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Straight from Owen Tyme's keyboard

On the Nature of Magic

July 10, 2024 — Owen Tyme

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

― Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible

We gaze with wonder at the stars of the night sky and most everyone has no idea the effect they're having, just by looking.

Quantum physics includes some peculiar concepts that most people never manage to wrap their brains around: Heisenburg's Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect.

The following summary is probably a little off, but should serve to help me make my point. To the physicists reading my words: sorry, but I'm not one of you and my understanding is certainly flawed. Please forgive my errors.

To summarize, the state of any given particle is undefined until measured and the only conclusions that can be drawn without measurement are all a matter of what the particle is most likely to be doing, but until that measurement is made, the particle is actually doing all of the things it could possibly be doing, at the same time. When the particle is measured, it stops doing all that freaky, simultaneous stuff and suddenly pretends it was following one path all along, but only so long as it's being measured.

I take it on faith that the mathematics say it's true and I've seen some tricky little experiments that prove it. Look up a Youtube video on the double-slit experiment if you want your mind blown.

That's the Observer Effect at work: as far as I'm aware, in quantum physics, any form of intelligence (seems to require life, as well) simply looking at the environment around it causes the universe to change, setting itself down a particular path and all things are in flux until we look at them.

Nothing is concrete until we make it so, just by using our senses. I once read that astronomers observing the stars with ever finer instruments have hypothetically shortened their lifespans, simply by forcing them to take on a particular state. That's why I say people have no idea what they're doing to the stars.

However, please don't feel bad about it. That's just the nature of life and the universe.

What About the Magic?

Ah, the question has finally arisen in your mind, yes? Why did I bring this up and what does it have to do with magic?

I've never gotten a clear explanation of the Observer Effect and its cause. As far as I know, no one understands why it happens, only knowing that it does.

So, deep down, at a fundamental level, the universe does this mysterious, dare I say it, magical thing, which has no explanation. The very foundation of reality and everything in it stands on this strange thing that happens, just because an observer shapes the universe merely by existing.

Arthur C. Clark spoke well when he said this: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I daresay that reality itself is magic and science may be an illusion the universe made up on the fly, just because we were looking too close.

The trouble in all of this is that we can't even arrive at a concrete, definitive explanation of what intelligence actually is, except in self-referential terms. So it also is with life. These concepts go round in circles, referring only to themselves and each other. At the end of the day, all we can really and truly say is that we know them when we see them.

Please trust me when I say this, because I studied both subjects in college, discovering a deep, philosophical hole in our knowledge that has no concrete answer.

To my mind, anything that cannot be defined or explained is magic. Period. Plain and simple. Perhaps this is not your definition, but it is mine.

To summarize, here's the magical things we've covered so far: quantum physics, observers, intelligence and perhaps even the spark of life itself.

All of science stands on these inexplicable, magical things, so in a way, science is also magic.

Science Fiction

No matter how obsessed the writer may be with scientific accuracy, sooner or later, every science fiction story comes down to the same issue, right at the level of the story's bones: the tale can't be told without relying on magic.

Ah, but in my mind I can hear a thousand sci-fi fans screaming the same thing at me: the defining quality of sci-fi that sets it apart from fantasy is that there is no magic!

Unpopular though my opinion may be, I've got to break it to you: rubber science, no matter how concrete and well-researched, is based on the same leap of faith that magic is, because it is fundamentally the same thing.

Again, science is magic.

Fantasy

Fantasy, on the other hand, embraces that bendy, wobbly concept and thrusts it to the forefront. Some writers use it a lot and some use it a little, but at the end of the day, you can't have fantasy without at least a pinch of magic.

A Writer's Definition of Magic

So, let's look at the two sides of this coin in terms of definitions, like a dictionary, but let's do so from the perspective of a writer.

  • Rubber Science: A plot device
  • Magic: A plot device

So, if both come out to equal the same thing, it implies they really are the same thing, does it not? Everything else is just window dressing and descriptive detail.

