Morgan And (Pseudo) Science Fiction

by John Holbo on January 23, 2017

My older daughter was feeling pretty low so I said I would read to her while she did some drawing. Normally that means Moomin books or Discworld or something. Tonight, she was in the mood for more scholarly fare. She requested: King Arthur’s Enchantresses, Morgan and Her Sisters In Arthurian Tradition, by Carolyne Larrington (a book I got her a few years ago, but which proved a bit much then.)

So I’m reading about Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin, so forth, and this bit comes up, which I think I may include in my science fiction module, next time round.

Is Geoffrey’s Morgan supernatural or human? Did she acquire her magical powers from the Other World, or is she simply an educated, mortal woman who has actively studied the knowledge she wields?

Geoffrey gives us no origin story. But our author writes:

In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, scholars began to formulate a new view of magic. Following, in part, the rediscovery of Aristotle’s scientific writings, this new understanding might be described as pseudo-scientific. Natural things were thought to have inherent properties; they might be cold or hot, moist or dry, for example, and if you had a proper understanding of their qualities and applications you could achieve effects with them which might seem wonderful to those who did not understand them. This kind of natural magic falls into the broader category of the ‘marvellous’: that which appears to be contrary to God’s law, but in fact obeys hidden laws. The contemporary writer Gervase of Tilbury explains that the marvellous is simply that which we do not yet have the learning to understand, but which, in contrast to the miraculous, is not produced by the supernatural:

“we generally call those things miracles which, being preternatural, we ascribe to divine power, as when a virgin gives birth … and those things marvels, which do not yield to our understanding, even when they be natural: in fact the inability to explain why a thing is so constitutes a marvel.”

Some medieval magic, particularly in literary contexts, is thus understood to be inexplicable rather than impossible. A corresponding rationalization is at work in the Post-Vulgate Suite de Merlin, where Merlin explains to the amazed Arthur that a damsel who apparently walks on water to bring Excalibur to him is actually supported by a submerged wooden bridge, a demystification which Malory omits. (9)

(Presumably Malory had the good sense to realize that tales of Arthur shouldn’t be some Scooby-Doo episode, in which it turns out the Lady is just trying to drive down property values on beach front real estate. “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling knights!”)

None of this is too surprising. But I’m always on the look-out for early cases of authors or critics consciously marking the line between fantasy and science fiction in literature. Tilbury is drawing the fantasy/SF line, by implication, in a way that’s familiar (if never quite satisfactory); but I take it he didn’t think he was distinguishing literary sub-genres.

Reading on:

That magic must be subject to God’s laws which human magicians do not have the power to suspend implies that their knowledge is not supernatural. That it could indeed be acquired by all who applied themselves to the right books, or who were admitted to study with an acknowledged master, such as Merlin, is the dominant view held of magic in literary contexts, from the twelfth century onwards. Yet this more modern understanding of magic as natural science was not unopposed; ranged against it was a well-established theological argument that magic is always the province of demons. Both theologians and scientists envisaged the universe as a systematic place where there is an orderly hierarchy from the heavenly to the earthly, and where objects similar in form, or even in name, can affect each other …(10)

I’ll stop there. I’m a bit skeptical. It would be interesting if there were, as early as the twelfth century, a self-conscious critical line between, as it were, MF (miracle fiction) and, um, MF (marvelous fiction). I’m imagining a twelfth century ArthurCon, at which fans divide hotly. It would be great to find an example of someone complaining that it’s wrong to write Morgan as a scientist (or not). Larrington seems to suggest here such debates occurred, concerning literary texts. (Or maybe she’s just saying there was a general intellectual debate at the time.)

Well, I guess I’ll keep reading. What do you think? Was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini maybe SF, because Merlin and Morgan were maybe scientists?



soru 01.23.17 at 5:05 pm

As SF written by post-colonial Catholics, it probably counts as magical realism.


medrawt 01.23.17 at 6:52 pm

I am not schooled in twelfth century thought patterns, but it seems to me this is ultimately a theological divide, about whether ALL apparently supernatural feats (other than those stemming from God) should be ascribed to demonic intercession, or only SOME of them. The background assumptions of these stories ensure that Marvelous Fiction is not distinct from Miracle Fiction, but nested inside it. (I suppose you could also say that something similar is theoretically true of our modern genres … but I think we receive them differently enough to make the comparison awkward.)

