Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Technology and Magic

    What makes science fiction science fiction, as opposed to fantasy?  Both genres are speculative fiction, taking us into unfamiliar worlds.  The strange worlds delight us (or appall us), and that's part of the attraction.
    Roughly, the difference is this.  Science fiction stories make use of ideas based in current scientific beliefs.  Whatever wonders occur in the science fiction world, they should be scientifically plausible (or at least possible).  But magic has no such constraint; magical creatures, persons, objects, and powers don't have to obey the laws of physics or chemistry.  It's technology versus magic.
    Some science fiction writers cheat.  They want something in their story (faster than light travel, for instance) so they throw in some "technology" that might but probably doesn't square with physics ("warp drive" or "hyperspace").  So you can find opposing camps among the science fiction crowd, some who demand "hard" science fiction and others who grant the writer more license.
    Real world scientific beliefs change over time.  The speculations of one generation of sci-fi writers may lose all plausibility in the next.  A hundred years ago, when Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his John Carter books, it was scientifically plausible to imagine civilizations on Mars.  John Carter's adventures may be interesting enough to pull in crowds of movie-goers, but the stories have been transformed from science fiction into fantasy by our discoveries about Mars.  Technology can metamorphose into magic.
    Arthur C. Clarke would agree: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  If a writer transported ancient Saxon warriors into modern London, the displaced warriors would see magic all around them: cars, cell phones, wondrously tall people, and so forth.  (Has anyone ever tried that plot yet?  It could be fun.)
    In the Stargate television series, it is the twenty-first century protagonists who encounter alien technology so advanced that it seems magical.  Of course, the series' writers eschew any mention of magic; the wonders we see (resurrection sarcophagi, stargates that create wormholes, etc.) are all supposed to obey the physical laws of the universe.  The characters of the story often mention the technology of the Ancients (and other aliens); they don't say "magic."
    The boundary between technology and magic is relative to the scientific understandings of the reader and the characters in a story.  Suppose a character from our familiar world were placed in a world of limited science.  He or she might be regarded as a wizard or witch . . .  There's a story there, and someday I hope to write it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Metaphysics of Subcreation

    In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers argued that because human beings are created in the image of the Creator God we are also creators.  We need to notice, she said, that the famous text, “Let us make man in our image . . .” (Genesis 1:26), occurs at the end of a creation story.  Genesis presents God as creator and then says that we are made in God’s image.
    J.R.R. Tolkien expressed a similar notion in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.”  Tolkien wrote that God was the creator par excellence, but human beings could engage in what he called “subcreation” when they wrote poems and stories.  Tolkien did not limit subcreation to literature.  His delightful story, “Leaf by Niggle,” tells of a painter of limited talent who was really only good at painting leaves.  Niggle wanted to paint landscape masterpieces, but in the end . . . Why should I spoil a wonderful story?  If you haven’t read “Leaf by Niggle” be sure to find it.
    Subcreation takes many forms, as varied as all the kinds of human “making”: cooking, dancing, gardening, building, singing, and so on.  To be creators—makers—is part of the vocation of human beings.  We are called to be creators . . . at least, that’s what Mark McLeod-Harrison and I say in our little book, Being at Home in the World.
    There are knotty questions here.  Just how far does the human ability to create extend?  Do we “make” the world not only by the things we write or build but also by the way we perceive and know the world?  What if two people do not understand the world in the same way?  Are they “making” different worlds?
    Ah, reader!  The danger you are in!  The deep ocean of philosophy surges below, and you are so near the cliff.  If you step a little farther you will be swimming in the metaphysics of subcreation.  Fortunately, I can point you to a lighthouse.  Mark McLeod-Harrison has written Make/Believing the World(s): Toward a Christian Ontological Pluralism.  As the title suggests, this book is hard-core philosophy; you’ll need your intellectual work clothes.
    Mark’s basic idea is this.  God actually, really truly, involves us in the creation of the world.  God makes the universe out of nothing, and God establishes the “ground rules,” as it were.  But God’s universe is not a static, done-all-at-once kind of thing.  God includes our making in his making.  Mark is particularly concerned with the way we make the world by knowing it: “irrealism claims that the world is how it is because human noetic feats make it so.”
   Mark’s critics say his “irrealism” implies relativism.  It is particularly unacceptable to Christians, they say.  Naturally, Mark demurs.  He stakes out a philosophical position in which human beings really do make different worlds—but all the worlds we make are part of the real universe made by God.
   I’ll dip no deeper into the philosophic ocean right now.  If you want to, you can dive in by reading Mark’s book.  I like it.  And I like the picture of the master Creator who draws us into the making of the world.

Make/Believing the World(s): Toward a Christian Ontological Pluralism is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.  I’m confident you can find it at Amazon.

