Back to: Introducing new guest blogger: V.E. Schwab | Forward to: Burnout, creativity, and the tyranny of production schedules

The Rules of Magic

People often ask me if I like writing fantasy for the freedom.

"What freedom?" I ask.

"The freedom," they say, "to do whatever you want."

At this point I either laugh or cry or pour myself a drink, because the presence of magic is not a carte blanche, a sudden permission to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a book. People who take it as such usually write sloppy stories. They might have a vivid imagination, but writing fantasy requires the mind of a technician as much as an artist.

That's because good fantasy, like all frameworks, requires RULES.

Everywhere you look, there are rules.

Everywhere you don't look, there are more.

Sometimes those rules are simple, and sometimes they are complex (and sometimes, imho, they are needless convoluted), but they are almost always there, and I'd wager, in most good books, they might not be on the page, but they're buried, in the foundation, creating a degree of cohesion you might not see, but will certainly feel. Worse though, is when you DON'T feel it. When the elements on the page feel random, or the appearance of a rule turns out to be nothing but that, an appearance, something set up only to be disrupted at the first issue of convenience (this is by far my largest pet peeve as a reader, when the rules become porous, dissolving and reforming as needed to suit the writer's whims).

My Shades of Magic series includes not one, but four parallel worlds, each with a different relationship to magic.

In Grey London, magic was forgotten.
In Red, it thrives.
In White, it's abused.
In Black, it killed.

In Red London, the relationship between man and magic is one of reverence, respect. They worship magic as a god, mind the checks and balances, do not take without giving back. They are stewards.

In White London, a fear of magic dominating man has led to the inverse, a situation in which man endeavors to dominate magic (and consequently precipitates his own destruction).

Breaking the systems down past context into base fibers, magic in my worlds is two parts nature, one part god. It abides the rules of the natural world, but is the common element in everything.

Rooting the nature of magic in, well, NATURE, means creating a fantastical system that in most ways adheres to a realistic one. Cycles of life, growth, power, action and consequence, energy neither created nor destroyed, the aspects of magic mirror those of the natural world at its most basic.

The goal is to make the rules flush with the surface of the world, and in so doing, to make it intuitive, believable. Every step we take away from reality requires a leap of faith on the part of the reader, and the fewer steps necessary, the less likely that one will trip, stumble, fall. Or worse, begin to disbelieve.

And that is the great risk of going off-book, of indulging in a system of whimsy, a place where anything is possible without reason or repercussion--the more you ask the reader to believe, the less they often will.

The converse tendency is to prove oneself and the sturdiness of one's world by putting it ALL on the page, in maddening detail, which can be just as problematic--sure, you've made a cohesive world, but if your rules distract from the actual story, few people are going to give a damn about the thoroughness of your systems.

When in doubt, I find it best to remember that the fundamental laws that govern a world are at their core simple, intuitive, and elegant. By applying those traits to any world, no matter how superficially fanciful, you ensure that most readers recognize the terms, and are game for the ride.



I heartily concur.

People will say that I'm being silly when I complain about some aspect of a comic book sort of story being unrealistic. "You're fine with impossible science and magic but this little detail throws you for a loop?" Yes.

If you are putting a CGI critter in a film, the eye can recognize what seems unnatural. If the feet seem to slide across the ground when it walks, if the lighting on the model doesn't match the scene, reflections don't show up where they should. Of course the monster isn't real, not even in the sense of a practical puppet, but all those details will make us believe it. The balrog in Lord of the Rings wasn't a special effect, it was a bloody damn balrog, run!!! Completely convincing.

Magic is the most egregious example because it's entirely invented by the author. Fantastic technologies are magic by another name, same risks involved. But many writers will get the mundane details wrong, too. The emotions of the characters don't feel real, regardless of whether the story is an office romance in the real world or a romance among the star kingdoms.

The thing I've noticed is that verisimilitude is not something most audiences look for. We'll smile and nod at the gun enthusiast who says he was taken out of the book because an M1911 ACP 45 was written with too many bullets in the magazine but few people seem to care when the criticism is the magic system seems wildly inconsistent. Stories that are narratively incoherent or completely break their own rules nevertheless seem to be quite popular. If I complain a villain's motivation makes no sense I get the same patronizing smile and nod as the gun enthusiast.


I fully agree, but the only real distinction is a matter of degree - i.e. more freedom means that you need more analysis of possibilities and more self-discipline. I find sloppiness here equally irritating in detective fiction, where there is often an obvious key question that is ignored because it would solve it too early, or too many critical deductions are just lucky guesses (because there are several other, equally likely, ones).

In addition to plain inconsistency, the aspects that grate most with me in SF and fantasy are (in reaction to some contorted plot) "Well, if you can do THAT, you could equally just do THIS (something much simpler)" and ignoring the 'pollution' or socially harmful aspects of a technique. And, obviously, they are irritating in direct proportion to their importance to the plot (e.g. Tolkein's ridiculous dwarf society can largely be ignored). I am not underestimating the difficulty of avoiding such traps!

Anyway, I have ordered A Darker Shade Of Magic, like other people here :-)


Completely agreed. I've recently been trying to get into the Riftwar Saga (three of them at least are very good). I nearly threw the last book out for how many super convinient, out-of-nowhere magic abilities were introduced. It would be fine if as more was revealed there was a sense of underlying rules being revealed but it's quite the opposite.

In your magic system how do you balance the one part God? It seems like that would be a dangerous avenue by which random fears of magic could be accomplished outside of the rules. Unless this is a very rule concerned deity.


Interestingly, for me (I'm not Christian) the presence of "God" in my books follows a much more Eastern philosophy, the notion that godliness/the divine is in all things. So when I talk about one part God, I'm actually referring to magic as a constant, something that is threaded through every element, every life, every incarnate material.


I think, logically, yes, more freedom means more analysis, and more self-discipline, IF the writer takes the time to take advantage of the potential without abusing it. Fantasy CAN be an incredible platform for the imagination, as long as it's also a platform for the problem solver. I find myself appreciating more and more those authors who push themselves to be thorough, even if a reader might not.


And I become the 6th person to say "I agree completely"; Yes you have a freedom to write the rules unparalleled in other forms (except possibly Space Opera) but you must not cheat them and hence the reader once you have written them.


Yes, but people don't have to necessarily read it (or write it) as a puzzle. I am extreme as a problem solver, but I am quite happy with other approaches, as long as my ability doesn't make the main themes of the story unwind. And I think that's the same with most readers.


The Riftwar Saga is perfect at a certain age. I adored the books when I first encountered them as a teenager. They were the distilled essence of good D&D as inspired by Tolkein but not the hacky mess most D&D books turned out to be. The Weiss and Hickman books, though the fans adored them, really weren't that well-written.

I reread them in college and I could see the seams and zippers a bit easier. Still enjoyable but it felt more like YA. I would certainly hand them to any teenager I know.

The later books where he revisted the setting ended up feeling like late Herbert cash-ins, almost like Herbert Jr. and Kevin J. Anderson level.


"When in doubt, I find it best to remember that the fundamental laws that govern a world are at their core simple, intuitive, and elegant."

Perhaps that depends on which rules you are speaking of? Certainly for the reader it is easier if they are. However, the physics underlying this reality are none of those things. I am thinking of quantum mechanics and all of its oddities. Such attributes as entanglement, probabilistic outcomes and observational uncertainty among others. :-)


You don't want your premise to have holes. When Highlander was dreamed up I'm sure the process when something like "Visual of guys in modern clothes sword-fighting in a city. It's anachronistic but cool. Trenchcoat and sword." And then they tried to backfill a premise to explain the visual. Which is perfectly fine if you also bother to cover obvious details. You need a sword to cut off the head to take the power. Fair enough in ancient times. But these days why not just carry a heavy caliber pistol and a sharp knife? Blow holes in the immortal's chest, when he's down you remove the head.

Or like Blade Runner. The whole premise is you need to question what is human so the replicants have to pass in every physical way. But hell, why not give replicants a tattoo? Why not give them a DNA marker that can be easily checked with a hand scanner? You could write around that by making the escapees military black ops models that avoided all of those obvious safeguards because they're meant to pass for 100% human when they infiltrate and kill. But they didn't do that.

Compare to the "why didn't they take eagles to mordor" question and that one is solved. The eagles only flew in after Sauron died. If they tried to fly in directly before then carrying the hobbits Sauron would have felt the ring and dispatched nazgul on fell beasts to bring them down. The established story facts answer the question neatly.


Okay, okay, I'll be the obligatory contrarian and throw the stink bomb.

Before we go any further with this "I heartily concur" (aka the school of writing fantasy as Magitech), let's do a little exercise, shall we?

What are the rules of magic in:

--The Lord of the Rings

--The Harry Potter Series


(and for bonus points, A Song of Ice and Fire)

I think we can argue the counter-point that series with sloppy, ad hoc rules can sell even better than strongly rule-bound stories, and that the idea that magic needs rules is confined to a specific theory about how to write fantasy, and that it doesn't apply for all of fantasy, all of best-selling fantasy, or even all well-written fantasy.

Still, the best way to disprove the above thesis is to codify the magic in at least these three, if not four, series. Who's up first?

*Okay, for a freebie, Discworld magic in the early novels is bound by the Law of Conservation of Reality, while in the later novels, it follows the Law of Narrative Causality. Do either of these laws fully apply throughout the series?


This is where I hold the belief that what we do is FOR the reader. I have never been really taken with projects that invite only a certain narrow subset at the cost of a broader audience, not in fiction. But that's a personal belief. Of course there are highly complex laws of science, but I'm talking fantasy, not science fiction, and if you're building a magical system from the ground up, starting with simple blocks for your *foundation* is key.


I'm fond of 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, Gandalf, sure, his magic is pretty vague, but how often does he solve Frodo's problems with it?


You're more than welcome to throw a stink bomb in here. I don't think it's impossible to ENJOY a series with a flawed system. But I do think cohesion is always a strength, never a weakness. And in the massively popular cases where the world-building is superficial, if not downright sloppy, what the author has usually managed is a SENSE of cohesion, a patina of elegance.


Oh, I like that wording a LOT.


OK. I'll bite.

I gave up on Rowling after skimming a couple of books, because they were SUCH bad pastiches - and even the originals were dire. Apparently she improved later.

Tolkein was pretty sloppy, but he mainly stuck to his key axiom - the white magicians were there to support elves and mortals, and not to invoke their full powers (except, rarely, against forces the latter could not hope to handle), and the latter-day elf magic was fairly limited. The deus ex machina in Mordor was the main breach of that, followed by the Ford of Rivendell.

Pratchett. Magic was there to cause confusion, for a handle on the humour, and its inconsistency was part of its rules.

Martin, God alone knows. I am not a great fan of that series, on this and several other grounds, though have read all of it.

In all of the last three cases, very little of the central story and details depends on the rules of the magic, and they didn't raise either of the issues I mentioned in #2, except as said above.


Cracking post! Have added this is the useful links folder for the fantasy writers on the Creative Writing MA @ Edinburgh Napier University. [We had some hardcore Schwab fans last cohort, so am getting the current students hooked too.]


One of my main complaints with fantasy in general is that most fantasies are backward looking. The 'deep' or 'sacred' knowledge is locked up in the past and everyone in the here-and-now is playing at being an amateur 'magic' archaeologist. There's rarely any discovery of new knowledge and the 'aha!' moments are about rediscovery. The preocupation with the past also means that this genre can get locked into a dogma fight with authors being forced to follow 'rules' established or hinted at by the previous generation of fantasy authors.

(Okay - some of the fun of reading fantasy is seeing how well the author navigates this challenge.)


Um, for a counter example, I'd suggest Lyndon Hardy's foray into fantasy writing. They're about as rule-bound as you can get with magic, and he's a great example of a trilogy and done author. I suspect that if we dig, we can come up with quite a few other series of rules-bound magic that didn't stay in print very long. I just remember enjoying Hardy's books as a kid, and having reread one of them as an adult and cringed.