I never read the Vita Merlini, but per Geoffrey’s Historia, Merlin’s father is presumptively a demon. Merlin may be a scientist – per at least one translation available online, the disguise Merlin develops for Uther, allowing him to pass for Gorlois and rape Ygraine without her knowledge, is described by Geoffrey as “medicinal”. But he’s also something else, coming from outside the realm of pure Marvelous Fiction.


Glen Tomkins 01.23.17 at 10:24 pm

I don’t get the distinction between the miraculous and marvelous. You (and all of mankind to date, let’s assume you have total Google omniscience) either know how to do a thing, or you do not. If you do not, your ignorance does not allow you to distinguish whether the doing of that thing is unknown to you because it is inherently undoable, or simply because it has yet to be adequately researched.

I don’t get the distinction between SF and fantasy either, except as an attitude. FTL travel may or may not be doable, but we haven’t the faintest idea how one might do it, any more than we know how one might levitate by uttering a spell, so what basis can there be for saying that a story involving FTL travel is SF, while the Harry Potter universe is fantasy? I mean, what basis beyond the attitude and intention of the author and reader to fit the story into one irrationally and inconsistently defined genre or the other.

At least there’s no fundamental theoretical reason why levitating by uttering a spell absolutely cannot work, while such exists for FTL travel. So perhaps the Culture series is really fantasy, and Harry Potter is, in comparison, hard SF.


Yankee 01.23.17 at 10:54 pm

@Glen Tomkins

If you do whatever by uttering a spell, that’s mere instrumentalism: technology! Hence Hogwarts. Magic is conceived and executed by imagination or force of will, as the Princes of Amber or some kinds of Buddhism or Voldemort, the self-actualized Wizard, whatever selected ordinary limitations get transcended. Trying to make magic into technology and v.v. has gotten Evangelical Christianity into a lot of trouble.

FTL travel is just “alternate facts”, perfectly appropriate in the setting. If tastefully done.


medrawt 01.23.17 at 11:14 pm

Glen Tomkins –

I agree with you on the principle that these genres are “irrationally and inconsistently defined”, and I’m sure there are some sour types who sniff that any book with FTL should properly be considered a fantasy rather than science fiction. But from our 21st century standpoint, I’d say that the distinction between genres, at least in terms of “stuff that doesn’t exist and may never exist,” is the distinction between a world we can imagine might be possible in the future, vs. a world we believe to be flatly impossible. Dune posits, among other things, a world in which some people have developed such precise powers of persuasion that for a moment or two they can command another person to act against their own will. Do I think this is likely? No, but Dune is set 20,000 years in the future and hey, who knows, we see today that some people appear susceptible to hypnotic suggestions, etc. OTOH, my worldview doesn’t really allow for the possibility that someone can burn some sage and mutter some Pig Latin and turn me into their psychic slave, now or ever.

In practice, if such things are possible, then as you say there’s nothing obviously less plausible about Harry Potter than hyperspace – I used the term “supernatural” in my previous comment because it’s a conventional term, but really I should have written “incredible” because if we’re imagining a world where these incredible things are possible, then they shouldn’t really be considered “supernatural”.

And my understanding is that we should take seriously the idea that Medieval Europeans were operating under a worldview where incredible things were considered possible, and while theological debate on such matters may seem logically contorted from our POV, it wasn’t from theirs. People died as a result of arguments over the precise nature of the Holy Trinity; whether some marvelous product of arcane knowledge was really the Devil’s Work is suitably high stakes for concern.


Bill Benzon 01.23.17 at 11:39 pm

Do you think your daughter’s ready for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or for one of the modern English translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? On the evidence at YouTube, SGGK is a favorite of teen-age media projects. Morgan’s a behind the scenes manipulator in SGGK.


John Holbo 01.23.17 at 11:44 pm

“I am not schooled in twelfth century thought patterns, but it seems to me this is ultimately a theological divide, about whether ALL apparently supernatural feats (other than those stemming from God) should be ascribed to demonic intercession, or only SOME of them. The background assumptions of these stories ensure that Marvelous Fiction is not distinct from Miracle Fiction, but nested inside it. “

Yes. Nested inside it! Imagine a genre of science fiction in which Aristotelian natural scientists are operating, potently in a Christian universe. A world in which everything is magical … except the wizards.


