The God or the Machine: A World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

Panelists: Ted Chiang, Louise Marley, Michael A. Stackpole, Walter Jon Williams, Janine Ellen Young (moderator)

What it was supposed to be about (synopsis from the program book): When do “scientific” worldview elements move a concept out of fantasy? Systematic magic, planetary bodies, rudimentary experimentation, the cusp of alchemy into chemistry…

What it was really about

First, the panelists admitted they didn’t really understand the topic of the panel as stated in the program book. They didn’t get much mileage out of “scientific worldview elements moving a concept out of fantasy”. After addressing the distinction between technology and magic, and Ted Chiang stating why he believes Clarke’s famous adage is incorrect, the panelists quickly became mired in the age-old debate of what is science fiction, and what is fantasy. Oh no, not again, you say! Well, this discussion wasn’t quite like beating a dead horse. I heard some interesting insights.

A lot of western fantasy writers prefer magic to be systematic, i.e. to have laws, rules, constraints. An arbitrary magic, where everything is possible or impossible, depending on whether it is convenient for the author, they don’t find very interesting. But does systematizing magic move it closer to science? Not necessarily.

Traditionally it’s thought that it’s the presence or absence of scientific / technological elements — the so-called furniture — that causes most people to view a certain story as science fiction or fantasy. But actually, the worldview expressed in a story may be more relevant. (Though apparently there are no universal criteria how to determine the genre a particular story belongs to, because some people in the audience disagreed over which genre certain books belonged to.)

At the time of this discussion the cloak of invisibility was in the news. Scientists had invented what could be a prototype of a cloak of invisibility. People wearing it appeared to be see-through from some directions, but nowhere near truly invisible. Still, this achievement was sexy enough to serve as a launching point for the discussion of technology versus magic.

Janine Young. If science is indistinguishable from magic, like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, does that mean that there is no magic, that when [future generations will read Harry Potter], they will see his cloak of invisibility as a science fiction story? It’s possible, so it’s no longer magic, is science.

Some panelists beg to differ.

Why technology is distinguishable from magic

Ted Chiang: technology is reproducible, magic is not

Ted Chiang. I disagree with Clarke’s often quoted law. I think Clarke’s law is either wrong or very misleading. One of the differences between magic and technology is that technology over time becomes cheaper, egalitarian, accessible to the masses. In Harry Potter, as I understand it, the general populace, muggles, are not capable of performing magic, and there’s no indication that they will ever be. It’s not a question of magical devices becoming cheaper one day. They will be forever out of reach of most people in the HP universe.

That’s not the case with technology. A real cloak of invisibility at this time would be incredibly expensive, [so much so that only the military could afford it], but at some point… We all own devices that have laser beams, [such as] our CD players. Something that might have seemed magical at some point, is now very commonplace. And it will happen with any technological advancement. And that’s what distinguishes magic from technology.

If you read Harry Potter, no matter at what point you are reading it, whether invisibility is possible or not, if it will never become available to everyone, then that’s magic.

TC at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
CIMG4374 Ted Chiang

Walter Jon Williams: Science discovers existing laws of nature, magic overturns them

Walter Jon Williams. I’ll expand on [what Ted Chiang said]. [Science needs to be testable and reproducible (by other experimenters), otherwise it isn’t science.] Technology is reproducible. It’s based of discovery of laws of nature, not superimposition of your will on the laws of nature. [On the other hand, magic overturns natural laws.] Science illuminates the supernatural, or, if you want to get radical about it, God. We could have science in Europe once the church was sufficiently fragmented, so that it would not step on the scientific inquiry. So that the second Copernicus came up with the heliocentric theory of the Solar system, he was not immediately burned.

Science flourished in the protestant parts of Europe, not for any reason to do with theology, but simply because that was the place where various ideologies and theologies were competing with each other. So essentially science is, despite various efforts going on now in the world, a secular pursuit. Magic doesn’t have to be that.

Should magic have rules? Should magic be a system?

