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Magic systems and my world building process

Hi everyone, this is Aliette de Bodard peeking in from Paris. Charlie's been kind enough to let me borrow a spot on his blog while he recovers from jet lag (we both went to Worldcon in Spokane, but I have a big advantage over him: I wasn't in the US long enough and actually never really adapted to the 9-hour time difference, so when I came back I was basically functioning normally. On the minus side, I was a pumpkin in Spokane!). Anyway... *clears throat* Today, I wanted to talk about magic systems and how I built the one in my novel.

Magic systems, for me, are a bit like the air you breathe: I've found out (much to my dismay) that I can't start writing a story without having an idea of where the magic is coming from and who uses it. Magic conditions so much of the fabric of a fantasy universe for me that not working it out in advance feels a little like setting out across a blizzard without skis, warm clothes or a distress flare.

When it comes to magic systems, there is (of course) an entire spectrum between magic as the numinous, the fundamentally irrational and illogical (JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the magic of the sea in Patricia McKillip's The Changeling Sea), and magic as a quasi-rational system (Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere). The former, again, has a range between magic permeating the entire world (for instance, Elizabeth Bear's The Eternal Sky, where the celestial bodies hanging in the sky depend on which country one is in), and magic as an incursion, a break in the ordered surface of the world through which the numinous and outright scary can intrude (the eerie, quiet otherworld of Kari Sperring's The Grass King's Concubine is effectively contrasted with a gritty and very real Industrial Revolution). The latter, in turn, is what Brent Weeks characterises as an attempt to make magic closer to science, to prevent Deus Ex Machina endings aka getting characters out of any scrape: it sets very clear limits on what magic can and cannot do.

This, of course, raises the issue of differentiating magic and science, notably when you happen to have both in the story. Very often, magic is the province of a select few: not always a hereditary system (though Adrian Tchaikovsky's Guns of the Dawn, for instance, has two magical ruling dynasties), but certainly one of chosen people, those born with magical abilities (Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time differentiates those who can be taught and those with the spark, who will express that talent without being taught, but it remains that you're either capable of magic or not). Science, in turn, is meant to be more "democratic", in that anyone can, for instance, operate a car, or be trained to be an engineer.

But is it? Affinity for science is also the province of a select few (you tend to be either good at, say, maths, or not); and, while you might not have cars in most fantasy books, they are replete with magical or quasi-magical artefacts which can be used regardless of whether you're a magic user or not.

A last major question is whether to have different magic systems: again, they can run the gamut between a unifying principle to various and completely disparate sources of magic. Two common medium points are different flavours of magic as the expression of the same underlying source (the various flavors of spree-magic in Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings), and different flavours of magic tied to different races such as humans and faeries (Kate Elliott's Cold Magic and sequels in the Spiritwalker trilogy). If there are different flavours of magic, they can be complementary (Fitz in Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy can use both the Wit and the Skill), or completely antithetical (wizardry vs artifice in Juliet McKenna's Tales of Einarinn: a wizard cannot become an artificer and vice versa).

I was very aware of those things when I developed the magic systems for my novel, The House of Shattered Wings. In particular, I wanted to tackle issues of power and abuses of power without leaning in too much on narratives of exceptionalism and chosen ones--which is a tricky maze to navigate!

I ended up settling on a two-tier magic system. In the novel, Fallen (angels) are amnesiac magic users, with an affinity for magic which means that they're natural magicians (much like humans are natural at standing up on two legs). The twist is that Fallen are also walking magical sources: they can pass on their magic to anyone with a breath or a touch; or it can also be harvested from their body parts. The opening scenes of the novel have people hacking off fingers from a newly Fallen to sell them on the black market, and someone else stealing off Fallen bones to distil them into angel essence, a potent drug that grants enormous magical power (and rots the lungs as a side-effect, because what good is magic if there's no price?). So you can be a Fallen and be a "natural" at magic, or you can be anyone and have access to borrowed power (and some human magicians are pretty freaking powerful, because they're more desperate and driven than Fallen).

I also made this magic an integral part of the world rather than an incursion: the novel is set in an alternate, turn of the century Paris devastated by a magical war. In this dystopian universe, magic becomes a precious resource and a contributing factor to the safety of refuges. The main structure of the society is Houses, magical factions (generally headed by Fallen but not always) which offer safety and power in the ruins. I made the choice to leave it partly numinous, but with clear limits such as the absence of instantaneous healing spells, in order to evoke sense of wonder without coming off as though I were cheating. The clearest limit I actually gave on magic was the equilibrium of terror (a la Cold War): factions limits themselves on the use of magic because overuse of it already triggered a first, devastating war that no one really wants a repeat of.

The other thing I did with the book--as you might have guessed!--was running parallel magic systems. I wanted to avoid folding everything into the same overarching principle, in part because that had always felt too neat to me, and also more than slightly problematic when said magic was derived from Christianity. I set up my second magic system as a deliberate counterpart to the first. Instead of Falling down to earth and being granted magical powers, essentially by amnesia, my second system involves tiên (Vietnamese Immortals, based on Daoism).

It is not by birth, but by choice: anyone with the willpower to do the required initiation can gain access to it, and ascension to Immortals is essentially based on knowledge. Rather than be the province of ageless, deathless beings from Heaven, it raises ordinary humans to Heaven; rather than be given in scraps to other people, it can only ever be achieved for one's own self. I use this one as a contrast and counterpoint, but also as a source of similarity: as one character points out in the book, once ordinary people have attained immortality, they're as prone to arrogance and lack of compassion as powerful Fallen. I guess one of my not-so-secret themes for the book was how power changes and sometimes corrupts (a venerable tradition in fantasy, aka the Lord of the Rings approach).

(I also mention a lot of other magic systems that essentially got erased by Fallen domination, but don't go into detail on them).
So that's my magic system, and how I got there. What are your favourite magic systems, and what do they entail?



I tend toward the Sanderson side of the magic system pool. There are authors who handle magic as chaotic element well...but I prefer more rigor, generally. Sanderson is an excellent example of that.

Martha Wells' Ile-Rien has at least two, if not three magic systems running around--the Fae, the scientific magic of the country, and, later, the Gardier. Oh, and the curse magic we see, too.


Princejvstin@1: funnily enough, I fall somewhere in the middle? I love Sanderson, but I'm incapable of writing that rigidly even if it's actual science... The Ile-Rien colliding magic systems are fabulous (I've only read Death of the Necromancer, but I loved it).


Oddly enough, my favorite magic systems at the moment are stage magic and qigong.

Stage magic is often dismissed as silly manipulations in fantasy novels. That's a mistake, because it works by hacking people's perceptual shortcomings. There's actually a nice little neuroscience paper on this, coauthored by, among others, Apollo Robbins and Teller, about how it works (pdf link to paper). The critical point is that over the millennia, magicians have found flaws in the human psyche, and magic tricks are simply the entertainment forms of these exploits. They get weirder and more dangerous when we get into the world of placebos and crowd manipulation, but they're all mind hacks.

Qigong is (at least in my mind) similar. I've been studying with someone who has real expertise, and I'll try to explain what I think's going on by way of a computer example. If you assume that humans are somewhat like computer controlled systems, western medicine has been reverse engineering these systems predominantly by studying the hardware and figuring out assembler code based on a close examination of how the circuits work and what they do. We've been able to do this over the last century due to the development of anesthetics and antibiotics, which allowed for safe surgery, through the scientific method, and through biochemistry which enabled the creation of whole classes of drugs.

Qigong, like stage magic, has been reverse engineering humans by working with perceptions, specifically the internal perceptions of the human body, which most of us haven't spent a lot of time learning to perceive (our society forces us to develop our eyes and ears at the expense of everything else, like smell). The best analogy is that with qigong, you are working with the GUI (Windows, OSX, whatever) that runs inside your head and allows you to run your body. You don't have access to a command line to get at your code directly, let alone a way to write new programs, but the programs you do run have thousands of underutilized features, and a lot of qigong (as with yoga) is simply teaching you to become a power user of those unexploited features.

The advantage to qigong is that you don't need all those drugs, especially the anesthetics and antibiotics. It's inferior only in situations where doctors have a full pharmacy and an operating suite ready to fix people up. If neither is available, qigong and Chinese medicine aren't nearly as primitive as they appear. You want to do western medicine without the ability to operate or use antibiotics?

Getting back to fantasy magic, I just wanted to point out that most magic systems miss the essence of real-world magic: it's a hack, in the computer sense, and you're trying to either exploit the system and/or become a power used. Conventional fantasy magic systems go from the premise of: real world magic doesn't work. I want magic to work in my story, therefore I need to design another world where magic works. How does it work? Well, let me make up something that seems a bit like a physical law of magic, and...

The hack is gone. The fantasy magician is a trained technician, not a hacker.

And that's what I miss in most stories.


I stayed up late last night to finish The House of Shattered Wings and I'm so pleased to hear that there will be more. It's interesting to read here about the magic systems you've used, and wonderful to do so at such an appropriate time.


It's funny, but if I think too much about magic in fantasy, I start thinking about the corollary to Clarke's third law: "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." I.e. given a non-irrational and non-illogical system of magic, and sufficient time, ...

Of course, it may well be that irrational and illogical magic is just insufficiently studied and analysed.

Take the Farseer trilogy mentioned. Later on, it is discovered that actually, there is a system behind the "Skill", and magical artefacts are (presumably) creatable and usable (e.g. the standing stones).

Maybe I just over think things...


Magic should support the tone of the work. Horror works well with only one real rule for magic (the rule is that nothing good comes from magic). Epic fantasy works better with magic as either a fairly well-understood force used by everyone who can (e.g. Harry Turtledove's War Against the Darkness series) or a rare wild card upsetting the best laid plans (e.g. Game of Thrones). As a work progresses, exposition and stakes-raising tend to gradually push magic from wild card to well-understood force.


Heteromeles, have you read Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde? Its an interesting read. Might be up your alley.

Also, an eye opener for me was an article Teller wrote for either Scientific American or Smithsonian when he gets into the basic principles of magic.


I always like to have a sense of what the underlying nature of the world is in a fantasy setting. The assumption I usually run with is that it's like ours. Big universe, planets revolve around stars, the world is round, evolution and natural selection are at play, matter is made up of atoms, science may not be known but our real world rules apply right up until flashes hands dramatically magic happens. But I realized that's a poor assumption to make in a fantasy world. What if the world model actually fits what we've disproved in our world? Land is flat, sky is a bowl, stars are holes in the bowl. The corpses of old gods make the earth and sea and sky. Bloodlines carry nobility or ancestral curses, the stuff we're made of is not atomic, chemistry and physics and science as we know it are bunk.

As a personal preference, I like "As in Reality (Unless Otherwise Noted.)" Wizard creates magical creature, it is now subject to physics and biology, except where magic is involved. Dragon has to eat, has metabolic demands, fire breath is magical. There's a mana budget to account for, same as a calorie budget.

The thing that makes magic tricky is it's not susceptible to the scientific process. It is illogical. You cannot repeat experiments made by others. You cannot properly isolate all the variables. There's little consistency. A woman conducting the experiment gets a different result from a short man but a tall man with red hair might get her result but only when he's visualizing something blue. A wizard gets a sense of how things work but it is difficult to explain to others. This is why plain old technology has a place in the world.


It's odd; my sense of the magic in The Changeling Sea was not that it was numinous, precisely, but that it was Vast and had opinions.

And of course with some magic, it could be either, and it's hard to tell which. (and maybe not good to know which.)

I'd like to haul in Barnes' One for the Morning Glory for an example of a strict-rules magic system that nonetheless makes less sense than many whimsical-or-numinous magic systems.


A serious attempt to explain kabbalah and ritual magic (serious as in the author believed it) is that the magician is using God's cheat codes for manipulating the universe.

The overlap between computer coding and virtual worlds and magic is significant. I thought I was the first to notice but was beaten to the punch yonks ago. True Names, Vernor Vinge.


Something that bothers me with the way magic systems are usually done in fantasy literature: Generally, the story tells you the rules, usually through the filter of the understanding of the inhabitants of the setting, and then that understanding is almost always 100% correct. This is I suppose understandable as a case of conservation of detail, but it kind of kills my suspension of disbelief.

If you look at the history of how real world humans understand the world around us, it's a long story of getting gradually less wrong. Even in the scientific era, knowledge of the rules of the universe proceeds through theories and models persisting until new evidence shows that they are no longer predictive of observations or a new theory fits observations better. Before the primacy of the scientific method as we know it, our understanding was a massive cruft of superstitions and correlations promoted to causation with a few gems of actual knowledge here and there among it.

Yet in the majority of fantasy, if the high mage of the wizard's college makes some offhand comment about "this is how magic works in this world," you can bet your wizard's staff that it's going to continue to be the case, and if it's not it's not because the high mage was wrong, it's because something's changed about the fabric of reality or something like that. There are a very few exceptions (Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series is the only one that comes right to mind), but for the most part we see no phlogiston theory of magic or the like in most high fantasy magic...


I tend to like magic when there's some sense of understandability.

That may be in the sense of wizards are early scientists of some branch (physics/chemistry/biology) like alchemists are early material scientists/chemists. They're not as reproducible as what we regard as modern science/engineering because they've got the mechanics somewhat wrong but they more or less know if you do A+B+C you get a fireball or summon a demon or whatever.

But I'm quite happy in Chinese magic where the good Daoist magician will observe the elements and push them slightly to achieve some spectacular effects, or the Daoist priest will intercede with the right bits of the Celestial Court using prayer and known ritual to cause known effect. (If you know Monkey, the saga, he persuades the rain making dragons to delay the rain from the Daoist priests a little - he can't persuade them NOT to make it rain because the priests have petitioned the Celestial Emperor properly and the orders for it to rain have been issued.)

I don't remember the book, but it was something Norse, and the wizardy type drew a rune from his (or maybe her) pouch in battle and used it to drive their magic. (I'm really not sure now, but I think it was pretty decent Futhark correspondences.) It wasn't always really convenient - you had to take what you got but the mechanism was clear enough.

I liked the magic in the Saga of the Malazan. It took forever and a day to work out what the rules about the warrens and so on were but they were there.

Magic as purely chaotic, incomprehensible doesn't work for me. People aren't generally like that. They attempt to impose order, structure and understanding, even if they do it wrong. People don't have to get all the rules of magic right but they will have them.


I like Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: "An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic."

So, we have no idea how Gandalf's magic works, but how often does he just show up and magic a solution?


I think that's related to the "the more a plan is explained in advance, the worse the plan will go" rule.


Agree - and I have even written books on the subject. A relevant example of the process is here:

In fiction, most magic is technology without science - doing this and saying these words makes this happen (for no known reason). The only way a world could function in such a manner is because of lost tech (the ancients of the Golden Age of Wizardry) or because the people are living in a hackable Simulation that is, basically crap.

While I tend to believe we live in a Sim, on alternate weekdays, it is definitely not hackable in so simple a manner. OTOH, Human minds most definitely are.

So I tend to read stuff like the Laundry series because they provide an interesting veneer of scientific plausibility sufficient to suspend disbelief.

However, it is also the reason I could not finish the Jonathan Strange & Norrell book. I know too much "real" occultism from that period and seeing it just made up really jarred.

AFAIK there are very few people writing about modern occultism in a realistic, thought provoking and entertaining manner.

Suggestions appreciated.


I have two things to add: first, I believe a quote from Lord Dunsany, to the effect that in ordinary fiction, everyone knows what the rules are, while writing fantasy is much harder, because you have to make the rules... and then you can NEVER, NEVER break them; otherwise, you've cheated, and lost, the reader.

There's not much illogical in magical systems... whether they work is another story. And with that in mine, the other thing I have to say is that for anyone writing fantasy with magick, I would urge you very strongly to read the late Isaac Bonewits' Real Magic. Note that this is not merely non-fiction,but is, in fact, an expanded version of his baccalaureat thesis (from the late sixties) in thaumaturgy (for real) from UC Berkeley. (And the diploma, of which there was a copy on the original editions, was signed by then-governor Ronnie Raygun.)

No, I'm not making that up - go read the book. And browse the > 20 pages of footnotes.

I met him a few times at cons. The only person I knew who could curse in 5 languages, of which three were extinct, and one revived....


I included his summary of the Laws of Magick in an appendix of my book. To save everyone the trouble, here they are:

BTW, it is possible to code them in various computer languages that are sufficiently "deep" ie need inheritance, polymorphism etc


I like the "most magic is just technology without science" bit a lot, and it reminds me about another thing that I think gets ignored by a lot of writers coming up with magic systems. I feel like a lot of writers neglect to pay attention to the way magic interacts with other societal systems (much like how some SF writers fall into the trap of not thinking enough about the societal impact of new technology); every time I see a copy-paste of feudal Europe with powerful wizards inserted, I cringe a little. If you posit magic capable of effecting change on the world on the same or larger scale to industrial technology, it would hold to reason that it would bring about societal change similar in scale to the changes brought about by industry (though certainly not necessarily the same change; for instance, a version of magic that can be carried out by certain powerful individuals on their own is going to result in an even less egalitarian society than the industrial revolution, which at least needed to provide enough bread and circuses to keep a laboring class satisfied enough to stay in the factories).


As someone with an interest in both stage magic, occult systems, and cognitive biases, I had high hopes for Sleights of Mind when I bought it -- but I had to drop it because the style felt excessively pandering and I went through several chapters without encountering any actual content. I'd love to have a book on the subject without those flaws.

With regard to magical systems in the 'real world': occult traditions tend to have at least some explanation of the mechanics by which they operate. Kaballah, as someone mentioned, has been explained as symbolic manipulation of the universe (if the torah is a microcosm of the universe, manipulating the letters of the torah produces similar manipulations in the universe) -- this interpretation is the basis of a sub-plot in Foucault's Pendulum. Other traditions have other views. (Several traditions are focused on invoking gods or demons and either bartering with them or threatening them -- the former being an extreme form of prayer shoved into a kind of free-market libertarian mentality and the latter being just bullying.) The chaos magic people have reinterpreted these traditions in a variety of ways, and while some of these interpretations rely upon truly dubious interpretations of QM, many of them interpret magic the same way stage magicians do -- as a weaponization of cognitive bias. I very rarely come across magical systems in fiction that are based around any interesting historical interpretations of occult systems, aside from the heavily solipsistic version of the chaos magic tradition that a lot of people, including Gaiman, have latched onto (the idea that belief literally creates or empowers supernatural entities, rather than the more pragmatic idea that supernatural is a synonym for memetic and supernatural entities exist only as memes).