Matt 01.23.17 at 11:51 pm

At least there’s no fundamental theoretical reason why levitating by uttering a spell absolutely cannot work, while such exists for FTL travel. So perhaps the Culture series is really fantasy, and Harry Potter is, in comparison, hard SF.

The Culture is my favorite fantasy setting. Harry Potter is fantasy too: it has time travel, violation of conservation laws, and other things forbidden by known physics. (Pet Sematary could pass as hard SF though, with a few infodumps sprinkled in about alien nanomachinery.)


Perhaps a work’s status as fantasy-or-not depends on the knowledge of its readership rather than its characters. Adventures on Venus’s swampy surface could once be classed as SF, when Venus’s surface was unknown. Now they must be fantasy because Venus isn’t like that.

Similar in spirit: in 1952 an adult author could have witnessed rapid successive discoveries of radioactivity, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and antimatter annihilation. Each of these released dizzyingly more energy than the most energetic processes previously known. It was at least superficially plausible that there were more rungs left to ascend on the energy ladder, so astro-men might one day easily flit between the planets and stars. It wasn’t facially absurd that humans in the year 2017 would know of some miracle energy store better than antimatter. But now that we are in the actual year 2017 and it has been a long time since humans made a leap like the discovery of nuclear fission, a science-savvy audience knows that the Pocket Sized Gigawatt Generator belongs in fantasy and comic books (but I repeat myself…), not in proper hard SF. And an audience that is not particularly science-savvy, or that bases the SF/Fantasy distinction on trappings and attitudes rather than scientific accuracy, will insist that works containing FTL or the PSGG are still SF as long as there’s space suits and laser guns instead of plate mail and Magic Missile.


William Berry 01.24.17 at 1:15 am

@Glenn Tomkins, Yankee:

The idea of real magic or thaumaturgy being a technical skill is elaborated considerably in the works of Jack Vance (think of the stories of the great wizards near the end of the Dying Earth collection), not to mention latter-day writers such as China Mieville.

I wrote a paper on SGGK for a literature class at Memphis State more than forty y.a. Probably just as well it hasn’t survived among my papers. I’d probably be embarrassed by my youthful enthusiasm. I was completely spell-bound by all that early and medieval English literature, all the way from Beowulf to Barbara Allan.


William Berry 01.24.17 at 1:20 am

On second thought, I take back the above mention of Mieville. His world is an alternate reality in which thaumaturgy is a fundamental natural force so, really, unexplained.


stevenjohnson 01.24.17 at 4:26 am

My opinion: SF is not a story with a seemingly supernatural element that turns out to have a natural explanation. That is Scooby Doo cartoons. SF is a story with a fantastic, seemingly impossible element (so far as we know) which is nevertheless is somehow supposed to be a part of the natural world. Fantasy is a story with a supernatural element which is much, much cooler precisely because it can’t be a part of the numdane world.

It’s true that a seemingly plausible well-researched technothriller overlaps with SF as more commonly define. (Argue about On the Beach?) And it’s also true fantasy overlaps with absurdist fiction (At-Swim-Two-Birds, anyone?) But I find no use in definitions which change the genre it according to the calendar date, a notion altogether too similar to the grue/bleen controversy.

There is a critical issue at heart in the dispute over defining SF and fantasy. The superficial plausibility of the connection to nature is a key stylistic issue in SF. The better the “science,” the better the SF style. (As a practical generalization, nobody has ever written a textbook as fiction, despite much nonsense to the contrary.) This usually involve forward thinking, speculation about the future of our understanding. Fantasy on the other hand stylistically prefers the romance of the old daydreams. Mold and cobwebs are excellent fantasy style.

Technically, historical fiction and SF are the same thing, facing the same authorial decisions and narrative difficulties. Fantasy that indiscriminately mingles naturalistic causes for its fantastic things in an effort to mitigate its innate tendency to sentimentalization of the past tends to be stylistically incompetent. SF that refuses to condescend to think about its fantastic supposedly connects to the everyday is deaf to style, a serious criticism of a writer I should have thought. Or to rephrase, the greatest interest in SF tends to be its engagement with the world. When Gulliver sees fantastic Lilliput and Brobdingnag, we see our world differently through his eyes. The greatest interest in fantasy is escapeism. Contra Tolkien, that’s not quite the same thing as escape.


maidhc 01.24.17 at 4:54 am

What’s the basis of magic? Why should it work?