Michael Stackpole. Because our audience has been educated with scientific method, [they realize magic must have constraints, so] I have no problems setting up rules for magic. Rules in magic are very useful, because they help drive the dramatic tension. I think the worst fantasy novels out there are the ones where magic is just flash bang, there is no limitation. It works when you need it to work, and doesn’t work when you need drama, two pages later.

The Jesuits were established as Catholic men of science, to show that you can be a man of science without rejecting God.

A lot of fantasy novels are poorly thought out, says Michael Stackpole, because the writer hasn’t thought through the implications of certain magic. For example, if you have cheap teleportation, there are no front lines between warring armies, because the soldiers of each army can instantly get as deep as they want to into the ranks of the opposing army.

Difference between science fiction and fantasy often resides in “furniture”

You would think the difference between science fiction and fantasy would be drawn along this ideological divide between science and magic, but in reality, readers identify these genres by external genre trappings (what Walter Jon Williams calls “furniture”).

Janine Young. If you are writing a fantasy novel, and a magician says alakazam, an a rabbit pops out of his head, it’s a fantasy novel. But if the rabbit pops out of a teleportation machine, it is science.

It’s not always as clear cut, admits Janine Young. For example, a friend of hers had said that the first book of the [Anne McCaffrey’s] Pern novels has all the tropes of fantasy. On the other hand everybody says Star Wars is science fiction. They call them wizards, they call them magic, [but it’s not clear that it’s really based on science]. For all intents and purposes the Jedi magic in Star Wars looks like fantasy to Janine Young.

Ted Chiang, Walter Jon Williams, Janine Young

Ted Chiang, Walter Jon Williams, and Janine Young at the God or The Machine panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
CIMG4366 Ted Chiang, Walter Jon Williams, Janine Young

Walter Jon Williams. As George R. R. Martin told me years ago, it’s all a matter of furniture. You can equip your fantasy castle with fantasy furniture, or you can equip your science fiction lab with science fiction furniture. But you have to be careful when you mix them.

I did a series, starting from Metropolitan, [which was essentially fantasy], but readers didn’t realize that, because there was technology in this world as well. There was such science fiction furniture as flying cars, subways and skyscrapers. [It also had magic], and I called it magic. I didn’t call it anything else. Magic in this particular world was a metered public utility. If you were willing to pay the price on the meter, you could have all the specific resources for magic that you needed.

But the readers just fixated on the flying cars and skyscrapers and all the technological stuff, and many were very disappointed. If they just have read those books with fantasy tropes in mind, I think they would have liked them a lot better. [As it is,] there was a great deal of puzzlement. In fact [so-and-so] very kindly wrote an introduction. And he was trying to explain all this magic through nanotechnology, and you can’t do that. I appreciated his efforts, but I think he only muddled the waters.

But anyway, furniture rules.

Ted Chiang. I pretty much agree with what Walter just said, because I think there are a couple different worldviews that underlie the use of furniture. Pern is a low-tech society, and there doesn’t seem any implication that it would become a high-tech society any time soon. There is very little in the novel to distinguish it from a preindustrial setting in a traditional fantasy worlds. So the implied worldview of that universe is pretty close to a standard fantasy universe. I don’t think that’s bad thing. I think it’s unnecessary to try… I wonder if a science-fictional backstory behind Pern was an attempt to give it more credibility to people who wouldn’t have liked it otherwise, but I don’t think that was really necessary. I don’t think it’s wrong to have a fantasy worldview as your setting.

The fact that Pern takes place on another planet doesn’t really impinge on the story in a meaningful way.

Does systematized magic become more like science?

Michael Stackpole likes to look at magic scientifically: when he writes fantasy he says he really enjoys setting rules for magic.

Louise Marley admits the same thing.

Louise Marley. My favorite genre is science fantasy. My favorite kind of fantasy that uses magic is where magic is worked out. Where there is a functionality to it. A cost. I hate when characters reach puberty and suddenly they can do a whole lot of stuff. I think they should undergo training to do that.

