Magic versus Science

I dropped a bomb on twitter yesterday when I said “I find magic systems to be the most f'ing annoying thing about fantasy. I mean, why do I care? Keep it consistent and it doesn't matter.”

As you might imagine, there were, um, quite a few people who took issue with the statement. The funny thing is that the conversation ended up straying into science fiction and even thriller fiction.

First, let me explain. I don't read fantasy anymore, at least not the sword and sorcerer stuff. If you consider Butcher's “The Dresden Files” to be fantasy, then I guess I read fantasy. But most things with some kind of medieval dwarf, elf, or wizard cover is ground I refuse to tread. Probably to my detriment. But here's why.

It took me a long time to realize this, and probably most of that has to do with the fact I've recently taken up writing again, but those books usually have very little to do with character. Here I am, again, making a broad sweeping statement. And yes, it's unfair. But I so burned out on traditional fantasy when I was young that I can't stand looking at it anymore.

Books that spend more time on their setting, their magical laws or other nonsense than the characters are of little interest to me. Now let me clarify. If descriptions of the setting, if the laws of the world, are a vital part of the character's story, then it's perfectly acceptable to blend them in. BLEND!

Infodumps are notorious in science fiction. They stick out like a dwarf on an NBA basketball team. If a character turns to another character and says “as you know,” I just check out. Instead of ham-handing background into an infodump, a more skillful writer will find ways to insert necessary background information into the narrative through conversations or character thoughts.

But science fiction is not the only genre complicit in the infodump.

I was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast and was floored by the fact the host, Brandon Sanderson, actually had to discuss if it was more important to come up with a great magic system or a great story. For some reason, this had to be debated.

Jim Butcher recounted his experiences on Usenet where a number of combatants, I mean conversants, all said that a great story had to have original, great ideas. Oh, and a magic system. Butcher disagreed. One of the smart asses then challenged him to make a decent story out of “the lost roman legion” trope, “timetravel”, and “Pokemon.”

Butcher, being a good sport, said sure. What happened? A best selling novel series. The Codex Alera. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I haven't read them. Nor do I really have any interest, even if it is Jim Butcher.

But where Butcher succeeds with Dresden is in creating a character that is damned entertaining to listen to and observe. The world around him is recognizable as our own, but contains vampires, werewolves, faeries, monsters, and a parallel universe that lies just around the corner.

Dresden mixes politics, questions of right and wrong, and justice with magic and fantasy amidst an urban backdrop. It's made of win.

Here's what it doesn't do–it doesn't explain how magic works. It doesn't really try either. You either have it, or you don't. Butcher talks about wizards studying, practicing spells, reading the works of others, and experimenting. But really, it's all about focus and will. That's it. Oh, and people can wear themselves out. That's about it.

What could he have done? Well, he could have said “when the time is right, you have to align yourself with the elements. If you are a water sign, you do this, if you're a fire sign, you do this…blah blah blah blah.”

I. Don't. Care.

I am a focus group of one and my tastes in literature and film are highly suspect. I readily admit this. But I have an opinion and here it is: I don't give a damn how magic works. It's magic. It's a skill some possess. It's a phenomenon you witness. That's that.

Rules? Here's the only rule I care about: be consistent.

Don't make some badass villain who never gets tired, never has any kind of vulnerability save that one magical item everyone is struggling to find (hello? Tolkien?). It bores the shit out of me and I just don't find it interesting or important.

Give me characters. How they live with their gift or curse. What kinds of ethical conundrums do their skills produce? Are there specific cases where the magic fails them? Do they rely on it too heavily? Is there a price to be paid in their soul?

Those are interesting conflicts to me. Focus on the people in the world, not the world. The world is only interesting if the people in it are interesting. And for fuck sake, dwarves, elves and orcs do not count just because they are fantastical creatures. They only count if they are interesting AS people.

In all fairness, it's time to turn the gunsights on my genres.

Zombies. Starla Huchton brought up how sick she is of people explaining zombies and how they became zombies. It's pretty true. There's always some kind of plague, epidemic, etc that turns people into the walking dead. At least there always seems to be.