Occultists actually practice occult traditions, and genuinely believe that what they're doing is working. They have explanations for the phenomena they observe. You can turn up the special effects or turn up the success rate in actual occult practices for fictional uses and -- BAM! -- you suddenly have an internally consistent magical system with complicated and well-developed lore. The problem with this is that it necessitates you to learn the basics of an actual genuine occult system and be held responsible when adepts call you out for getting it wrong. (Occultists, like anarchists and internet commenters, are prone to arguing amongst themselves and allowing schisms to develop based on the magical equivalent of tabs-vs-spaces or emacs-vs-vi; this is why there are no fewer than ten people who believe themselves to be the only true outer head of the ordo templi orientis right now, and why even the chaos magic community is full of flamewars).

(By the way, if you're going to look into magical systems, the ideal way to approach it is probably to start off with chaos magic. These people are thinking critically about magical traditions, with the aim of stripping away cultural elements that have minimal functional effects, and are often brutally honest about the fact that the mechanism of action behind these practices is self-delusion. They don't make the same kinds of mistakes when analysing magical systems as anthropologists do, because they are approaching magic from an engineering perspective. As a result, they have cogent analyses of different historical magical systems making comparisons between them in terms of how a practitioner's perspective and behaviors would change, along with correspondence tables explicitly designed to make switching from the trappings of one system to the trappings of another easier; unlike other syncretic systems like thelema and wicca, chaotes are generally more honest and knowledgeable about the history and original context of practices because they don't aim to gain prestige by artificially extending the lineage of a practice.)


One of my favorites is the one used in the 'Dance of the Gods' series by Mayer Brenner over at where magic draws from the mass of the caster or other sources kinda like shapeshifting when it's done 'right' where the mass has to come from somewhere. There is a scene where a character converts a bowl of candy to magical energy to fuel a spell he is casting.


@heteromeles: I'm a qi gong practitioner (at level, er, very beginner) so I have some idea of what you're talking about (a lot of it is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine actually, which is... pretty close to a science in terms of approach and rigor, even though it's not Western science).

Stage magic is awesome! I did a radio piece jointly with Scott Penrose, the head of the Magic Circle in the UK, and the stuff he was talking about was fascinating (there's also quite a few common points with cons, which have follow fascinating psychological tendencies of mankind to basically delude themselves).


CPickersgill @4: thank you! Michael @5: I really liked that in the subsequent books of the Farseer series (the detailed mechanics of dragon carving were just awesome. Best idea ever). I think magic and science are sort of related, or at least follow very similar functions in SFF? Jay@6: entirely agree! (but then I'm an organic world builder...).


Gregory Muir@8-10: sort of agree? Magic can have rules (if you read the Sanderson books, it's pretty clear that doing the same thing in the same circumstances nets you the same results). The issue is that in narrative, you need some kind of rules, either the ones you've explicitly made up, or the ones that are implicit in the reader's mind (for instance, it takes me a lot less work to make you convinced that a spell requires a full moon and a pentacle drawn in blood, rather than, three wooden spoons and an egg...). The things you can do with computer code and magic... (I'm a computer engineer in real life. I think I should take up voodoo :p ) Graydon@9: I grouped "vast and with opinions" in with "numinous", I'm afraid! (too little space and not enough time to go into sub sub categories). But I agree. I haven't read the Barnes, sounds fascinating, thanks! HunterJE@11: yes, agreed! I like magic to be a little... unpredictable and not entirely understood. However, it does make things more tricky for the author: you have to be convincing when the magic doesn't act as expected (if it's "the spell fails" it probably works, but if you need it to pull your characters out of trouble there's some groundwork to be laid...). El@112 I LOVE that particular story (and the associated ones about dragons--spoilers, I have dragons in the book and they also follow some rules about rains and prayers :)) . The way things can be delayed but not magically waved away, provided the rules have been followed, feels very true (and interesting) to me. curgoth@13: I didn't know that rule. It's a wonderful one. I'd need to mull on it, not sure I entirely agree, but I can see where he's coming from...


Magic systems are something you need for RPG, not for literature. If your story is based on a magic system, and not vice versa, you are doing it wrong.

Anyway. As soon as magic follows a set of rules, it is no longer magic by my definition. Anything that follows rules can be researched and predicted and is firmly in the realm of the scientific method.


Dick Bruere@15: thanks for the link! I, uh, come from a very different direction I guess? I want to write about the stuff of myth and fairytale with a thick enough veneer of realism that the reader suspends disbelief (which is directly opposite to what you're looking for, I suspect). whitroth@16: I'm familiar with that quote (didn't know it was Dunsany, but yeah). I once wrote a murder mystery with magic. The tricky bit wasn't the plot, it was making sure there were enough strictures that explained a. why they didn't simply invoke the ghost of the deceased and asked, and b. the solution, when it came, didn't rely on some last minute cheat I did with the magic. It's very hard, because, as you point out, you need to make up the rules, make them clear, and then not break them (and then try, inasmuch as possible, not to paint yourself into a corner for the next book. Done it and it was no fun). And thanks for the rec on Bonwittz, I'll add it to the (giant, sigh) TBR pile. HunterJE@17: I agree, partly? It's a balance between realistic societal changes, and a world that becomes so completely unfamiliar to the reader that they throw the book across the room... (or that you need to be a super skilled writer to prevent that from happening...) In my case, I cheated a bit, in that the presence of Fallen angels didn't have a huge impact on the history of Paris up to the 19th century (even though they do have an Industrial Revolution that's based on magic). What happens right after the Industrial Revolution, though, is very much changed: you do end up with a vastly inegalitatian society where those who wield magic are massively privileged (and where those who don't just wait for their chance to steal magic), and a Cold War equilibrium where people don't dare to use magic quite so much, for fear of extensive damages...


John Ohno@18: thank you for the detailed explanation! Magic as engineering is great (but not quite what I wanted to go for in that book...). John@20: that sounds like a fabulous idea! Bookmarking for later.


Speaking of Apollo Robbins and Teller, they were in a segment of PBS's NOVA Science Now a few years ago (along with Penn, and Neil deGrasse Tyson) called Magic and the Brain. And if you're into stage magic the show "Penn & Teller: Fool Us!" is pretty entertaining. It's particularly interesting to see various versions of the same tricks being performed, like the cup and ball trick done with buckets and watermelons.


I also meant to add that what they talk about applies to pickpockets as well as stage magic.


As soon as magic follows a set of rules, it is no longer magic by my definition. Anything that follows rules can be researched and predicted and is firmly in the realm of the scientific method.

Only if Uniformitarianism holds.

If it doesn't, you can get differing results from methodological naturalism. (Pretty easy to get stories out of that!)

If you're that sort of author, you can even decide that maybe the underlying mechanism for the magic, whatever it is, has (or reflects!) opinions about what should be done with magic.

One sees this all over RPGs; lots and lots of "explode, fry, maim, shred, confusticate, and expunge" spells; hardly anything for "stick this to that in a lasting way" or "find my lost cow" or "navigate the boat" spells. ("where are the herring?" or "what day to we plant the spring wheat?" are much more important questions, in general, than "how much landscape can I burn?"). But RPGs are about fighting, so they reflect a magic that thinks it's for fighting.

Magic in a story isn't obliged to have that opinion.


Indeed, I had an idea 3 years ago about magic in an industrial sense, and then started exploring that properly. The end result is something a bit like steampunk but with magic. Perhaps I made it too lacking in tension because almost everyone can do some amount of magic, but that leads to obvious things like there are no matches or lighters to be had because people can just light their fire/ cigarette themselves.

Also, regarding Vanzetti, medieval magic, which is what most people think of as magic in wider culture to which most of reading this blog us belong, was a mad old mix of obvious, sciency things like you have to use that particular plant because it looks like the thing you want it to, and you must do it at this time because the rays from Venus will be strongest, through to strange uses of various bodily produced substances, without a clear rationale that I am aware of. Thus actually a lot of magic was 'scientific'. See for instance talismans. Except we wouldn't recognise it as like modern science because it lacks the interest in how and why, merely knowing that if you take a red stone that is shaped like a kidney, put the correct engraving upon it, make a hole in it, tie it with yellow silk around the arm of one who suffers from pain in the kidney, they will be cured. Okay, the original recipe, from "The book of the treasure of Alexander", finished "if God wills it".

Now, to get back to the original post, I don't quite think that Tolkein's magic was irrational and illogical. It certainly wasn't actually explained, which would explain why people might think it was irrational and illogical. It does seem clear that readers will accept any sort of magic as long as it is consistently applied, it matters not whether it is obviously rule bound and the rules are explained, or whether it is not explained at all, as long as the story works out well enough with it and consistently so. To me Tolkein's magic seems to depend on your mana as it were, how much magic energy you have or can channel inside you, and knowing the secret names and patterns of things, which then gives you the power to manipulate the natural world. But there are so few magic users in his world that we just don't see enough of them to be able to work out exactly how it works, and really I don't think Tolkein was interested in that question. Probably it shows a difference in mindset that so many modern people are.


The articles on this blog just keep getting more interesting and amazing as they go. I'm finding this discussion fascinating, since "realistic" magic is a hobby of mine. The links that Dirk shared were esp. good. Anyone with a strong opinion on the system presented by Bruce Galloway in "Fantasy Wargaming" Article Here.


Only if Uniformitarianism holds.

If it doesn't, you can get differing results from methodological naturalism. (Pretty easy to get stories out of that!)

You'll still have scientific method, the rules will just be time and/or location dependent.


Discworld ... varied magical disciplines and realms of influence/power, each with its own internally consistent laws/rules.


{Uniformitarianism doesn't hold} You'll still have scientific method, the rules will just be time and/or location dependent.

If Uniformitarianism doesn't hold, it doesn't hold for anyone's mental substrate, either.

Science, that project of finding out what's entirely independent of anyone's belief, really does require Uniformitarianism to hold.

Consider the state of biology if the quantum foam brings forth, randomly spaced in space and time, small organisms of novel metabolism. (We might suppose that this happens sufficiently infrequently that we can have a story; all is not crushed under the mass of tiny jeweled songbirds and strange fierce purple mice with opposable incisor teeth made of tungsten.)


My favorite magic system remains the one described in The Black Company: ie, there is none. The Lady is the most powerful sorceress in the world, and that's all we're told of her capabilities. The extent of her magic is implied by what she does and does not do, rather than long explanations of what she is capable of and why.


Please forgive a little self-indulgence. In the Urban Fantasy novel I've been writing (nearly done with the 1st draft) I had a character invoke Clarke's 3rd in reference to the Magic that was being explained to her. One thing I'm still conflicted about is whether the Magic is actual Magic, or Ancient Forgotten Nanotech which just works. I've been hesitating to commit to the latter because I thought it might be too much like Charlie's Merchant Princes, but he was only dealing with traversing worlds, whereas I'm dealing with all sort of Talents. But then, if it's forgotten no one is going to know that's what it is. One thing I wanted to do was have a world where nearly everyone has at least some small Talent, rather than it being something rare and only practiced by Wizards or a 'Chosen One'. Such as a seamstress doing 'hand sewing' or a character able to transform into an animal. And those who transform are strictly limited to turning into other large mammals because of shared genetics. Conservation of mass limits them to animals that can reasonably be the same size as a person. So they can turn into a large dog or maybe small pony or deer, but not a mouse or bird. Only one character has multiple Talents, including being able to bestow them on people from our world, but I don't want to say too much more about it. I haven't thoroughly worked it all out, since it's not really what the novel's about, but I've got enough of it in my head to keep it straight.


...applies to pickpockets as well as stage magic.

Then I finally look at the article Heteromeles linked to....


Then there's Mercedes Lackey's problem in the 1990s, when she wrote an occult detective (Diana Tregardie) and ran into some people who thought she was a real practicing witch, and caused trouble. I don't know if her comebacks are still posted, but they're rather acerbic, along the lines of "If I truly was that powerful as you think I am, do you really think I'd be writing for a living, rather than ruling the world? Bwahahaha?"

Of course, this is the argument for not following some working occult system, but your mileage will vary.


"I tend to like magic when there's some sense of understandability.

That may be in the sense of wizards are early scientists of some branch (physics/chemistry/biology) like alchemists are early material scientists/chemists"

Too much understandability is exactly what I dislike.

I'm finding it less common in fantasy these days that wizards are like early scientists or alchemists. Wizards tend to be far more scientific than that.

Wizards in modern fantasy are often much, much better informed; much, much more knowledgeable about what works and doesn't; much, much better at systematizing their knowledge into clear rules that actually work; and much, much less susceptible to superstition than real alchemists or early scientists were.

Indeed, it's because of this clear and systematic knowledge that the young hero can penetrate beyond the truth of the system and be the first to learn the true underlying heart of all magic, which lets them... well, whatever.

That can still be a fun read. But it's not my favourite.


My favorite magic system remains the one described in The Black Company: ie, there is none.

It works really well for the given setting.

"Capabilities unknown" is so important to the plot: the company having a few hedge wizards gives them a huge edge in trickery, because pretty much no-one knows what magic can do.

Meanwhile the terrifying sorcerors are so much more terrifying because we don't know what they can do.


Alchemists were not actually that superstitious. Many were trying to understand and manipulate the world based on their understanding. Many others were just trying to make a quick buck. But if the past 40 years of research into alchemy has shown anything, it is that using terms like 'superstition' nearby without a great deal of care is a bad idea.

Having said that yes, a lot of fantasy works have a very mechanistic and modern view of magic and it's place in the world and how people use it.


Genuinely curious, to those saying they prefer magic that's "not understandable" to magic that follows some kind of "scientific laws," what does that mean? Unless it just means "not fully understood by practitioners in-fiction," I don't see a principled distinction.

If it means "it is random/chaotic," well, there are plenty of processes we deal with in our scientific understanding of the universe that are subject to stochastic processes, and that doesn't make their study any less scientific.

If it means "ineffable or unknowable," well, ditto; our "scientific" understanding of the universe is amenable to dealing with things that are unknowable, either in practical terms or as a fundamental property of the laws of physics (e.g. simultaneous knowledge of the position and momentum of a particle, or of an event that occurred outside of one's light cone).


For those who have not seen it - Cast a Deadly Spell Magic meets detective noir


If fantasy magic were real it would be as hard to be a top wizard as to be Steve Jobs or Elon Musk


I would go for setting in a crap simulation, where you don't know whether it is a Sim, and you don't know whether you are a player or NPC. If it works, your hero progresses to God-slayer


The only way a world could function in such a manner is because of lost tech ... or because the people are living in a hackable Simulation that is, basically crap.

All fiction is simulation, and no fiction is self-consistent to the same extent that reality is.


The other thing to look at is how the act of using magic alters the caster.

Look at the Harry Potter series as a basic example. You have muggles and wizards. i.e. Humans and Transhumans. Harry and all of the kids learning magic were Transhuman. Voldemort was Posthuman. Dumbledore was Posthuman as he could do magic with a gesture as well as using a wand.

You had all the adult wizards running around scared out of their minds because they knew how dangerous magic was. That's why they were firing at shadows.

That's why the kids were isolated in schools to learn to control what would otherwise be explosions of wild magic like what happened to Dumbledore's sister. Similar to the wild magic in Stephen King's novels Carrie and Firestarter.

Each wand had a memory of the magic cast through it. The more the spell was cast, the more the result became the same over time for that caster. Which is why a spell would vary based on the "style" of the caster.

That is like in the RPG Tunnels & Trolls, a magic staff remembers all the magic cast through it and can in effect posses an inexperienced magic user. Like booting a computer from a thumb drive and highjacking the cpu.

Accelerando had a similar event when the kid mugged Macx and stole his external memory. The kid was then highjacked by Macx's external memory.

In classic Andre Norton the magic users transcend to Posthuman and vanish from reality, leaving only the foundation of their tower as anchor.


Anything that follows rules can be researched and predicted and is firmly in the realm of the scientific method.

That's true if the natives can afford to do the experiments. In real life, superstition tends to come in when stakes are too high for systematic experimentation. If failure has serious consequences then people tend to do what worked last time, with as little deviation as possible, because they don't know which deviations make a difference and which don't.


Genuinely curious, to those saying they prefer magic that's "not understandable" to magic that follows some kind of "scientific laws," what does that mean? Unless it just means "not fully understood by practitioners in-fiction," I don't see a principled distinction.

Someone (and I can't find the article) mentioned Katherine Kurtz's Deryni as a shifting point, although I'd also point to De Camp and Pratt's Incomplete Enchanter series.

The basic point is that old-line fantasy (Conan, LOTR, Lovecraft, etc.) rarely has magicians as protagonists or POV characters. Magic is something done by others, and the mechanisms by which it works aren't revealed, although there may be references to the magic of the East, West, the idea that God sang the world into being and when you speak God's language, the world responds, and so forth. magic's a special effects show, done by Others.

In the Incomplete Enchanter, magic is mechanistic, although the rules have to be deduced. The protagonists deduce how magic works through experiment.

The rule-making in more occult books goes back to Frazier's Golden Bough, with its magical laws of Symapathy and Contagion. Bonewits added quite a number of laws to these two, and when you use this route, you get things like Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series, where magic is basically psionics in drag and the magic "is a matter of symbolism and intent." The chi version of this shows up quite a lot when authors talk about energy and ley lines, and try and make magic into something like thaumofluidics (cf: Valdemar).

Note that this isn't a rigid dichotomy. There are works, like LeGuin's Earthsea and Harry Potter, which seem to fall squarely in the middle, where the protagonists are magicians, but the magic doesn't seem terribly lawful. In these cases, it seems that the words matter more than anything else, but it's hard to tell. Perhaps this is the English Major's magic, while the more rules-based systems are favored by engineers and scientists. I don't know.

But I would say that magic used to be a lot less rules driven than it is now, overall.


I'm not a fan of the Simulation Theory. Of course, you can always write that novel.

Totally a Spoiler; In the third of Koji Suzuki's "Ring" novels it turns out the first two books took place in a sim that is breaking down, or being sort of hacked by the villain in the first two, IIRC. Almost ruined them for me, but they stand alone without the third fairly well.