Left to right: Janine Young, Michael Stackpole, Louise Marley

Left to right: Janine Young, Michael Stackpole, Louise Marley at The God or The Machine panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
CIMG4367 Left to right: Janine Young, Michael Stackpole, Louise Marley

But systematized magic really is a modern Western concept, says Walter Jon Williams.

Walter Jon Williams. When you look at magicians throughout history, the whole point of them doing what they were doing is that it’s free. There had been some really elaborate magic systems, but a lot of it was never systematized at all, because you never had to pay for it in any meaningful way. Maybe with a little fasting or chanting. But that’s the attraction for it.

When Campbell founded his magazine, he demanded that hard magic was rigorously systematized and made sense.

Today, if you watch Asian horror films like The Ring, you notice that the magic doesn’t make any sense. Then they remake them over here, but they have to make the ghosts make sense. But the Asian directors go, dude, they are ghosts! (Audience laughs.) They’re already in the realm of the irrational. It neither should make sense, nor does it have to make sense! In the west, a ghost has to want something, and once you give it to it, it’s over.

But, argues Janine Young, there had always been magic rules in fairytales. The magic only lasts till midnight, you get only 3 wishes, etc. Those are western fairy tales. The west always liked to have some limitations on magic.

It’s does not necessarily follow, though, that limitations and rules in the Western concept of magic were imposed because the creators of Western fairy tales and myths wanted to infuse the concept of magic with scientific principles. At least Ted Chiang doesn’t think so.

Ted Chiang. I think that in the western magical tradition a lot of limitations on magic are attempts to enforce some sort of a moral law, and the restrictions on magic are a reflection of trying to impose some values, and not let people get away with anything for free. Because in the real world we need to learn that our actions have consequences. You don’t get things for free. Those are important lessons to be learned. The limitations on magic in many fairly tales illustrate these lessons.

[The idea that you don’t get anything for free] mirrors the physical laws of conservation of energy and conservation of momentum. It worked well for Campbell. In this preference for systematized magic he tried to impose a scientific model of conservation laws. But I think that original rules for magic were driven by a desire to impose a moral structure.

The appeal of magic for a lot of people in the past is because it seemed like an easy way to do things, e.g. to turn the lead into gold. A transmutation of a base metal into gold was as much a spiritual quest as a physical quest. The transmutation was a reflection of purification of the practitioner’s own soul. It’s not clear whether the purification was a prerequisite, or if it was the goal itself, and the transmutation of a metal into gold was sort of a side effect. That again is an illustration of the influence of the structure of morality onto the rules of magic.

Left to right: Ted Chiang and Walter Jon Williams

Left to right: Ted Chiang and Walter Jon Williams at The God or The Machine panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006
CIMG4372 Left to right: Ted Chiang and Walter Jon Williams

Is magic better at teaching certain things than science fiction, and vice versa?

A guy from the audience. Can we do better by teaching certain things by way of magic than by science fiction?

Louise Marley. One of the reasons we find the moral structure in fairytales, is because human beings long for order and fear anarchy. If the story teaches something about morality, that’s fine. But the first goal of a story is to entertain.

Michael Stackpole. I don’t think one or the other predominates in being able to teach moral lessons. I think both science fiction and fantasy are good at allowing you to look at a present day problem, and shift it to an imaginary world, where you don’t necessarily bring your preconceptions with you. It allows you to look at it with a fresh perspective.

Michael Stackpole

The God or The Machine panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006: Michael Stackpole
CIMG4372 Michael Stackpole

Louise Marley. If you can look at the political problems without the blue state / red state issue, that’s a great thing about science fiction / fantasy.

Ted Chiang. They both are good tools at trying to convey some moral lesson. One perhaps narrow application that science fiction is good at, is [asking the classic question]: if this goes on, what would be the consequences? It’s fundamentally a post-industrial revolution kind of question. Since the industrial revolution technology allowed us to see the world change drastically in our lifetimes. And mass production. The egalitarian nature of technology. It can spread widely, rapidly, and transform a society quickly for good or for worse. And that’s something that’s better explored by science fiction.