I'd also point out that there's "real" magic out in the world (Golden Dawn, for example, or Bonewit's Real Magic), but we don't see uniformly excellent novels based on these systems. Indeed, fantasy runs from this stuff, and most authors pride themselves on creating highly and deliberately artificial systems, rather than dealing with "reality," probably because occult novels don't sell well as fantasy (they do better in other genres, like horror).


Not all fantasy includes magic, of course, and there are exceptions, but I agree that meme is used tediously often. Few authors seem to design the development of magic backwards, which to me is the obvious way. Doing it forwards, and keeping it consistent, is a MUCH harder task.


What are the rules of magic in:

--The Lord of the Rings

Kept vague but also out of the hands of mortals. Elven magic isn't gone into in great detail, Gandalf was forbidden from doing a lot of showy stuff since he was to guide, not lead. It worked in this setting because the rest of the worldbuilding was self-consistent.

--The Harry Potter Series

Never really explained and I thought the series went off the rails after book 3. Fell victim to the Star Trek disease, i.e. never thinking about the implications of a technology/magic. The time-turner could upend the entire universe and it's just used as a means of cramming for exams. I felt Potter had about as much agency as a head of cabbage and did nothing to earn his success.


Played for laughs along with everything else in the series.

(and for bonus points, A Song of Ice and Fire)

Unexplained, likely to the detriment of the story. Because the author didn't think it through, he also didn't think through where the story is heading leading to having to throw out half a novel for rewrites, skip a planned time jump and add a lot of details most fans consider a plodding chore to read, etc. GRRM is on record with many of the thing he would have done differently in the story in retrospect.

I'm not saying things have to operate strictly on a magictech basis, I'm not going all Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I can appreciate things that are unexplained or are beyond our ability to grasp. I just think that a lot of the time the writers don't think things through and it hurts the story.


Googled 'fantasy without magic' and came up blank. Apart from re-tellings of religions, sorta-medieval-histories-without-any-connection-to-reality, and Christie's Mysterious Mr. Quinn, can't recall anything. Please provide an example or two.


Harry Potter ... when I read this series I didn't expect the author to provide any technical explanations of magic because the premise was to show the world from the main character's point of view ages 10 through 17 ... coming of age story. So, while in magic middle/ high school Harry did learn how to call up and use some magic, this was too early in his 'magic education' for him to study the esoteric high-fallutin' underpinnings of magic. (Do schools teach quantum mechanics as part of high school chemistry or high school physics?) The magic was background - like family status in mainstream fiction - to this character's development.


Marie Brennan's Memoirs of Lady Trent.

Definitely fantasy—has dragons!—but the dragons are integrated into various ecosystems; they are part of the world's fauna. Otherwise a parallel-Victorian age, the narrator being modelled on various Victorian/Edwardian lady explorers/natural historians. No magic that I noticed.


Yes. Plus quite a lot of Poe, Ashton Smith, Dunsany, Zelazny, Kipling (Puck of Pook's Hill etc.), some Buchan, a huge proportion of horror (many of the gothic novels, Blackwood etc.), and more. To name just the ones that spring to my mind. Yes, the worlds may be magical (essentially the definition of fantasy), but magic is not a technology in them.


Most of the modern "real magic" of it is a bunch of tedious, self-aggrandising nutters, and not suitable for fiction. I haven't read Bonewit. This does remind me, though. A lot of early travellers reported observing phenomena like animal calling (van der Post, Grimble (Pattern of Islands)), lightning calling (I can't now remember), death curses, etc. as part of factual reminiscence, and (if I recall correctly) some of those are regarded as serious observational scientists. I don't know if anyone has collated those reports. Um.


Hmm ... seems my definition of 'fantasy' needs a re-write to include Poe, Zelazny, gothic horror - which I've already read. The Tolkien influence?


Interestingly, I recently read "Sorcerer to the Crown" by Zen Cho, which has a cover blurb from somebody called Charles Stross, whoever he is.

It is well written and entertaining, sometimes too well written, insofar as the author appears word perfect in mimicking regency era speech and social mores a la Jane Austen, and a bit better than Heyer.

Anyway, as you can tell by the title, the story has magic within it, but the actual structure and mechanism and method of using it is not really gone into at all. Sure, there are hints about spells having structure, and the need for chants, but unlike Rowling, they are never explicitly given. Yes, okay, to be a sorcerer you need a fairy familiar which can channel more magic to you, but precisely why that is necessary isn't explicitly explained, except insofar as it turns out during the book that magic comes from fairyland which has a border within england across which magic comes. And magic is a sort of energy which can be used up.

It's impressive writing such a book and story without really stopping to explain how and why such magic works.


here's a list of Bonewits' magical laws, and it should all look at least vaguely familiar. The only work that explicitly uses some of these laws is Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series, but I don't think he was riffing on Bonewits either.

Golden Dawn ideas strongly inform Wicca and certainly percolate up any time someone's playing with ritual magic. They're worth reading a bit on for the same reason that reading LOTR gives people a good grounding in what modern fantasy is both about and in reaction too.

As a total aside, it's also worth seeing what Bonewits had to say about analyzing the risks of cultus, which is also in Real Magic. The guy wasn't totally nuts.


There are different levels of rules: rules of magic similar to natural laws, rules about the access to magic (e.g. training vs. genes) and social rules about the use of magic, and also rules which are not related to magic at all: class rules, traditions, common law).

I don't know* if anyone before Robert Jordan ever bothered about the first kind (but that's what you get when a physicist writes fantasy). The works you cited appear to have more of the other kind of rules. Harry Potter is basically a boarding school adventure, and boarding schools come with lots of built-in rules. Terry Pratchett has more rules for witch magic (headology and borrowing) and he has a sophisticated theological system (cf. Small Gods, Hogfather). IIRC The Song of Ice and Fire contains only traces of magic anyway - probably because there is a lack of templates in Tudor England.

* probably because I've read no fantasy from that time.


Check out the Lord Darcy stories from Randall Garrett from #29. Their premise is that magic was codified with laws, being a natural (probably psychic) phenomenon. In this world, science is the realm of cranks.

The other common place for this is when someone gins up some combination of ley lines, chi, and/or feng to explain the power behind magic. Probably if someone was sufficiently diligent, they could trace this back to Needham's old works, just as the laws of magic Garrett uses came straight out of the Golden Bough (and so did Bonewits' laws).


Hmm. A rather catch-all collection, biassed towards European tradition, and not very applicable to the forms of magic to I was referring.


You might want to check again, because I suspect that people like Grimble wouldn't really agree with you.


No, he wouldn't, and that is one reason that I regard such reminiscences as fairly reliable. But what he reports in A Pattern Of Islands, pp 172-176, is unexplained in terms of modern science, and can fairly be categorised as 'magic'.


The gothic novels to which I referred date from the 18th and 19th centuries.


Rules of magic in Tolkien:

All the magic we see is inherent in its wielder due to "species". Artifacts of magical power are effective because they carry some of the inherently magical essence of their maker.

The Valar and Maiar (being the creations of Tolkien's One True God) have incredible powers which are meant to be beyond mortal ken, and thus beyond ours. Elves have minor and largely mysterious magics beyond their immortality; humans have nothing. There are, however, some humans (like Aragorn) who carry not just Elven but Maiar blood, and they have some minor magical ability (thus Aragorn's healing hands)*. All these seem to be natural capabilities, not special skills which need to be learned. Even Hobbits, it's implied, have a supernatural ability to conceal themselves (beyond the property of just being very small). The Valar and Maiar, and maybe to a much lesser extent the Elves, have an ability to weave spells, and some study may be required for this, but ultimately the spells work because of the weaver, not the weaving. I doubt a human could bake lembas bread if he were given the recipe. I can't recall if anyone in LOTR prays to the Valar, but they do in the Silmarillion, and sometimes get an answer; by the time of the trilogy, they have become reluctant to intervene directly.

*Fly in the ointment: Beorn and his skin-changing kin. Possible fanwank solution: Maiar heritage?

Rules of magic in Martin:

There are magical abilities which seem to be passed by lineage - the ability to warg into other living beings, prophetic visions, and the ability to master dragons. Having the right heritage isn't a guarantee of getting the power, and the ability to master dragons seems pretty fickle.

There are some magical and possibly magical creatures: most obviously, dragons, who are "fire made flesh" and I believe Martin has specifically said that dragons were a product of magic rather than just a creature with properties we would consider magical. The Children of the Forest might be magical in the same way as Tolkien's Elves, or they might just be a different human-ish species with no inherent magic ... but it seems likely that warging and the greensight both entered the blood of the First Men through intermarriage. (Valyrian characters have also displayed natural prophetic abilities; they may come from different sources.) Giants are probably just a subspecies of big people. The Others are too little understood to say for certain what they are or what exactly they can do.

Magic is "doable" for normal humans in a way that it isn't in Tolkien. There are spells and rituals which can be learned and used for supernatural effect, often involving some kind of "trade" or the use of blood or sex. Some magic users explicitly tie their abilities to the worship of a divine being. Martin has said that he will not reveal whether the gods are "real" as such in the books or if the magic just works because it does (I find this a little annoying); either way, unlike in Tolkien, it seems that the World of Ice and Fire has a more accessible "ruleset", even if none of the POV characters are really aware of it, than the World of Middle Earth.


Another fly in the ointment: the Nazgul were once human, and although the One Ring "rules them all," it's not clear that Sauron crafted their rings. They seem to have been human sorcerers. There's also, in the Hobbit, a fair amount of dwarvish magic (moon runes, the magic keyhole, and so forth), although the dwarves were created beings as well.


You're right about the dwarves; I was trying to keep my comment brief (and failed). I also considered the Nazgul, but:

1) it's not clear to me that they wielded magical ability prior to becoming ringbearers (and I always assumed that their rings were made by Sauron - even if it's not explicitly said that he did, is there anything suggesting they made them themselves?). Was the Witch-King of Angmar called that before he got a ring? If so then it requires explanation, but wait, I have one right here:

2) I think it's reasonable to assume that the Nazgul, like Aragorn, have Elven and Maiar blood, since I would assume they were also descended from noble Numenorean stock.


If I recall, both are explained elsewhere, probably in the Silmarillion. Yes, the Nazgul were Numenorean, and the rings were created by Sauron (though not stated in so many words). And the moon runes etc. were stated to be Elvish magic (Feanor?).


Before they leave Rivendell, you can hear Arwen and Aragorn saying their rosaries, basically.

I feel like the elves made all the rings except the One. Sauron either stole the rings and gave them to men, or captured the men who had been gifted the rings by the elves. Each species rings seem to be tied to the "species essence" someone mentioned above, even though again I think Feanor's descendant made them.


Captured the men's souls, I should have said.

Speak friend and know the answer to who made the rings.


I think the important thing is consistency, for two main reasons. The lesser is that without consistency there is too much of a possibility of solving problems by pulling something out of one's arse; you can't win with that either way, because if you do it the triviality is annoying, but if you don't it raises the question of "why didn't they just..."

The greater is that the real world is generally consistent, and this is noticeable in phenomena, both natural and artificial, which are not understood just as much as in those that are. Indeed we fundamentally understand things in terms of observed consistency. So if you describe a world which includes something that does not at the very least carry the perceivable imprint of the existence of consistency at some deeper level even if the overt phenomena relating to it don't display much consistency of themselves, then it's asking rather too much of the suspension of disbelief.

(Real example of a thing of that sort: chemistry looks kind of magical, and at first acquaintance a lot of what it does looks anarchic and random, but it is still based on highly consistent principles, and though that may not be immediately apparent due to the complexity of the phenomena, it still leaves enough of a trace to show that there are rules operating beneath the surface.)