Three approaches:
1. Appeal to some powerful being, god, spirit, demon to do something for you.
2. Like-to-like. Like pushing pins into a voodoo doll.
3. Collecting and amassing magical power from naturally occurring sources, like animals or other people. Maybe collecting blood or possessing bones, shrunken heads, etc.

Greek gods were a bit capricious, but they might take a liking to you if you built them a nice temple or something. In the late medieval era, God was all-powerful, and hence the name or symbol or God could command demons, if used properly. Or you could get power from Satan, if you sold your soul.

Certain places had natural magic, like holy wells, and if you associated yourself with that place you could gain some of the power. One of the early concepts of Merlin was that he had been a hermit who spent long periods in the wilderness. This mixes with the concept that if you devoted most of your time to performing spiritual exercises you could become more powerful. In the Christian world, because you became closer to God. In the Buddhist world, perhaps, because you became better at seeing through the illusions of physical existence.

Some authors have interesting theories. Larry Niven’s idea of mana as a natural resource in the The Magic Goes Away series. Of course he’s better known as a hard SF writer. Also Terry Pratchett’s concept that the power of a god is based on the number of people who believe in them.

In Tolkien I think you can argue that magic in the world is magic left over from Creation, and wielded mostly by demiurges like Morgoth, Sauron and Gandalf, although other people can capture it and use it.

A lot of authors don’t seem to think through their magic. In Harry Potter, when the food appears, was that food that was prepared elsewhere and merely transported by magic? Or was it brought into existence by magic? Could magic food provide real nutrition? If you could bring things into existence by magic, why are there poor wizards and rich wizards? Do flying cars have to be based on a Muggle-made original item that is then magiced? (I realize they are children’s books and a lot of things are there for amusement.)

A modern audience has internalized a lot of concepts such as conservation of matter and energy, and that there’s no such thing as spontaneous generation. A modern author needs to think a bit about these issues. A medieval audience didn’t have these concepts.


Peter T 01.24.17 at 5:35 am

To the medieval Christian mind, the distinction would have had real importance. Seeking to understand a marvel is a human thing. Curiosity may be unwise, but it is not sinful. Miracles are the province of the divine, and are not to be inquired into (pride), nor sought to be replicated, as that would involve demonic powers.


John Quiggin 01.24.17 at 6:45 am

The Laundry series is an extended exercise in exploration of this trope.


bad Jim 01.24.17 at 6:52 am

The stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann sometimes locate magic in the four elements, as do the Niebelungenlied and Goethe’s Faust, at least in part: dwarfs command the earth, sylphs the air, and so forth, masters of their nature. R.A. Lafferty had a few stories with similar riffs.

At least it’s a consistent system with familiar rules; by contrast, the various monsters in Tolkien are arbitrary. But then, so is the god or devil or hero in any story of possible interest. Elementals are so constrained that they can only be incidental to the plot.

It was my impression in the 70’s that the convention that magic was accomplished through summoning demons by name may have stemmed from the command line interface of contemporary computers.


bruce wilder 01.24.17 at 3:01 pm

or even in name

a world where meaning structured the universe and ritual had the only power there was


Theophylact 01.24.17 at 4:24 pm

Just finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, a book I bought 30 years ago but never read before. It’s a glorious example of science fiction that violates no natural laws whatsoever. Unless you think sociology, anthropology, and social psychology qualify, and you’d have an argument about whether anything she posits is out of line even there.

Oh, there’s one tiny example of something that looks like magic, but it may be only a false memory or a deliberate heightening for effect. At any rate, it’s irrelevant to the structure of the story.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge pulls off a similar feat, but with nothing like Le Guin’s artistic skill.


William Berry 01.24.17 at 7:57 pm

@bad Jim:

Just curious, but why do you say the monsters in Tolkien (I’m thinking of LOTR and The Silmarillion here) are merely “arbitrary”? Aren’t they (the bad ones, at least: Ungoliant and descendants, Balrogs, Orcs, et al) the deliberate creations of Melkor/ Morgoth, a son of Iluvatar, the pancreator? And the “good” guys (Ents, dwarves, men, elves) were created by Iluvatar or by one of his other off-spring– e.g., the likes of Manwe, Arda, etc.

