Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Notes on Strange Fiction: Magic

Let's define magic. In essence, magic is metaphysical causality, a circumvention of the laws of nature, a causing of effect that works outwith the temporal protocols of the cosmos. It is the activity and it is the capacity for that activity invested in a force, a location or state through which that force can be accessed, or an object (agent or artifact) charged with that force. By this definition time-travel and FTL are magical. Significantly, in DUNE they are one and the same thing, the Guild navigators travelling through larger distances of space in shorter periods of time than are allowable within the temporal protocols of the cosmos by manipulating time itself. That they do so by means of a mental state bought on by melange is also significant.

Ted Chiang has pointed to a key distinction between science and magic: the former is reproducable industrially, on a mass scale, while the latter is not. Generally, in fact, magic is the preserve of a select elite of exceptional individuals, so much so that at it may become a signifier of their selection by the ultimate magic of the divine, a signifier of their destiny. Unpacking this and looking across the field of fiction though, we can say that human application of magic is located on a spectrum of methods of production that runs thus:

facility (gift) | art (talent)| craft (skill) | technique (process)

The rarity of magic is a product of where it is placed on this spectrum by the fiction it is found in. Magic may be presented as a facility, a gift that only the exceptional have; it may be presented as an art that only the exceptional will have a talent for, but that is learned almost as much as it is innate; it may be presented as a craft, a skill that does come naturally to some, but that is more learned than innate and therefore open to use by anyone; it may be presented as a technique, a process which can be reproduced industrially because it is abstracted to mechanistic procedures.

The last presentation of magic is rare, used largely as a deliberate subversion of conventions (as critique or satire), and it this that places magic in distinction to science, the system of abstraction by which craft is transformed to technique, process identified in skill and therefore rendered reproducable, open to industrialisation. What marks DUNE out as utilising magic rather than science is that the Guild navigators' manipulation of time and space is a craft (signified as such by the term guild in its referencing of pre-industrial skilled-trade organisations.)

The division between craft and technique is however blurred when the non-reproducable nature of magic is explicated (or implicated) as a ramification of it being a semiotic phenomenon. Which is to say, the activity may be an emergent feature of language and consciousness, requiring the four key abilities of an agent dealing with a world of signs: reception; perception; conception; inception. For a machine to be an agent it must be able to receive stimuli, perceive those stimuli as signifiers, conceive what is signified (i.e. process sensation into thought), and initiate action (i.e. act on thought rather than automatic response). Magic can be presented in these terms, as a semiotic interaction with reality, a reading of its language and a (re)writing of its text through the application of that language; it is a hacking of reality. Here magic is reproducable (this is why it is a craft, a skill) but for it to be mechanically reproduced requires that machine to replicate the semiotic agency of a sentient being who knows the code.

In Asimov's "Let There Be Light" this is essentially what is achieved by the end-product of AI technological development, but in general a more conservative outlook pervades the field, one where such semiotic agency is considered limited to human beings (or entities anthropomorphised with sentience). Ironically, that magic is not mass-reproducable might be taken to indicate a less fanciful worldview, a skepticism about the possibility of machine sentience. Alternatively, it may indicate an anti-materialist notion that semiotic agency is the product of some sort of metaphysical enspiriting that human beings have and machines do not -- a soul. Either way, note that in the TV series ANDROMEDA for a ship to travel through the slipstream (FTL) requires a human pilot because even machines with a fully-sentient AI are not capable of navigating this (magical) location/state. Note that jaunting, in Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION is a skill (craft) that pretty much everyone can learn but that jaunting through space is a talent (art) that only Gully Foyle has achieved. Note that at the end of the book he considers teaching this ability to humanity (transforming the talent to a skill, distributing it as he does PyrE) but has not yet begun this task. Note that either way jaunting is an essentially human capacity, not open to mechanisation.