There are exceptions, of course; something like Hitch-hiker's (which is about magic in all but name) can consist almost entirely of anally-extracted magical elements because it is avowedly silly and doesn't need to maintain consistency over more than a few pages. But I am pretty convinced that something written like Hitch-hiker's but intending not to be silly would either end up coming over as silly anyway, or be unreadable, or both.

I don't think it's necessary that it should be made explicit that the magic is operating according to rules, and they certainly don't need to be codified (at least where the reader can see them; it may well be useful for the author to spell them out in their private notes as an aid to keeping everything straight). But if the magic makes more than a trivial number of appearances then some rules must exist, otherwise their lack will make itself apparent in the form of the reader missing a gearchange sooner or later.


"Before they leave Rivendell, you can hear Arwen and Aragorn saying their rosaries, basically."

Huh? Arwen isn't seen to do anything at all in Rivendell except be seen a couple of times. She certainly doesn't say anything, nor interact with Aragorn apart from being stood next to him at one point fairly early on. (In fact she doesn't do anything much at all ever; she is a most disappointingly crap character once you realise that all the rest of Tolkien's significant female characters are extreme badasses in one way or another.)

The Rings were basically a joint project of Celebrimbor (Feanor's grandson) and Sauron (calling himself Annatar, and nobody seemed to think that was at all suspicious...). The One was made by Sauron alone, and the Three by the Elves alone; the rest seem to have been collaborative efforts.

The magic in The Hobbit isn't really a good example of how magic works in the rest of Tolkien's works. The book wasn't originally supposed to be part of that world, although it borrowed a few names and things for atmosphere. Tolkien retconned it after writing LOTR, and a second edition came out with various amendments - mainly in the Bilbo and Gollum chapter - but it wasn't practical for him to revise it into full consistency in every detail.


Let's see if the unseen hands will let this through; a few days healing is good for all.


Firstly, I read your book last year - very enjoyable & delighted to read your thoughts. I thought that there were six realms though (at least implicitly - Black London was invaded from somewhere and the magic itself has consciousness, of sorts - those infected are driven to wildly propagate, but can use the host's consciousness and memories and desires to do so) and the lack of magic in Grey London also means there's something else draining it, or not? If magic is attached to imagination, then...).

Secondly, I think I'm definitely from either the Red or White worlds - the copy I read did not have the cover of the UK or USA version in your realm. That's a weird one, since I'm a sucker for dualist representations like that. (The City, The City).

However, regarding Rules and immutable Laws of Magic:

Your own work has a rule that's broken (no spoilers) - that of moving objects (that contain magic) from a 'more active' realm to a 'less active' one. Kell, being a naughty boy, is guilty of this.

The implication is that one with knowledge (Kell - although he knows too little and I spy a sequel in the works over that little memory charm the Royalty put upon him) can not only bend / break the rules, but more importantly: there are rules that the reader has not been told. Of course, narrative tension is achieved by unveiling some of them, however...

OP is playing puck: she never explains magic, or its origins in her initial novel.

*nose tweaked*


Hmm, double checked: the Tor cover is the same.

Very strange.

Red Queen or White Queen?


But, to all who haven't read A darker shade of magic: do so, it's good.

Could have done with being the length of a GRM tome, but that's personal preference (and I suspect a publisher / editor driven narrative?).

A tiny nit-pick: White London is a mirror to Black London in that one has dominion of magic over the minds of users, the other has dominion of minds over magic (and other minds), whereas Red London has imagination over (?) mirrored in Grey London (science over magic).

Of course, if Magic is like Nature, the nature of magic would change in each realm to fit the Minds...


Tolkien's magic is, I think, a good example of the "chemistry" principle. What is going on is extremely vague, but he still manages to convey the imprint of some underlying pattern, such that it seems natural that such-and-such a thing should happen or not happen. Even in the Tom Bombadil episode - which deliberately isn't supposed to be explicable - the magic still seems natural even if it is a bit odd.

It is in fact highly mechanistic, which probably appears most clearly when Gandalf is explaining what happened when he tried to hold the door against the Balrog (spells, counter-spells, time it takes to do things, the Word of Command) or the explicit depiction of his other abilities and limitations (he can't burn things that aren't inflammable to begin with; he can't just ignite something, but has to make it flare up as if it was doused in copper nitrate in a personally characteristic manner). There is also a method of magic based on song, deriving from the Music of the Ainur, as for example notably used by Luthien. To me at least it seems that these are basically the same thing expressed in different ways according to the practitioner.

The Elves are mainly technologists rather than practitioners of magic. They don't even fully understand what the word means. It's just that they are really good at what they do, and LOTR is presented from the point of view of those who think it magical because it is sufficiently advanced. The Silmarillion is given much more from an Elvish point of view, and they come out looking a lot less magical (and not just because so many of them turn out to be prats).

Elves also look more magical than technological because their ideas of what technology is for are very different from those of the human reader (and also from those of the humans or more human-like species in the books). We use it as a means of controlling and modifying our environment in major ways; we also use it for making money, for which reason we massively overdo it. Elves are much more content with the environment as it is, need only perform a minimal amount of change to make it habitable, and are strongly opposed to change in general; their technology appears either in the form of works of art, or as everyday objects which do what they're supposed to do really well and unlike ours don't do what they're not supposed to, and so don't attract notice.


At the end of Book II, Chapter 1: "It is a song to Elbereth," said Bilbo. "They will sing that, and other songs of the Blessed Realm, many times tonight."

You can read that as you will. Knowing what I know about Tolkien now, they are basically at prayer. When I originally read it, I just thought Elvish singing, but I was 7 at the time.


I often wondered if Tinuviel is invoking the magic of Finrod when she breaks the tower he created and that Sauron has corrupted into a prison. Perhaps she has the cheat code.

I could get into more explicit detail on exactly who did what with which rings, but that seems like a magical Wardrobe into De-railia.


Of course, now that we're retroactively describing the rules of magic in LOTR (and note that we're not consistent here), here's the critical question:

Did Tolkien create those rules when he wrote LOTR, and were they necessary to make it a good story?

This was the central point of the original post, that "good fantasy, like all frameworks, requires RULES."

Now, we can get around this by saying that fantasy without rules isn't good in our personal opinion, but if you want to use an objective standard, like impact, sales, or time in print, then we've got a wide number of famous examples where the magic isn't rule-bound at all.

For example:
--LOTR: it looks like we can sort of deduce the rules using other works like the Silmarillion
--Harry Potter. It might be crap to you, but millions of muggles disagree with you.
--Discworld. The rules changed over time as PTerry's writing evolved, and became more explicitly "meta" in any case. His final magic law is "The Law of Narrative Causality," which ultimately means that magic is in service of the story, not vice versa.
--A Song of Ice and Fire, 'cuz we haven't gotten to the magic bits yet, except for where we have.
--Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, although that was supposed to be sufficiently advanced science pulled out of random alien orifices for amusing effect.

We an also add in, say, Earthsea, which looks rules-driven but isn't. Ask yourself how an infinite language where every drop in the sea has a unique label would work, why the hero has a three-letter true name, and why wizards need power to speak spells, and can lose that power even without learning their knowledge of the language. In other words, there are no rules here, just poetry, and it's beautiful.

So far, I'd have to argue that a good story trumps rule-based magic when it comes to fantasy. That doesn't mean that people shouldn't value rules. Perhaps, though, we can say better that some people write better fantasies when they write up a rules-based framework first, and that we should encourage them to do so and praise them when their work succeeds.


Do schools teach quantum mechanics as part of high school chemistry or high school physics?

It's part of the physics curriculum. Admittedly along with a lot of other topics, so not really enough time for more than a quick overview, but it's there.


I'm guessing that answers who has actually read OP's book then.

*sends love to OP anyhow*


And part of the senior chemistry curriculum as well.


I think it comes down to what you mean by saying RULES, though (and, not having read the OPs books, I can't really say where they come out on this).

Since Tolkien is serving as a touchstone - and fwiw, I don't disagree with the other things people have said about how magic "works" in Tolkien, so I don't see them as inconsistent with what I wrote (maybe they disagree) - I definitely don't think JRRT sat down and worked out a comprehensive magical rule-set before going to work*. In fact, I often argue that quibbling over magical details in Tolkien is wrong, because most of it is kept off the page, and most of our main characters don't understand it. LOTR really isn't "about" magic, except at the level of the conflict between good and evil and the glimpses we get of the ineffable. Gandalf's power set is largely irrelevant to the story. His most important magical function, and likely most important ability, is to inspire and embolden and lend something of his spirit to the people around him, just as the essence of Sauron's powers (and Melkor's before him) seems to be in corrupting and suborning the will of those they bring under their sway. That's what matters to Tolkien - who at some point writes that everyday mundane evil is caused by bits of Melkor's essence filtering back into the world - so that's what we get a glimpse of.

But that doesn't mean that Tolkien couldn't have written something which seemed dissonant with the rest of the book, which would have violated the reader's intuitive sense of how magic is deployed in the story. When I read people talking about rules in magic, I usually think that's what they're talking about - push back against the idea, referenced in the OP, that anything goes, that the author can just solve any problem by making up a magic solution, or that any whimsy coming into the head can be appropriate, because if magic's real then nothing's unavailable. What matters is the sense of consistency and that, somewhere behind the scenes, there's a set of rules; whether the rules were actually worked out in that detail is less important. I haven't read Earthsea in a long time, but I never felt like the magic didn't have "rules," even if (taking your word for it) the logic doesn't really work out. I suspect the idea that "rules" has to equal "I worked it all out in such detail that, if necessary, I could write a manual" is a more contemporary notion. (As a reader, I don't feel a need for it if it's not the foregrounded material of the story, anymore than I need to know about Elven agriculture and Gondorian taxation; when I try to create something, I get anxious if I haven't sorted out the seven mechanisms of magic and the major exports of every city-state ...)

*I've read a LOT of JRRT's writing about and around the books, and certainly don't remember everything. He pondered and struggled with a lot of metaphysical questions, but I don't recall him specifically coming to grips with "what's actually happening when Tinuviel casts a spell?"


I wonder what happens when Tinuviel casts a spell, but I don't think there is a definitive answer. Part of the charm is playing with the creation. I think there is a place for fantasy that let's the reader participate in the spell as it were. JRRT was playing with this creation for decades and perhaps that is what comes across most in the work: the author was immersed in this world as if it were real life, contemplating it without ever reaching definitive comprehension. His genius was in presenting it in a way that allowed readers to undertake a similar journey.


The rules needn't be exactly worked out or consistent as long as the writer avoids deus ex machina. The important thing is to give the impression that it all works. If the reader starts nitpicking inconsistencies in the background it is because the story isn't absorbing enough. Movies typically have dozens of errors that most people don't notice. What matters is that the main events that drive the story aren't inconsistent with each other. That's what breaks suspension of disbelief.


Since the 1970s there's been an increasing number of tabletop roleplaying games and now computer games with formal magical systems and rules. It doesn't feel strange for me and my fantasy reading friends to talk about the differences between say Vancian and mana-based magical systems, which probably wasn't true when LOTR was first published.

Has this changed our expectations as readers? Do writers such as our guest blogger get bothered by RPG gamers pointing out the inconsistencies in their books?


A bit late to this, and don't quite remember what I was thinking of this morning. Let's see if I can recall (while staying away from all the Tolkien wankery).

One thought was about having multiple magic systems with their own rules. In my current writing I have characters whose abilities come from (I think) different sources, though one of them has only one specific talent with its own rules completely separate from the other's.

And this made me think of Novik's "Uprooted", which I finished* the other day. One of the things I liked in it was the flexibility(?) of the magic in it. Hopefully not much of a spoiler for those who haven't read it, but it deals with a wizard who takes an apprentice. His magic is all rigidly based on spellbooks and potions, which she is a disaster at. It turns out that magic comes naturally to her and she is able to work it in her own way, much to the wizards frustration. So rules are useful, but insert cliché about them here.