Granted that created, in my book, does in fact = arbitrary, but how more arbitrary than any other being of magical origin?

Btw, not familiar with the works of Hoffmann, so maybe I am missing something here.


bianca steele 01.24.17 at 10:14 pm

Getting ready for the premier of The Magicians tomorrow, or reflecting on the finale of The Librarians yesterday? Interesting how the latter made Morgan a baddie.

Marvel: a miracle unsanctioned by religious authority

Magic: (a) manipulation of the world without a (modern) concept of cause and effect; (b) manipulation of the world through direct manipulation of supernatural processes or beings; (c) more generally, manipulation of the world through processes known to be denied by modern science. This allows that e.g. alchemy is understood as magic because it was pursued outside the science of its time, which believed it to be impossible.


Niall McAuley 01.25.17 at 12:50 pm

I seem to remember that the Elves in Tolkien do not understand what Men mean when we refer to the magic of the Elves – what we call Elf magic is just knowledge, talent and skill from their perspective.


medrawt 01.25.17 at 3:06 pm

Niall McAuley –

Yes, there’s very little “magic” in the “spellcasting” sense in Tolkien. There might be none, but I’m a little removed from my last reading so I don’t want to be absolutist about it (and there are probably some gray areas). The beings who do what we perceive as magic are inherently magical (from our perspective), and they do what they do because of their innate capacities. Those capacities might be enhanced by study – Gandalf seemed to spend a lot of time with dusty tomes of lore when he wasn’t actually on the page – but there’s little/no evidence that they can be taught to a baseline human. And really, most of the higher magic in Tolkien isn’t fireworks, it’s ineffable stuff about will, inspiring and ensnaring other souls being an innate and incomprehensible aspect of what Gandalf and Saruman and Sauron can do, and what Sauron poured into the ring.


Ragweed 01.25.17 at 6:52 pm

maidhc – the Harry Potter series actually answers those questions, though not until later books. Hermione states in book 7 that food is one of the “Five exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration,” – things that can’t be created out of thin air, or transfigured from some other object (gold is supposedly also in this category, though there seems to be some exceptions to this in book 7). And we learn in book 4(?) that there are legions of house-elves working in the kitchens to prepare all the food, which is then magically transported to the table. The flying car was an ordinary car that was made magical, a practice which is largely prohibited by the Ministry of Magic (the one they used was sort of a stolen-from-the-evidence-locker situation).

There are, of course, lots of other questions that one could ask and a fair number of inconsistancies, but Rowling did do quite a lot of world-building, though she did not get into completely resolved treatise on magical political economy in the novels.


bianca steele 01.25.17 at 7:14 pm

I’d add (d) deceptive or misguided presentation of the exploitation of natural processes as deriving from the personal power of the person exploiting them. Elves and dwarves as magical avoids the question whether there are good and bad ways of using knowledge, talent, and skill.

It goes without saying that magic is contrasted simultaneously with science and with religious practices (with exceptions–it was often in colonizers’ interest to frame conquered groups’ religions as mere magic, for example, and I’m not going to judge whether popular practices, described as pagan or ignorant, were necessarily unorthodox in a literal sense).


bad Jim 01.26.17 at 9:36 am

William Berry, my experience with the Tolkien universe is limited to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I have only secondary knowledge of the backstory, so perhaps my ire is the result of my ignorance. When Gandalf exclaimed “They dug too deep!” I wasn’t expecting a monster imprisoned by an earlier generation of godlike beings.

Hence my complaint. Maybe the dwarfs ignored the warning signs, but there is no necessary relationship between a mine and a balrog.


bad Jim 01.26.17 at 10:29 am

I should be the last person to comment on magic and science fiction, since I abstained from it for nearly a decade, opting to consume political commentary in its place, but since Election Day I’ve been making up for lost time, preferring fictional narrative to reality.

Last night, I watched Трудно быть богом. Today I read “Old Man’s War”. Catching up with Neal Stephenson and Jonathan Lethem, getting to know China Mieville, Charlie Stross, John Scalzi, Terry Pratchett. A steady diet of this messes with your head, but so does getting together with everyone at Christmas, and birthdays, and birthdays (I have the family house, so everyone gets together here).