It’s a function of modern scientific view of the world. Industrial revolution is a practical manifestation of this worldview. If you want to write a cautionary tale about technology, science fiction does it better than fantasy.

Differences between science fiction and fantasy lie in the ideology

Walter Jon Williams. I think there’s an ideological difference between science fiction and fantasy. In Tolkien’s “On fairy tales” he discussed a eucatastrophe, which we would call “a happy ending”. Even when the quest has failed and Frodo has taken the ring for his own, and the Dark Lord has found out that the ring is right here, and reaches for it, Gollum interferes and saves the day. And then Frodo and Sam [are stuck on the Mount Orodruin that’s crumbling all around them, and it looks like there’s no way they can escape a certain death in its destruction, but the eagles swoop in and fly them to safety. Walter Jon Williams finds this sequence of events too incredulous.]

One of the ideological statements of fantasy is that the universe is benign, and that it will arrange itself in happy endings. Science fiction says that the universe is neutral, and it can be manipulated into a happy or a bad outcome. And then there is a worldview that the universe is malevolent, and Cthulhu will rise, and he either will step on your or won’t step on you, but it’s not gonna be happy.

Janine Young. If [the world will come to an end because the] Sun’s gonna go out, or magnetic poles are going to switch, that’s science. You can’t do anything about it. But in fantasy we can blame it on Sauron, and it is possible to defeat Sauron. A lot of fantasy writers use fantasy to present moral absolutes. It’s hard to have a grey area in fantasy. But in SF it’s easy. You say it’s science! what are you gonna do?

Another distinction: science is impersonal, magic has a strong personal element

A woman in the audience. Every magic principle does include a personal moral element. Depending on who you are, the magic may or may not work. So that may be a useful distinction between magic and science. Do you think a magical system can exist where magic is neutral and it does not have a spiritual component?

Ted Chiang. If there was some phenomenon that we could only produce with only one particular experimenter, then we could easily say that we could have a verifiable example of magic. (Barring some other underlying explanation.) So one of the distinctions between imaginary science and magic, I would propose, is that imaginary science would not rely on the mental state or the moral state of the practitioner. If some process can be automated, mass-produced, then it’s imaginary science, even if it bears no resemblance to our science. But if it relies on intention or spirituality of practitioner, then it’s magic, even if it has well-defined rules.

I think this distinction is consistent with what Walter Jon Williams described: the ideological underpinnings between fantasy and science fiction. The universe doesn’t care what kind of person you are. Doesn’t care if you are asking for something for a good reason or not. But if a phenomenon is only achievable when your heart is pure, then the universe cares about your intention and has a stance on that.

Louise Marley. I think there’s a grey area here. There are sciences that have moral rules, like medical science. The outcome is partly affected by the practitioner.

Walter Jon Williams. I disagree. Surgeons who are utter bastards are usually the ones you want, because they are very driven. One doctor friend said that in the medical school they don’t teach surgeons to be good people, they teach them to yell at nurses.

To recap what was said on this panel:

Magic: cannot be reproduced by a controlled experiment; depends on the spirituality / mental state / spiritual state of the person who performs the magic; in some cultures magic is viewed as arbitrary, unconstrained, with no laws and no logic, while in other cultures, such as the west, magic tends to be systematized, however, the laws and constraints in magic reflect not scientific but moral laws.

Science: is experimentally reproducible; technology is able to be mass-produced and accessible to everybody; success and failure of a scientific experiment does not depend on mental / spiritual state of its performer (purity of his/her heart).

By extension, the worldview commonly represented in fantasy (at least Tolkien’esque fantasy) is that the universe has a personal concern, good or bad, about a protagonist; whereas in science, the universe is neutral and indifferent towards the protagonist, towards his / her morality and intentions.

Regardless of all that, most people decide what genre a story belongs to, by its “furniture”, i.e. its setting, ambiance, trappings. To illustrate how strong is the defining power of “furniture”, this example may be appropriate. When Ted Chiang mentioned that Pern as fantasy, a guy from the audience said: “For me, Pern is pure science fiction, only it has a dragon in it, so people think it’s fantasy.”