Another thing that Schwab's comment @12 made me wonder. Has anyone written a series of stories exploring how a magic system can get its rules bent without breaking them--along the lines of "I, Robot"? Perhaps too many possibilities, depending on the writers.

*really late finishing it by no fault of the book, which is excellent. I just had too much going on to find time to read. Started "Sorcerer to the Crown" last night. Very behind on my reading, ah well.


"If the reader starts nitpicking inconsistencies in the background it is because the story isn't absorbing enough."

Or they're reading it for the third time, or the thirtieth...

A lot of people do seem to think that after reading a book once they have got everything out of it there is to get so there is no point reading it again. I can't help thinking that they must find reading tremendously hard work... I will read a book I enjoy many times over and find something new each time - sentences I unconsciously missed out before, combinations of passage and current mood that lead me to think something new, allusions which no longer go over my head because my general knowledge has increased, bits I'd just plain forgotten, all sorts. This is where the nitpickable background inconsistencies make their appearance - in the rereadings - and to have them exist at a level which spoils what was once a good book is probably more disappointing than to have them exist at a level which is so obvious that it never seemed a good book in the first place.


Here's the US & UK covers. for "A Darker Shade of Magic".


Yep, grokk'd that. I wouldn't have researched it if it wasn't weird. Not on the cover of the book I read. ;.;

Red Queen or White Queen?

(Note: this is a meta-joke - in OP's world, Red is better than White, in our world... well. Red Queen means something else).


"Red queen you're all going to die down here"

And, if you want a pointer: The best remix including that sample is no longer searchable on YouTube.

In fact, the entire well has been poisoned. Looking at the cloud, probably deliberately - MPAA silly mums using DMCA take downs to muddy the waters and spoil the algos.

Basally, what you're dealing with here is why magic never works.

Because 90% of you are utter twats.


And there we go into the magic land of Derailia....

It's kinda weird how people seems to discuss the magic of LOTR, while ignoring other, probably more interesting parts. Like how Tolkien described the Rings as a highly addictive drug. He even says that in the end ringbearers don't enjoy it anymore, but are compelled to keep using it anyway. It's basically heroin in a ring form. Where was he getting this kind of experience from?


"Knowledge of the past, now lost"
Whereas, usually, knowledge of techniques, etc is not lost [ Two exceptions - Bronze-Age collapse C 1100 BCE & 450-700CE, though the latter was "helped" by both plague & vile (volcanic?) natural conditions ]

In discussing JRRT, it's worth remembering that Numenor had a technology & understanding at least equal to that of the 1970's or possibly better - see The Silmarillion


It's specifically stated that Sauron crafted all the Rings & then made the One Master Ring.
Very late-20thC spy thriller stuff, actually, since the previous rings were already set up with "dormant software" which could be woken on receipt of code-instructions from the (at that point not yet made) master ring.


We an also add in, say, Earthsea, which looks rules-driven but isn't. Ask yourself how an infinite language where every drop in the sea has a unique label would work, why the hero has a three-letter true name, and why wizards need power to speak spells, and can lose that power even without learning their knowledge of the language. In other words, there are no rules here, just poetry, and it's beautiful.

The magical system in the Earthsea books always seemed like one of the better designed ones to me. A language that underlies reality, and which will alter reality to be consistent with the word that was spoken. (And we're really lucky here that UKL never spent time programming computers, or that would have informed the whole concept to its great detriment.)

It fulfils the three important criterea for a magical system to seem credible:

Magic has to have a cost, magic has to be the domain of a distinct group and use of magic has to have consequences beyond the immediate objective.

The cost may be in effort to learn, or in requiring practitioners to live in a particular (usualy ascetic) lifestyle, or trading with supernatural entities or even simply that it takes great physical effort to perform.

In some sense, Magic is only Magical because not everybody can do it. If just anyone can make a few passes over a slab of metal and crystal and speak to anyone else with a similar device, its a mundane telephone call, and not magical at all.

Consequences beyond what was intended are not so much about 'can it be done with Magic?' as 'should it be done with Magic?' UKL had her most powerful mages the most greatly constrained by maintenance of the balance.

The whole thing about 'One True Name' in UKL's system is a problem, but it reads to me as if it's a problem her characters have with their imperfect understanding of how magic works, and not with the magic itself. It's like their understanding is stuck with the Phlogiston theory of combustion, and maybe at some point some magical equivalent of Lavoisier will have a great insight and explain things much more satisfactorily by some magical equivalent of Oxygen.

While I'm here: if we're looking for interesting magical systems, I'd like to add:

- Rothfuss' concepts of alar and sympathy in 'The Name of the Wind' et seq.

- The Jedi and the Sith in Starwars. (Sufficiently advanced magic may sometimes be distinguishable from technology...)


Part-crafted, or collborated with - even the Elf-rings were under the One Ring's influence, if revealed ....
And lost their power with the One Ring's destruction.

Rules-based magic:
Eddings. Specific rules laid out at one point - basically Conservation of Energy, with energy for "magic" abstracted from elsewhere.


Highlander - You might well find an explanation of the swordfighting etc somewhere in Bill Panzer's writings on the Interweb if you care to look. Certainly he has apologised publically for Highlander 2.

Beyond that, sword duels look cool, oh and there was one "immortal" in the Highlander series who's modus operandi was to have his minions spray the other immortal with Uzis and then cut the unfortunate's head off with a sword. He was less than popular in the immortal community, in the fan community, and ultimately defeated by being separated from said minions.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep / Blade Runner - 1982 film and 1968 book.
In 1968, DNA sequencing was pretty much SF, so the chance of a marked that could be checked by portable equipment was unlikely to impossible seeming in period.
Tattoo - Go and watch an episode of "Tattoo Fixers" and see if you can answer that for yourself.


Fantasy has a pretty broad range of options when it comes to magic.
For a world where magic exists, but isn't directly practiced, I'd point at Guy Gavriel Kay, who incorporates Gods, spiritualism, and shamanism as mechanisms by which magic can interact with the protagonist, but magic users as such are near unknown. Magic is mostly used to show that traditional beliefs in the setting can be real, and our rituals to propitiate them are justified.

For practical well understood science based magic, Lyndon Hardy as mentioned above does a pretty solid job. Brandon Sanderson is probably the modern equivalent, with specific magic types in each part of the Cosmere.

For innate magic ... how about Sherri Tepper's True Game. The world starts off with individuals having wildly different abilities, but the ability is inherent to the person. Eventually it is revealed as being a gift from a magical planet - due to the trilogies being written out of order the series ties together rather well.

For more mythic work, how about Charles De Lint, who regularly uses mythological sources for his fantasy, the magic is rarely explained, only justified.


And here we see the real problem with a discussion of "magic in fantasy"; Of the 5 authors you cite, I have read exactly no books and probably no short fiction.


There are a good many more examples of losing technology than that! Look up terra preta (and the whole civilization behind it), what happened in the Bantu migration down the savanna, and a lot of smaller groups (e.g. the Andaman islanders).


Hmm. Ok, let me try some more.

Environmental magic, not wielded by the protagonists.
Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. Tim Powers On Stranger Tides, which uses the Voodoo is real idea. H Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines. Generally involves normal people in a strange world, often temporarily. Blends with Magical Realism, which is fantasy as acceptable to Literature.

Innate magic. Piers Anthony's Xanth, Jim Butcher's Codex Alera. Butcher knows his tropes well though, so he mixes a lot together.

Mythic works. Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

You then have rules based magic, but that is wildly variable, from how it works to how it is powered.

You can have Jack Vancean arbitrary spells that must be memorised then are used up on casting. D&D loved that idea.

You can have secret knowledge or rituals, like Earthsea's True Names, or Katherine Kurtz' Deryni rituals. David Brin did a lightweight fantasy where the more something was used, the better it got.

You also have appeals to higher powers - Gods, demons, anything where the caster channels something else's power.
Moorcock used that a lot - Elric gains much of his power from ancient bargains between his people and various beings.

It can be musical - Modesitt uses this in the Soprano Sorceress series where knowledge of musical theory combined with vocal talent makes a woman immensely powerful.

Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar world runs on magic as an everpresent force, created by life and concentrated like water in streams, rivers and lakes - ley lines and nodes. Journeymen use their own life force, Masters the ley lines and Adepts the nodes. With enough power just about anything is possible, but the caster may not survive.


There's also the point that being able to detect replicants is an ability the Earth cops want and the actual builders of the replicants want to deny them (thus the attempt to discredit the Voight-Kampff test), so explicit marking would be politically difficult. And as the Earth authorities don't publicly admit that replicants can go rogue and come to Earth, visible-to-civilians identification might not be in their interests.


You might like the Malazan series then. Quite regularly Ancient Forces of Unspeakable Power arise to unleash chaos, and run hard into modern developments to which they have no answer. On the other hand if you've been wandering the earth since those Ancient Days, you've probably learned a thing or two, so it isn't all one sided. But there is a definite progression from wandering to settling, from Hold to House.
Generally primitive magic is more powerful, but modern magic has finesse, so needs less.


Bronze-Age collapse C 1100 BCE & 450-700CE, though the latter was "helped" by both plague & vile (volcanic?) natural conditions

And there I thought the latter was helped by a bunch of rabid cultists who usurped the government of the Roman empire and used their power to burn any books and individuals that didn't fit their contorted world-view...


I love rule-based fantasy but I don't think that all magic has to follow the same rules in a single universe.

I spent months reading large chunks of the SCP Foundation archives which lack any coherent set of rules beyond small clusters are entries, indeed part of the fun is the idea of things which are explicitly impossible to understand and follow few if any rules.

Both scifi and fantasy share some similar problems with magic or technology in stories, if you introduce something you need to think about how it would affect society and the economy.

There was an interesting Reddit thread a while back where people were trying to think of ways to nerf various common magic tropes by figuring out what restrictions would leave them available for the story but wouldn't warp the whole world economy. The lesson I learned from that thread was that almost any form of teleportation or portals would be so insanely valuable in both peace and war that it wouldn't matter if the cost included human sacrifices, it would still be used.


Yes. That was one of my original points. Most fantasy introduces a very small amount of excessively powerful magic, which is easy to hang a story on, but harder to make self-consistent. Relatively little introduces widespread, small-scale magic, which makes a far more realistic universe, and is how technology always has been used.


And, of those, I've still "only" read Outlander (volume 1), King Solomon's Mines and the David Brin "The Practice Effect".

I've read bits of several of the other authors, but not your cites.

My point is not about how much or little I've read, but about how little common ground 2 or more readers may have to support their points through common experience.


It's basically heroin in a ring form. Where was he getting this kind of experience from?

A quick look at Wikipedia shows he spent time working at hospitals on the home front in The Great War, so he likely dealt with wounded soldiers being given Heroin. It was considered a miracle pain-killer at the time and probably over prescribed. That's my guess.


Too quick a look; that should be spent time in hospitals, not worked in.


I think one of the reasons why fans were happy with Brandon Sanderson's ending to the WoT series was that he really thought through some of the implications (something he's actually very good at doing in his own series) and got the WoT characters to start Thinking With Portals.

I quite liked The Khaim Novellas because they start with a world where magic is common and used by everyone but then give a reason for it to get restricted heavily:

Bramble, a plant highly inimical to human life.With every use of magic, a new bramble sprouts somewhere near. The plants are almost impossible to kill, poisonous and overrun entire cities. Everybody feels use of magic ought to be curtailed but there is always the lure of solving some problem with magic.

The author barely touches on the actual mechanics of magic beyond it's relationship to bramble and the implication that it's otherwise pretty much a "solve almost everything" form of magic seen in some fantasy books.


Thanks all for the reading suggestions ...

