Magic and Technology:

This chapter will use a new definition of magic, one I believe applies to every possible story within the fantasy genre:

"Magic is the ability of an individual or group to produce an effect or device independently of the tools and infrastructure that would usually be required."

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This definition may be clarified or illustrated by the following quote:

"Technological advance is an inherently iterative process. One does not simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then our better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. Each minor refinement is a step in the process, and all of the steps must be taken."
-Chairman Shen-Ji Yang, "Looking God in the Eye"
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

This quote describes (what I see as) the primary difference between a magical wand that can shoot fireballs and a high-tech plasma rifle that does essentially the same thing: tools and infrastructure.

Technology, including hyper-advanced technology in science fiction, had to be developed. Technology advances gradually, and each new invention relies on a host of previous discoveries and tools, and usually provides information that helps the next version be developed.

One of the main premises of Science fiction is this gradual and interrelated nature of technology. A character's capabilities are determined by what tools are available. Amazing feats require similarly amazing tools and infrastructure, and it is always at least implied to be in place, albeit not always in a place the characters can access.

Borrowed or stolen alien hyper-tech still implies that this infrastructure is in place somewhere—someone somewhere had to do all the research and development work; the human protagonists can try to short-cut things, but inevitably don't understand how it works, and if it breaks they invariably lack the knowledge—and, much more importantly, the tools and infrastructure—to repair it. This same lack of knowledge and tools means that they can't maintain their stolen hyper-tech properly, so it is much more likely to break down on them than it would be for its original owners.

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Magic is a totally different beast. With magic, a character's capabilities derive from personal talent. Sometimes that talent needs training for reliable and/or safe use, but tools are of secondary importance, if they are even mentioned at all. More importantly, tools don't come from cruder tools, or lead to better tools; wizards simply start with their tools and use them—magic is a way to skip ahead. Wizards can, as described above, "simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe," skipping all the intermediate steps.

Magic lacks the dynamic properties of technology: tech will grow, slowly but continuously, as new tools and discoveries are made, while magic will skip ahead to a certain point and pretty much stay there. This makes magic very limiting; lacking the constant growth of technology, it is doomed to eventually be surpassed in capabilities and effectiveness.

Magic is also elitist—only a small minority, a "chosen few," possess it, or at least enough to be useful, while technology can be mass-produced and (in the absence of anti-theft features) used by anyone at full efficiency and power. In order for magic to be significant, the setting must have a sufficiently low technology level that magic, at the point it skipped ahead to, can surpass it.

With this understanding, it is perfectly reasonable for a wizard to (for example) create a faster-than-light drive and cruise the stars, or a network of gates or portals to travel between planets. This would still qualify as fantasy, although an author pulling that trick would need to know exactly what he was doing to avoid losing his audience.

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Independence from infrastructure is to some extent a matter of degree. I see seven levels of independence from infrastructure, the names of which are somewhat arbitrary. From least to most "magical" (most to least dependent on understandable tools) the categories are as follows:

0. Actual current tech: Included more for completeness than anything else, current tech is understood in detail and readily reproducible in the real world.

1. Unobtanium: An established jargon term, especially around science fiction. Unobtanium is beyond the capabilities of current technology, but the known equations of physics can predict its behavior. Higher than "current tech" above because some form of breakthrough would be required to produce it. Examples include laser cannons, space elevators, and practical fusion power.

2. Handwavium: Another established science fiction jargon term. Handwavium is an explicit violation of the laws of physics as currently understood, but important for the story. Higher than Unobtanium because a radical change in our understanding of physics would be required to produce it Examples include most forms of faster-than-light technology and the Animorphs' shape-shifting ability. The Green Lantern rings also seem to fall here.

3. Mad Science: Mad Scientists still rely on recognizable tools and technological infrastructure, but their inventions display abilities far beyond what the tools available should properly allow. Mad Science is the lowest category in which personal talent (and thus elitism) starts to apply, making it the lowest category to qualify as "magic" by the definition above. Mad Science inventions also tend to not be reproducible in-universe, a constraint which is not shared by Handwavium, Unobtanium, or Alchemy. Examples include Iron Man's power armor, Inspector Gadget's various gadgets, and some of the stuff Batman has access to.

4. Alchemy: I am using the term "Alchemy" to refer to feats that still rely on tools and knowledge rather than innate talent, but the tools in question are very different from those of real-life technology. Talent does not apply here, unlike Mad Science, making this level less magical in that way. On the other hand, this level is also where the basic paradigm of "crude tools to fashion better tools . . . and so on" breaks down, which is the reason it is placed higher. Most magic in the Chronicles of Amber seems to be of this type. Magic in Dungeons & Dragons also seems to fall here (at least Wizards do; Sorcerers are type 5 and I'm not sure how to rate Clerics).

5. Magical Rituals: These rely primarily on innate talent rather than tools, although the latter are still required, at least for reliable use and/or the more impressive feats. The elitist "chosen few" concept is in full effect here. The most obvious example is Harry Potter.

6. Psychic Powers: Direct, explicit magic. Psychic powers are produced purely by innate talent with no requirement whatsoever for any kind of tool or outside assistance, although some of these tricks can be boosted by outside tools. Examples include most comic-book superheroes (starting with Superman and all of the X-Men), Jedi Force abilities in Star Wars, and most conceptions of telepathy, such as in Babylon 5 and Star Trek.

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The following diagram illustrates the similarities of the seven infrastructure levels above:



Categories that are shown linked together are the most likely to be confused. As an example, I name the Green Lantern Rings: at first glance, they look like straightforward Alchemy (type 4) but they are specified to be the result of a very long period of research, development, and advancement on the part of the alien Guardians of the Universe, so they fit best as Handwavium (type 2, shown adjacent in the diagram). By the definitions of this chapter, alien hyper-tech is always either Unobtanium or Handwavium.

Another example of confusion, this one not listed on the diagram, is from the Chronicles of Amber. Magic relies on the Pattern and the Logrus, representations and foci of the cosmic forces of (respectively) Order and Chaos; magic requires being able to use at least one. This type of magic is thus best described as Alchemy (type 4). However, both are very dangerous to use, and only members of a specific royal family can do so safely (meaning "with a reasonable expectation of not killing themselves"), and this elitist aspect causes it to border on Rituals (type 5). In addition, magicians do not carry tools or spell components with them—they can summon a representation of their chosen focus at will, so they also border on Psychic Powers (type 6).