Science Fantasy

In the end, I've chosen to boldly go where few choose to tread: I freely mix science fiction and fantasy in what I call 'science fantasy'. I like to pit the usual elements of the two against each other, because it makes for a striking and new take on the older genres. I find the combination fresh with endless possibilities.

To me, this is extremely freeing and my imagination runs where it chooses, resulting in wizards and witches with magic blaster guns, flying around in star ships that have the usual kind of rubber-science bells and whistles like force fields and teleporters, but instead of hand-waving the science, a wizard did it by integrating his love of magic and technology into one convenient package.

I just don't comprehend the purpose of putting some rigid, unbending line down the center of my brain, arbitrarily deciding that fantasy and science fiction are separate, never the twain shall meet. I balk at the limitation, because they're the same, dang thing!

However, I'm not alone in this. Other writers have done it, but most of the time, they insist their work is science fiction.

The most prominent example I can think of is Star Wars. George Lucas used a sci-fi theme to tell fantasy stories and successfully sold that little, white lie to millions (maybe billions?) under the heading of science-fiction. The science in Star Wars is heavily hand-waved and rubber as can be. The Force is just magic with a sci-fi themed wrapper (psychic powers!) and just like fantasy, there's a lot of sword fighting, even though perfectly reasonable laser-like guns exist. Robots replace golems, aliens replace monsters and crystal balls become computers to make something that would normally be called fantasy, if there weren't space ships in it. Heck, even laser guns are analogous to a wizard's magic wand.

Why is space travel almost exclusively pigeonholed as sci-fi? Hasn't anyone heard of Spelljammer?

What Changed Me?

I used to play Dungeons and Dragons a lot and as a Dungeon Master, I was always drawn to unique settings and adventures to run. The unusual is what I craved.

Two particular publications caught my eye: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and Tale of the Comet.

I never had a chance to run the first in a serious fashion, just because it was too old and my access to it at the time was limited, since my brother owned and somewhat jealously guarded it. The second was my own discovery, just sitting on the shelf of a party supplies store that I entered in search of unnaturally large balloons for a college class (3 footers).

Tale of the Comet captured my attention in a way that nothing in Dungeons and Dragons ever had before. Magic vs. technology, wizards fighting robots, an AI scourge on the galaxy that needed to be put down and an opportunity for magic to save the day where technology had failed. It also captured the imagination of my players and every time I used it, the gaming table was electrified with excitement.

In short, it was a magical experience for us, especially me. Everyone saw how unique the setting was and wanted to see more.

It didn't happen consciously, but that's when I finally realized science fiction and fantasy were the same, a pair of twins separated at birth and raised without knowledge of each other, though they got along famously when they finally met.

Tale of the Comet changed me forever and is responsible for the writer I am today. Without it, I would probably never have had the audacity to unchain my imagination. Without that setting showing me the possibilities, I might never have written about an electrical engineer crash-landing on a planet that gave him magic powers, nor would I have written about his son, Levi Jacobs.

Conclusion

Magic is real.

It's found in the heart of the laws of physics, the very core of the human brain and inside every living thing. Seeing anything is magic, because the mere act of observing changes everything.

I'm in awe of the grand design of the universe and our place in it as the observers and shapers of all we touch, taste, smell, hear and see.

I'm grateful my eyes are open to this fact, glad to know science and magic are so much alike. It fills my mind with ever-changing possibilities.

Who knows if the magic underpinning the universe will ever be understood? I, for one, hope that mystery is never revealed by science, because if it is, it will destroy that last bit of wonder and leave people thinking our own existence is nothing but a cheap trick. It would be like pulling the curtain back, only to reveal everything was based on a bunch of squirrels running on a hamster wheel; novel and amusing perhaps, but mundane.

Without a little magic, there is no imagination. Without something we can't understand, there would be no striving for something new. Without the touch of mystery pervading the entire universe, it would be a cheap, boring existence, gray and lifeless to the core.

I need to stare at the stars in awe. I need the mysteries to excite my mind with their possibilities. I need the magic of existence.

Magic is all around us and the best magic of all is the human mind.

Tags: writing

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