Shortly after posting my last comment I realized that 'Yea, high school chem and phys did cover a bit of QM', only it wasn't packaged as such ... findings/rules were provided so that we got a general idea of how stuff worked. This sorta relates to the all rules-must-be-clearly-communicated/knowable argument in fantasy. No, in the books I recall, apart from the uber sorcerers vs. the majority of users/tinkerers, magic is a technology/tool and not a science.

Don't recall reading this up-thread ... If magic must be as strictly rule-based as science, this means that rules will and must self-develop/evolve depending on magic-universe versions/variants of scale, structure/components and time. This would add complexity to magic-users' lives although it might annoy fans who prefer the unchanging/unchangeable etched-in-stone magic cheat-sheet vs. UU magic library for their fantasy universe. So in all-magic-rules-are-known fantasy, all problems are solvable ... there is no uncertainty even if there's a leak from the dungeon dimensions.


Here's how to see how the Earthsea system of True Names breaks down: Pretend it's real.

As an exercise, I'd suggest going around wherever you live and giving a unique name to everything in there. Make sure that you give yourself a name relatively late in the process, and don't hold back a cool name for yourself.

Then give a unique name to every part of every thing in your dwelling. Ideally, each of the hairs on your head should get a unique identifier, if you really want to be careful.

If you don't run out of names, keep going to the outside world until you get sick of this exercise. Don't forget categorical names, as well as individual and subcomponent names.

Do you see the problem yet? If not, add more names to your world until you do.

It's certainly a possible system, but as a being come late to the world, "Ged" should have had a name that was incredibly long and unpronounceable, as the rocks had taken all the short names when the maker first spoke them into existence.

That's what I mean by this system looking like it has rules, but being poetic rather than rules-bound. The fact that you bought into it says more about Ms. LeGuin's skill as a writer than it does about how well her system worked.


Well, that I can relate to - I've read far more fantasy than SF in the last 15 years, so my knowledge is probably the reverse of yours. I've also discovered with enormous delight the SF Gateway, and have been finally able to read a lot of authors I'd heard of but who had vanished out of print.

My examples were more to support the idea that while most fantasy books with magic have rules - some explicit, some known by the author and only partly revealed - there are still broad areas where you don't need rules to write a successful work.

Numinous works where the magic is otherworldly are the prime example, and far from the derivative nature of much of the modern D&D successors, though in common with Tolkein's ideas. The idea that A God Did It is sufficient justification - we are used to assigning Phenomenal Cosmic Powers!* to gods, so it helps suspension of disbelief. Certainly Moorcock wrote a heck of a lot where his protagonists were in magic realms, but didn't use magic themselves, or only used it via empowered artifacts. Von Bek is probably the best known of those.

*itty bitty living space


I'm guessing that answers who has actually read OP's book then.

Me. (At least, I read ADSOM and liked it a lot -- hence the guest blogging invite.)

Parenthetically: I'm kind of amused to have ploughed through the first 50 comments and found not one single gripe about magic, let alone internal consistency, in the Laundry Files -- which are my fantasy-with-magic series. (The Merchant Princes, in contrast, are hard SF which initially got marketed in fantasy drag because of publishing contract boilerplate.)


Well, I haven't read Earthsea, but the whole point of true names is that no-one knows the name of every thing. Everyone only needs to know their own true name.

In "The Name of the Wind" it takes a very special and rare skill to determine the true name of arbitrary objects.


To me, The Name of the Wind was more channeling Carlos Castaneda than Ursula Le Guin for that particular skill, but opinions will differ.

The thing to remember is that Le Guin, like Rowling (and Tolkien), comes from the English Major/Lawyer end of the spectrum. There's a group out there that believes that words have power and (legal) theories shape how the world is seen, and there's a subset of magic systems that embody that belief. You can see this in Earthsea and in Harry Potter.

The other end of the spectrum, from people with a more science-y background, is that magic is governed by natural rules that are exploited by humans. This group tends to run on things like energy, ley lines, and so forth.

It's certainly possible to mix the systems, but you can't analyze the extremes in terms of each other. Trying to analyze a true names-based system in terms of chi flow is akin to trying to draw a circuit diagram that embodies a legal contract. They're different types of power, and power in a true names system is more about having supernatural spin and pull* than it is about energy. It's about making your theory of reality become reality, through your use of the proper words.

*Actually, the traditional Polynesian view of mana is more in the supernatural spin power than it is in chi, despite representations to the contrary. That's why chiefs were high mana beings who had to be careful what they said and did.


Well, that was interesting
I'd never heard of terra preta before ......
Sort of thing an allotment-holder ought to know.

Interesting point - if I add "magic black council compost" ( The stuff that local councils get from "greenwaste" recycling & fermenting/charring up to 80 deg C - & which is mildly alkaline ) I note that the soil seems to undergo a "permanent" ( i.e. I put some on 4 years ago, no reversion yet) colour-change ... the underlying soil here is gooey London Clay, yet adding council "char" & then follow up with repeated small doses of "ordinary" compost inc. horse-sweepings seems to improve the soil no end, especially as regards not swamping in wet weather.....
If you scale this up, is that how it was done?


That & they didn't help, but a lot of techniques were kept in Byzantium that were lost in Rome.


And the real hero of LotR is, of course, the ordinary Tommy in the trenches - Sam Gamgee, not the officer, Frodo = JRRT himself


Not quite.
Without looking it up right now, IIRC, "Segoy spoke the word that raised the world from the Sea"
A single ultimate word of command.
I think


Because (?) we are mostly science-literate, if not science-trained & thus, provided "magic" uses apparently internally consistent rules, we are inverting Clarke's Law & carrying that forward into the fictional universes of the various writer's imaginations.

We are after all Pan narrans
Thank you Pterry, again


There's a group out there that believes that words have power
You mean words do NOT have power?

Here are some words of power:
E = mc^2
F = G*m1*m2/d^2
and so on .....

The power of the narrative word, itself used for power, control & evil, as in ... religion.

Be careful.
Here be Dragons


There's another way to write magic in stories: use the existing Laws of Magic. Sprague and Fletcher did this, heavily, in the Incomplete Enchanter, in 1940.

Or you could go on to do (I know this is an odd suggestion) *research*, and my #1 recommendation for that would be the late Isaac Bonewits' Real Magic (which, I will note, was his baccalaureate thesis, for his genuine, accredited BA in Thaumaturgy from UC Berkeley).

And it has over 20 pages of bibliography....

And, if all that wasn't enough, the known laws feel *right* to readers who've never heard of them. There may be some hardwiring in there....



THE existing laws? And your last paragraph is very dubious.

As I said, those laws are very oriented towards European magic, and the sort of 'animist' magic that I referred to followed different rules. Furthermore, many of those societies had not developed logic as we know it, and so the very idea of a system based on a fixed set of laws was alien to them. While I am no expert, I did grow up in a country where that was still the case for most of the population.


ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE: The server the blog runs on will reboot around 7am UK time on Friday 19th. At which point it will have accumulated a continuous uptime of around 487 days ... but sysadmin's gotta sysadmin, and we're due for a security update that can't be hotfixed without a restart.

(I'll explain what it was about afterwards. We now return you to your usual discussion ...)


People don't know exactly how terra preta was made, but the use of charcoal as a soil improver has been known for ages (according to one Web page, millennia, in the Far East).


"Here are some words of power"




$ sudo


About four decades ago I took two college philosophy courses, "Language as Cosmos" and "Cosmos as Language". (The professor was very annoyed that we could never remember which was which: I suspect I have the order switched.)

They surveyed the history about changing views about the relationship (and relative primacy) of language and reality in western traditions beginning with things like Egyptian creation myths and the pre-Socratic philosophers and working up through the Gospel according to John and various Talmudic traditions to modern post-Enlightenment philosophy and linguistics, with mentions of Whorf, Sapir and Levi-Strauss toward the end.

The philosophical underpinnings of 'magic word'/True Names magic run very deep in our culture and history.

The relationship of words and texts and power is a bit different in the East Asian traditions, at least in the folklore, etc. that is available in translation. I don't think I've encountered an instance of the True Names meme in Chinese and Japanese stories, but physical instances of written texts seem to contain more concrete power.


Right ... like Bob's never run into a buggy OS before.*

Laundry's mostly from Bob's perspective ... an IT-guy thrown into a secret dept within a massive gov't bureaucracy of a culture that's still pretty stratified by class whose managers use the baptism-by-fire method of personnel development/career progression. Right - absolutely no barriers whatsoever to Bob (therefore the reader) immediately knowing everything there is to know about the magic system he's been shanghaied into.

* Given Bob's IT background I would expect him to always expect SNAFUs. Computer programming/logic has rules - true. But anyone who expects a computer program or anything else to run perfectly just because it's 'logical' is insane/terminally optimistic.


That method of breaking it only works if you see the world and objects at a certain level, and discard notions of the object or person as an entity in themselves, or various related pre-scientific ideas of how someone is themselves, which means their hair and skin etc is part of them and naming it individually doesn't work.

Charlie, if you want gripes about the laundry, what about the basilisk gun and how does it get the energy to change C into Si, yet other transmutations that might be of use to people aren't somehow introduced or used.


>>> And the real hero of LotR is, of course, the ordinary Tommy in the trenches - Sam Gamgee, not the officer, Frodo = JRRT himself

For me at least, the real "hero" of LotR is Gollum, the Ring Junkie. He is the most interesting character in the book, anyway.


And different again in the Americas, etc., and even more so in sub-Saharan Africa.


Somewhere in the background material there are a few paragraphs which mention Luthien and others performing magic by singing, and connect that with the Music of the Ainur. I forget how much of it is JRRT directly and how much is CJRT's interpretation. It's possible that it's someone else's interpretation entirely, but I don't think so, as I'm fairly confident my memory, though vague, would nevertheless be clearly tagged as "foreign" in that case.

"What matters is the sense of consistency and that, somewhere behind the scenes, there's a set of rules; whether the rules were actually worked out in that detail is less important."

Bang on. While I did suggest that working the rules out in detail might be a helpful thing for an author to do in their private notes in order to keep things straight and make it easier to give that impression, I certainly don't think it's necessary; it's the ability to give the impression that counts, however it may be achieved. In my personal take on creating a magic system, the rules exist, and have equivalent status to the laws of physics in our science; but I haven't worked them out to the last detail myself, just as I don't know every last detail of physics.


C into Si is exothermic, so the gun just has to act as a catalyst in some form to overcome/tunnel the energy barrier. The real problem is how to deal with the multi-megaton energy release. (The goose that laid the golden eggs got by by carefully balancing exothermic nuclear reactions with endothermic ones so as not to vaporise itself.)


Interesting. As a programmer I interpret "true names" akin to addresses in computer memory; and normal names akin to variables in computer languages (which are usually limited in what you can do with it by their declared type – obviously I'm not talking C here). So true names is totally sciency to me.


Easy, energy is obviously absorbed by a tentacle monster from another dimension.


Yeah, and Earthsea actually takes place in the Matrix...


That's how it's been interpreted, but that's not how it's used.

I'm not kidding that, in the theory of Earthsea, you have both every drop of water having its own name, and you have fish that are so far out in the sea that they've lost memory of their names, and are no longer called by spells. You additionally have people whose true name mirrors that of a class of animals, yet they do not turn into that animal when you name them. Stuff like that. There's also the sense that there's a word still being spoken, that may in fact be reality.

Part of the problem here is that most commenters haven't read any of the Earthsea books in years (if ever), and I suspect that the "computer address" model (made explicit Vernor Vinge's "True Names") has taken hold in working memory, even though that's not what Le Guin actually wrote.


The other thing is that we've got an interesting meta-divide here.

Here's the assertion: well written fantasy needs to follow rules.

Here's the spin: I like the person who wrote that or her works, so I'll agree.

Here's the rule-based objective test: does this match with my experience in fantasy? If not, is there one counter-example, or are there many novels for which this doesn't fit (I'd assert that there are)?

So we've actually got a non-RULES based agreement with the preposition, and a rules-based disagreement with it.



