After seeing it used one too many times, I decided I’m tired of the whole “strong emotions make your magic more powerful” thing. It’s not bad; it’s just overused to the point where it doesn’t occur to people to not use it. So I want to see something where it’s the opposite. Try this instead.
Magic power is proportional to how much you care about the thing you’re using it for. That much is pretty normal. Unlike normal, it’s inversely proportional.
You can, on a whim, create a planetoid made entirely of antimatter. And keep it magically contained in such a way that it’s entirely safe and leaks precisely enough energy to warm up your tea. But if you’re trying to use magic to Save The World, then you’re limited to maybe creating a small air current from across the room.
It is considered impolite to use magic for others. This is because if you are capable of, say, conjuring them a sandwich, it implies that you don’t care very much whether or not they get one. (The extent to which this is true depends on how much magic you have to use while doing it, but for purposes of politeness and social signalling people usually just avoid stating upper bounds on how important other people’s needs are. For obvious reasons.)
Instead, people employ mages for hire. It’s a pretty low-status position because of the specific requirements, but it does pay well. The mages for hire are nice friendly people with no empathy. They don’t care about your problem at all, and how much they care whether the solution works depends entirely on how much you’re paying them.
The economics would be interesting, but I suspect it works out. For really big things, like if you want to hire one to end world hunger, that’d be worth a lot of money to you. And they won’t do it for less money than you’re willing to pay. But if they personally have a lot riding on it then they actually do care whether it works and so they wouldn’t be able to easily do it. For small, cheap things, they could but you’ll get out-bidden. There’ll be a range of things that are worth hiring a mage for and still possible for them to do, but I haven’t decided where that should be.
(No, you can’t just pay a mage $1000 to make you a millionaire. Governments use mostly mundane but extremely aggressive anti-counterfeiting measures so that it’s prohibitively difficult to get away with magically creating money. Most magic users know better than to try.)
Of course, there has to be a typical way to try to take over the world. You need at least two villains with completely orthogonal goals, so that they honestly don’t care whether the other succeeds or fails. Like maybe Sauron wants to rule the world but doesn’t care who’s in it, and Magneto doesn’t care who rules the world but doesn’t want any non-magic-users in it. (I’m sure there’s at least one version of Magneto that wanted all non-mutants dead, right?) Then since magic power is inversely proportional to importance, they can both do unstoppable amounts of magic to help the other.
Unfortunately for the world, it’s nearly impossible to stop the villains by magical means. Anyone who wants to try is trying to save lots of people’s lives and everybody’s way of life, and that’s probably near the top of the list of things they care about. Very few of these villain teams have ever been brought down by any wizard that there is or was.
Very few have ever had to be. Fortunately for the world, the villains doing this have to fit some specific criteria. They can’t be friends, or what happens to the other will be something they care about and that limits their power. They can barely even be allies, since they’re working toward totally different goals and are completely neutral toward each other. But they have to trust each other completely, enough to unleash world-shapingly powerful magicks upon request. Since all the parties involved are of the supervillainly persuasion, the trust bit usually fails and they turn on each other and the world remains un-taken-over. The average citizen doesn’t realize how many times this has happened.
Solving world problems with magic is accepted (mostly accurately) to be impossible. Some were easy enough, for instance widespread starvation is no longer a thing, but the remaining serious issues are complicated enough that the only people who would know how to solve them with magic are also the people that the issues are important to.
The protagonist of the story (Not that I’m not going to write one. If someone else wants to use parts of this, well, I’d be entertained.) comes up with a way to reliably do big things. Of course, nobody listens because that’s known to be impossible and also because using magic to accomplish things gets interpreted as an insult, but when the entire population of Earth gets an invitation to move to his moon colony, the entire thing becomes obvious in retrospect.
Before it reached the planetary colonization stage, the one-man space program started out pretty small-scale.
All he had to do was convince a few people to do completely routine things by using vastly unnecessary amounts of magic. And, more importantly, to do it predictably. If someone regularly decides to negate gravity around the part of Earth’s surface containing their house in order to make their chair more comfortable, that would be overkill. But as long as the chair is already fine the way it is, there’s no reason they can’t do it. And if the protagonist happens to know that gravity is going to be turned off for a while above his neighbor’s house, there’s no reason he can’t take advantage of it.
Single stage to orbit gets a lot easier without gravity, especially if you can get the necessary speed a similar way. Convince a second neighbor that as long as they’re opening an umbrella with magic anyway, they might as well do it the cool way by imparting upward momentum to everything above them. And it is cool; you get to watch a hole get punched through the clouds when a cylinder of cloud moves out and back in. (And the rocket gets extra speed. But they probably don’t even need to know that.)
(And maybe convince a third neighbor that thunderstorms are an extremely useful method of convincing the cat to stay indoors. Or something. As long as it gives that second person a reason to open an umbrella.) As long as none of the people involved are doing anything they especially need magic for, there’s arbitrarily large amounts of free energy available. You can magic away gravity, or air resistance, or pretty much anything standing in your way. The only catch is that each step has to involve someone doing something ordinary by completely uncalled-for methods.
The protagonist’s name is, of course, Rube Goldberg.