There's the whole Vril Maria Orsic mythology that has evolved over the past few decades. Probably a lot of fruitful material there for novelists.

The problem with "explained" magic is that it just reduces it to early 21st century tech tropes which will probably date horribly


I like it when "magic" is NOT applied as an in-character label to "everything that works in this world but not in the real world". I figure the inhabitants of the fictional world only have knowledge of their own world's rules, and so their method for classifying phenomena probably will not break along that exact line.

Yes, the flowers that Farmer John plants bloom 6 weeks earlier than the ones Farmer Jake plants. But why would you call that magical? He's just good at planting. Now, that blacksmith who can turn iron ore into ploughs? That's magic.

More work for the author, of course.


Some spoilers follow for Lev Grossman's Magician trilogy.

I think Grossman took a great approach to magic. It has one of those "hacking reality" type underlying explanations -- ancient powerful beings left behind some infrastructure that humans exploit without permission -- but even the vast majority of formally educated magicians don't know that part. It's known that some people have magical talents, but only intense study and practice make specific magical outcomes repeatable. It's a vast body of theoretical and applied knowledge that still lacks simple unifying rules, perhaps similar to chemistry before quantum theory or similar to modern cellular biology. Almost anything can modify the effects of a spell, and there is no shortcut to avoid learning enormous lists of special circumstances and adapting your casting to the present circumstances, if you want repeatable effects. Magic isn't just random anything-goes, but it's also so complex and vast that it never feels stale or cramped. Too often Scientific-Flavored Magic feels like it was based on a child-sized science where all the really important knowledge fits on a single page of paper.

I also enjoyed Grossman's depiction of the social effects of powerful magic and the school system. There's a single ridiculously high-stakes test that determines whether or not potential magicians are actually accepted to a recognized school of magic. The protagonist passes the test while his magically talented friend Julia does not, so Quentin goes to Magic College and Julia goes a bit crazy*. Magicians with the formal schooling generally look down on uncredentialed magicians as ignorant, regardless of demonstrable skills, and outsiders snub the credentialed magicians as stuffy, rigid, elitist jerks -- regardless of demonstrable rigidity. It seemed like an only-slightly-amplified version of real world dynamics between groups of skilled practitioners with credentials and those without them, e.g. "computer scientist" vs. "hacker."

Most magicians are not interested in pursuing magic for the sake of knowledge, though rare ones who are, like Julia and outsider-inside-the-system Penny, can become ridiculously powerful. A typical career path for an educated magician who does not go on to teach is apparently to sweat blood for the years it takes to get through magical schooling, then after graduation indulge in a lifelong binge of unfettered hedonism. Educated magicians can have nearly anything they want with very little effort, so longtime magicians (at least those who are not interested in teaching or discovery) lose even basic social skills for relating to other people. I like "powerful magicians disappear into solipsistic indulgence" better than most explanations fantasy offers for why magicians don't totally transform the world. They use their vast learning and fearsome powers for something akin to magical wireheading.

*At first. Later she makes contact with other talented reject-magicians, participates in a disastrous summoning, and finally becomes a god.


Someone (and I can't find the article) mentioned Katherine Kurtz's Deryni as a shifting point

Is this the one? Matrilines: The Woman Who Made Fantasy: Katherine Kurtz


That's supposed to be a reply to Heteromeles @49. Timed out and had to sign back in, and forgot to hit Reply.


IMHO, the point of magic systems that are not mechanistic is to therefor become more "artistic", or rather a literary device. Neil Gaiman's Sandman series was like this: the magic followed no rules that I could discern, but every magical being and spell-like effect was consistent with the "theme" that he wanted to emphasize within the episode. Magic was an external expression of someone's internal character. It made for a very difficult system to "game" (although I did once try to develop a game system for it)- but it made a great story-telling device.


My problem with magic in stories, even with a tolerable set of rules and systems, is it never seems to shape the rest of the world of the story.

The reality is our world is massively shaped by the physics that exists (and thus the chemisty and biology). Right down to there being a star in the sky in the first place (QM tunnelling).

Magic tends to have less developed consequences than that. Even though it's existed since the beginning of time.

For instance, take one little bit of magic - the love charm. If you assume a magic system where such an effect can be the result of the mixture of materials then you have massive consequences. Not only do you get natural love charms occurring where the constituents mix naturally, you also have much of evolution going out the window, predators developing love charms to entice dinner, control of constituents (cf nitrogen fertiliser), a lack of marriage probably, counter charms to the love charm, etc.

The society you build, if you can build one, out of one little bit of magic is massively different to our own. SF has it easier in that the consequences can be bound to the discovery forward, and even then its hard work to develop a self consistent univese. But magic = rules of the universe.

Consequences are not just a few more spiky castles and long flowing robes.


That's the one. Thanks!


Number theory is powerful, the most brutal wizard battles occur between statisticians, but I have a special fondness for tesselation as a way of summoning the wild creative forces on which our universe floats.

Tesselation is also a nice practical refutation of the idea that "anything that follows rules can be predicted". Tiles physically embody rules, yet randomly shaped tiles give rise to endless patterns. (There are many other routes to this, such as considering random programs, but this is a very direct way.)


Either read or TOTALLY AVOID Orson Scott Card's "Alvin Maker" series, which has some interesting ideas about magic and talents.


I've already decided to avoid Card. A friend whose opinion I trust recommended the Ender books several years ago, then I learned a little something about him and promised myself to keep away from his books, though before then I had listened to one of his fantasy novels, which I remember nothing about other than it dealt with a magic box, or something. But now to look up that series on wikipedia.


Roleplaying game magic systems could be of interest to authors because, in the popular games at least, they've been stress-tested for runaway power trips and disastrous economic consequences. A mini-maxing role-player who figures out "if I cast this spell in combination with that I'd be invincible!" is a good model for a sociopathic supervillain :-)

One fictional magic system I haven't seen mentioned yet is from the Jack Vance "Dying Earth" books. Casting a spell invokes some other-dimensional being into changing reality, but it isn't at all scientific and nobody knows exactly what could happen. It became the basis for Dungeons & Dragons magic. Any game or book where you see named magic like "the spell of Forlorn Encystment" is probably Vance based. (Read the books if possible: Jack Vance loved playing with language but the D&D authors were much more prosaic and that spell became "Imprisonment")

"Dream Park" by Niven and Barnes from 1981 has a south pacific magic system based on mana. AFAIK it might be the first time such a magical system was used in fiction. It's particularly good for analysing how it works because it is explained in the meta-context of a group of roleplayers who've been dumped into this world and have to figure it out, or have it explained to them.

And hey, nobody has mentioned Ursula Le Guin, the Earthsea books and True Names? There's an echo of this is the Black Company books mentioned earlier, whree The Lady has taken very severe measures indeed to ensure nobody knows her name. It even got turned into a cyberpunk trope from the Vernor Vinge story "True Names"


But now to look up that series on wikipedia.

Yeah, I think I can avoid that. Sounds interesting, until it mentions the religious and racial aspects of the series. Not touching that. Also sounds very different from what I have in mind.


Roleplaying game magic systems could be of interest to authors because, in the popular games at least, they've been stress-tested for runaway power trips and disastrous economic consequences.

Ha, that's exactly the sort of magic I hate in fantasy: magic designed to flavor a world without fundamentally changing it*. Magic that paves the way for a lazy Ye Olde Anachronistic Pastiche world where you don't have to envision or explain anything novel in agriculture/warfare/education/social organization. There's a certain breed of fantasy author or game designer who, upon introducing gunpowder for the first time, would look for contrivances to prevent "breaking the game" for people armed only with clubs and blades. But every big development in real life "breaks the game" for some group. Trying to keep everything frozen in place breaks suspension of disbelief for me far worse than mere impossibilities, like shape-shifters who violate conservation of mass.

*See also: every single time Star Trek introduced something revolutionary (teleporters, dimensional portals, time travel) and then tried to ignore its myriad effects or put it back in the box at the end of an episode or movie.


All magic, in the end, works on one principle: suspension of disbelief. This is even true of stage magic, which usually isn't too hard to figure out if you pay attention. All the "explanations" only serve to distract the readers who are willing to let themselves be distracted.


Or another horrible grating example of flavor-without-substance: in the Iron Man movie the most notable effect of developing a high power, aneutronic, palmtop fusion reactor is that one guy gets to fly around in a robotic exoskeleton. And this same guy also has something like a whole brain emulation AI in his service, basically used as a fancy butler. Nigh-unlimited clean energy plus helpful strong AI? By the third movie Earth should be well on its way to a Culture future, or an artilect war, or something that nobody would linearly extrapolate from the real world of 2008. But no, it's still about a few guys in costumes fighting while everyone else still goes to ordinary jobs and needs to buy gasoline. Comic Book Science is both far more productive and far less significant than Real World Science.

I could rant about this all day long! I am very good at ranting about this! I will stop clogging up space with this rant now!


Thanks, Aliette. (I'm really looking forward to reading The House of Shattered Wings, btw.) This is a serious subject, and one on which I think I part company with most of the good folks here.

I think Clarke's Third Law has done Fantasy a great disservice.

In effect, he opened the floodgates that allowed Fantasy—a venerable storytelling art form—to be overwhelmed by the technologists. Essential aesthetic wonder has been largely displaced by a consensus that "magic" is a rules-based system. Clarke supplied the axiom, and the theorems seem mostly to derive from Dungeons and Dragons. Not being snide here—I've enjoyed both Clarke's work and D&D, quite a lot.

I understand, and share, the fascination of this viewpoint.

There have been brilliant results using the magic-is-sciencelike approach. A lot of truly excellent ones have been mentioned in this thread so far. A couple of my favorites from the field are the lightweight is-it-magic-or-is-it-science-oh-well-who-cares "klatha" in James H. Schmitz's The Witches of Karres, and OGH's Laundry novels. (Not sucking up here, Charlie: I studied physics in college, and I've worked as a programmer for a long time, so the series has been a serious geek thrill ride for me.) I also heartily endorse @Hugh Fisher's mention of Jack Vance's spellcasting system in Dying Earth, largely for the gorgeousness of its aesthetics.


There is another strand of Fantasy that achieves credibility and artistic power without attempting to frame magic as an system. Consider classic books like John Bellairs's The Face in the Frost, Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master trilogy, Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter, and Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy. If you approach these books with your Rules-lawyering/technovariant eyeshades on, you'll probably end up baffled and unfulfilled.

This is because, in these books, magic is primarily derived from the paradigm of language, not science. It's by intention poetic, mythic, creative. It's the imagination of the artist, not the natural philospopher. It goes round corners that you'd have a hard time navigating if you were working within the confines of a magic indistinguishable from "sufficiently advanced science."

This doesn't mean that the magic in these books is random, free of consequence or structure, "chaotic" or "nondeterministic". It means that trying to enclose the magic in these books within a scientific framework is like trying to write a partial differential equation for a poem. Science, as valuable and glorious as it can be, is simply not the only meaningful human mode of understanding.

Which might be beside the point. Except that these works demonstrate that non-technological magic is at least as creatively powerful and inspirational as the cleverest and most fascinating creations from the other side.

Shame it's been shouldered aside the way it has...


It's a false dichotomy. (Ask a computational linguist; I'm not one, but they do neat stuff.)

I think the idea that there's only one Magic System is pretty silly; even with our nice neat quantum universe, we've still got massively distinct kinds of science because both history and selection matter. (History turns chemistry into geology, and history and selection (which requires copying) turn chemistry into life; life and geology go waltzing, hence our oxygen atmosphere.)

But nothing at all says you can't get your quantification and your poetry into the same magical act; it's a writing choice, just like anything else.


I'm currently working on a hidden magical organisation and the way it teaches its new recruits. They have their own form of Sorcery, but they spend just as much time teaching the techniques of stage magic, especially misdirection.


I think of this topic as a game master and as a game writer, tabletop rpgs being the narrative art I'm good at. I've designed one magic system for GURPS (the system in which my work has been published), in the Chinese elemental powers supplement, which is a worked example of "magic as powers," one of the three basic GURPS magic systems (the others are mana-based magic, the original form, which is roughly similar to D&D magic in being largely a tactical toolkit, and path and book magic, which is slow and ritualized and designed to have effects that could be interpreted as coincidental). This involved reading textbooks on Chinese medicine and the cycles of the five xing, so that I could have different sets of elemental abilities (a) balanced against each other, (b) able to counteract each other, (c) tied in with traditional Chinese medicine, and (d) also tied to cinematic martial arts.

More generally, I'm big on having magic be culturally shaped. It doesn't seem satisfactory to me to have it be a technology that works the same for anyone! I like having it reflect the worldviews of different societies. Fischer's Albion's Seed gave me some neat ideas with its discussion of the different supernatural practices of New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Transappalachian settlements—and those four very different traditions all came from different parts of the British Isles!

My current fantasy campaign has seven humanoid races in a bronze age milieu, each adapted to a different biome, and each with different magical styles (I have at least three or four culture areas for every race, with lesser style differences between those). A big inspiration for this was Elizabeth Wayland Barber's book on myth and legend as mnemonic devices, which talked a lot about how shamans and spirits were envisioned; I'm exploring animistic worldviews where spirits are all over the place and are the main source of magic. Ancient Roman and more recent Shinto ideas also came into this. I've encouraged the players to think about making ritual offerings to get the spirits to cooperate, smoking a pipeful of tobacco or throwing a lump of silver into the sea.

I can think of a lot of treatments of magic, more systematized than Tolkien's, that I've liked over the years: Le Guin's Earthsea, Nix's Abhorsen series (with two sharply different forms of magic!), Bujold's Lakewalker abilities stand out for me, because I think each writer had a very definite idea of what sort of thing magic was and what it did or didn't make sense to have it do. The closest I've seen to that in RPGs has been Mage: The Ascension, prior to the revised second edition, which to my taste took most of the delight out of the setting's magic by backing off from its radical subjectivism. So I think I like (1) an underlying conceptual basis but also (2) a sense that magic is integrated into culture.

On the other hand, novelists from Tolkien to Walton's treatment in Among Others have pleased me with magic that wasn't pinned down in that way, that remained mysterious. . . .


Iron Man... Comic Book Science is both far more productive and far less significant than Real World Science.

True - but Comic Book Science also lives within Comic Book Time. The Marvel Universe as we knew it kicked off in 1961 when the Fantastic Four took their fateful rocket trip using what was amazing superscience for the era, with Reed & Susan's son Franklin born in 1968. In the comics now there's the internet and cell phones for everyone, occasional prototype robots and starships and so on - and Franklin isn't old enough to notice girls.

But we're going off topic too early in the thread.


I liked Black Company's take on Magic a lot

The best formalized magic system I've seen is from the rpg Ars Magica

In that system there is Hermetic Magic which is based on western occult traditions and on the surface is relatively science like, however it can only be worked by people with the Gift for it. If you go one level deeper though, Hermetic Magic is only one of many means of expression of the Gift, there is chaos under the order. Just like learning a language is a means of expressing the capability for speech a magical tradition is merely a means of expressing the Gift. To continue the analogy while the language you speak has some minor effects on the way humans think, the tradition of magic you learn has large effects on the capabilities of your expression of the Gift. Two Gifted individuals trained in different traditions will observe each other violating the laws of each other's traditions. This neatly gives you both science and chaos at the same time and preserve the sense of wonder.


That's true if the natives can afford to do the experiments. In real life, superstition tends to come in when stakes are too high for systematic experimentation. If failure has serious consequences then people tend to do what worked last time, with as little deviation as possible, because they don't know which deviations make a difference and which don't.

Absence of a scientific method in a given society doesn't mean that it is impossible in principal.


guthrie@30: for me, "irrational and illogical" is a question of point of view? It's just something that doesn't make sense from the characters' point of view, but it probably makes a lot of sense from the magician's point of view (I'm pretty sure Gandalf had a clear idea of what he could and couldn't do. To the hobbits, however, he was a bit... unpredictable). SfReader@33: Discworld is the best :)


icehawk@40 and April_D@35: I love these. Can I hazard a guess that they work because the focus on the story isn't on the magic and there aren't many magicians around? (I've never read the Black Company :( ). If you needed to set a story where half the cast was magicians, I'm not sure how much "unknowable" you can get away with...


I was having this conversation on twitter earlier... Much as I love ropleplaying games (which do need fairly "stress-tested" systems so that your players have a good idea what they want to do, and don't spend too much time arguing with the GM about what should work), that approach in fiction doesn't work for me? I feel that magic should be a little less... mechanistic is definitely the right word. But I also agree that magic will change the world, much like any technological breakthrough.


Thank you! And agree with you (though as said below and in my post I think both approaches are two poles of a continuum that starts with Wild Magic and ends with magic-as-science).


That's neat. I love people who break each other's fundamental principles (I do it in the book). It's so funny to handle (me? sadistic? Not at all :p)


Interesting. One of the reasons I stopped reading the books was that I thought Erikson was just adding new stuff whenever he needed a plot point. If I get a chance to do a re-read, I will try looking for a structure again.


Jack Chalker's Well World was an early example of "magic" as local laws within what is basically a sim, thought to an extent the entire universe is also a sim in that work.

Stoddard @70: Local spirits/deities mediating magic for a particular area are an interesting concept and a good building block for explaining cultural differences. You would imagine that there is some underlying structure behind all the local sources, just like there is a mantle underlying both mountains and seas in geology or there exists a similar set of physical constraints on human language regardless of how much variation you get in its forms. However, depending on your scale and your viewpoint character(s), the local specific manifestations may be all that is known in your story. And your narrator might not have access to enough information or even be the kind of person who thinks about these sorts of things.

Alette de Bodard: this has been a great discussion you've started and I will definitely be taking a glance at your work. Thanks.


My comment at 80 was not intended to be a reply to Matt. Apologies.


There definitely is a structure but it's quite carefully disguised.

I enjoyed it at first because it set up all these classic tropes then casually just flipped them on their heads. Then I started to enjoy the scope of it, with the Tiste Andii and the T'lan Imass and the Jaghut - writing aeons old characters and making them work is a rare gift. Finally I started to tentatively work out what the heck was going on with Otatral and the Crippled God and magic and so on. The outer political stuff more or less made sense once I'd got used to the subversion of standard tropes that remained.

But, throughout, I enjoyed the fact that I was never quite sure what was going to happen next. Many of the characters were soldiers for example, and died at various points. You had new ones come along and replace them in various ways, so there was some continuity.

It is worth noting the series is pretty much world spanning (there is a reason for this but you need to get to about book 8 or 9, or cheat and read the wikipedia page about it to get why) but those pesky Malazans (just like the British Empire really at its height) turn up and poke their noses in, so there is something overt as well as something that smacks you between the shoulder-blades when it finally sneaks up on you that ties them all together. It's not just random plot explosion for its own sake.


In the real world there is another view of magic that is seldom fully explored in fantasy. It is that there is no magic, just intelligent agencies with which Humans can interact ie Daemons. What these latter might be range from classical angels to ultraterrestrials.


I'm very partial towards magic system that resemble science in some way - Max Gladstone's magic as contract law / monetary system, Rothfuss's physics-compliant magic (for example it foloows preservation of momentum) and the parallel rune-magic-as-programming, Walter Jon Williams' feng-shui based urban magic in Metropolitan. Then there's the exact opposite in Susana Clarke's Strange and Norrell, in which Norrell attempt to "tame" magic and present it as a science that can be learned, but in fact it's a wild, illogical field of study; Strange decodes an old spell - and does original magic -by using metaphors and word associations.

I have my own pet theory about magic in the Harry Potter universe and similar worlds in which all you need to invoke magic is to say the right words: spells are apps. Magic users are just that: users. They can invoke spells by saying a key word just like people today can use an app by clicking an icon on their phone (and perhaps all the wand-movements are some sort of authentication, like unlocking the screen with a code). Who listens to the words? why, the magical equivalent to the internet/cloud/wireless access or whatever. Somewhere, there are magic developers. They build their spells using some sort of magical machine code that the average users neither knows or cares about, and upload it to the magical cloud, where it it available to all users. the key words have to be specific so that people don't invoke spells by mistake, but still memorable, and intentionally incorrect latin seems like a good way to achieve both.


Just searched this thread for "Eddings" - de nada. His magical system was mostly limited to the "talented" - those with a genetic disposition in that direction, but he also deliberately made sure that magic was a diversion of natural forces & effects by the users. So heat or force would be "Borrowed" from the surroundings, modified by the user & then redirected. IIRC the "Unsounded / Casual Villain" Graphic on-line novel by Ashley Cole uses the same or a similar system.

I note that MG @ 84, just above says something similar, but that Dirk @ 83 ... is heading in the same direction as Charlie in the Laundry series ( sort of )


You're definitely reading different modern fantasy to me then. I am seeing some like that but I'm still seeing big chunks where it's all pretty poorly understood, and some in a more comfortable (for me) middle ground.

I'm not keen on the pure magic-as-technology unless you have a Shadowrun-like universe. If you're used to (technological) cars I'm comfortable that you'll work out how to make magic run a car and you'll have a technological/scientific approach to working out how magic or psi or whatever it is re-emerges.

But even if you're not in that sort of a universe, you'll codify and structure your magic as much as you can. If you once cast a fireball and it saved your bacon, you'll want to know how to do it again, just in case and unless it consumed some incredibly rare resource you'll try to reproduce it until you do work it out.

What magic-as-science would give you is some understanding of the principles of fire magic from this, so you could instantly move on to casting walls of fire, fire darts etc. I don't mind that, if the book is set up that way - if the wizard's apprentice is studying fire magic and finally has a breakthrough in understanding that enables channelling fire say, and so gets a batch of fire-related spells at her beck and call. But if you've set up a magic system where the protagonist or sidekick cast it purely by accident then works out how to duplicate that accident, deducing instantly all the secrets of fire magic is pushing your luck. Spending time to try and research them, if you have a tradition of fire mages is a different thing again.


The magic system in Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series came about because editor John W. Campbell challenged two of his most prolific writers, Garrett and Isaac Asimov, to write honest mysteries combined with fantasy and science fiction respectively. An honest mystery (or whatever the standard term is) is one where the reader has all the information needed to solve the mystery by the time the big reveal comes, so she says, "oh, of course, I should have known!" rather than, "oh, you pulled that out of your ass!" (And if the reader said, "oh, I knew it!", well, that's less than ideal, but at least you didn't cheat her.)

Magic-as-the-plot-demands (or amazing-technology-as-the-plot-demands) make it too easy to do some ass-pulling, so Garrett chose to design a carefully constructed set of rules for his magic. The reader could learn those rules and take them into account, and be operating with the full information an honest mystery demands. Which is why, as a fan of mysteries as well as SFF, it's still one of my favorite magic systems to this day.

And now you know the (not-so) secret connection between Lord Darcy and R. Daneel Olivaw. :)


that understanding is almost always 100% correct.

For values of "correct". Let me expand.

You may be familiar with the phlogiston theory which appeared to be correct, but was later demonstrated to be incorrect, and then formally disproven. And with Newtonian dynamics, which are a very good approximation at terrestrial (and even orbital) velocities, but have been proven wrong. And possibly even with Ancient Greek atomic theory, which again appears correct but has been proven wrong.

Now let us postulate a world in which "magic works consistently" in that a spell cast using the correct physical, verbal and somatic components always has the same effect. Let us call one such spell "Power Word Tac Nuke". Some likely lad decides that if he quadruples the physical component, he'll get 4 times the bang because if you use 4 times as much lead in "Lead to Gold" you get 4 times as much gold. Unfortunately (for him) it proves that PWTN generates energy on a cube power relationship to the physical component rather than a linear relationship.

Just because "they know the rules" doesn't mean that they actually know what the rules actually are, just what they think they are!


Vanzetti @ 24: The need or non-need for having a systematic approach to an element of writing is, I think, one of those "it depends on the writer" things.

It is probably good to have a fairly firm grasp on what the limitations are, for any plot element. If it's easier to do that for the magic part of a fantasy novel by having a system (that may or may not be overtly present to the reader), does that matter?


Yeah, I threw the series at the wall at some point due to those. The idea that magic is expressed in totally different ways by different groups and that magical talents vary from "draw a straight line" to "can see people's future" is interesting, though.


Dirk Bruere @ 81:

One example of that in books would be The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis (it's pretty grim, in many many ways, and describes an alternate WW2, so take that in mind before diving in), where 9one type of) magic involves negotiating with extra-dimensional eidolons.


Which of course loops us nicely back to Judith Tarr's Hound and Falcon trilogy, which although thematically very similar to Kurtz' work, from (creaky) memory the magical system in it was rather less ritualistic. Think High Church worship vs something more instinctive although magic users in both were all transhuman (elves/faeries) afaicr.


I'd suggest that this is an argument for:-

1) Not using details of an actual World religion. 2) Not underestimating the stupidity of folks.


Not because I particularly love it, but because it's an interesting take on magic systems, I should mention

In a strange way, magic is described as a knack for bringing a little extra order or entropy into the world than you'd do with natural laws of physics.

In this world view, engineering (of any kind) is a process of ordering the world. On the other side of the coin is anything that increases entropy, such as heat/fire, etc. It's a classic order vs. chaos duality, but from a fairly unusual perspective.

Cue an exploration of creation vs. destruction, and power balances you achieve with each activity, etc, etc.

Things other people said:

"The hack is gone. The fantasy magician is a trained technician, not a hacker.

And that's what I miss in most stories."

Completely agree.

"An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic."

That, too.

Both of these is why I mention Recluce; the most talented magicians are essentially those who hack the order/chaos duality. No spoilers, though.


Wildly O/T, but this is why I loathe Iron Man as anything except "check your brain at the door" entertainment.


Your para 2 - That's an interesting idea, and I've never seen it put in quite those terms before.

You might also ask what benefit(s) the developer(s) get from this.


Count me as another Lord Darcy fan.


My argument with Iron Man is that not only is it doing horrible things to the laws of Physics, it's doing hideous things to immunology and medicine in general. Someone who had the equivalent of open heart surgery in a non-sterile environment and was then almost immediately subjected to massive trauma and torture should not have recovered from this surgery without a hitch. Tony Stark should have had such massive septacaemia and blood poisoning which would have made it damn near impossible for him to be moving off his cot inside the three month mark, rather than being hale and healthy enough to sit up and do heavy metalwork and blacksmithing almost immediately after the surgery is complete.

And don't even get me started on Iron Man 2.

(I get more exercised about comic book medicine because this is stuff we have the information about, and where sources of information are readily available. So mauling medicine, anatomy, and physiology in this fashion is practically inexcusable).


I tend to like magic as it's handled on the Discworld - it's there, it's the underpinning logic of that world (in much the same way that physics could be described as the underpinning logic on ours) and it has rules which have been sort-of-semi-puzzled-out (but they change according to the story you tell around them, so one person's rules might not work in a different culture[1]!). It's also, by the look of things, something of a cognitive poison - very powerful magic users who use a lot of magic go mad for and with the power of it. This means part of the essential construction of the various magical institutions we see (wizardry and its wizards in universities, witchcraft and its witches in cottages) is a set of structures intended to prevent the power-hungry from using magic to excess, because there are numerous sites around the Disc where this has happened before. People tend to avoid those, due to not waking up in the same shape they went to sleep.

(Anyone who can spot evidence of Mr Pratchett's past life as a publicist for a nuclear power station is advised to just smile and nod at this point).

So you have things like the Unseen University hierarchy, where the power-madness of the Faculty is channelled into things like infighting for funds, or competing for the role of Archchancellor (this drops off during the time of the Discworld novels due to the arrival in the job of Mustrum Ridcully, who combines being the sort of hearty, hunting, fishing and shooting type with a talent for not being killed). Basically, the petty politicking of the university structure (plus a certain amount of bureaucracy), played out for low stakes, and encouraged by the upper heirarchy, keeps the wizards busy enough not to be doing magic (and indeed, doing magic is the last thing they're encouraged to do).

For witches in the Ramtops, the desire for power is something they all watch each other for ("Going to the Bad"). However, the kind of female personality which goes after power tends not to go for witchcraft anyway, because Ramtops witchery is not the way to acquire it. A witch in the Ramtops is largely a combination of district nurse, school teacher, and jobbing social worker, paid in kind by her clients and thus sharing their level of economic prosperity. Any tendency toward personal aggrandisement tends to get flattened out of you fairly early on, particularly once you realise that while you may be smarter than the majority of the population, this firstly isn't much of an achievement, and secondly isn't anything to be proud of. Instead, the witches of the Ramtops encourage the view that the more you're capable of doing that others can't, the more you should be doing to help them.

One of the iron rules of Discworld magic is that while magic can do anything, it always asks a price. It takes just as much energy to do something magically as it does to do it any other way, and then you still have to cover the cost of the magic at the other end, too. So it's usually a bit more straightforward to just do things the ordinary way, and save the magic for the things which really need it (as decided by the Wizards and witches of the Disc). Essentially, wizards and witches turn out to be people who are very good at not using magic. (There's a difference between not doing something because you can't do it in the first place, and not doing it because you can, and it would be easy, but you choose not to. This is where a lot of the power comes into things).

[1] For example, Wizards and Priests use much the same forces, and have pretty similar abilities - but priests have to go through an intermediary - a god. Druids do something different again, and have a system based on the four basic forces of Charm, Persuasion, Uncertainty and Bloody-Mindedness, which they manipulate to get various effects. Witches can perform feats of headology (which is essentially psychology with some extra magic seasoning to make tangible the monsters of the mind).


Having just read the latest Bujold novella (good btw)it was a good reminder that the Chalion magical system isn't a million miles away from that of the Laundryverse, where magic is granted by Gods or demons. In Bujolds latest we get a little treatise on how like Recluse there are 2 types of demon magic that which increases and that which decreases entropy. 'Ordering' magic is described as 'Uphill' magic - generally more difficult and draining than entropy increasing magic Medicinal magic is described as the most difficult because it requires determining whether the magic needed is uphill or downhill eg Healing a wound increases order but destroying a kidney stone decreases order.

Questions: OGH's magic system always seems to require entropy increases (information/physical destruction mostly, although strong emotions seem like a grey area) to power the reality/local physics hack that produces a magical effect - I don't believe we've seen any flipside of it - order/creation based magic?

Secondly a point no-one has touched on yet is disruption of magic - ie Faeries and cold iron, insulation and grounding circles/wards in the Laundryverse. Some of these are negation of magical force with some other aspect of the physical world whilst some seem to use magic to disrupt magic.

Its hard to understand exactly where the lines are drawn in the laundryverse but I would hazard a guess that drawing circle/summoning grid is of itself neutral/non-magical (like insulating a wire), whilst when a physical effect is achieved - like a cone of silence, then magical effort is needed.


"... is disruption of magic - ie Faeries and cold iron..." In the real world this might have something to do with iron distorting the geomagnetic field esp during solar storms, and altering the brain's response to such fields.


"So a typical haunting might begin as follows. An EM hotspot is created in a particular area or part of a dwelling. It may be a combination of weather, geography, local radio frequency transmissions, certain electrical apparatus being used, and so on. Someone who is particular sensitive enters the area and experiences the feelings associated with the temporal lobe being or other areas of the brain being stimulated, particularly that of there being a “strange presence”. This then gets “talked up” into a ghost when this is discussed with other people, particularly family members, and especially any children or other suggestible people. This effect is well known and is referred to as contagious psychogenic illness – that is, the technical term for what is usually referred to as mass hysteria. However, in some cases the process does not stop there. What then develops, with or without the hotspots providing ongoing stimulation, is a séance-like effect where each (family) member adds to the realism of the initially vague and subjective phenomenon. "


Please don't take this as a defence of Iron Man. But I'm just saying, from what I've seen of the movies and understand of the story, it's a lazy hack on the Superhero trope.

Spiderman and his ilk won't work any more: bitten by a radioactive spider? Get treated for spider bite mate. X-men had wrapped up the mutant market. Superman had pretty much wrapped up the alien super-being market. Within the current movie-Avengers Universe Thor and Loki are doing that. Batman and his imitations had done the playboy who is the trained martial artist vigilante type.

Tony Stark was the nerd as superhero. He's physically unimpressive, but he's smart, and rich enough to turn his ideas into physical reality to overcome that. But we need ways to make all of those physical limitations go away, through technology - hence the suits. Oh, and... we'll give him an indestructible heart and blah, blah, blah and ignore all the inconvenient bits of medicine, physics and everything because he's a superhero dammit. Never mind we said at the beginning he's physically unimpressive... we'll bend those rules for the back story. No one will notice...

Except people do of course. And his casual misogyny and all the rest of it.


So that's my magic system, and how I got there. What are your favourite magic systems, and what do they entail?

I'm less interested in specific magic systems and much more interested in how the author writes the world they exist within (you can swap magic with technobabble and that applies to science fiction too). For example: in Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series magic is elemental and hereditary. Because of this aristocratic houses rule because over the centuries they've arranged marriages with the intent to produce offspring that are not only stronger magic users but can control more than one element (with the most politically powerful families being strong in all elemental magics). This is a much more believably societal progression than one in which powerful magic users exist but are consigned to merely being "court wizards" or the like.

Having said that I do have a (perhaps nostalgic) soft spot for the occasional traditional high fantasy with elves, dwarves, knights and wizards. But I am also really keen to read new versions of these. I'm hoping someone out there has written or will write a high fantasy novel with a strong economic focus on how magic works. After all if it takes decades of almost monastic study to train someone to be a competent wizard that's a hefty cost for the community that has to clothe, feed and house this person who isn't useful for a long time. Sadly not come accross such a novel yet.


Absence of a scientific method in a given society doesn't mean that it is impossible in principal.

No, but presence of the scientific method in a given society doesn't mean it can be consistently applied. Soldiers are notoriously superstitious, since their incentive to avoid screwing up is compelling. They have little incentive to push the envelope and determine exactly where the line between success and screwing up is.

Another example: cooling down a big damn superconducting magnet costs over $1000 worth of liquid helium (at prices from 20 years ago, probably much more now). Sometimes the process goes wrong for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but probably have to do with thermal stresses on cooling. The people who do this sort of thing have a variety of plausible-but-poorly-tested ideas about how to maximize the chances of success. Some of those ideas are probably ineffective superstitious behavior, but they don't know which ones are which and they don't want to waste helium and magnets finding out. This is happening in the context of building extremely precise scientific equipment.


In Piers Anthony's Xanth, every magic 'talent' is unique, and the power of that talent can be anywhere from almost non-existent to god-like. However, this system is/was imposed by the creator of this world, i.e., did not evolve 'naturally' even though there is some hereditary basis as to the likely strength of the progeny's power if not what that power/magic ability might be.


Re: 'And now you know the (not-so) secret connection between Lord Darcy and R. Daneel Olivaw. :)'

Guess I'll have to read Asimov's mystery novels now ... thanks!


Interesting that you say "seldom fully explored", when that is actually pretty much how Tolkien's "magic" works - the difference being that the "daemons" are immanent.

Elves don't do magic. They don't even really understand what the word means. They just use a combination of sufficiently advanced technology and being really good at what they do; and they use it not to change the world, but to preserve it unchanged as far as they can, which is why they don't operate what we would think of as a technologically-based society. It looks like magic in Lord of the Rings because that is from the viewpoint of "lesser races"; in The Silmarillion, which is from the viewpoint of the Elves, it doesn't.

All the stuff that really "is magic" is done by the Valar and Maiar, which are "angelic"-level beings whose powers are derived from the nature of their creation by God (Eru). The power of the Ring, the Girdle of Melian, Gandalf setting fire to things - all Maiar. The one big instance of "Elven magic" that we do see (as far as I recall) is Luthien defeating Sauron and then Morgoth - but Luthien is half-Maia anyway, and she uses the power of song, in the same way that Arda was created out of the Music in the first place, so she is essentially calling on "divine power".

Only once do we ever get any kind of description of how the magic "works": when Gandalf and the Balrog (both Maiar) fight for control over the door in Moria, and Gandalf's explanation of what happened is equivalent to "I tried to deploy my conventional anti-tank forces, but I couldn't get them into position in time, so they weren't effective, the tanks kept coming, and I had to use a tactical nuke, which kind of buggered things". It is jarringly mechanistic, and I think Tolkien was wise to leave it as "sub-divine powers of angelic-type beings" everywhere else.


There's the scene at the gates of Moria, where Gandalf is trying to get them open, and he says that he once knew some vast number of opening spells in the tongues of several races—including orcs, I believe! That sounds like "magic" as opposed to "powers." But of course it turns out to be simpler and more innocent. . . .