Charlie, if you want gripes about the laundry, what about the basilisk gun and how does it get the energy to change C into Si

That is a shoe that I haven't dropped yet, as of the end of book 8, "The Delirium Brief". (It gets explored in a very oh-shit way by book 9, maybe; book 10, for sure.) I also need to revisit the cell of elderly mathematicians working in the cloistered confines of St. Hilda's ...


I asked who had read the book for a reason (and, of course I assumed Host had read it).

To flesh this out a little (and something not mentioned by anyone yet): OP's magic runs on blood (and glue and tar).

(Working from memory here, so might be slightly wobbly, and trying to avoid gross spoilers - I've a feeling I've forgotten the ending significance)

Kell has to use his blood / life force to 'key' into magic, using it to trigger events (notably: a majority of the magic used is either door-way / portal opening or Mind domination - there's a smidgen of flashy fire but nothing on the scale of your average Swords, Codpiece and Dragons work). Off the cuff magic is usually a last resort, most of the heavy lifting has been pre-prepped.

If you use magic, it's also a test of Will to go along with the Blood price as it doesn't appreciate being accosted and used.

So, in OP's universe, magic has a cost, but the cost is weirdly spread:

Black London Consequences are only seen via its interactions within the other Londons (notably Red). The price paid is that the life of the host is consumed (and rather quickly).

White London Consequences are twofold: the implication of a drastically altered climate and the dysfunctional society (think Lawful Evil).

Red London Consequences has balance, but there's a frisson that Utopia certainly has an undercurrent of cost that's politely ignored: it is, after all, very definitely more a traditional Monarchy than the others (the eternal Dance of the Mask). Let's just say that the RULE OF LAW is mostly focused on those with the ability to use magic.

Grey London Consequences has the costs we expect from a world like our own. Cue grinding class poverty and pea soup smog, Oliver Twist and the boredom of political chess.


That might help(?) the conversation along. Digging the esoteric sources up thread btw.

Note: I love it how I'm perennially cast as Chaos with no rules. That's not really the truth of where I'm coming from, but there we go.


I thought you had explained that it was a matter of the wavefunction being collapsed by an observer specially tuned to be able to observe only one possible outcome, as in the idea that if Schroedinger's box is opened by a scientist who is unable to perceive dead cats then the cat always comes out alive. Or am I getting mixed up?


What on earth do you mean by Exothermic? Yes, you can fuse elements up to Iron and release energy, or so I heard many years ago, but to jump from C to Si needs a few more neutrons or such added as well as taking 2 C to make one Si. (I haven't really needed my knowledge of these things since I learnt it many years ago, and I'm not a know it all because my memory is too poor)


Re Bonewit's laws, that's an awful lot of laws (23?). I think with a little effort that they could be collapsed to 8 or 10 and made more formal. Has anyone done this? They also seem rather ad-hoc. (And with not even an attempt at an alignment with physics, but that's a rathole to go down when the thread has a few hundred more comments.)


I'd suggest that Bonewits' laws of magic are those (like the Law of True Names) that others have proposed. If you want seven principles, check out Huna. IF you want two laws, go with Frazier's Laws of Sympathy and Contagion from the Golden Bough (or whoever came up with it first).


Those are all modern inventions.

How's about something a little more old school for you?

The sorceress is a goldsmith.
My sorceress is a magic priestess.
My sorceress’ mother is a naršindatu-priestess.
Why do you bring life to the prince?
But I, to destroy your magic spells, hold up the … weed.

Maqlu Tablet VI

And yes, that was a hippy joke for a Californian environmentalist writer made using a 3,000+ year old spell.

It has to be stressed, however, that black magic as a category never existed in Mesopotamia; sorcerers used exactly the same techniques and spells for their illegitimate purposes that the victims might use to defend themselves legitimately. The only difference is that evil sorcery was done by secretly invoking the gods or manipulating other supernatural powers, while the defense relied on the openness of its acts.

Witchcraft, Magic, and Divination in Ancient Mesopotamia W.Farber PDF

And to rapidly steer things back to shallower and safer waters:Sanderson's Laws (the man who actually finished the Wheel of Time saga without the use of petrol, garlic or blessed silver, a feat in itself)


(Oh, and *nose wiggle*: Celestial Gallery, warned you about using tricks like that on me).

Time Pink Floyd, youtube: music: 7:05


Silicon is higher on the binding energy curve than carbon; to completely pull apart a carbon nucleus into separate nucleons requires less energy per nucleon than is released per nucleon in assembling a silicon nucleus from separate nucleons. Therefore any pathway which begins with carbon and ends with silicon involves an overall release of energy. That the pathway may not be direct is of no moment. If you look at the right spots in the night sky you can see it exotherming away merrily.


"Note: I love it how I'm perennially cast as Chaos with no rules. That's not really the truth of where I'm coming from, but there we go."

More of an El-ahrairah type figure, it seems to me, what with the *nose wiggle* and that.


Of course.

But then again, Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, beware of sharp pointy teeth.

OP is cool-as-fuck, I will make damn sure the LA vampires don't eat her for breakfast. (This includes some heavy messing bullshit threats and favours and souls. Oh, and a personal message about that thing you did that's on record and will be released if you don't play nice, and some Russians. Wee!).

Incantation. “The mouth has spoken evil.”
Incantation. “My sorceress, my greater sorceress, in the morning you cast your spells:”
Two bread loaves, a figure of the sorcerer and sorceress,
You make them from dough and attach them to the bread loaves;
Right and left of him you put them up while you recite the incantation.
Thereafter you throw them in front of the dog and the bitch.
Incantation. “You are my shield:” you fill a puršitu-vessel with water,
… … in it you … on it.

They were really into their Left/Right stuff.

I'd point you to a pair of serpent bracers, gold, circa 800-600 BC but hey (recent: find them).

Not like a penis could form the central column of Balance (Ultima VII) - but I do love the sight of an aesthetic penis.

Not even interested, but an aesthetic penis is a beautiful thing. It is: even though the Greeks and Romans considered a small penis a sign of culture, there's something to be said about the way it just faces the world.

Oh - men, explain one thing to me: having watched a large segment of your pornographic output (culling the professional), how is it that you can be "soft" when you're in a sexually charged situation with a naked woman? (Note: we're assuming straight / vanilla here. Yes, this really does have something to do with magic and rules).

I'd have thought an erect willy would be the first thing that should show intent...

Like a dowsing rod, if you think about it.


But sure, if you want a serious answer:

97 bottles left on the wall, 97 bottles of soul...

But no:

OP's book has a central protag Kell who is a very naughty boy. He's also a little bit kinky.

We're channeling that as a tribute ;)


With regard to Bonewit's laws, I did consider rewriting them as C++ code when I was writing TechnoMage, but was too lazy. Anyone here want to try?


Assuming you want a straight answer (see what I did there):

1) define "sexually charged." What may be sexually charged for an observer may not be for the subject. Plus it's a continuum of desire, lower to higher energy. And if you are basing this off porn, they might have to do the same thing over and over again the same day.

2) Conservation of energy. On one level it's just hydraulics.

3) It's well known that different activities produce different degrees of "dowsing." Supposedly, measurement experiments (for strictly scientific purposes, of course) use oral to induce maximum extension. Again, I have not read the papers; so I don't know if they go into a lot of detail on this in their procedural descriptions.

4) Physiological conditions. Not just disease or neuroses, but quotidian circumstances like gas.

If you keep asking questions like this, I am NOT going to bring out the puppets.

On a serious note, I have asked lesbians friends why they write gay (male) porn and they say the phallus is hot, even if men aren't. I guess Priapus is popular everywhere, except with millennial PUAs who cannot watch straight porn 'cause willies.


It was suppose to be "straight response;" so I screwed up the joke.


"Oh - men, explain one thing to me: having watched a large segment of your pornographic output (culling the professional), how is it that you can be "soft" when you're in a sexually charged situation with a naked woman? (Note: we're assuming straight / vanilla here. Yes, this really does have something to do with magic and rules)."

Simple. People prefer illusion over reality.


4. Time of day is a factor as well.


Well it's up & running or appears to be so @ 08.09 on $DATE
I assume it worked?


"Magic council compost" isn't "just" charcoal, of course.
It's all the vegetable waste collected, including tree-clippings & shearings, which is then dumped into concrete silos & allowed to warm-ferment for several months.
Never reaches 100C (they watch it to make sure it doesn't take flame) but does reach approx 80.
Lots of interesting chemistry in there, I'm sure.
What I have noticed, is that within a week of application, there are more worms in a treated patch & probably a lot more soil microfauna, too.


Well, for me The Laundry Files are described by an unreliable narrator (meaning not omnescent (sp), not "deliberately misleading the reader") so the laws of magic aren't fully described even when (see The Rhesus Chart) their perception by staff is not being deliberately warped by an agent.


"I'd have thought an erect willy would be the first thing that should show intent..."

If I wasn't already pretty certain of your gender, that would tell me :-) Most young men have very little control over that response, and it arises in the most inappropriate circumstances, sometimes even when the victim's intent is to avoid further entanglement like the plague or where it is blocked by the strongest of taboos.


We're too polite? :-) I try to avoid even constructive criticism, because it is almost invariably misunderstood, as you may have noticed. The discrepancies are acceptable, because you needed a way of both introducing Things From Outside and a way of counteracting them without invoking Protectors From Above. And, as I have said before, thank you very much for using the Turing/Goedel issue, not that stupid P=NP myth! But, since you seem to ask:

Three things that grated a bit were how the use of residual human resources is squared with our convention of funerals, the apparent absence of any formal initial training (e.g. Bob between induction and the Atrocity Archives), and the apparent absence of enough R&D projects (not just people) to account for the explosive progress. The last happened during the two World Wars, but they weren't done in one underfunded department!


Yes. Nominalistic magic invariably uses a rigid categorisation, such as being able to call all rabbits within reach or a single, identified rabbit, but not some rabbits from out of a group. That sounds reasonable, but it isn't, as you can discover by trying to define naming for any reasonably complicated system. Look at the complete mess that the modern botanists are making, trying to force reality into their dogmatic mould.


If it helps since the explanation was "deamons" it gets a lot of leeway I didn't expect it to observe conservation of energy.

Though he makes a good point about using it as a power source. It did kind of sound like you could run some kind of reactor with a basilisk gun...


There is a clue to all that in the Atrocity Archives! But, as OGH knows, the key to (mundane) nuclear energy is not initiation but control.


Here's how to see how the Earthsea system of True Names breaks down: Pretend it's real.

I know nothing of True Name systems (or of Earthsea), but my immediate thought is: you're apparently working from the (unspoken) assumption that every thing must have a unique true name. Only then the need for having practically infinitely many different names will arise. As I said, I know nothing about True Name systems, but I can't help asking the question: why should that be so? In real life we encounter thousands of "things" that have the same name. Taking an example that has been brought up in this very blog just a few days ago: there are several people here named "Martin". There a even several people—who are also public personas—who are named "Martin Page" (and probably dozens of "Martin Page"s whose existence is not widely publicised in the internet).

So, why should True Names be unique? Our general experience is that names are anything but. Thus there can be arbitrary many things that share the same three-letter True Name.


The thing about the laundry series is that it isn't that specific about the magic. Sure, later on we get the contagion and issues with paperclips, but at the start, and frequently throughout, the usual tropes such as circles and shapes are invoked without actually explaining the shape and circules and specific mathematical actions that do the work. So not quite as non-described as in "Sorcerer to the Crown", but definitely heading that way and away from Harry Potter territory. Of coruse basically equating energy with patterns and therefore destroying a soul releases the right kind of energy (Or something like that, I don't actually pay all that much attention) is just the right kind of handwavy pseudo-scientific crap to appeal to his target audience.