The original Night of the Living Dead never said a damned word as far as what caused the dead to rise. Not. One. Word. The Dawn of the Dead remake pretty much did the same thing. The dead just walked and were hungry for human brain/flesh. That was it. Because the survivors? How the would they know?

28 Days Later actually did it right. They started with how the epidemic started. But of course, 28 Days Later isn't really a zombie movie. Living people aren't zombies. And zombies certainly don't croak from starvation. That movie was mainly about people completely giving in to their anger and becoming nothing more than killing machines.

The Walking Dead series, if memory serves, asks why this is happening, but doesn't really explain it either. I've said before that a good zombie book or film isn't really about the zombies at all. They are just a backdrop for the conflict and quite frequently, they are the least interesting part of the story.

Max Brooks' excellent World War Z doesn't give an explanation for the rise of the dead either. It merely deals with anecdotes and stories from those who survived the zombie apocalypse. That's it and that's what's far more interesting.

Vampires. Oh, I'm sick to death of this shit. Vampirism is a curse. Vampirism is a virus. Vampirism is a… who cares? It's vampirism, dammit. I'm so tired of vampires that I refuse to read another book where a vampire is the main character. I'm just done. Can't stand it anymore. I give up.

Now, let's have some fun with science fiction. There are two types of science fiction. There is hard sci-fi where the author is doing their damnedest to not only make everything plausible, but inform the reader as to the science during the course of the story. Now this can be done well, of course, or it can be done terribly.

Peter F Hamilton in his Nightsdawn Trilogy tried to make the case for how his world's physics work and did quite a good job. But the physics and the science were related in bits and bytes rather than huge infodumps or forced discussions between characters.

Then there is the other kind of science fiction. Philip K Dick kind of science fiction. Dick wrote fantastically strange books. I dig 'em. But the science in them is, um, rather sparse. Dick talks about a “penfield” in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that wakes up Deckard. Does he tell us what it is? Nope. Does it matter? Nope.

It sets the scene for the rest of the book where these terms are tossed around as if you're supposed to know them. The scary part is, once you get used to them, they just fade into the background. Since the characters see them as part of everyday life, there is no reason for them to discuss them. There is no reason for them to be brought to the reader's attention. It just. Doesn't. Matter.

If it's not important to the character, there's little reason for it to be told to the reader.

That said, there are examples of both being done to the point of madness. There are science fiction books out there where the infodumps are so forced, so incessant, that you can't even possibly get through them. I guess somebody did because they're on the shelf, but I'll be damned if I know why.

At the same time, CONSISTENCY is required if you're going to pursue soft-sci-fi. You can't just make up rules as you go along and have them wildly clash. The reader has to have some kind of touch stone to make sense of it all.

If you tell me there is lightspeed in your universe? Cool. Anti-gravity. Sure. Who cares? But don't try and rationalize it or explain it. You only draw attention to it, and that does nothing but bring misery for half the genre's audience.

I guess I'm a tough guy to please. I don't write stories in worlds that don't exist, mainly because I can't wrap my head around how to do it in a way that makes sense. It's a failing of mine. One day I'll try to write something in another world, yes, fantasy, thanks, and see what I can do. But I know it's difficult to stay away from infodumps, from boring the shit out of the reader by describing the world rather than working with the characters.

Rules of magic. God, it's difficult not to get involved in those. Really difficult to keep them at bay. I want to keep asking myself “Why? How does that work?” until I find myself cringing in the corner screaming “I DON'T KNOW!”

Consistency is the key. Perhaps I'll figure that out in my own writing. I only realy know what I like to read and what pisses me off when I see it. So if you like fantasy with extensive infodumps and crazed magic systems? Good for you. Hope you find what you're looking for. Love science fiction that spends chapters explaining starship physics? Good on ya. Vampire mythology? Zombie viruses? Cool. Have fun.

I'll be sitting here shaking my head trying to make sense of a character's brain, why the character does what they do and how in the hell they're going to get themselves out of whatever mess I've put them in.


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