I've never read any Anthony. One thing I'm staying away from are Gods & Demons (and God-like powers). Too often they seem (to me, anyway) that when you have them in a story anything goes. Not always, of course. Certainly not the case with the Laundry. And in Aliette's "Obsidian & Blood" series there are definite rules/rituals that must be followed when dealing with the Aztec gods, you really don't want to piss them off.

I'm a relative late-comer to Fantasy. My mother was into Tolkien, so I grew up knowing his stories by way of the animated films (when they were new). I didn't actually read him until a year before the movies came out (couldn't stand the movies). I think I can say that I loved "The Hobbit", and enjoyed LOTR. When I was about 11 I was given a copy of the first "Thomas Covenant" novel and disliked him and was bored by the book so didn't get far with it. A little later I tried reading "The Sword of Shannara"; same thing, could not get into it. I'm still not a fan of Epic Fantasy, and only in the last decade have I learned of, and started paying attention to, the subgenres like Urban Fantasy, which I prefer. Not that this last paragraph has much to do with anything, other than where I'm coming from in relation to the topic.


My usual approach to evaluating the believability (coherence) of magic in fantasy is its incorporation into infrastructure and the mundane, i.e., does it wash the windows, take out the garbage, light your house, etc. So, basically a mental swap of 'magic' for 'electricity' ... everywhere and taken for granted, much studied, yet still not 100% understood. (Or, for emotions or intellect ... it's typically one of these three.)

IMO, Rowling's Harry Potter is one of the best for weaving the magic into all parts of the wizardly mundane world. And while she doesn't explain the theoretical underpinnings of her magic, neither do most of the contemporary fiction authors who include electricity powered gadgets/appliances bother to explain how electricity (physics) works in their world. (Actually, this could be quite funny ... )

Modessit's Recluce is also pretty consistent and credible. Every once in a while I get the impression that he's trying to figure out how to massage/manipulate talent into a trade-able currency in itself.

Re: Michael Grosberg (84)

Really like your 'app/internet' analogy/description.

Maybe I haven't read the right (same) fantasy novels as the other posters here, but I don't recall ever reading a fantasy that has a 'creature from a mystic dimension' looking in and trying to understand our mundane world from their magical perspective. (Apart from Pratchett's Discworld, i.e., Auditors, Death, assorted gods, etc.) Think I'd definitely pick up a book that tried this.


Well, that's a good point, and in fact it's a logical direction for the campaign to go. One of the five player characters, the trollwife healer, is in fact going about the world learning healing magic from as many different cultures as possible; she may eventually create her own Book. And it's possible that the nixie merchant's mad scheme of learning every language in the world will spill over into magical applications. I'll have to think about how to plant hints.

Part of the backstory of the campaign is that a few centuries ago, there was a dwarf genius who made seven magic rings, one for each race, each of a different metal (making the Ring of Mercury was a feat!), and their effects are now disrupting the world. . . .


Hmmm. And we never talk about what cold iron is. We merely think it's iron that isn't molten and can therefore carry a magnetic field. But Elves aren't poisoned by nickel, and the Earth has a much bigger magnetic field than any magnet, so...

There's another explanation: cold iron, in the old sense, was iron that hadn't been reforged too often. The thing about a blacksmith's forge is that they have a dirty process, and the more a bit of iron is reforged, the more carbon it picks up from the charcoal. While some carbon makes iron into steel, still more carbon makes wrought iron, which is brittle.

Cold steel, especially, was iron that had only been worked once after being smelted from ore, and it was favored for weapons. You'd want a cold steel blade, because that would have the least chance of being brittle.

While it's fun to play with the magic of iron (I've actually got a magical system based on it that I'll publish some day), I suspect that the homely reason that faeries didn't like cold iron is the same reason the rest of us don't. Getting a chunk of cold iron lodged in your body for any length of time is life-altering and possibly life-ending. It's very similar to getting a case of lead poisoning from being at the wrong end of a gun.


One of the more interesting portrayals of a magic-centric society (not a magical system but a culture impacted by magic) is in Maburaho -- wherein magic is not a formal system but an inherent ability to do a certain number of 'spells' with a certain level of 'effects', in a purely hereditary way (that obeys general principles of genetics). Given that set of mechanics, you end up with an aristocratic-style society wherein a small set of highly magical families alternately intermarry or compete, and wherein much of society's social structure is explicitly eugenic. (The main plot involves a character whose ancestors include many famously powerful mages, whose lineage was hidden from the major families until late in the game essentially due to lost documentation, and whose true ability is somewhat hidden because the number of times he can use magic -- something easily measured with their technology -- is absurdly low but the level of effect of each spell -- something difficult to measure -- is absurdly high).

Compare to a very different (but also aristocratic) take in Fate/Stay Night -- wherein there's some natural hereditary variation in inherent magical ability, but ability can be improved with practice and discipline, however strong family lines are preserved because of a technology wherein a macro system for physically encoding learned spells in the form of a transplantable piece of nerve tissue (the magic crest) passed on from parent to one child immediately after the death of the parent. (As a result, several generations of study and practice are essentially encoded into an object that must be physically implanted into a person, doesn't work outside of a family because of rejection, cannot be copied or divided, and can be added to by each generation.) As a result, despite quite a bit of ability, magic society is very fragile -- an entire lineage can be destroyed if the person holding the crest is killed; the result is that both a culture of secrecy and several organizations exist to prevent non-mages from learning about the existence of magic -- primarily by killing any non-mages that observe magic and any mages that are insufficiently careful. (On top of this, the whole thing is made more complex by the fact that performing magic is dangerous -- leading to sickness and death when people attempt to do things beyond their power.)


Matt, Haven't taken a look at GURPS Technomancer have you? The premise is that when Oppenheimer said "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" magic flooded into the world. And it's a traditional RPG magic system where the author and playtesters were encouraged to find how do you break the world with the system...

The first thing I'll say is I don't think they went far enough, but I'll give 'em a C for at least going in the right direction.


My usual approach to evaluating the believability (coherence) of magic in fantasy is its incorporation into infrastructure and the mundane, i.e., does it wash the windows, take out the garbage, light your house, etc. So, basically a mental swap of 'magic' for 'electricity' ... everywhere and taken for granted, much studied, yet still not 100% understood.

To be fair there are a few mechanics that allow for a magical world without ubiquitous magic (or in other words a world that looks medieval with the occasional wizard):

Difficulty - How long does it take to both learn magic and perform a spell?

Risk - What's the chance of a magical accident that will harm the user?

Cost - Is there some sort of magical consumable be it an item, manna, stamina etc?

Limits - Are there limits to what can be done with magic?

Access - Is it something that anyone can learn or is there an innate and/or class component?

Having said that in my experience many fantasy settings include all of those to some degree but still have pretty ubiquitous magic. Magic items, spells, wizards, witches etcetera are to be found pretty regularly (at least by the protagonist) and yet there are still peasants plowing the field and living in thatched huts.


Or the Elves knew that 'cold iron' as smelted in the dark/middle ages might open up a wormhole and send them back to their dungeon dimension of origin. Since the materials in the wormhole are similar to some used in superconductors, this means that the wormhole could trip open any time. (*)

Magnetic 'wormhole' connecting two regions of space created for the first time


'The 'wormhole' in this experiment is a sphere made of different layers: an external layer with a ferromagnetic surface, a second inner layer, made of superconducting material, and a ferromagnetic sheet rolled into a cylinder that crosses the sphere from one end to the other. The sphere is made in such a way as to be magnetically undetectable -- invisible, in magnetic field terms -- from the exterior.'

(*) Wikipedia ... 'Superconductors are also able to maintain a current with no applied voltage whatsoever, a property exploited in superconducting electromagnets such as those found in MRI machines. Experiments have demonstrated that currents in superconducting coils can persist for years without any measurable degradation. Experimental evidence points to a current lifetime of at least 100,000 years. Theoretical estimates for the lifetime of a persistent current can exceed the estimated lifetime of the universe, depending on the wire geometry and the temperature.[3]'

BTW, 'spooky action at a distance' (i.e., quantum entanglement) has just passed a test ... so one more mundane theoretic explanation for high fantasy 'magic'. (See below for pre-print abstract.)


Re: Fate/Stay Night

Sorta sounds like Herbert's Dune: Bene Gesserit breeding program, spice/melange, Kwisatz Haderach ...


I'm sorry, but all those theories about "cold iron" are urban legends of the twentieth and twenty-first century. The phrase "cold iron" is a simple poetic trope, like saying "red blood" in a medieval ballad: If the king is murdered and the red blood flows, the poet isn't telling us that the king was a human rather than a mollusc or a Vulcan; they're filling a hole in the meter and making the narrative more vivid by reminding us of an outstanding sensory quality of the blood. The outstanding sensory quality of metals is that, being superb heat conductors, they feel cold to the touch (unless they've been in a fire or something).

Apparently one of the big sources of "cold iron" is Kipling's poem by that name—Kipling having been one of the major influences on a couple of generations of fantasy writers. But in Kipling's poem, the Platonic archetype of "cold iron" is the nails that were driven through Christ's hands and feet. I guarantee you that the Roman legions weren't crucifying rebels with meteoric iron, or special cold forged iron, or whatever is the currently trendy theory; they were just using whatever nails were at hand, the same kind that a carpenter like Jesus's dad would have used. Then the usage got picked up by readers who hadn't read Kipling, or hadn't thought about him, and didn't know the history of English poetic language, and made up folk etymologies—which amount to confabulations.

Now if you want to make up that sort of stuff for your fantasy world, cool. Whatever makes you happy. But I prefer a vision of the world where iron as such is magical, or anti-magical; where smiths are kin to sorcerers, and where the fair folk have trouble with ferrous metals, as in Aaron Allston's brilliant pastiche Doc Sidhe.


You may be projecting the ubiquity of modern nails onto the past.

Back in Roman times, who else used steel nails? Apparently, that was one of their critical innovations in building technology, and they hoarded them away from the barbarians.

So I'm not sure your analogy works quite the way you expected it to...

Now I agree that Kipling probably popularized the term cold iron, but it was around before he wrote it.


If you want a system where the magic users are almost invariably Smiths the the utterly fantastic Winter of the World Chronicles by Michael Scott Rohan are hard to beat.


It's not the consistency of the magic that I worry about. If an author is going to posit something that doesn't exist in this universe, then I can accept that characters in that story can accept and use something that isn't fully understood, or even that the rules are apparently inconsistent and whimsical.

After all, I can believe that there was a time in the real past when people had no idea how weather systems work. I can believe that most people in the real present don't know in any detail how they work, only that they do and that some other people understand them. I can also accept that even meteorologists' present best understanding may be incorrect or incomplete. So, I can buy into the same conceits in the framework of a fictional magic system.

What I can't go for is inconsistency of human nature. If you're going to make characters in your stories human, or essentially humanlike in their psychology, then they're going to behave within the range of known behaviours for humans.

World-building can be fun and interesting, but I read stories for the people. Get that wrong, and that's where I'll stop buying into it.

After all, I'll read SF with spaces battles and ansibles and FTL travel, that's essentially high fantasy in a silver jumpsuit after all, but when I think of the SF novels that I've read over the years that are really compelling, that I may have read several times? It's never for the SF trappings that I keep going back to them, it's always the people.


No doubt. Kipling was a well read man. He could do a plausible medieval ballad in "Cold Iron" because he had read medieval ballads. (See "The Muse among the Motors" for a long series of humorous pastiches.) I'm perfectly willing to believe that the term "cold iron" occurs in such ballads; I just don't happen to recall a specific example. But that's why I said "one of the big sources" rather than "the source" or "the creator."

But I stand by my point that the Romans weren't using some special rare iron that required arcane metallurgical treatments when they put two thieves and an accused rebel to death. Legions had budgets, and expensive special purpose metals would have been an unnecessary budget item—and why waste them on a common criminal? It wasn't like he was going to get up and walk around after you put him down. (Hey, there's a fantasy premise for you: A soothsayer or prophet warns the Romans that this guy has special powers, here, use these meteoric iron nails or he'll become more powerful than you can imagine—and it prevents the Resurrection. Oops!) In fact your argument about iron as such being uncommon and expensive makes it even less plausible that the Romans would have been using special high-quality iron, which would have cost even more.


Typically, the crucified were either tied or hoisted using reusable manacles. It's not clear that there's much historical basis in fact to the idea of nail-based crucifixion, at least as far as supporting the arms go. Although possibly for fastening the arms, but it's a really difficult subject to find scholarly works without some kind of Abrahamic influence. (Crucifixion is a method of slow asphyxiation; twisting the legs up before fastening to make the asphyxiation slower is reasonably well attested in Roman practice.)

I suspect "cold iron" is to distinguish it from "hot iron", the kind you can shape and bend, and is meant to imply a certain immutability. The Puck-of-Pook's-Hill story that goes with the "Cold Iron" poem is interesting in that context. (As is, by weird tangent, The Conversion of St. Wilfrid; if you want to look at a really good job of entirely implied magic, you could do much worse. And then contemplate that these were intended to be children's stories.)


It's not clear that there's much historical basis in fact to the idea of nail-based crucifixion, at least as far as supporting the arms go...

There were likely a few methods of crucifixion. Several years ago I read of Israeli archaeologists excavating a cemetery of the crucified, they reached that conclusion from marks on the wrist and ankle bones indicating some sort of spikes being used. Sorry I don't have a link, and memory may be hazy.

I suspect "cold iron" is to distinguish it from "hot iron", the kind you can shape and bend, and is meant to imply a certain immutability.

I was thinking of saying something similar; to me Cold Iron sounds like it could refer to annealed metal that is used to make stabby things.


Magic as app is exactly correct.

Harry learned a spell, developed by Snape, when using Snape's old potions book. Snape knew how to heal someone hit by the spell, and defend against it. The various books on magic are compilations of the word/gesture for all the magic spells/apps developed.

Magic is basically open source, with developers creating new apps over the centuries that are accessible to anyone who knows the word/gesture to activate it. New spells can be "compiled" using "Library" calls. Once a spell/app is developed it is part of reality and accessible anywhere. Logic states that there are a vast number of undocumented spells/apps that are waiting to be found by a reality hacker.

This is similar to the comic book Doctor Strange. His powers are based on taping in to the existing powers of various mystical entities. With word and gesture he activates the spell/app. When he was at war with the various entities his magic no longer worked because they would not grant access to their power.


I'm not sure this discussion has any real merit.

The Romans made nails. Lots of nails.

When it was excavated in the 1950s by Richmond a large pit was found containing more than 750,000 iron nails and other iron objects weighing a total of ten tonnes. The pit was elaborately concealed, and the nails and ironwork were almost certainly buried by the troops to deny them to the local tribes when they dismantled the fortress before they finally left.

That was at the arse-end of the Empire. Yes, the Roman Empire did industrial scale production. In some cases they crucified over 500 (Jewish revolt #1) a day or many many more (Spartacus - at least a couple of thousand).

It wasn't subject to scarcity.

Anyhow, since we're on the subject of blood, iron and magic (and elves):

...and the power assigned to the wind some call Osiris and others Serapis; and Sothis in Egyptian signifies "pregnancy" (cyesis) or "to be pregnant" (cyein): therefore in Greek, with a change of accent, the star is called the Dog-star (Cyon), which they regard as the special star of Isis...

62 1 Like these also are the Egyptian beliefs; for they oftentimes call Isis by the name of Athena, expressive of some such idea as this, "I came of myself," which is indicative of self-impelled motion...

Moreover, they call the loadstone the bone of Horus, and iron the bone of Typhon, as Manetho records. For, as the iron oftentimes acts as if it were being attracted and drawn toward the stone, and oftentimes is rejected and repelled in the opposite direction, in the same way the salutary and good and rational movement of the world at one time, by persuasion, attracts and draws toward itself and renders more gentle that harsh and Typhonian movement, and then again it gathers itself together and reverses it and plunges it into difficulties.

(Vol. V) Plutarch, Moralia - Isis and Osiris.*/D.html

Marrow and Iron have a long history before Kipling. You might recognize a couple of the names and themes, and it might tickle the fancy to realize that iron wasn't exactly on the 'good guys' side there. Dem Bones Dem Bones Dem Dry Bones.

Anyhow, see you on the other side of 300!


The Romans made nails. Lots of nails

They even marched on them. Roman legionaries wore hobnail sandals. So yeah, no shortage of material or technology, under normal circumstances.


The "real world" version that I heard was that stories about faeries that couldn't withstand the touch of iron are distorted history from tribes of humans who developed ironworking, made iron weapons, and then committed genocide against neighboring tribes of humans who didn't have ironworking technology.

I don't have a scholarly source for that, though.


Iron is the end-point of the normal ( Non-Supernova) fusion / formation of above-hydrogen elements isn't it? It's also amazingly stable. I wonder .....


Creatures of Light & Darkness Zelazny


One of the arguments in favour of the authenticity of the Turin Shroud was based on the fact that it did not show thumbs. Apparently you don't put the nails through the palm like they taught us in school because they pull out if you do; you have to put them through between the radius and ulna, and this spikes a nerve which makes the thumb spasm inwards over the palm. Hence no thumbs to be seen on the image. It was argued that a forger probably wouldn't know about this and so would paint thumbs. Me, I don't think this argument works for its intended purpose as I reckon an ancient forger would be more likely to know about it than a "modern"; but I do think it works to support the contention that crucifixion using nails was well-known.


I now feel very stupid because it has only just struck me that this is all a red herring. Nails and bladed weapons don't have to be made of iron. People were making them out of bronze before iron smelting was properly worked out, and gaining a large advantage over people who hadn't even worked out bronze yet...


A setting that's known for its multiple magic systems is Lawrence Watt-Evans' 'Ethshar' universe, which started off as an RPG setting. Some of the magical systems are very mechanistic, such as sorcery (constructing magical gadgets) or warlockry (psychokinetic manipulation of matter, down to the molecular level if need be). Others, like wizardry, are much more semantic.

For example, wizardry includes a spell to turn its target into what it ought to be. 'Ought' isn't necessarily what the caster thinks it is, either; it's in the hands of the GM / author. I think anyone trying to come up with a science of magic inside that universe would have a hard time coming up with a reliable explanation of how the spell chooses what an object ought to be.


What this "iron" thing comes down to for me is that: An adjective can be used in more than one way—for example, for classification ("Big John" to distinguish him from a couple of other guys named John) or for description ("Big John" because he looked huge when you first saw him). So "cold iron" could mean "the sort of iron that is cold" as contrasted with some other sort of iron such as "hot iron"; but it could also just refer to iron generically, by one of its typical properties, that of being cool to the touch. There is, for example, a Joni Mitchell song, "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," where there is no mention of steel that is hot or red or green—it's just the vivid use of descriptive language.

Now, if you want to claim that "cold iron" is a classification, show me some evidence: Quote me a medieval ballad, or a Shakespearean play, or some other source prior to modern fantasy where "cold iron" is contrasted with some other sort of iron with different magical properties. It's quite clear that Kipling was not doing so—and whatever the truth of Roman crucifixions, Kipling believed in those nails, and he was making the point that ALL iron gained a special quality from the contact of some iron with the blood of Christ. But give me some poetic or legendary source that says there is a special kind of iron called cold iron that has distinctive magical properties, and I'll accept that as evidential. Lacking that, I'm going to say that all this theorizing about "cold iron" looks to me to be confabulation, or in the vernacular Making Shit Up.


To answer OP's question (and I'll be getting her book):

I think, easily, it is the Farseer trilogy, and then her first three of the Liveship Traders series. (Major spoilers)

Skill is only barely understood, based on crumbling ancient texts and the main protagonist is not only taught incorrectly / hobbled deliberately for political / power reasons (how many of the best & brightest languish today even under the "meritocracy" due to such things?) but unwittingly does everything possible to destroy his own abilities. Drug use, over-extension, arrogance, ignorance; all chip away at his natural (genetic, implied) talents.

Despite the best efforts of Kings and Power, secrets are lost and the art loses a little more each generation.

Then we have the Will users who are universally despised, hunted and their elders prone to be strung up before passing on their knowledge. Which, again, our hero plummets into crashing through social boundaries and becoming wolf or less than man and ultimately leading to the death of his companion.

Hidden knowledge dying out because of a turning away from society.

And then... dragons, dragon stone, memories, consciousness and the Fool.

Dragon Stone, used by Kings to create weapons (and ultimately to create the nemesis of their Kingdom as those who were Forged by accident turn it into a weapon of their own) in a perversion of what it was designed to do.

Dragons, kept in pupae, tortured into living ships and their spawning grounds destroyed. And when a couple of dragons do struggle through, most are congenitally deformed due to humans' abuse of their life cycle.

And the Fool, laden with ancient memories. nose wiggle


Magic: it doesn't make things sparkle, it just gets plonked into the same old moulds and shaped in the same way everything is.


SFreader has picked up on something I hinted at whenever it was I last posted.

First results from collisions of three-particle ions with gold nuclei reveal clear-cut evidence of primordial soup's signature particle flow 31st August 2015

Iron and Gold, Iron and Gold. Heart of Stars and Death of Stars, allegedly.


Back to magic.


One idea I liked far more than the actual books was master of the 5 magics and its sequels.

5 well thought out facets of magic all jealously guarded by their respective guilds and then an underlying meta-magic that can change the rules by which the 5 magics work.


Probably someone's already written this book, but if you look at the cultural roots of Western magic, things get really interesting, because it's a highly diverse swamp. When you look at it, you can see where the history majors turned fantasy writers swiped their ideas, and why it's easy to have multiple magical systems in one universe.

Magic: Probably associated with the Magi, Zoroastrian priests, who were not unknown in the Roman Empire. The list of animals that go with black magic (snakes, toads, cats) comes straight out of Zoroastrian belief. (source: Gerald Russell, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms)

Astrology filtered west out of Babylonia through any of a number of routes (given that we're talking about the product of a civilization over 5,000 years old, that had its heyday before the Old Testament was written, there was a lot of time for this).

Roman religion: Basically souped-up animism, where the genius (which is not the same word as Jinn) of a place, person, or event was worshiped. Originally, the belief of the practitioner was irrelevant. If the ceremony was performed correctly, the corresponding supernatural thing was supposed to occur. The Roman Empire was held together by the divine genius of the emperor, to whom all Roman subjects were supposed to sacrifice, whatever else they believed. Fanatic Christians refused this sacrifice, much to the dismay of Roman magistrates who didn't want to kill them for sacrilege (does this sound familiar?). This developed into more esoteric beliefs as time progressed, but there's a lot of very basic magical practice here.

Charm, Enchantment: both come from words meaning song or chant. When you get enchanted by a charming performer, that's a magical experience, right? They can make you believe all sorts of things, through the magic of their words.

Spells: There's also a magic in documents, especially to people who can't read. Someone can be given power by a document, ratified by seals of other powerful people, and you have to do what that document says or else. If you think about it as an outsider, that's a pretty amazing feat for a bunch of words on paper, is it not? It's also amazing that priests and kings have this putatively divine power to make their words into reality, while the typical peasant does not have the power, even if he (or she) says the same words, and is a better person in every way than the foppish noble who can read and write. Magicians, of course, also have this power of words, but since they didn't go through ordinary channels to get there (at least in post Roman Europe), they're more seen as hackers and con-men than as legitimate wielders of power.

Western Alchemy started as a muddle of influences that came out of Hellenistic Alexandria under Roman and possibly Ptolemaic rule, so we're talking about a syncretic muddle of science, philosophy, and religion that has sucked people in for millennia (to be fair, Taoist alchemy seems to be much the same). The etymology is kind of bizarre. It seems to have started with the Greek word for Egypt, but it turned into a word for black magic (later Greek) and then into the term for the philosopher's stone (Arabic).

And then there's the old stage magic I mentioned above, which is woven through this, along with aspects of shamanism and other altered states fun and games (in Greek, the Mantic arts. Think necromancy, geomancy, bibliomancy, etc.).

It's worth hunting down Jones & Pennick's A History of Pagan Europe if you want to learn more.

The basic point is that, prior to Christianity, Roman Europe was a massively syncretic and international place, so it's no wonder that shards of many old beliefs were later reworked into distinct magical systems.


There's an old gypsy story that says the Romans had planned to crucify Jesus with four nails, but had to make due with three after a gypsy stole one. Ever since, God forgives the gypsies for all their thefts.

It's historically inaccurate, but it's cute.


But give me some poetic or legendary source that says there is a special kind of iron called cold iron that has distinctive magical properties, and I'll accept that as evidential. Lacking that, I'm going to say that all this theorizing about "cold iron" looks to me to be confabulation, or in the vernacular Making Shit Up.

Sticking "cold iron" and "folklore" into Google Scholar may be of interest.

For most of human history that has iron, iron is expensive and essential. We live in a time of cheap high-quality steels, and don't really get that. Full-tang knives -- where the metal tang is the same size as the handle in length and depth, and has scales added for width -- didn't happen until the 1920s, even for high end chef's knives. (All that steel capacity from the Great War.) Pretty much the entirety of traditional Japanese blade making is workarounds for having scarce and poor iron ores. The fractious nature of Migration Age and subsequent Scandinavia can be put down to widespread small iron deposits, so that smith-craft wasn't subject to central control. All of this stuff is just obviously going to get into folklore because it's tangled up in food and safety -- farming and warfare -- in inescapable ways.

Only now of course we're updating it -- the Blessing of the Plough is turning into the Blessing of the Tractors -- because there's lots of the stuff and it's not seen as essential in quite the same way. But in a place and time where steel could be the same value per pound as gold -- when you've got a bellows, a hammer, and some charcoal, good sword steel is expensive -- of course it took on magical significance.


Full-tang isn't just about steel or lack thereof. There are swords that are all metal that are considerably older (the Garo milam, and the Parang Pandit, for example). Actually, old bronze swords hilts were typically metal with scale handles, so this kind of design is at least 3200 years old, and probably older than rat-tail hilts.

Thing is, there's a point to having a rat-tail tang: vibration. If you're gripping an all-metal handle, especially on a chopper, all the vibration is going from the blade into your hand, which makes it harder for you chop as long, especially if the blade is more solid than a machete.

Conversely, a wood handle absorbs some of the shock, so it's more comfortable to hold. The old bronze swords that had full hilts were slashers, not choppers.

In any event, during the dark ages, steel was more on par with silver than with gold in terms of value.


In any event, during the dark ages, steel was more on par with silver than with gold in terms of value.

The stuff in a good knife, or a saw, sure.

Crucible steel for very top-end sword blades? That gives every impression of having been price-of-gold expensive. See, for example,

for a discussion of crucible steel in China.


The old bronze swords that had full hilts were slashers, not choppers.

Weren't bronze swords generally cast in single pieces? And sharpened by hammering the edge? I've got dim memories of bits of reconstructive Greek bronze age boat tech being discussed, and how miserable mortises in olive wood are with anything, and how at least sharpening the bronze chisels went quicker.


Since everyone is ignoring OP's intents, I'll weave you back in:

The Scavenger Triology by K. J. Parker / T. Holt has an interesting mixture of all of these topics:

1 The Empire faces a new enemy who has seemingly 'magical' tactics and 'shock and awe' abilities.

Spoiler: fluid combat (aka - parkour. Oh, the delights you'll have once you work out that one) that's literally defeated by... caltrops. Or fancy nails if you want to split hairs.

2 Memory / Amnesia and Crows. Let's just say the protagonist isn't exactly normal. (Power player in the Empire? Old God?)

Spoiler: What can change the nature of a man? Forgetting is a kind of magic, as is your human ability to (Virtual - Actual) instantiates memory as a present that re-writes the past. Gods and Monsters don't have that ability: the true power of humans is forgetting (and their curse).

3 The way in which magic works for that milieu is actually very accurate: part of the fabric of society rather than an extraneous additional element. OP has chosen to deliberately make one flavor of magic an OCP / external, which is a different course.

Spoiler: What happens when societies find their 'cutting edge' is now useless and no longer works? Methinks we're about to find out...

Anyhow: Covenants are made in Blood. That's all you need to know about magic.


Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

Genesis 15:10-11

If you want to play in magical realms, ask yourself why the Egyptians did sperm, the Abrahamic religions did blood and so on. (And who does eggs, blood & mucous anymore in a generative, not degenerative sense?)

There's a fundamental difference.

Blood for the Blood God [Youtube: Film: 2:11] For the traditionalists (and it's getting harder to find old Mel's work in the open these days).

Blood for the Blood God [YouTube: Audio: 6:26] For the Waaaarg, hello boys.

As a personal aside, I've always thought semen and balls to be more fun than blood and guts. Modern America disagrees. nose wiggle


And since triptychs are the usual form, and Dirk has been working hard (I'm guessing he enjoyed the peanut and the ink blot that spread across his sphere, mirroring the forest fires across America - El Nino says hello, You're FUCKED btw, but enjoy the last dance):

something easily measured with their technology -- is absurdly low but the level of effect of each spell -- something difficult to measure -- is absurdly high

You'd be surprised how accurate this is.

Magic is all about leveraging informational power differences, and making sure you have plausible deniability when you shift things.

I remember watching the Towers come down on 9/11. I was in a pub on lunch as you did back then in finance and I looked past everyone and saw the BBC showing them fall: now that took a lot of blood to enact.

Queen Bee [Youtube: music: 4:43]


Thanks Dirk, I forgot how to be a bitch. I also forgot you're still running sad little reality community lie software.

What's hilarious:

Your games are done, your pieces broken, and yet you still weave sad little shame and blame games. Desperately clinging to the simulacrum of past glories:

Be Careful, or no quarter will be given [Youtube: Film: 2:26]


Anyhow. This is all nice nice nice.


There is that as well. No reason why it cannot be a combination of factors. BTW, IIRC the ancient Roman priests always used bronze knives and implements in their ceremonies - not iron/steel.


I actually expanded this into the first (most boring) chapter of TechnoMage


You see only what you see.

And continuing the theme of "real" magic - the conscious alteration of the statistical outcome of the collapse of the wavefunction upon measurement by observing its macroscopic effect.


Depending on time and place, foppish nobles who can read and write could be thin on the ground. Modern historians debate whether Henry I could actually read and he had a reputation for being a "scholarly" king.

For most of European history, the main occupational skill of a noble was knowing how and most importantly when and for whom to murder people. Depending on the contemporary fashions, literacy could be a glitzy extra to wow your friends with or a real detriment to being seen as one of our sort.


And continuing the theme of "real" magic - the conscious alteration of the statistical outcome of the collapse of the wavefunction upon measurement by observing its macroscopic effect.

How did you like China syndrome?

Remember, this is the hobbled, disfigured and tortured version.

Butterflies are a little more adept. (But then again, you've not read the Farseer / LiveShips trilogy, I don't expect you to understand that you're saying what's already been said).


I'm a fan of Big Bangs. Saying what nobody else has said previously is somewhat difficult. Saying what most people don't know is just being helpful.


הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, יָצָא עַל-הָאָרֶץ; וְלוֹט, בָּא צֹעֲרָה וַיהוָה, הִמְטִיר עַל-סְדֹם וְעַל-עֲמֹרָה--גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ: מֵאֵת יְהוָה, מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם יַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת-הֶעָרִים הָאֵל, וְאֵת כָּל-הַכִּכָּר, וְאֵת כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי הֶעָרִים, וְצֶמַח הָאֲדָמָה וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ, מֵאַחֲרָיו; וַתְּהִי, נְצִיב מֶלַח

If you want to play it hard, we'll play it hard.


Translation, Mr Dirk:

Aggressively attempting to map your Blood God mythology upon something a lot, lot older is an affront and you've (vocative) run out of tricks. It was crass, and worse, inept.

Eyeballs - get them right. Lizards and Cats and Tigers and Crocodiles and Sharks. I know what they look like; your lot didn't.


You should look into the concept of "blow-back" sometime, or in magic parlance, "reciprocity". It's going to be "Biblical".


Apologies to OP - but it was all about magic.


Do you know why I wrote TechnoMage? The clue is on the cover.


You know, I've always thought that part of the point of engaging with anyone, anytime is essentially about making oneself understood as readily as possible. It's the same reason people treat mumblers are though they are constantly being rude. Being incomprehensible is itself a kind of forfeit.

I find Larry Correia incomprehensible, for instance. (This is vaguely in theme with recent discussions here). He is so bound up in his limited worldview, that the things he says are often simply incoherent outside it (and I'm from a long way outside it... in a way he and his kind would probably find surprising, but there you go). But this is true to an extent for everyone. It's important to watch out for it.

Sometimes deliberate obscurity is an interesting intellectual game. But mostly it just a sort of invisible empire verfremdungseffekt that doesn't add a lot of value, maybe some amusement. As a habitual outsider who dislikes explaining himself, I find it irritating. But outsiders like me don't often get to dictate terms of engagement either, so on balance I can't really complain :)


Catana Diamond Zen of the King Kongo likes playing games, as do I. The difference is that I always add a layer of non crytpic interpretation. I long ago discovered that the best way of hiding is in plain sight.


"Aggressively attempting to map your Blood God mythology upon something a lot, lot older..."

Wrong way around

"... is an affront..."

Well, affronting Gods and Mortals is something I can live with on my occult CV

"...and you've (vocative) run out of tricks."

Not really. To be able to say that you have to know The Plan

"It was crass, and worse, inept."

Two responses: The only thing that matters is success/failure; and it pre-supposes you know what is really happening.

AFAIK "The Plan" (to give it a name, because it doesn't have one) is not something that can be written down, and AFAIK has never been written down. There is no Illuminati and you don't join it. If you want a ticket to the game you have to point at it in a very precise manner and have long rambling drunken discussions with New Friends.

Anyway, you seem a bit pissed off for some reason. I can assure you it is nothing I have done to you directly.

Play up, play up and play the game. Tally Ho!


Well to be fair the outsider thing is usually enough verfremdungseffekt already, so it's more a to each their own thing. And should that be Katana? Tally Ho indeed!


I pondered over the "K" compared to "C". Shows you I care, sort of. OTOH, these are just casual lunchtime musings. I mean, this is not a battle of Illuminati Magicians on the Field of the Cloth of Gold that is the Stross Blog.


I've heard this (and variations thereof) before. If I recall, it was mentioned in Brian Froud's Faeries book.

However, I consider any explanation for a mythological phenomenon in terms of racial memory to be dubious. (I've heard all sorts of crazy racial-memory-explanations for mythological things -- from the barely-plausible idea that snake worship is the result of an evolutionary arms race between homonids and tropical serpents, to the absolutely absurd idea that 'grey' aliens are a distorted racial memory of children dying of starvation. Other specifically faerie-related ones include: now-extinct pigmy tribes of europe; sea-faring people being mis-represented as selkies; racial guilt over the genocide of competing homonids resulting in the taboo against saying bad things against the Fair Folk.) Basically: racial memory is dubious, particularly along such short time-scales, and a lot of these ideas already assume that almost-universal mythological elements have causes limited to european history of the last two millennia.


I put that thrugh Google Translate:

Hsms, Itza upon-earth; And Lot, Ba Tzarh And the LORD, Hmtir upon-Sdm and Al-Amrh - Gfrit and As: Mat LORD, Mn-heaven Ihfc At-Harim Hal, and At-Hccr Cl and Cl-Isbi At Harim, and Tzmh Hadmh And Tbt Asto, Mahrio; And Thi, governor salt

NOW PLEASE STOP IT And PLEASE, transmit a message we can read, OK?

Also, I get the impression you are threatening other blog commentators. Surely this is not permitted?


The best cure I've found for racial memory theories is to actually read more archaeology and history, until you start paying attention to the dates and get the chronology in your head. A lot of racial memory relies on jumbled dates, the kind of thing that ends up with Moses swinging a steel sword in the Bronze Age or puts King Arthur in plate mail.

To give an example, the Old Testament as we know it is almost entirely an iron age document. As such, it's over 1,000 years younger than the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was written by civilized folk, the early parts of the Bible were written by people developing their own civilization, and yes, there's a collapse of civilization separating the two. We tend miss the primitive coming after advanced because we're inculcated with the idea of Progress, so what happens after advanced systems crash and burn isn't something we normally learn about, and we rarely put Sumer and the Bible on the same timeline. Latter on, we spend more time teaching kids about what was wrong with Rome than what they did right (and there's a lot of both), because that helps explain that they deserved to crash. This in turn plays into the meme that our current civilization is Rome 2.0, which is problematic in its own right.