Of course the "magic not actually put to wider ue" thing is sidestepped by making it clear that magic can have nasty consequences, and therefore the aim is to control the use and knowledge of it, rather than actually use it for bettering humanity. And that idea is rendered immediately useless by the stories being set in a Lovecraftian universe which is nasty and brutal in all sorts of ways, rather than our merely indifferent one.


Therefore any pathway which begins with carbon and ends with silicon involves an overall release of energy. That the pathway may not be direct is of no moment. If you look at the right spots in the night sky you can see it exotherming away merrily.

Almost certainly not, though you're right about the exothermic nature of the reaction. In fact carbon fusion in stars makes a variety of elements, but not silicon (oxygen, sodium, neon and magnesium). Silicon is made later, by oxygen fusion (which requires a higher temperature to get it to go, because of the greater positive charge involved).

However, you probably can't see this in action, because all fusion stages post helium burning are very short: carbon burning typically lasts less than a millennium—I've seen 600 years quoted, but it depends on the mass of the star—and oxygen burning only a few months. Compared to the total stellar lifetime, several million years even for these high-mass stars, this is a very short time, so the odds are against any naked-eye stars being in the carbon-burning phase (Betelgeuse is the best bet), and if any are in the oxygen-burning phase we'll know about it within a year because they'll explode as a supernova (yes please, pretty please, I'd like a Galactic supernova in my lifetime).


Actually, I have re-read the books in the last 2 years, and still disagree with you.


As for internal consistency, I personally am most likely to notice things if I read several of the books within a few weeks or months. The Laundry novels I read a year or two apart, and was sufficiently freaked out by their horroristic milieu not to bother reading again, or indeed feel the need to. (unlike say with a Dorothy Sayers book, several of which I re-read a week or 3 after first reading them because of the sheer enjoyment and depth to them)

So I can't tell if the Laundry stuff is that internally consistent. Many others are no doubt the same. In fact I reacted similarly to the Harry potter books, although much less squicked out by them, I have not felt the need to re-read them, so have no idea what inconsistencies there are within them.

As for magic as technology, I've mentioned this before, I have written several shortish stories set in such a world, but am not quite sure they're good enough and have no idea where to send them to see if anyone wants to publish...


I think they are hypothesising that all the neutrons, electrons and protons fly apart and stick back together to make Si, which results in breaking and re-making of various chemical bonds, and also whatever spare neutrons, protons and electrons flying off and causing damage/ transferring energy/ irradiating the user.

I would be excessively surprised if Charlie had thought this through, rather it's a nice modern take on an old legend, which is not meant to be taken seriously. Has anyone started trying to make sense of the Laundryverse the way people have spent decades trying to shoe-horn Start Trek or Star Wars into scientific frameworks?


I suspect that much of the art in Naming something is the process of learning compound names from esoteric concepts, and being able to divine the essence of a True Name from examination as well as rote learning of those already learned.

While unique names are no doubt challenging to come by, the Old Speech is a full language, and clearly a rich one. There are apparently several thousand runes in their writing system, which suggests that it might be like the Asian languages - many spoken syllables overlap but their written meanings can be totally different according to what symbols are used for those syllables. That increases possibilities by orders of magnitude, because a single word can represent a sentence.

For a simple example, what do the following English words mean? Run, Set, Take. They have dozens of different meanings according to use, yet are all simple short words.

I presume dragons speak it natively mostly because being of immense age they would both suffer very little language shift, and grow up slowly enough to develop an innate understanding, which is what allows them to lie.

Headcanons can explain anything if necessary :)


Just as a matter of clarification:
a) I'd forgotten how many separate laws Isaac came up with.
b) I was thinking of the most important as being the
Law of Similarity and the Law of Contagion,
and I think most people would find those to
be "reasonable".

I will *not* consider quantum entanglement here.
Finally, c) I'm unhappy that no one seems to be considering, or even remembering, Sprague deCamp, who certainly *should* be remembered. Incomplete Enchanter (and the sequels) were great fun, as was his own Lest Darkness Fall (I still chuckle over the scene where he introduces the Vandals, is it, to American 1930's dirty election tricks)....



yes please, pretty please, I'd like a Galactic supernova in my lifetime
Be careful what you wish for - a good viewing distance is required for safety - I'd say at least 10 parsecs, maybe more....


Got a SLIGHT problem there.
Simply assuming the most common isotopes
C has 6 protons & 6 neutrons ( C-12 )
Si has 14 protons & neutrons ( Si-28 )
So two C don't quite make one Si ... in fact to get a balance, with nothing left over, you'd need ... um, err ... 14 C nucleii ( 84 p+n ) to make 6 Si nucleii - also 84 p+n. [ Assuming, of course, that I've got my fingers/thumbs counting correct! ]
Unless, of course this process only works at the "one per ten-thousand or one per million level, & remembering how big Avogadro's number is.
I think "Oh shit!" might be a good expression here.


Guess we'll have to agree to disagree then. But you might want to reread them again...


Betelgeuse, early next year


There are plenty of protons hanging around, so the real formula could be 2C+4H = Si.


Well re-reading good books is not usually a hardship, but I think I'll wait a few more years.


If I read the wikipedia articles on solar nucleosynthesis correctly, you can burn 4 C into one Si with Oxygen as an intermediate step. You get 5 He for free.


That's not precisely what I'm complaining about. I see lists like Bonewit's and immediately think "those don't look like fundamental laws", in any field. In this case they feel (OK, to me) analogous to engineering rules accumulated over millennia, and so by implication, there may be simpler underlying laws. No denigration of existing and historical practices is implied, excepting the usual skepticism, e.g. due-diligence evaluation against common conceptual biases including confirmation bias, etc.
Re L. Sprague de Camp, read those as "The Compleat Enchanter", and they were entertaining, yes. Will pick it up again after finishing "A Darker Shade of Magic".


I may not have this entirely right ... but isn't the spacetime matrix identification of every single particle one of the requisite steps when 'beaming' someone in StarTrek land? In such an instance the true name is the same as the true 'pre' followed by 'post' location.


Yes, exactly. Messy is one of the reasons I think it's part of a not completely thought through lets make it up on the hoof because it sounds amusing-system. The 1% thing is also probably another of those plucked from the air because it sounds good sort of things. I seem to recall that Charlie has said authors are paid to lie, or was that someone else?


Regarding Earthsea, I did some rooting around since people were interested.

The magic rule is that Old Speech or the language of Dragons is required to be used, due to the inherent Truth conditions within it:

"You are a very young wizard," the dragon said, "I did not know men came so young into their power." He spoke, as did Ged, in the Old Speech, for that is the tongue of dragons still. Although the use of the Old Speech binds a man to truth, this is not so with dragons. It is their own language, and they can lie in it, twisting the true words to false ends... "Is it to ask my help that you have come here, little wizard?"

"No dragon."

"Yet I could help you. You will need help soon, against that which hunts you in the dark... What is it that hunts you? Name it to me."

"If I could name it -- " Ged stopped himself.

"If you could name it you could master it, maybe, little wizard... Would you like to know its name?

"But I did not come here to play, or to be played with. I came to strike a bargain with you."

Like a sword in sharpness but five times the length, of any sword, the point of the dragon's tail arched up scorpion-wise over his mailed back, above the tower. Dryly, he spoke: "I strike no bargains. I take. What have you to offer that I cannot take from you when I like?"

"Safety. Your safety. Swear that you will never fly eastward of Pendor, and I will swear to leave you unharmed. . .

A grating sound came from the dragon's throat... "You offer me safety! You threaten me! With what?

"With your name, Yevaud."

Ged's voice shook as he spoke the name, yet he spoke it clear and loud. At the sound of it, the old dragon held still, utterly still.

Although a lot of focus is placed on Names, the actual locus is the semantic structure of Old Speech as it prevents falsity within it.

Noth hierth malk man, hiolk han merth han!

Naming is actually only one of four parts of Art Magic, which consists of changing, naming, summoning and patterning which is a subset of the seven High Arts (healing, chanting, weatherworking):

Knowledge of names in the Old Speech for things, places and beings; also the art of giving people their true name. One of the high arts of magic, also considered a part of the art magic. The art of naming is said to have been invented by the Rune Makers a thousand years before the first kings of Enlad; they used it to lay 'a great net of spells upon all the western lands, so that when the people of the islands die, they would come to the west beyond the west and live there in spirit forever'a. Naming is taught at the Roke School of Wizardry by the Master Namer


Then I got kinda bored because even as social commentary, the male only aspects got dull.

So, no: Names are just part of the Rules within Earthsea. Language is much more important.

I find the mapping of this onto the science tangent about physics / chemistry / math an interesting one.


Does sound kinda math-y ... as in non-commutative nature of spells which would allow for something to be true yet also possible to be twisted into a falsehood.


If, and only If, you're a dragon, of course. (And yes, that's a nod to formal logic).

If you want a realistic and science based dragon game (if you get that reference, well done), Le Guin's PhD was going to be about a minor (although genre breaking) member of the Grands Rhétoriqueurs.

It would be interesting to see if she was actually making a distinction between rhetoric and logic, that had been at the centre of Western (non-continental) philosophy in the preceding decades.

*nose wiggle*


I should stick to the rule of not posting before #300 ~ OP flew away.


Tank you for that quote - the other true magic of U K le G's prose comes through ...
But, this:
Noth hierth malk man, hiolk han merth han! is obviously (?) either "OE" or old Norse - translate please, as goggle didn't work - "thought" it was Danish (Which wasn't too far out, I suppose )


In ordinary speech and casual writing, even mathematicians often say 1% or one in a million as shorthand for a small proportion they can't remember.


Yup. (Although I note that 1% is 1 in 100) Instead we should be reading the Laundry files as acts of government disinformation. Which might explain the changes in tone in the different novels.


The converse tendency is to prove oneself and the sturdiness of one's world by putting it ALL on the page, in maddening detail, which can be just as problematic

I read so much of this when younger. Now I wonder why I bothered. :-/

What I want now is a setting where the author did that work (or can convince me she did) but only exposes as much as needed for a good story.

I like to think that Chekhov's Gun has two sides. If you're not going to fire the gun, no need to put it there. But if you need the gun, don't have it suddenly appear on a previously-empty wall just before it's fired. :-)


The types of star that can go supernova are limited (those over about 10 solar masses, and white dwarfs in close binaries). There aren't any near enough to the Sun to cause real damage (10 parsecs would be way too close for comfort: the usual estimate for a safe distance is more like 25 pc). Betelgeuse is about 200 pc away: it would be very bright, but spectacular rather than dangerous. Spica is closer—about 80 pc—and over the minimum mass, but it's only just off the main sequence and therefore not likely to blow up for a million years or so, and in any case 80 pc is safe.

So I can wish for a Galactic supernova without being accused of wanting to incinerate humanity!


Are you sure? Wikipedia doesn't agree, for one starting from some kinds of white dwarf. I have no idea how many are close enough.


Then I got kinda bored because even as social commentary, the male only aspects got dull.

Then you really need to go and read Tehanu and The Other Wind, which pretty much inverts everything you know about Earthsea from the original trilogy and is written from a female and an external perspective.

The key requirement for enjoying those two seems to be being older when you first read them - young people hate the introspection and deeper exploration of emotions and society instead of the heroic adventures of the first three.


Like all good magicians I came up with my own recipe in TechnoMage. here's a sample:

The lesson for the magician is plain – choose your axioms wisely, and do not have too many of them. Whether one can have too few is an interesting point given that a rather powerful one is “There is no reality”. So, a summary of the requirements for choosing the propositions to underlie a new magickal systems are:

The axioms must be untestable

The axioms must be consistent with each other

They must be incapable of decomposition into simpler statements

Do not choose too many, or the complexity will explode to unmanageable levels

Choose at least one of the axioms to be a mapping to True Will

Like all good magickal advice, by negating any or all of the above one can create a rather interesting variant that does have its uses, but I will not elaborate on that! The key axiom, and one which is often hidden as an underlying assumption, is the question of how the system is mapped to any kind of reality.
A certain amount of verbal redundancy, for anyone who knows what an axiom is.