The characterisation of magic as a semiotic skill has, in fact, resulted in a back-reading whereby it becomes symbolic of semiotic skill itself -- a metonym of the power of language, of consciousness, of "spirit". It is the extent to which the last of these is profoundly resonant as figurative metaphor and profoundly religious as literal concept that renders magic both pervasive in SCIENCE FICTION and reviled as FANTASY.

Note that the magic of Bester's jaunting is associated with the Promethean fire of PyrE, an enervated and explosive substance triggered by thought (i.e. magic), a blatant concretion of the metaphor of semiosis-as-power.


Blogger devas the death said...

So far, you've analized magic in terms of "natural abilities" (innate talent, skill, etc.).
What if the problem were approached instead on the basis of knowledge; since every living being has had experiences different from each other, one could say magic is a sort of concept, requiring an understanding to be executed, thus becoming even more similar to language.

8:33 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hi devas,

I think that idea is implicit in this model as an aspect of magic as a semiotic skill. I mean, each type of application (facility/gift, art/talent, craft/skill or technique/process) is a praxis -- an application of knowledge (innate, intuitive, conscious or programmatic).

Situation 1. We might "know" how to implement that praxis unconsciously -- as a facility. For a select few, the knowledge is innate and unconscious. Those who have that knowledge can implement it (assuming the practical ability is also innate); they just don't know *how* they're doing it. It’s a gift. Those without that knowledge/ability are screwed because there's no way to learn it or communicate it. If there was you’d have Situation 2.

Situation 2. We might "know" how to implement that praxis semi-consciously -- as an art. For some, the knowledge is intuitive, unconscious and innate but capable of being made conscious and developed (maybe just by trial-and-error, figuring out what exactly it is you’re doing when you’re doing it, maybe with some mentor figure training them). Those who *don’t* have a natural facility *can* therefore learn how to do it, but they may not be able to do it as well as those with a talent. It might be a lack of ability or that you have to be able to act on the knowledge without thinking about it; either way the talented are always going to stand out from the talentless. Of course, if it’s possible to achieve mastery without talent then you have the next situation.

Situation 3. We might know how to implement that praxis consciously -- as a craft. You might still have individuals who have the knowledge and ability as an innate talent, or who just have a knack for learning that kind of stuff. But those who don’t can nevertheless learn to do it just as well. They can be taught it or they can figure it out; they can learn it as a skill. Somewhere between 2 and 3, as the mentor figure’s mentoring becomes as much teaching as guiding, as it becomes a matter of articulating the how and the why, you get to the point when talent isn’t really an issue. That’s when it becomes a question of whether or not Situation 4 is possible.

Situation 4. We might know how to implement that praxis programmatically -- as a technique. It doesn’t matter if some individuals have a talent or not. The knowledge can be codified, analysed as a process, and reproduced mechanically.

The point I’m trying to make is pretty much what you suggest -- that you could imagine that the mechanical process is not reproducible without AI because the praxis is linguistic/conceptual, the sort of thing that a human mind does when it’s involved in communication -- taking in a stimulus (with the usual sensory organs or some third eye malarky), interpreting it as sensation (feeling the Force), understanding it (reading the universe, parsing that sensation into the code) and responding with the right commands to circumvent the protocols of reality (hacking the system). Basically, that it requires such a level of linguistic fluency and creativity that if you *were* to reproduce it in a machine, you’d basically be building an AI.

3:50 pm  
Anonymous coffeedryad said...

Some really interesting thoughts there - very provocative-of-thought on the continuum that gets called fantasy at some points and science fiction at others. One of the things that I try to work in is that magic, to me, should be something that's inherently not quite understandable, not quite perfectly controllable, possibly even not quite completely causal. It can't be made programmatic, because doing the same thing isn't guaranteed to have exactly the same results - even someone skilled at it can only have a fairly good idea of what's going to happen when they call on their power. Maybe the magical fluxes have temporarily waned, maybe their tutelary spirit is in a snit - but however it works, the distinciton to me is that science, even if it violates the rules of physics we know, makes sense, and magic doesn't have to.

7:59 pm  

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