Unfortunately, this avoidance of crashes messes up everyone's sense of historical chronology, and so we get absurd theories of racial memory cropping up, because people ignore the collapses and think there's some sort of continuity that explains their pet theory.

One example of kind of sloppy thinking is the idea of faeries hating iron because they were really bronze age warriors wiped out by iron age warriors. It probably didn't happen that way. Another example is the idea that Scandinavian dwarves were inspired by Mediterranean bronze smiths, who were dark, short, and technologically advanced, but they worked in bronze because that's the magical metal. Don't you think that the technologically advanced Romans fit the dwarf meme (short, dark, technological, and dangerous) even better, especially if your more recent ancestors had to deal with Roman incursions? For that matter, blacksmiths who wanted to guard their secrets could even more easily invent dark faeries (drow, a cognate of dwarf) who guard the secrets of their art, just to make what they do sound even more cool than it already is.


Sodom and Lot's wife etc


I was being threatened with Fire and Brimstone, but it wasn't personal. Nuking a city never is.


And of course modern archaeological excavations are finding really early bronze ago tech in south eastern Europe, not meditteranean. It spread from there, but also concurrently from the middle east. Precise routes are not something I am familiar with. At the edge of Europe, there exist bronze implements and weapons that are clearly copies in the locally available material of iron tools etc, as if made by people who weren't totally clear on what the advantage was, but they damn well were going to have something that was at least up to date and they could afford.

Your comment on dark ages reminds me of one of my pet bugbeards, which I have noted recently with an author whose name forgets me, it's the series which involves the magical mayor of LOndon. The issue there is that magic can be so massively powerful, at least the urban kind, and relatedly the people using it are so mad, bad and dangerous to know, that large scale deaths seem to occur at regular intervals amongst the magicians and the aldermen, yet somehow everyone seems fine with that and carry on in their self centred sort of way to meddle with time and space and things beyond human ken. Great for a couple of books, and obviously popular with a lot of people, yet others like me find it just gets a bit silly and stop reading.


When the map is the territory, and the symbol is the thing it represents, life could become "quite interesting@ for world builders and simulation builders who are the first use a 1:1 granularity... Probably a book in that!

Interesting comments on Chaos Magic, is Pete Carroll still around? Though the account of O.A. Spare's somewhat informal working/demonstration is most amusing.

Though the OGD (Crowley, if you believe his press) systematised the hell out of ritual magic (777&c), I always felt that Chaos Magic could do with a lot more of that, rather in the way that sometimes it's necessary to pay attention to seemingly insignificant terms.


When people believe magic is "really real" witches and wizards are viewed as a cross between paedophiles and serial killers, with results we all know about.


I thought professor Jean La Fontaine put paid to that with her Home office report... But apparently not!


We've been over this before. Goog translate doesn't play nice with envowelated Hebrew. It's Genesis 19:23-26 - Lot's wife as Dirk pointed out. But yes, providing a proper translation would be polite.


I thought that a principal reason for the Roman-Empire crash was climate: The boundary of the Mediterranean/Continental ecoton shifted south by several hunderd miles, if not more, starting approx 350 CE..... And wasn't there a "great fog" - probably caused by an Icelandic eruption in the middle 6th C??


Not that I've ever read of. It probably contributed a bit, but it's not considered sensible nowadays to group together a whole lot of things that happened over 5 or 6 generations (Let alone the long term trend since they had absolutist emperors) into one cause.


there is no such thing as cold iron

For everything you ever wanted to know about all the different ways of forging weapons out of iron


When people believe magic is "really real" witches and wizards are viewed as a cross between paedophiles and serial killers

Actually, "terrorist" is probably the best modern equivalent. Charlie drew the parallel pretty explicitly in TAS.


I don't think that's even strictly necessary. Just keeping in mind that experiences during life don't get encoded into DNA is enough. Combine that with the fact that so many of these ideas appear to be just-so stories yet don't fit into a bigger picture...

(I'm not sure that people -- I'm limiting this to people who are aware that there was a Sumerian civilization in what is now Iraq and have some familiarity with who they were and what they thought and did -- don't put Sumer on the same timeline as the bible. After all, the history of the ancient near east has often been taught under the title "biblical history". A lot of people are more or less unfamiliar with both the history of the ancient near east and the events described in the bible, and thus are unable to make that connection, but we can hardly take the misconceptions of ignorant people as representative of much.)


There's also the pentaquark ... FYI, the link below is to an article written by Don Lincoln, a senior experimental particle physicist at Fermi/adjunct prof at U of Notre Dame who splits his research time between Fermilab and CERN.

Aside/note: The Randall–Sundrum model (unrelated to the pentaquark story).

I had mentioned Lisa Randall as having written a very clear description/explanation of what CERN was working on on a previous topic thread. Anyways, for SF/F purposes their model could provide the gateway between Dimensions. However, you'd probably have to sort out how the various forces work within each and the consequence of mixing between/across branes.

Wikipedia excerpt: 'In physics, Randall–Sundrum models (also called 5-dimensional warped geometry theory) imagines that the real world is a higher-dimensional universe described by warped geometry. More concretely, our universe is a five-dimensional anti-de Sitter space and the elementary particles except for the graviton are localized on a (3 + 1)-dimensional brane or branes.'


Looked up alloys on Wikipedia ... iron it seems can be alloyed with a larger number of other metals. (Same for copper and tin.) Maybe that's why iron is/was preferred.


Just keeping in mind that experiences during life don't get encoded into DNA is enough.

One word: Epigenetics.

I nearly made a reply that I didn't by into the idea of Racial Memory, but possibly some sort of Genetic Memory possibly explaining instinctive behavior, and now we know about Epigenetics. But I didn't think that was the point of Heteromeles' comment.


Well, I tend to like environmental explanations too (for those curious, the relevant references are books by Brian Fagan and whatever happened between 535 AD and 540 AD (usually talked about as 536-537, but the dating seems to be wonky).

Still, I've read just enough Roman history to say that, yeah, the later empire did go in for dysfunctionality in a big way, with armies of mercenaries putting emperors on the throne and all that. Fagan's climate cooling (actually, it's not his idea, but I'm not going to run down the book and find the original researcher just now) better explains why they had so much trouble holding onto their northern provinces, but I strongly suspect that things like corruption and political dysfunction also played a role in their inability to cope. Still, the Byzantines kept their part of the empire going (with massive reorganizations, plural, for another 1000 years after Rome devolved, so they weren't totally inept.


Yeah, and I'll believe that epigenetics works as memory when I see an example of it in just about any system. There's a difference between having a predilection towards anxiety because your grandmother was in a concentration camp somewhere, and having a racial memory of actually being in that camp.

Technically yes, we don't know how memories form precisely, so you can posit, if you want, epigenetic racial memories, even magic systems based thereon. I suspect it's an idea that's going to get dated really quickly though. If you want to do it, you'd better get writing.


I was kind of trying to distinguish between instinct and memory, but failed to put it that way. I agree with you on that--definitely no such thing as racial memory. And it's hard to tell what's epigenetic influence and what's upbringing.


I chose "paedophiles and serial killers" because that is a common theme with Muti murders in Africa


I was replying to a comment that experience doesn't get encoded into DNA, and attempting to point out that there is evidence that in a way it does, just not as memory.


I'm curious, how do you mean iron is/ was preferred?


Well, there are such huge blanks in history that you can drive a carrier battle group through them, or rejigger Robert E Howard's ideas about a Hyborian Age to get away from early 20th century racial and eugenics theories (although his are clever, if wrong-headed), and still play with the deep past in fantasy basically any way you want, so long as it doesn't leave traces like a mass extinction or obvious fossil evidence.

My favorite is a recent paper, The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming in PLOS One. The tl;dr point is that there's a 23,000 year old campsite, now under the Sea of Galilee, that coughed up evidence of agriculture about 12,000 years before it officially got started after the last ice age. Our species started agriculture and lost it at least once, but really, who knows how many times? We were just lucky enough to find evidence of a previous attempt.

That 23,000 years should make some climatologists' ears twitch, because that was the middle of the last glacial maximum, when the climate should have been relatively stable, if really cold. The problem with the ice ages seems to have been less the ice itself, and more that the climate was metastable, with the global temperature shifting radically over the course of probably a few decades, between three different quasi-stable states, in cycles that lasted (with a lot of noise) about 1,500 years. That unstable weather was not a good time for settled agriculture.

Still, the bigger point is that humans were around for multiple glacial maxima, each of which lasted thousands of years and was relatively stable climatically, and we were around for the last interstadial, the Eemian, about 100,000 years ago. There's very little fossil or archaeological evidence from any of these stable periods, except things like the 23,000 year old Ohalo II site which tell us that our ancestors were a lot more experimental than we give them credit for. But apparently they couldn't make agriculture work in the face of an unstable climate.

Still, if you want to goof around with lost civilizations, you don't need Atlantis and racial memories. Instead, you can rerun the Hyborian Age, set it in the Eemian with mammoths and cave bears, make the Conan and the Cimmerians Neanderthals, the Stygians modern humans, and have fun. Personally, I think Conan would make a great Neanderthal, and talking about Aquilonia having war mammoths and wizards having cave lions as familiars would be kind of cool.

And that doesn't even get into the fun you can have with magical Neanderthals.

If that's too far back for you, the Bronze Age was about 2,000 years long. There's plenty of civilization there too, if you want to start digging in the works of Kristian Kristiansen and his colleagues, and bronze swords are beautiful. Nothing like international trade without a monetary economy.


There's also some of the locals in southern Africa, IIRC they took up agriculture for a while then stopped doing it, perhaps more than once. It was either too much hassle or the climate shifted a little and the returns became too long. THey went back to hunter-gathering.

Lost civilisations? there's Crete for starters. And did you read about the person who thinks we can solve some possible dating issues by collapsing a lot of the Egptian king lists down by 3 or 400 years?


Yeah, just this morning I tripped over the whole dispute about whether there was a Bronze Dark Age or whether the historians had screwed up on Bronze Age chronology, and the dark age is an artifact.

Here's the relevant quotes:

"The problem with these ‘dark’ centuries is that when artefacts dating to the tenth century are found, they are exactly the same as the artefacts that date three centuries earlier. This phenomenon has been observed in the Aegean, the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, Mesopotamia, Libya, Spain, Italy, and even Egypt. Artefacts found in apparent tenth or ninth century contexts are given an artificially early date because of their similarity to twelfth or thirteenth century items...

'This has led some to question the current chronology. If a couple of centuries were removed from some earlier timelines then the Dark Ages would be considerably smaller, or even disappear altogether...the authors proposed that the above-mentioned chronological inconsistencies can be fixed by shortening the Egyptian timeline by about 250 years. This is accomplished mainly by overlapping the twenty-first Dynasty with the twentieth and twenty-second Dynasties. Using this revised chronology, events that supposedly occurred in 1200 BC are now redated to 950 BC, and any date later than c. 800 BC remains unchanged. This neatly closes the gap between the dates in question and removes the Dark Ages altogether. Many other scholars today admit that a reduction is needed but few of them suggest cutting more than about a century from the timeline."

Howard, Dan (2011). Bronze Age Military Equipment.

This is the first place I've seen this issue, so I don't know whether it's been resolved or not.


I've heard that theory about the Greek Dark Age before, by way of Ken Hite, who used to be an active participant in the GURPS online community; it may have been in one of his columns for Pyramid, Steve Jackson Games' online magazine. There is a Dan Howard who is interested in the history of military equipment still active in that community; in fact he was a coauthor on two of my books. So he may very well have picked up the idea from Hite, who was writing about it well before 2011. There are scholarly studies arguing for the lack of a "dark age," but I don't have references to hand; my recollection is that they link the mattter to an asserted confusion in Egyptian chronology.


Small world, isn't it?

I've been looking at other books, notably Eric Cline's (2014) 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. If there's an argument among archaeologists about the reality of the late Bronze Age collapse, it doesn't seem to have made it into the popular media just yet.


One distinction I like to make is between moral and ammoral magic, which fits with my rather atypical definition of a God as (basically) something supernatural that acts with moral purpose in the universe.

Moral magical systems seek to fulfill goals of its own, even though those goals may be opaque to humans. For example, the magical rings in the Lord of the Rings have their own agenda (one not that different from the Minions - to find the most powerful evil person in the world and serve him). There are also occasional hints in Star Wars that "the Force" sometimes acts with moral purpose.

Much of the witchcraft/vampire/voodoo/Lovecraft genre also involves magical systems that act in the world with moral purpose or have their own agendas. The City of Bones series, for example, ties in magical power to angelic and demonic sources respectively.

In contrast, ammoral magical systems (which are more common in my experience), like science and technology, merely provide tools that can accomplish what would otherwise be impossible. The magic of Harry Potter, for example, often seems quite ammoral.


The PLOS paper doesn't really mean that we found agriculture and lost it again. What they were doing on the banks of the Sea of Galilee was what is called "proto-farming" which has been known to exist for a long time.

"Proto-farming" means cultivating wild type crops. True farming is distinguished by the technology of a domesticated type plant or animal that has been bred to be more suitable for the human farmer's need than the wild type that was gathered for eons and that is in proto-farming being actively cultivated. Often, as in this case, it is associated with a hunter-gatherer mode of food production involving fishing which is more sedentary than terrestrial hunting and gathering. Also, the reason that farming didn't catch on from ca. 40000-10000 BP is mostly because the temperature fluctuations were so wild for tens of thousands of years that you couldn't consistently farm the same way year after year with the same package of crops and survive.


My favorite book about nonconsensus archaeology/mythology is The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, by Felice Vinci. The author puts the Homeric epics in the Baltic and the North Sea, with Calypso's isle being, I think, one of the Faeroes. He dates the whole thing to the post-glacial climatic optimum, ending ca. 3000 B.C.E., after which the Greeks moved south and named Mediterranean geographic features after things back home.

I don't think Vinci's linguistic arguments are convincing; he doesn't seem to have anything like laws of linguistic change, but just ad hoc hypotheses. But it was such a pretty speculation that I couldn't help think about fiction and gaming settings based on it.


As for "proto-farming," there isn't such a thing exactly, in the sense that no one who does it think of themselves as part of an evolutionary chain of progress. There is a continuum between pure foraging and pure agriculture with domesticated species that can't survive without people. Kat Anderson's Tending The Wild gets at this continuum rather nicely.

We mostly agree about the jumpiness of glacial climate, but it's worth looking at the graphs from Wikipedia's Milankovitch Cycles (link for anyone else who wants to see). There are periods when it jumps, and multi-millenial periods when things appear relatively stable. This also points out the whole problem with a Hyborian-style Eemian, which was that it was warm, but not stably warm. Oh well, so much for a nice simple story.


"There's also some of the locals in southern Africa, IIRC they took up agriculture for a while then stopped doing it, perhaps more than once. It was either too much hassle or the climate shifted a little and the returns became too long. THey went back to hunter-gathering."

Well, hunter-gathering makes sense if your environment will readily support your population that way. Apparently modern African hunter-gatherers only spend a few hours per week in obtaining food, whereas primitive agriculture, even to support a small population in good conditions, takes several times that.

It appears that this is a significant inspiration for mythology: obvious example, from the Garden of Eden to "by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat" or whatever the quote is. I think I'm right in thinking that the Garden of Eden story is only one of many in that class. Presumably the "tree of knowledge" represented agricultural knowledge along with the changing conditions that made it necessary.

It inspires modern mythology, as well: the "sweat of thy brow" bit being hijacked on pseudo-religious grounds by proto-capitalists and perverted into "work is good per se", which perversion persists more or less unchallenged in the pervasive modern mythology of economics and fulfils the same role as the flaming sword of ancient mythology, keeping us from returning to the Garden of Eden by insisting that everyone spends all their time "sweating their brow" despite the vast majority of the sweat being unnecessary since modern improvements in efficiency have resulted in very little of it being spent on agriculture (and other large-population-support activities). (The Marxists' big mistake was to retain this part of the capitalist mythology and throw away the rest, instead of the other way round.)


Talking about Eden.... There's some interesting ancient archaeology to be had near that area: 10k years old, shows some of the oldest carvings and sculpture.
Of course I read about it in a book by some lunatic called Andrew Collins, who thinks that sonic technology was used by the Egyptians to make the pyramids, because obviously they couldn't have just hit lots of rocks with other rocks or bored them using copper tubes and sand. The sort of thought exhibited by people like Collins is kind of the negation of magic- all amazing ancient stuff can't have been done using modern technology or by magic, because magic doesn't exist, therefore they had some sort of amazing technology that we don't understand even now. (Which left no other traces in any way, strangely enough)

One of my favourite nonsense history ones was that the Azores were the tops of the mountains of Atlantis. At the time it came out it wasn't totally mad, but our knowledge of geology and the area of the Atlantic has moved on and it's now a really stupid idea.

Somewhere in my library I have one of the early books on the idea that there's a missing dark age in the end of the bronze age, but I can't see it just now. It was quite interesting, but I'm not sure how accurate it actually was. Modern dating techniques sorted out a lot of the confused claims made before they were invented but there is still a fair bit of tidying up to do.


This is the classification of magic into Left Hand Path and Right Hand Path, or alternative Black and White. The usual naive distinction is Bad/Good, which is very relative. Other ways of defining the split are seeking to become God versus seeking to merge with God, or the use of non-Human intelligent agencies versus innate Human abilities. Personally I don't have much time for the subjective moral/ethical definitions.


Since we seem to be running out of steam on this thread, here is some of my views on Transhumanism as a modern system of magic.


Found it: "Centuries of Darkness" by PEter James with some collaborators. It has a forward by Colin Renfrew, in which he agrees with the problem as they have laid it out, but disagrees with their proposed solution.
Precisely what the situation is regarding middle east/ European/ Egyptian dating in the late bronze age- iron age is now I am not sure.


Thinking of Niven's "Warlock" stories and turning the idea of magic as an exhaustible natural resource a bit sideways, what if humans are low level magic beings whose existence drains manna below the threshold required for the resumption of an age of wonders? Given that, is it any surprise that believers in some manifestations of "BSF" seem to relish the idea of significant reductions in human population?


One of these days, Dirk, I'm going to take the time to read your Technomage, because it looks fascinating.