Chandreshekar limit is IIRC 1.4 SolM ....
Also, under exactly the right conditions it is maybe/theoretically possible for Sirius to go off bang ... - much too close


Ah... I could have put something like:

If you look at the right spots in the night sky (with a suitable instrument, and noting that "right" implies a narrowly-defined position in time as well as space) you can see it exotherming away merrily (with a little poetic licence, to allow for the stellar pathway being one that involves multiple stages so it doesn't all happen at once, at least not in the same bit of the star; but you can at least see things that you'd not be seeing if it didn't work).

But I deliberately left out the italic bits because the discussion at that point was about the energetics of C->Si fusion in general, with reference to its exothermicity in a scenario derived from Charlie's imagination, and I figured the details of the multiple-stage nature of the pathway by which it takes place in stars would be an unnecessary elaboration of a sentence intended merely as a footnote to cite an instance of such an exothermic transformation occurring in reality, so to include them would only be to confuse the matter. Alas, it seems that omitting them has given rise to even greater confusion than that which I was hoping to avoid.

And yes, I definitely agree that a spectacularly but not dangerously close supernova would be an epically cool event and one much to be desired.


"I think they are hypothesising that all the neutrons, electrons and protons fly apart and stick back together to make Si"

If "they" refers to me, then no, I was making no comment at all as to what pathway was actually involved. After all, we have no idea what the pathway is. But that doesn't matter. The point is that the overall energy released by a given set of reactants transforming to a given set of products does not depend on the pathway, and the most straightforward way to calculate it is to assume that the reactants are completely disassembled into their basic components and then those components are reassembled to form the products, and then look up the energies involved in those two transformations in the appropriate tables. I was explaining how C->Si fusion would be exothermic by using that assumption.

(The same assumption is used to determine the energy of both chemical and nuclear reactions, just using different definitions of "disassembled into basic components" and "appropriate tables".)


7 C -> 3 Si balances :)


In the matter of blowing up Betelgeuse, see "From a Changeling Star" by Jeffrey A Carver.


Apparently 1% is also approximately the fraction of 13C on earth, so maybe it's just the unlucky number 13 that makes them swap places with 32Si from another dimension.


Ugh. For a setting that features Cthulhu as the semifinal boss, you people spend to much time discussing the details of nuclear conversion. It's fantasy, yo. A wizard did it.


I will say that, my grumble about the Laundry magic is that it's a wee bit, um--what's the right word?--tawdry (?).

For example, in the early books where everything was handwaved, it was easy to imagine a summoning grid as some kind of ornate fractal pattern. In the later books, it increasingly looks like a boring-ass pentagram, perhaps (at best) one of those intricate squiggly ones that was in the paperback Necronomicon. Pulling back the curtain on the monster didn't make the monster more monstrous, at least for me.

If I had one suggestion, it's to leave the magic a bit more mysterious. Let us imagine that the horribly complex equation that is equivalent to an incantation is just that (complete with Hebrew or even Enochian notation, Greek being insufficient), and not some boring-ass polynomial with a bit of trig in it, like we saw in high school when the teacher was feeling grumpy. And let fractals more than scribbles.

The other note, and I'm probably alone in saying this, is that it's hilariously amazing to me that there are all these magical parasites that attack humans. That implies a massively long history of magical parasites that have coevolved with humans, yet we don't have a history of them, even though we've got a long history of dealing with parasites like malaria. Hopefully you're going to tell us that the damned things are escaping from faerie and that's why that plane is such a horrendous place to live. Otherwise, Laundryverse Earth increasingly looks like a place where most of its problematic natural history has been systematically suppressed, starting in Europe and spreading over the globe with a wave of colonialism, and that somehow, this suppression actually worked on magical critters, even though it didn't work on ordinary pathogens like malaria and doesn't make any sense from a public health perspective.

Incidentally, this also goes for the medusas and basilisks. If they're a natural phenomenon, why was knowledge of them suppressed again? Given how much poultry gets raised in battery cages, you'd think they'd screen for cockatrices as a matter of course, just to keep the farm hands from getting stoned (and would they be getting stoned on henbane? Or is that too many puns?)


I agree about the magic needing to be kept more mysterious, but, what parasites are you talking about?

Bear in mind there are also parallel universes to think about, they could have evolved in another one with humans and then been imported/ jumped into this one.


SPOILER ALERT (as if...)

Parasites that do amazingly well on humans include (in no particular order):
--the isopods in Apocalypse Codex
--arguably any brain eater (unless we're assuming that they're meta-viruses equivalent to the Snow Crash Asherah virus, and therefore capable of infecting and zombifying every system of sufficient complexity).
--The PHANG syndrome symbiote
--The "Hungry Ghost" that possessed Angleton.

Now in the real world, most of the biodiversity in the world is parasites, and the reason for this is that parasites are (mostly) specialists: they evolve to subvert the defenses of one group of organisms, and often that group is quite small (one species or less). Certainly some parasites jump hosts, but often the result is a catastrophic and lethal infection. Rather seldom is it an improvement in parasite performance.

To put this in Laundryverse terms, an equoid that can puppet a human with an anal tentacle has evolved both magic and the ability to manipulate humans to a truly amazing degree. If they'd evolved on this Earth, that would suggest that equoids have been parasitizing humans longer than the few thousand years that humans have had that symbiotic relationship with equines like horses and donkeys.

The simplest explanation (cough, cough!) is that things like equoids are extradimensional invasive species from elsewhere, some Alt-Earth (perhaps the Elflands?) where hominids have been coevolving with magical parasites since the late Miocene, if not before. Laundryverse humans are acceptable host substitutes, nothing more.

Indeed, if those extradimensional hominids managed to create a civilization in spite of the ubiquitous presence of magical parasites, they might even be breeding and engineering the damned things as weapons, thereby (through artificial selection) shoving the evolution of at least some populations into high gear.


I may have the wrong speciality, but Susan does hold an advanced degree in physics. Wikipedia I'd treat as an aide memoir plus reference source for more advanced reading.


I used it as such. Even the top experts in a field have slips of the mind. Look up type Ia supernovae.


it's hilariously amazing to me that there are all these magical parasites that attack humans. That implies a massively long history of magical parasites that have coevolved with humans, yet we don't have a history of them

Hey, they don't just attack humans -- they attack anything with a central nervous system: humans are just particularly tasty (big brains) and present in copious supply. They're also the ones smart enough (or stupid enough) to hang out the EATERS WELCOME HERE signs/conduct insecure summonings. (There are eater-possessed animals in "The Nightmare Stacks".)

Nor is it literal brain-eating, on a biological level: they're infovores. The more complex the information processor they're corrupting and controlling, the better. The physical brain damage they inflict is the end-stage of diffuse apoptosis resulting from them rewiring all the synapses belonging to the neuron in question without due care and attention.

Our computers mostly aren't complex enough to be tasty to them ... yet: ever wondered where STUXNET really came from?


Now, THAT is a really juicy alien conspiracy theory - fed to the right people, they would probably start a society .... I assume that you have put it on your long list for a future subtheme in the Laundry files or a separate short story / whatever :-)


Hmmm. So in the Laundryverse, our brains run on binary code at some level? And all computing systems are equally hackable, given sufficient complexity to hold the appropriate, erm, virus?

What's a soul then?


Information (in the information theory sense) doesn't have to be held in a discrete form, let alone binary; anything that can be described in probabilistic terms will do. And that's far more general than most non-mathematicians realise, including data where specific states cannot be identified precisely. Quantum mechanics is the least of it ....

"What's a soul then?" - I invoke Dawkins on you! Did that send you back from where you came?


Charlie - "stupid enough) to hang out the EATERS WELCOME HERE signs/conduct insecure summonings."

ROTFLMAO!!! (Esp. with the virtual ethernet stack issue just repoted on on slashdot....)

mark, sr.sysadmin*

* To quote an old friend of mine, "I'm professionally paid to be paranoid".


In the Laundryverse context, please! Charlie talks about souls and soul eaters, so presumably souls are definable entities of some sort.

But you're both getting and missing my point: of course information doesn't have to be binary. However, if you assume there are things out there that eat "information," and that can jump from electrical systems to human systems, then that implies:

1. All information is the same in the Laundryverse. It's not equivalent to "food" (as in the statement that all 'vores eat food), it's not equivalent to "meat" (as in all carnivores eat meat, because no carnivore eats all kinds of meat), but it's equivalent to, say "steak" (as in human carnivores eat steak). It's all one type. Otherwise, there would be a whole ecology of infovores eating different kinds of information, and they wouldn't be able to translate among systems. Brain eaters wouldn't eat computer programs, and so forth.

2. Because they can infest computers, I'd suggest that, in Charlie's Laundryverse, all information is binary, whatever system it's running in.

3. Since there is no coevolution of infovores with information processing systems, it appears that the limits on infovores are the size of the processing system, not the type of information. Given a sufficiently complex information processing system to house themselves, they'll hack it, no matter what. In this, they're more like Stephenson's Asherah meta(meta(meta))virus, more than anything else.

I can only wonder why the NSA even bothers with hacking computers using humans and codes, when such entities are available to the US government to do this kind of work.

If you happen to notice that there might be one or two inconsistencies in this description, well, um, I'm not sure what to say, because I'm being polite to OGH. He did want to know how people saw his magic system, after all.


re 2: So far we've seen parasites infest computers, but not feed of them. I'd say computers of early 21st cen. tech. are a vector for the parasites, but not proper fodder.
Assuming that 'souls' are not more special stuff than the rest of the universe, this would mean that at a certain point AI could feed demons. In hte Laundryverse, there is a faction figh between those who want to stop AI research (new fodder for the old ones without any immun system) and those who figure they can create a strategic rersorce to control demons - he way oil, or grain, or opium drives policy.


Sounds like computer systems are latent carriers then, not victims. Does that make the NSA Typhoid Mary?


"... soul eaters ..."

All right, I accept the correction!

"Because they can infest computers, I'd suggest that, in Charlie's Laundryverse, all information is binary, whatever system it's running in."

Yer, whaa? Great Ghu, WHY?

1. All information is the same in the Laundryverse. It's not equivalent to "food" (as in the statement that all 'vores eat food), it's not equivalent to "meat" (as in all carnivores eat meat, because no carnivore eats all kinds of meat), but it's equivalent to, say "steak" (as in human carnivores eat steak). It's all one type. Otherwise, there would be a whole ecology of infovores eating different kinds of information, and they wouldn't be able to translate among systems. Brain eaters wouldn't eat computer programs, and so forth.

I don't think we've got enough information (sorry) to say that with any certainty. I think "information" could easily be equivalent to "meat". The Laundry tends only to encounter (or rather, to notice encountering) infovores that can eat "human mind" meat, some of which are also capable of eating other things.

Let's say, to take your analogy, that "human mind" is "steak". Maybe our computers are "chicken" - most things that are happy to eat one can try the other safely. Other things might live entirely on "fish" (fairly like "steak" and "chicken" in a lot of ways, but far from identical) while others might be primarily interested in something that's totally inedible to a steak-eater. But if human minds are "steak", then the laundry are unlikely to see much sign of an exclusive piscivore, never mind things to which "steak" is actually harmful. We'll only identify infovores that can eat the kinds of information we actually deal with.


A soul is that which stays constant when a character in a story changes his/her body.


As per Jack Chalker, I assume?


Once you've got a set of rules, doesn't it become science and not magic?


Clarke's law & it's reversal?


OK, I've just started in on the author's series, and I think this idea of parallel (well more or less) Worlds with differing magic (and technology?) levels is interesting.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by V. E. Schwab published on February 17, 2016 12:00 PM.

Introducing new guest blogger: V.E. Schwab was the previous entry in this blog.

Burnout, creativity, and the tyranny of production schedules is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog