Fictional Magic

Renowned fantasy writer W.X. Mossy made a startling admission today when a fan asked where she got her ideas.

She used to be famous for her world’s impressive and innovative magic system. Every detail would be perfectly consistent, and someone who knew enough of the trivia would be able to guess future details. She could describe a clever magical device to do almost anything. But according to what she said today, it was all plagiarized. None of it was original, and the entire setup was copied wholesale from real physics.

Fans of Ms. Mossy are sharply divided over this shocking revelation.

“I always thought she was so creative” said Nameless Fan #1. “I’ve never seen another writer say that the characters have to be touching something to levitate it. And when she had a character find out that the magical force you use to push something is equal to the magical force pushing back on you, I loved it. But now that it’s the stuff we learn in school, it’s just not cool.”

Others disagreed. “When I got the news, I was happy,” said a fan wearing glasses and a pointy hat. “This means I have all the same powers as Gary Claybender!” Then he shouted something that sounded like Latin and lifted up a pencil. “I always thought I was just pretending, but now I know that it’s for real!”

It wasn’t only the fans who had strong opinions on this revelation. Allium News reached Jack Chick for comment. “Where the author got her inspiration doesn’t make the books any less occult. Those books are satanic, whether they call it ‘magic’ or ‘physics’ or anything else. If children read these books and listen to what they’re encouraging, they’ll be tempted into a life of physics. And that leads straight to the lake of fire.”

(He is referring, of course, to the incident in book seven when the author describes a  fire-creating spell in great detail. We now know that she was talking about the chemistry behind combustion.)

~Change of subject~

Someone asked me recently what would be my ideal magic system. I started rambling about consistency and having everything follow logically from a small number of differences from the real world and stuff like that. So the thing above is an extreme case for the purposes of making fun of myself. But I stand by what I meant. I am not a fantasy writer, but I am a fantasy reader. So I think I’m entitled to an opinion that’s not authoritative in any way.

Part of it is obvious. If you decide that your magic system works in a particular way, please don’t contradict that. But you can take this further and actually think through the implications. I’ve heard (but didn’t confirm) that part way through the Mistborn trilogy, fans could look at the half that had been revealed of how the physics worked and deduce the other half. Not coincidentally, I enjoyed those books.

And don’t just ignore real physics. One of my favorite details in Starfall was how some characters have super-speed without all the required secondary powers that most books would give them. So just because you can move inhumanly fast doesn’t mean you get to magically know where there’s a safe place to step, and conservation of momentum is definitely still a thing. Most books would have ignored that.

Of course, if you do all this, then you lose all the awe and mystery that some people like. Maybe you’d rather have nobody know how it works. Tolkien goes that route, and it works because the book wasn’t about the magic.  And The Name of the Wind solves the issue by using multiple independent sets of magic, one with stated rules (Conservation laws and everything! And even a magical equivalent of friction!) and another that’s less well understood but more mysterious. There are all kinds of good answers; I just prefer the one that involves me the reader having lots of information.

So if I were inventing a magic system, it would be based around cosmological engineering. You have to actually edit the laws of the universe. And since most of the laws are unchanged and interrelated, one mistake could go horribly wrong. Think you can fly by turning off gravity? Well yeah, but you also make the Earth explode.

Imagine making combustion not work, causing a fire to instantly go out. Does it work? Yes. Burning becomes impossible and your cells can’t burn glucose. You die. And if you try something bigger, like passing a law that everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, then everyone dies.

For that reason, researching new spells is very dangerous and done only on remote asteroids by highly paid physicists with low risk aversion. People are more likely to stick to known methods of altering the universe.

You can, for instance, alter conservation of momentum. Write in an exception, stating that for trademarked objects of a particular size and mass, every action exerting a force on it provokes a reaction precisely twice as strong.  Then you sell them to power companies. (Just never bump two of those objects together.) You can set up perpetual motion machines and free energy generators with those things. But this isn’t even very ambitious yet. When you can alter physical laws, the problem isn’t with what you can do; it’s with keeping from doing too much.

You could build an Alcubierre warp drive for interstellar travel by expanding and contracting space toward the destination, you could create a naked singularity just to see what happens, you could hold a sun in the palm of your hand. The trick is finding the right combinations of rules that allow you to do what you want but don’t instantly destroy you. Good luck.

Incidentally, when people ask me what kind of engineering I’m studying I always say cosmological. A surprising number of people have bought it.

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