
and City on Fire
, I understood them as science fiction. Here you have a world-city reminiscent of Trantor or Coruscant, although it is capital of nothing, instead being enclosed in a mysterious shield that allows nothing to pass. The flux is enough like the psionics that appear in a lot of science fiction that, while it would probably be pseudoscience in the Primary World, I can suspend my disbelief for it as a feature of the Secondary World Williams creates.
So I was rather surprised when I was trying to find out about the third book that seemed to be promised by certain little bits of the second, and saw the author describing it as fantasy, not sf. But as I was thinking about it, I could see parallels in other works of fiction in which magic is something the principal characters use or learn how to use. If it isn't systematized, with clear limits and weak points, it can easily become a rampaging plot device, or even outright wish fulfillment.
And there are some times when a fictional world works better when the magic stays numinous, not under the beck and call of the protagonists. For me, this was one of the problems with the third trilogy of Jacqueline Carey's Legacy of Kushiel series. In the early books, magic was something the protagonists often experienced, but was never under their command, even when they became its vessels. But as the series progresses, we encounter more and more characters who view magic as something to be studied until it is understood and can be manipulated -- and not all of these characters are villains. As this progressed, I found some of the charm went out of it for me -- and I may not have been the only one, since she has not written any further books in the world of Terre d'Ange, although I would've loved to see her takes on Japan, Australia and Polynesia in that world.