If You Demand Magic, Magic Won’t Help

Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.
—Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

Once upon a time, I was pondering the philosophy of fantasy stories—

And before anyone chides me for my “failure to understand what fantasy is about”, let me say this: I was raised in an SF&F household. I have been reading fantasy stories since I was five years old. I occasionally try to write fantasy stories. And I am not the sort of person who tries to write for a genre without pondering its philosophy. Where do you think story ideas come from?


I was pondering the philosophy of fantasy stories, and it occurred to me that if there were actually dragons in our world—if you could go down to the zoo, or even to a distant mountain, and meet a fire-breathing dragon—while nobody had ever actually seen a zebra, then our fantasy stories would contain zebras aplenty, while dragons would be unexciting.

Now that’s what I call painting yourself into a corner, wot? The grass is always greener on the other side of unreality.

In one of the standard fantasy plots, a protagonist from our Earth, a sympathetic character with lousy grades or a crushing mortgage but still a good heart, suddenly finds themselves in a world where magic operates in place of science. The protagonist often goes on to practice magic, and become in due course a (superpowerful) sorcerer.

Now here’s the question—and yes, it is a little unkind, but I think it needs to be asked: Presumably most readers of these novels see themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, fantasizing about their own acquisition of sorcery. Wishing for magic. And, barring improbable demographics, most readers of these novels are not scientists.

Born into a world of science, they did not become scientists. What makes them think that, in a world of magic, they would act any differently?

If they don’t have the scientific attitude, that nothing is “mere”—the capacity to be interested in merely real things—how will magic help them? If they actually had magic, it would be merely real, and lose the charm of unattainability. They might be excited at first, but (like the lottery winners who, six months later, aren’t nearly as happy as they expected to be), the excitement would soon wear off. Probably as soon as they had to actually study spells.

Unless they can find the capacity to take joy in things that are merely real. To be just as excited by hang-gliding, as riding a dragon; to be as excited by making a light with electricity, as by making a light with magic… even if it takes a little study...

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dissing dragons. Who knows, we might even create some, one of these days.

But if you don’t have the capacity to enjoy hang-gliding even though it is merely real, then as soon as dragons turn real, you’re not going to be any more excited by dragons than you are by hang-gliding.

Do you think you would prefer living in the Future, to living in the present? That’s a quite understandable preference. Things do seem to be getting better over time.

But don’t forget that this is the Future, relative to the Dark Ages of a thousand years earlier. You have opportunities undreamt-of even by kings.

If the trend continues, the Future might be a very fine place indeed in which to live. But if you do make it to the Future, what you find, when you get there, will be another Now. If you don’t have the basic capacity to enjoy being in a Now—if your emotional energy can only go into the Future, if you can only hope for a better tomorrow—then no amount of passing time can help you.

(Yes, in the Future there could be a pill that fixes the emotional problem of always looking to the Future. I don’t think this invalidates my basic point, which is about what sort of pills we should want to take.)

Matthew C., commenting here on LW, seems very excited about an informally specified “theory” by Rupert Sheldrake which “explains” such non-explanation-demanding phenomena as protein folding and snowflake symmetry. But why isn’t Matthew C. just as excited about, say, Special Relativity? Special Relativity is actually known to be a law, so why isn’t it even more exciting? The advantage of becoming excited about a law already known to be true, is that you know your excitement will not be wasted.

If Sheldrake’s theory were accepted truth taught in elementary schools, Matthew C. wouldn’t care about it. Or why else is Matthew C. fascinated by that one particular law which he believes to be a law of physics, more than all the other laws?

The worst catastrophe you could visit upon the New Age community would be for their rituals to start working reliably, and for UFOs to actually appear in the skies. What would be the point of believing in aliens, if they were just there, and everyone else could see them too? In a world where psychic powers were merely real, New Agers wouldn’t believe in psychic powers, any more than anyone cares enough about gravity to believe in it. (Except for scientists, of course.)

Why am I so negative about magic? Would it be wrong for magic to exist?

I’m not actually negative on magic. Remember, I occasionally try to write fantasy stories. But I’m annoyed with this psychology that, if it were born into a world where spells and potions did work, would pine away for a world where household goods were abundantly produced by assembly lines.

Part of binding yourself to reality, on an emotional as well as intellectual level, is coming to terms with the fact that you do live here. Only then can you see this, your world, and whatever opportunities it holds out for you, without wishing your sight away.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’ve found no lack of dragons to fight, or magics to master, in this world of my birth. If I were transported into one of those fantasy novels, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself studying the forbidden ultimate sorcery—

—because why should being transported into a magical world change anything? It’s not where you are, it’s who you are.

So remember the Litany Against Being Transported Into An Alternate Universe:

If I’m going to be happy anywhere,
Or achieve greatness anywhere,
Or learn true secrets anywhere,
Or save the world anywhere,
Or feel strongly anywhere,
Or help people anywhere,
I may as well do it in reality.