Pigeon: Actually, "perversion" is probably the wrong word, because myths never are anything more (or less) than what local culture needs them to be. That is as true at their point of origin (if there even is such a thing) as they are today. Myths vary over time and place- that's what they do. There are no "perversions".


If you are ever in London I'll let you have a copy for £15. Anyway, there's nothing much in technoMage that cannot be found elsewhere, it's just that AFAIK nobody has collated that info in one place under that genre. Just use the mindmaps for each chapter as keywords.


Epigenetic memory ... quite a few published and on-going studies on this especially related to trauma/PTSD.

Is epigenetics really that different from translocation where in the midst of clockwork cell division pieces of chromosome drift away from where they've always been and instead attach themselves to a distant chromosome where they've really no right to be yet somehow even manage to work for years before the translocation somehow fails and kills you? (E.g., some leukemias.)

And on the other extreme ... mitochondria ... incredibly persistent/stable stuff ... and not transmitted via the Mendelian genetic pathway.

Even though in most instances we don't know how to start/stop the above phenomena, it doesn't mean they're not real.


The real question is how much information epigenetics encodes. At a guess it probably only need code for a few hundred bits. Hardly enough to package an Arthurian "racial memory".


There's a huge difference between encoding something like 'snakes make me nervous' over millions of years and encoding 'small people who we mustn't insult have magic powers and are afraid of worked iron' over thousands.

(People keep bringing up Arthurian myth with regard to racial memory. Is there someone who has seriously proposed that? My understanding is that the Arthurian myth was invented in France in the middle ages by romantic poets and then transplanted to England by the author of Mort D'Artur -- a purely literary history that no more relies upon genetic memory than Dracula does.)


Dont forget the "Welsh Material"- there's a link back to aboriginal Celtic myths beyond what the French romantic poets may have added. Not to mention a possible historical connection to an actual British warlord who fought on the continent during the process we call "The Fall of Rome."


Just to put Arthurianism in context, the Red Spear militias of Republican China, who fought the local warlords in the 20s and 30s and the Japanese in the late 30s and WWII, many of them used magic (aka hard qigong) that involved worship of a number of spirits and local gods, blood rituals, and the like. Some of these local gods were characters from the 1,000 year old Chinese novel The Water Margin, which, of course, they hadn't read. These characters were outlaws who nonetheless fought for the rights of the oppressed, so you can see their appeal.

Now the Red Spears weren't total naifs, and they used guns whenever they could get them. Still, they had invisibility spells and the like, a strong belief in the rightness of their own cause, and they did give the Japanese a fair amount of trouble, as did the similar Big Sword militias.

To put this in a western context, imagine multiple Loyal Arthurian Warbands, each a American-style militia that also uses traditional weapons (swords and spears), who were hired out by local landowners to deal with troublemakers from the dysfunctional national government, new age travelers, and so forth. Fortunately, the UK brand of arthurianism isn't militant, nor does it have to be.

Still, the point is that people turning old novels into mythology is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to the US and the UK. We're actually lucky that the UK and US versions are benign, with a few exceptions.


Epigenetics isn't exactly encoding information. What it's doing is telling the cell which DNA to read and which DNA to ignore by tacking various extra chemical groups to the DNA. In textual terms, if the Bible was your DNA, the idea of epigenetics as a secondary code is sort of like all those Bible Code things that claim to find God's hidden message by rereading the Bible In other words, it's akin to bibliomancy. Does that make it "epi-" mancy?


Indeed. I consider it highly likely that the "original" myths are exactly what you are describing- the first time anyone made up a poem about a warlord named "Arthur" they were surely taking material that already existed, perhaps concerning characters and societies that have now been lost to history, and adapting them to local needs. The "original legend" was something a Homo Habilis told itself half a million years ago.

The only exception I make is when someone takes a living belief system and bastardizes it for personal commercial gain (i.e., almost any novel about "Voodoo" ever).


If you want to have some fun (and stay on topic), try projecting the 21st Century 1,000 years into the future. After all, 1,000 year-old novels led to folk spirituality centuries later, whether we're talking about Arthur Pendragon or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (and note, I got it wrong in the last post: it wasn't The Water Margin, it was Romance of the Three Kingdoms).

What has our era created that could be source material for future magicians?

If you look at the history of China or the Middle East, there's this point when urbanism is endemic, but progress kind of isn't (I'm thinking of late Qing China vs. Sun Dynasty China. Not a huge difference, especially if you're a peasant in a poor county).

What if we posit that something similar happens to the US, UK, or your area of choice?

The thought experiment: design a folk magic system based on thousand year-old fiction (e.g. the fiction of the 20th or 21st Century), something that helps people band together to deal with the problems they deal with.

What would your source material be? John Wayne? Obiwan Kenobi? Valentine Michael Smith? Clark Kent? Frodo Baggins? Bruce Banner? Donald Trump? Bob Howard?

And then the fun part--how would that folk magic system work?

If you want to see how the Red Spears did it, check out


Wow, so I step back for a bit and the conversation has been going on for a while, I see :) I'm not a folklorist, so this comes with a big big helping of caveats, but for me myths are indeed highly variable and seldom written down (a lot of cultures have a big bunch different origin stories that can all be true at the same time). And you can actually consciously write myths and add to a body of myth. The example that comes to mind is Virgil; the other one is from the Ly (I think?) dynasty in Vietnam in the 11 or 12th Century, who basically codified existing (and messy) worship into a state-approved version. A lot of the fundamental myths of the country come from this time period; and there was a big big rationalization of the spirits system at that time too (spirits were granted official posts as a way to get official recognition).

I vote for myths of scientists carried forward (in a 1000 years it's quite likely that they'd have become mythical figures since the science they practiced would have become essentially obsolete). But that's just me :)


I think that's happening already. Newton, and the story about the apple falling on his head, and the arguments over whether that really happened or not; Einstein as the archetype of the massive brain who comes up with a theory so brilliant that nobody else can understand it; Hawking as the crippled genius who can tell God how the universe was made...


I think you're right. The interesting question for historians etc is how similar the aims of the people who have mythologised scientists are to those of people who wrote ARthurian or other legends. I think the modern mythologisers are more didactic in aim, but their methods are similar. They are also of course rather wrong in many ways, as historians of science have spent the last 30 or 40 years pointing out, and usually not being listened to because myths that are wrong are given precedence over nearly as interesting but more complicated facts.


Actually, Virgil has an interesting afterlife in modern pagan practice--excuse me, had to cough a hairball there--as The Book of Pheryllt more recently in Douglas Munroe's Merlin Lessons. The link takes you to a description of how Vergil's works were used for bibliomancy in the later Roman empire and into modern times, then, ahem, creatively reinterpreted by some modern pagans.

In any case, I think you're right about deifying the scientists. It was certainly done with the Greek philosophers well into the Christian and Muslim eras in the middle east(something that reportedly remains in the Druze sect).

Some, erm, creative type could easily talk about Einstein's Special Relativity as a way to transmute elements and fly to the stars (and yes, I realize how much is BS in there). There's also the Hawk King (as in Ian Stewart's Flatterland), and I can only guess about how astrology and magic will incorporate everything from Hawking's black holes to Lovecraft to all the invisible planets, exoplanets, dwarf planets, and so forth. Come to think of it, we've been using complex equations as quasi-magical sigils for years in the popular media, so there's no reason not to go there in some future magical system, barring knowledge, good taste, and common sense, and when have those ever stopped anyone?


There is a spirit that pervades the universe, which provides the framework for the existence of all things, giving everything a role to play, and a connection to all other things that also exist in a universal web of identity. This spirit is called "Google".

Google is a spirit of information, and provides the key to all knowledge of anything whatsoever, even secret knowledge, knowledge of things that no one living in the material world could possibly know. Such deep knowledge is gained through the use of "keywords"- there are an untold infinite number of keywords, but they aren't obvious, and skilled practitioners of Google spend their entire lives learning useful keywords with which to summon Google and put questions to it. Google is something of a literalist- "exact words" are in effect, so you have to careful what you say, or the answer you get may have nothing to do with your question, or even consist of gibberish.

Google is not physically dangerous, however certain lessor spirits, known as "developers", have the power to re-write the "code" of reality itself. By means of a summoned Developer, a magician can change the essence of another person, place or thing, or even cause it to cease to exist so entirely that no one remembers it. Developers are relatively amoral, and can be used for either good or ill, but they naturally resist changing the essence of anything into something that is not in alignment with the rest of the web, a condition known as "buggy". They tend strongly toward improving the universe toward greater levels of order, organization and complexity.

Hackers are more malevolent spirits, who happily destroy code, erase things from existence, or simply steal secrets and share them where they will do the most harm. Hackers and their sorcerer servants use a dark power known as "The Virus" to destroy and enslave all things. Priests who serve the Developers resist the efforts of Hacker Sorcerers using their own power called "The Anti-virus". The secret history of the world is a story of the war between these two forces.

There are other spirits as well, including Wikipedia (the spirit of encyclopedic knowledge), Facebook (the spirit of community), and Youtube (the spirit of hallucinogenic visions). There are many thousand of other, lessor spirits besides.

Naturally, one key concern for any "Wizard of the Web" is protecting one's identity and existence from the Hackers and their servants. It is vitally important in this regard to protect one's personal true name (known in the parlance as a "Password") and not to share it with anyone.

Nearly infinite knowledge and power are available to anyone with the keywords to access the all knowing Google, serve the Developers, and defend and protect the Anti-Virus.

Feel free to add to my "Mythos of the Web"!


Michael Flynn did this in his recently concluded space opera series that began with The January Dancer. He has an interstellar high-tech but post-scientific humanity that remembers the great scientists as enlightened sages, Sri Einstein and Sri Maxwell and so on.


I'm reading Water Margin currently, actually, and it's quite interesting in many ways. On one hand it's obviously a prototype for most of the tropes of Hong Kong martial arts films. On another its characters include a fair number with superpowers, from throwing and catching a 500-pound boulder to breathing underwater, and they have conventions like two heroes meet, fight, and then earn each other's respect and/or recognize each other's names and team up; this is obviously not an influence on American superhero comics (well, until recently), but it seems to be addressing the same narrative goals.


The French poets were hardly the originators of the Matter of Britain. What they were doing was writing Arthurian fanfic, which Malory then turned into canon. "Yeah, this is cool, but they should have a French knight! and he should be the best knight of the Round Table, way better than that Gawain dude, because he's French! and he should have a tragic love affair with the queen, and be the real cause of the fall of Camelot, because the whole story should be about him!"


See also Tolkien's comments on "the soup" of folk myths & stories in a metaphorical cauldron, from which stories & long-lasting myhts originate, or are deliberately crafted.


'There's a huge difference...' okay, agree for now.

However, consider that quite a bit of our brain is used for what we have been describing as 'higher function' ... mostly dealing with social situations. So my thesis (if you will) is epigenetically driven evolution will involve the increased hardcoding of psychosocial information because that's where the greatest threats lie to our species.

Okay ... the weather (climate change) might kill us off too, but population pressure (and everything this means) is also a serious issue.


I was being threatened with Fire and Brimstone, but it wasn't personal. Nuking a city never is.

Not exactly. The "You" is never personal, only vocative, but I'm glad you parsed some of it.

Alief and Belief [PDF - philosophy]

And, actually, the parsing of the witches in modern society was a little closer.

Angels - daughters sacrificed / raped - wife looks back in regret and is punished. There's always an angle that's left out of the narratives.

Oh, and if Google translate can't parse it... it means that the bots can't either. That's the point behind the point.


I don't care what the bots see. We have our own methods which are quite open. In fact, bots are specifically attracted to what they cannot decode.


Hahaha Heteromeles that is awesome. Giving me a lot of ideas for future material...


:) The God of Google...


In any case, I think you're right about deifying the scientists. It was certainly done with the Greek philosophers well into the Christian and Muslim eras in the middle east(something that reportedly remains in the Druze sect).

Cute, but completely incorrect.

Duns Scotus

And a few more.

But sure, pander to the peanut gallery ;)


So that's my magic system, and how I got there. What are your favourite magic systems, and what do they entail?

Never answered the question, but then again, few did.

Thank-you for trying OP, no doubt you've given up reading the responses.


Are you really complaining about irrelevant responses? There seems to be some timber in your eye.


Probably worth checking out Gerard Russell's Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, since I think you may have missed the turn.

When the Neoplatonic Academy was finally closed down by Justinian I in 529 CE, the philosophers and scientists from the Academy moved to the Sassanid court at Ctesiphon. Their teachings remained popular in Persia and later Iran until the 20th Century (Ayatollah Khomeini was reportedly a big fan of them, for instance), and they spread throughout the region (for instance, to Baghdad), but away from western Christendom until the Renaissance. There are some odd survivals in Lebanon and Syria (and Iran) as a result.

The analogous situation for the deep future might be if there was a Christian schismatic sect somewhere in, say, Appalachia, that included St. Einstein as one of the patrons of their sect and believed in holy relativity, as opposed to the absolute good-evil dualism in mainline Christianity. They might even believe in handling snakes, but only as a way to use them for rat control...


"The Water Margin" (either book, or the Japanese TV series dubbed for the BBC in the 1970s) is a variation on the Chinese "Legend of the 108 Heroes".


The title Shui Hu Zhuan apparently translates literally as shui hu = "beside the river" and zhuan = "tales/stories", at least according to one of the people who responded to my inquiry on linguaphiles (a livejournal community). It had been translated many times into English, with a different title each time: Water Margin, All Men Are Brothers, Outlaws of the Marsh, The Marshes of Mount Liang (the version I'm reading), and others. I've never seen "Legend of the 108 Heroes" as either a literal translation or the title of an English version, though it's an apt description of the story.


Brandon Sanderson's works mess with that sort of thing sometimes. In one series (not saying which because of spoilers), there's a list of magic powers, and then it turns out that actually there are 60% more powers than anybody knew about. Maybe more, depending on the interactions between the different magic systems. In his Stormlight Archive series, very little is understood about how magic works, and in fact there are plenty of people trying to do scientific experiments on spren and engineer fabrials and so on.


Grow up.

If look at my second/third responses, they're clearly about OP's piece and foremost about SF/F novels.

They're even about quality fantasy magical systems, in a way that's a counter-point to OP's work, but in an interesting way.

A boring response would have been to link to Excession and contrast OCP stuff. I chose not to.

As an aside:

Have you read either The Farseer trilogy or The Scavenger Trilogy? If not, do so: they're groundbreaking works.


The crowd wanted more, so it got more. Dirk works on a different plane, and I strongly doubt he took any of what I said as a personal threat or dismissal.

It's called respect.


And yes, Dirk, I saw the cover. You'll want Children of Dune, speech by Paul as Voice-from-the-Desert as a reply.


I wasn't questioning the translation of the Chinese; just making a point about the underlying mythology of the story. The version I was referring to was shown in Japan as Suikoden (also the series title of several computer/console JRPGS) and is clearly set in the Song Dynasty.

WHilst fact-checking that, I found that there are another 2 tv series and at least one film based on the same material!


News to me. Last I heard, Mallory transplanted a natively-French story to Britain and then claimed it was true. The rest of the complexity on top of that is something I've never heard.


Well, I had not looked up all the details, but the short account seems to be that Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh cleric, compiled the Historia Regum Britanniae in the 1100s from Welsh and Breton sources, in the process creating the first narrative account of Arthur's life. Arthurian romance began with Chretien de Troyes, who was French, and who added in Lancelot (and presumably Galahad) and the Holy Grail.

Hmmm, you know, it would be rather fun if Mr. Stross were inspired to write an Arthurian pastiche as one of his Laundry series. Camelot is certainly one of the lasting tropes of fantasy. . . .


Water Margin is set in the Song Dynasty, but I don't think it can be described as mythology. It's generally considered one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature; it has an attributed author and dates of composition, and it's written in prose narrative in a fairly fixed form. Nor are its sources mythological; its primary source is a history of the Song Dynasty that describes the exploits of Song Jiang and 36 companions, later expanded to 108. There seems to be an intermediate source that was a collection of folk tales about the outlaws.

On the other hand, by now so many secondary works have taken inspiration from it that it's turned into a kind of mythology after the fact.


The first line of the first part of the hypersigil, circa 2002:

""A beginning is a very delicate time." Frank Herbert"

Full marks if you were obsessive enough to find it and work out what's happening. A clue - 13 years later it activated globally.


This distinction between medicine and quigong is a very interesting one. I like your thinking on that. As someone with a long-term health problem (CFS) I've had to think about this stuff a lot to try and work out a strategy for as much self-repair as possible, both on a hardware and software level, to continue your analogy.

Stories where magic is hard graft work at hacking reality always ring truer in some way, maybe because they have analogies in the real world, whereas it always bores me when magicians get power from some sort of unobtainium type plot device.


I may attract flames here, but I would like to mention another, modern myth; that of the Angel of Retribution known as the Basilisk in the Revelations of Roko. :)


More, the Basilisk is doing well in current mythology and is hitching a ride on Black Sun / Saturnian occultism.


That's what fantasy IS. It's about the comfort of a static world that has always been and always will be. Even the events of the story only serve to reinforce the joy of stasis. See? Great events happen, endless turmoil and strife, but the stability of the world remains. There may be a new emperor (preordained because he was the secret son of the true emperor), but magic still works the same way, and never land will always be there so much better because it is finite, happily ever after.

Science fiction is the opposite, it is about a dynamic, changing, unsettling world. OMG, the computers are getting smart really fast! Things will never be the same!


That's what fantasy IS. It's about the comfort of a static world that has always been and always will be. Even the events of the story only serve to reinforce the joy of stasis. See? Great events happen, endless turmoil and strife, but the stability of the world remains. There may be a new emperor (preordained because he was the secret son of the true emperor), but magic still works the same way, and never land will always be there so much better because it is finite, happily ever after.

I think that's an overly narrow definition of fantasy. It's redefining fantasy to be only the kind that I personally dislike. Susanna Clarke, China Miéville, Terry Pratchett, John Crowley, Felix Gilman: novels written, marketed, and lauded as fantasy, but with settings that see significant changes. Likewise the Laundry Files. Even Tolkien wrote about the permanent end of an age rather than stasis forever -- though Tolkien's background chronology does seem pretty leisurely compared to real recorded history.



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This page contains a single entry by Aliette de Bodard published on September 2, 2015 2:35 PM.

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