Being at Home in the World is published by Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon.  Their website is found at

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Little Magic

    Let's assume that George MacDonald is right.  (Of course, I'm making this assumption because I think he is right.)  The fairy tale/fantasy writer cannot change the moral universe; virtue is virtue, vice is vice--and moral ambiguity occupies pretty much the same huge space in the fantasy world as it does in ours.
    Having assumed that much, the writer of imaginative fiction still must decide how much magic there will be in the world of his story.  Dragons?  Other mythical creatures?  People with special powers?  Magical objects?  Non-human races? 
   (A side topic: notice that "other races" and "mythical creatures" denote different classes, though there may be some overlap between them.  Someday I will post comments on the concept of "hnau," a useful word invented by C.S. Lewis.)
     It seems that there are no intrinsic limits to magic in fantasy stories.  Therein lies danger.  Unlimited magic can become a flood, sweeping away any semblance of realism in the fantasy story.  Now, the complete lack of realism might work well in some stories.  When Douglas Adams inserts the "infinite improbability drive" into The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he merely underscores the wackiness of the fairy world he describes.  It's like Wonderland in the Alice stories.  In these world, anything can happen.
    But most fantasy writers are not pulling for infinite improbability.  Their worlds are, in some sense of the word, realistic.  The struggle of Harry Potter against Lord Voldemort only engages the reader because there are some things wizards cannot do.  If the imaginative writer were to introduce new magical powers or objects just when her hero needed them it would spoil the story.  At some point the protagonist has to succeed or fail with a limited set of powers.  If not, we readers won't connect with him.
    In my stories, I deliberately take a conservative approach.  I allow myself only a little magic.  In The Heart of the Sea, I introduce a single magical object, the silbar lux, which has dramatic but limited effects.  No dragons, no wizards, and no mythical creatures.  (Unless you count intelligent parrots.  Hm.  Maybe I wasn't as strict as I set out to be.)  Beyond the "little magic," my story has many inventions--an imagined world with geography, nations, politics, and so on.  And the attraction of the story, I hope, lies in the people of that world, not the magic of silbar lux.

The Heart of the Sea is an ebook, available at


Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Great Story and My Stories

    Today is Sunday, April 8, 2012.  It is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.  And so: Easter.
    Easter celebrates the great reversal, the giving of joy for ashes, the transformation of defeat into victory.  Easter marks the most important event in the history of the world.  In the resurrection of Jesus, God triumphs over those who wished to make the world in their own image.  He let us kill him, and he won anyway.
    Enough.  I am not going to preach.  Don't misunderstand; there's nothing wrong with preaching the gospel, and I'm happy to do so when appropriate.  But this blog aims to explore the intersection between philosophy and stories, so sermons don't quite fit.
    Nevertheless, for Christians the resurrection of Christ is the centerpiece of the greatest story.  It seems to me inescapable for Christians that we try to locate our stories in the great story.  There are two senses to this remark.  Mark McLeod-Harrison and I wrote about the first in our book, Being at Home in the World, though what we said there is hardly original.
    The events of a human life might be regarded as a chaotic collection of independent moments.  As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out, we make sense of our lives by connecting one event to another, by telling stories.  What connects the young girl to the young mother and the wrinkled grandmother she later became?  Her story.  How do we account for her career choices, her failures and her successes?  We fit them into a story.  Inevitably, we tie one person's story to those of the people around her--including those who came before and after her.  For the Christian, Christ's story is the background and goal of all our individual stories.
    There is a second sense of "locating our stories in the great story."  Human beings live stories but they also invent them.  Some of us go to great lengths to devise tales of many kinds: short and long, hopeful or despairing, beautiful and/or terrible.
    The Christian author faces the question: how do my stories fit into the great story?  No one answer is correct.  Some Christians have written wonderful tales full of explicit theology or allegory.  The Pilgrim's Progress has stood the test of time.  Others, trying to do the same, have produced sermonizing glop. 
    I aim for a different path.  I want to write good stories, tales that carry light without preaching.  I don't avoid religion, and some characters (e.g. Eleanor Roosevelt Urquhart) are explicitly Christians.  But I want my tale to please the reader as a story, not as a sermon.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Limits of Creativity

    I fell in love with science fiction before I reached high school, reading Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Jules Verne, and others.  Partly, I was attracted to what might be called "technical wizardry": spaceships, spacesuits, submarines, miniaturization, time machines, laser beams and so on.  The marvels of science fiction wore the mantle of science; these things might really happen!  In some cases they already had--the real navy Nautilus, launched in the year of my birth, outperformed Jules Verne's imagined Nautilus hands down.
    A boy from my high school was reading a fat paperback on the bus home after school.  To my inquiry he replied it was called The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy story.  "You should read it; it's good."
    No thank you.  I hadn't read any yet, but I knew science fiction would be better than fantasy.  In a fantasy, anything could happen.  Fantasy authors could just make stuff up!  Science fiction had to be at least plausible, and in the best cases it was almost prophetic.  (By that, I meant that it predicted the future.  At the time, I had a very limited notion of prophecy.)  If the choice were between science and magic, I would take science every time.
    Of course, my ideas changed, and soon.  Paul Eslinger loaned me a copy of The Hobbit when I was a sophomore in college.  I was instantly converted.  I still love sci-fi, but antipathy to fantasy vanished.
    A worry still remains.  Once an author opens the door to magic, is there any limit?  My friend Ron made this point about the Harry Potter books.  In one scene, the muggle Prime Minister says to the Minister of Magic, "But you people can do anything."  And that's the problem.  We can suppose there are limits to what this or that character can do; apparently some wizards or witches are "stronger" than others.  But are there any limits to what the author can do? 
   Very definitely.  George MacDonald, author of The Light Princess and scores of other wonderful stories, wrote that the writer of fairy stories could display creativity in regard to many things: dragons, drarfs, long-lost treasures, fairies, witches, and on and on.  But the fantasy writer could not change the moral world.  No magic can make cowardice into a virtue or turn right into wrong.
    I think that's why we can love fantasy stories.  For all the marvels of the fantasy realm, the most important things are the people in them: their loves, their hates, their griefs, their hopes.  (Of course, the "people" of a fantasy might include elves or dwarfs or . . .)  We care about characters and about the good and evil they create or enjoy.