Inverse Magic

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.


11 thoughts on “Inverse Magic

  1. Stuart Armstrong

    I really, really like this idea, but it feels to easy to exploit. Perfectly rational humans might make it work, but we’re not rational, so it’s easy to find people who don’t care about important things but could easily be convinced to do it anyway (not to mention the indifferent nihilists who blow up the planet).

    It would work better with an upper bound on power, where the focus is on “the more you care, the harder it is” rather than “the less you care, the easier it is”.

    1. Nate Gabriel Post author

      Hard limits would make it more reasonable and also closer to the exact inverse of the trope it’s making fun of. Darth Vader can’t detonate a planet no matter how many times Padme dies. I just thought the exaggerated version without the hard limits was funnier.

      The explanation for the world still being around despite the existence of nihilists is quantum immortality. A bad explanation, but if it works in any case it works in this one.

      1. Stuart Armstrong

        I love that we’re talking about “more reasonable” involving the reversal of a weird system of magic that only exists in literary convention and makes no actual physical sense – and that we both know what you mean by that, and agree 🙂

        Actually, you don’t need to worry about nihilists – children, or just carelessness (“I’ll turn off gravity to jump home today”) would be enough… And couldn’t someone turn off quantum mechanics accidentally as well?

      2. Nate Gabriel Post author

        I figure the sort of thing that would end the world would do it by destroying the entire planet and annihilating everybody so there are no more observers. You won’t see frequent disasters that depopulate continents, because when that happens everyone else dies too.

        Turning off quantum mechanics would be bad. I guess multiversal-scale things have to take too much power?

  2. michaelbusch

    That’s some good world-building.

    Now you just need somebody to write the story. Seems like something for Terry Pratchett, since Douglas Adams is not available…

    1. michaelbusch

      Addendum: I notice a problem with this setting – genocide by ignorance / ambivalence. Those antimatter planetoids getting lose because somebody decided their tea was warm enough, thank you very much…

  3. Dallin Edvalson

    Oh man, I can’t even begin to say how much I love this idea. Obviously has some kinks that would need to be worked out (Careless world-destruction being one of them, as mentioned by other commenters) but this sounds absolutely hilarious.

  4. Kevin

    I read this post, having arrived sideways by way of a blog reference by an anorexic/ bulimic/mostly-ok psych student. My wife, busy across the room with her business endeavo[u]rs, nevertheless managed to inquire no less than three times why I was grinning so widely. Very we’ll done. Nicely cohesive.

    Reminiscent of my own oblique, verbal-only rants that rapidly push an obscure take on some otherwise harmless thought or utterance way past the bounds of propriety and sanity… And I get told to “Just stop!” ( no “please” offered or needed, apparently).
    But, better. Yours was much better. And my cheeks still hurt, but in a good way.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go away and evoke a condition of intense indifference to vast, unearned wealth.

    Thank you. My already-quite-acceptable day was made better by your post. Some of the comments weren’t all that bad, either.

  5. rash92

    If I lived in such a world and was a magic user, I can’t imagine NOT using unnecessary amounts of magic for mundane things I don’t particularly care about, and im sure a lot of other people would too. I reckon everyone would fly or teleport everywhere (except when they’re on a deadline).

    I quite liked playing with fire as a background thing while browsing the internet as a teen. It wasn’t hugely important to me, just something to do that was pretty. I’m sure you’ll have a lot of people playing with antimatter for similar reasons.

    Apathetic people (e.g. depressed people since their apathy is hard to get rid of) in general are extremely dangerous now, as they can do much more damage than most people can undo.

    In terms of the mage economy, you can have a business manager who handles all of the pricing and gets excited about the money, and kids who can’t understand the implications of what they’re doing being told to do stuff by their business manager for minor treats. In fact I see a whole lot of exploitation to get mage businesses going in general.


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