Any Sufficiently Advanced Anything

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination,” 1962
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.