Friday, September 17, 2010

The Temptations of Magic

Whether or not they choose to use it, fantasy writers have a powerful narrative tool on their workbench - the invocation of magic to make events happen. Really, when you get down to it the presence of magic and other things that don't play by the regular rules of the reality with which we're familiar is one of the defining characteristics of fantasy. Skillfully used, a spot of magic add to the definition of the story's world and act as a "dramatic shortcut" that keeps the plot moving - but the temptation to abuse is always there. Much like salt, a small amount used judiciously can improve that to which it's added, but too much can make it totally unpalatable.

Nor is this a problem for fantasy itself. I write science fiction, but I have to grapple with the temptation of magic frequently - here, it's magic through advanced technology. No matter the genre, one of the grander temptations that magic offers is making individuals "great" - with the right spell or sophisticated piece of machinery, they can accomplish feats outside the ken of everyday people and establish themselves as larger-than-life purely by dint of their actions.

Still, fantasy and science fiction carry different expectations with them. It's been said that fantastic fiction is driven by a longing for the impossible, and magic-fueled characters fit perfectly within that box. Science fiction doesn't run by quite the same rules; while there is plenty of longing for the apparently impossible within it - faster-than-light travel is regrettably, for now, Exhibit A in that regard - the general expectation is that it would be set within a realistic, rational, believable framework. In science fiction, putting things down to "magic" is, in my view, unsportsmanlike - and a good reason for something like Star Wars to be properly considered a fantasy. With good science fiction, you have to justify these things you bring in, and follow it along while you figure out what got in behind it before you closed the door.

I ran into this temptation recently when doing some more background work for Taryn Liang, a character in my setting who I've written about previously. She's an agent for an international organization that, among other things, investigates issues and crimes that wouldn't have existed in the twentieth century, and I'd recently been considering potential ways to make her a "step up" from normal - the thinking being that someone of greater talent and capacity would be assigned to the more weird and unusual cases, which are generally more interesting to write about. I already had the concept of a neurolinked quadrotor drone that she considers a technological familiar - so why not look at it? Why not give her a drone that can stop bullets? With lasers! That'd sure put her beyond the ordinary.

Lasers, after all, are the solution to many problems - such as not having enough laser! This photograph was taken by Jeff Keyzer and is used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license it was released under.

So I started looking into the prospects, but even as I did nagging doubts were already at me. While the idea of that sort of interception isn't new - ultimately, it's just SDI on a really, really small scale - that doesn't mean the idea is any more feasible. I couldn't find much information about laser-based interception or, more importantly, the energy requirements thereof.

If I was writing in a fantasy setting, or a science fiction setting that included psionics - which is usually nothing more than magic with a scientific name - it'd be easy. It's easy to justify a mage or psionic character who has a shield spell or a barrier talent. In my setting, where eventual faster-than-light travel is one of the few impossibilities I'm using, it's less so.

Then there's the deal with the implications. Psykers and mages don't really have to worry about this, because it's easy to state their specific talents are difficult or impossible for other people to master. A quadrotor drone that can reliably intercept bullets, in the hands of an agency that doesn't have the greatest depth of resources, is something different. The implication I came to is that if they have it, the more appreciated agencies and most definitely the militaries would have this technology as well. Aside from likely precipitating an arms race to build weapons that can get past the lasers, it totally removes the whole "step up from normal" aspect that was the entire point of the exercise.

So I've ditched that concept. I could look into it later, of course, but with an entirely different perspective. In the meantime, I'll continue thinking through what's hidden behind the things I arrange in the world of the text.

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