Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The above quote is firmly embedded in the ethos of the science fiction
genre. It is considered a kind of truism, a way of drawing down the
genre boundaries and helping the self-proclaimed “hard” science fiction
folk realize that their position elides all the nuance of science, its
status as a intellectual framework shared by humans. If we toss out the
real world framework and replace it with ignorance, what would then
distinguish “technology” from “magic?”
To my mind, this is true, but it is not the whole truth.
To explain why, I need to back up and explore an aspect of the high
fantasy genre. Let’s presume to do a review of high fantasy, looking at
the personality types of mages. I can think of examples of wise,
elderly, scholarly mages (ala Tolkien). I can think of the
battle-hardened, bullheaded “pulp bro” mages of popular high fantasy. I
have seen inquisitive mages. I have seen taciturn, sneaky mages. I have
seen meager, frightened mages. I have seen stalwart mages. I have seen
mages who grow up from immature teenagers into emotionally aware adults
(thank you, Le Guin), and I have seen mages who feel outcast because
their magical abilities make them different.
However, there is one mage personality I have never seen.* Where are
the magical nerds?
Where are the mages who will charge two magnetic rocks with magical
energy for the sheer joy of seeing what will happen? Where are the mages
who will develop a metallic lattice into crude magical energy logic
gates and program their high fantasy world’s first automated tic-tac-toe
game? Where are the mages who will build a contraption that converts
magical energy into random gibberish? Remember the key feature of
nerddom. They will do all of this not to vanquish an enemy, or because
the king says so, or for school, or for any external reason at all. The
nerd mage will create these things for the sheer joy of having a vision
of something novel and then banging their head against all the practical
problems that present themselves until that vision is made manifest.
Eventually, enough nerd mages will have existed in these fantasy worlds
that those magically-induced magnetic rocks will become power
generators, the magical logic gates will become computers, and the
random gibberish machine will become Twitter.
I propose the following addition to Arthur C. Clarke’s postulate: Any
sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. This
closes the gap between science fiction and fantasy, showing that the two
genres share a common core of helping the reader to imagine how our
world could be other by drawing their attention to the differences
between the real world and the imagined world of the narrative.
This attitude has suffused my new novel project, The Ghost King. It is
unfortunately impossible to say much more than that without spoiling
much of the novel, but suffice it to say, the goal is to present a world
that transitions gradually from something like a traditional high
fantasy into something vaguely similar to the real world, albeit powered
by the “science and technology” of magic.
*I used this phrasing quite on purpose. The high fantasy genre is
staggering in volume. I am almost certainly not the first person to come
up with this idea, and I’m sure someone will eventually point out to me a work
in which a high fantasy world develops their magic into technology
resembling the real world. However, my point remains that such an
approach is an obscurity. I am well read enough to know the major works
within the genre, and this take on high fantasy is not prominent.