I think there is altogether too much magic in science fiction now. I don’t mind it, but then my birthday presents included devices for electronically inhaling Cannabis sativa. Here’s a Terry Pratchett novel with vampires and werewolves where no one believes in a talking dog. THAT strains credulity.

Our shared reality, in which everyone is immediately connected to everyone and instantly informed of everything, obsessively attending to our desirable devices, hasn’t shown up in my reading stream. As much as I enjoy immersing myself in an alternate reality, the beach town I inhabit, thronged by people speaking more languages than I can identify, taking selfies, is certainly stranger than what was imagined when I stopped trying to keep up.


stevenjohnson 01.26.17 at 3:29 pm

It seems to me that before you can really have a meaningful distinction between fantasy and SF, you have to have a scientific world view to contrast. The world is all there is, including all the undiscovered things. The world is made of stuff acts the way it does without someone or something alive doing things, from its own nature. Changes have causes. There is an intelligibility or coherence to the universe potentially open to discovery by people relying on experience and experiment. People’s minds are what brains do. People’s thought and feelings are effects, not acts of will. The mind can be compared to a mechanism, sequences of cause and effect fulfilling functions. The body can be compared to a machine. Life is a material process, not the inspiration of a soul. The world of people is not random. Society has a structure. The meaning of social events is not necessarily defined by the understanding of the individuals who partook in the events. There’s no reason to believe in God. Magic is superstition.

Once this kind of thinking starts to take hold, since many people find propositions along these lines offensive, then it can be fun to escape from such mental oppression into a fictional fantasy.

I think the elements of these kinds of views are far more antique than commonly thought, but still, most of the earlier taste for the fantastic in fiction is just a taste for the exotic.


Moz of Yarramulla 01.27.17 at 2:03 am


now that we are in the actual year 2017 and it has been a long time since humans made a leap like the discovery of nuclear fission

We have had a long list of “law except for” stuff going on since the 1950’s, which means that there’s a background expectation that we will continue to see them. From Shannon’s Law (which still applies except for CDMA and similar schemes) to general relativity being demoted (to colonel?), we have all these special cases that turn out to be really handy in practice. The reactionless drive might prove to be the next one, if it works. It appears unlikely to violate physics as we understand it for the most part, except for the energy to thrust transformation without conservation of momentum. OTOH the somewhat counterintuitive magnetic propulsion of satellites is, I think, already in use – it pushes on the earth’s magnetic field. Arguably even anodised aluminium and stainless steel fall into the “exception” category, being bulk materials that are only useful because of surface effects (the outside corrodes instantly on contact with air, giving a resilient coating that protects the inside. Normal steel corrodes slowly giving the flaky coating we call rust). Graphene might be the next one of those, being a single-atom-thick “solid” that is mostly useful because it acts like a fluid in crucial ways.

Our “magic” is, per Heinlein, technology. Most people are so far from understanding much at all about the technology that they depend on that it is effectively magic. Stross’ blog has had some interesting commentary of late on how international trade is a technology that no-one appears to understand yet we are all utterly dependent on it to survive (“any city is three days from food riots”, extended to a global scale). Similar problems apply to everything from cellphones (can you fix yours? Thought not) to intellectual property law (can you legally harvest seeds from what’s in your vege garden and sell them? Are you sure?)


David Duffy 01.27.17 at 8:59 am

The Malleus Maleficarum has some discussion of these differences:

“There is no doubt that certain witches can do marvellous things with regard to male organs…as to how this thing is possible, it is to be said that it can be done in two ways…either actually…or through some prestige or glamour..[which is] a certain
delusion of the senses, and especially of the eye.

“Peter’s member has been taken off, and he does not know whether it is by witchcraft or in some other way. Are there any ways of determining or distinguishing between these? It can be answered as follows. First, that those to whom such things most commonly happen are adulterers or fornicators. For when they fail to respond to the demand of their mistress, or if they wish to desert them and attach themselves to other women, then their mistress, out of vengeance, through some other power causes their members to be taken off. Secondly, it can be distinguished by the fact that it is not permanent. For if it is not due to witchcraft, then the loss is not permanent, but it will be restored some time.”

They cite Aquinas a lot, who thinks that demons are usually involved in magical stuff, even if they are not explicitly summoned.


Dave 01.27.17 at 11:42 am

I think part of the distinction may come from people trying to wriggle out of a worldview that was irreconcilable with tradition and lived experience. If magic is the exclusive province of devils, then anyone who uses it is committing a mortal sin. If you have a traditional story where a character uses magic, but is “good,” then you are blaspheming, by celebrating sin. You could forget Merlin ever existed or posit his powers as miracles from God (though this is risking blasphemy charges again). Neither one of these is really acceptable though, because people like Merlin, and if you completely rewrote him, people would accuse you of lying about history. The obvious solution then, is to redefine magic, so that you can keep telling the same old stories (or inventing new ones), where magical things happen, but those things are nevertheless not considered to be magic. Essentially, you create a gray area between “magic” and “not magic” that characters like Merlin can inhabit. The “inexplicability” of Marvels is thus a feature, rather than a bug, because any attempt to explain it would defeat the point.

This sort of relabeling is a clear antecedent to the sort of dance we see in a lot of “soft” science fiction, but with the roles reversed. In modern society, magic of the ghosts and wizards variety isn’t (generally) treated as real, so outside of religious subcultures, you can tell stories with all the magic you want, and only the Jack Chicks of the world are going to accuse you of irresponsibly promoting witchcraft because of it. Unfortunately, the whole “not being real” thing also plays hell on one’s suspension of disbelief. The inherent unreality of a setting can be great if you’re writing for a fantasy or horror audience, but as was said earlier, science fiction has a greater hurdle, which is that it’s supposed to be presenting a vision of the future (usually our future) and people have to be able to buy into that.

So we get stuff like Star Trek, which is lousy with magic (or, perhaps, alternative physics), but always couches it as some undiscovered technology or scientific principle. So we get stories about gods and ghosts and marvelous lands, but they always make sure to throw in a little technobabble so we know it’s not really magic. Like with Merlin’s marvels, however, these “explanations” really explain nothing, but they play the game anyway, because it’s a conceit of the show (and gospel to some fans) that this is where we’re headed. Now, obviously, it’s a little absurd to think that, in the future, ESP will be real, Cartesian dualism will be accepted science (even if they say “life force” and not “soul”), and we’ll meet a bunch of aliens who look like people with latex on their foreheads, but it doesn’t have to be completely plausible, just plausible enough and if that means using the word “subspace” a couple hundred times a season, then so be it.


J-D 01.27.17 at 8:56 pm

Has anybody else read Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians?


bad Jim 01.28.17 at 7:07 am

I grew up with Jules Verne; my favorite memories of Christmas are getting “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Off on a Comet/Around the Sun” (which is a pretty obscure number). Back then there was a hunger for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the space opera which has been our staple diet since then is outside the realm of possibility. Distant stars are beyond our reach.

The difference between fantasy and nearly all science fiction is a matter of convention: dragons are taken for granted in one realm, starships in another. I could make a weak claim that it’s a gendered distinction: dragons are for girls, like ponies, while space ships are like trucks, for boys. Mostly, though, stories are stories.

So Jonathan Lethem can use a science fiction backdrop in “Girl in Landscape” to tell a gut-wrenching story in the Western tradition, a story not unlike those told by Doctorow in “Welcome to Hard Times” and Trevanian in “Incident at Twenty Mile”, but intriguingly different because of the aliens, and the kids

In mysteries people die right and left, mostly violently, which is at odds with my experience, in which most people keep on going. Somehow, though, the body count in those books doesn’t strain credulity in the same way that dragons do.


bad Jim 01.28.17 at 9:04 am

As part of my willful disengagement from reality by immersing myself in fantasy, I’ve watched a few movies; I had to, since my family bought me a 43″ UHD TV for Christmas. “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” were quite good, but when I scroll through the offerings from Netflix it seems that I have a duty to watch the most artful things on offer. I’m a fan of chamber music, what can I say?

So I found “Melancholia”, haunting fluff from Lars von Trier. Kirsten Dunst is surprisingly credible at being depressed and comfortable with the end of the world. “Hard to be a God” is based on a book by the brothers Strugatsky, three hours of sloshing around in medieval muck, spitting and swordplay, plus perhaps the world’s most claustrophobic bachelor pad. I can’t recommend either of these films, and I can’t say that I exactly enjoyed them, but they were more appealing than some of the books on my shelf. Coetzee?

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