Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Technology, magic, and consciousness


I thought about posting on this topic many months ago, but got distracted; what prompted me to post about it now is that my web surfing brought me to this post on Sarah Monette's journal, about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Her views on the subject align very closely with mine, but I figured I'd offer some additional thoughts.

I'll start by restating some comments I made a while back on Jed Hartman's journal here: for me, a useful way to understand the difference between SF and fantasy is to consider the difference between science and magic. This isn't a question of conforming to current scientific understanding; we can imagine an alternate set of physical laws without calling them magic. I submit that what distinguishes magic from science -- even imaginary science -- is the role of consciousness. Magic has a subjective component -- the intention, desire, or willpower of the practitioner -- that is explicitly excluded from scientific experimentation.

One consequence of this is that a scientific result can be replicated by a mechanism, and that mechanism can be mass-produced; thus we all own products containing electric motors, lasers, etc., even though such things were once objects of wonder found only in laboratories. This is generally not true of magic; no one expects that a great magician's ability to turn a pumpkin into a carriage will, decades later, result in cheap shape-shifting gadgets. The pumpkin-into-carriage spell is dependent on the practitioner's conscious intention, and that's something that can't be automated or mass-produced.

(In my Locus interview I expressed this idea by saying that magic is esoteric while technology is egalitarian, because only select individuals are able to call down lightning, but electricity works for everyone. This got me into a disagreement with Nisi Shawl. Nisi pointed out that I was thinking of a fairly narrow tradition of hermetic magic, and that there are also traditions of folk magic and communal magic that are available to anyone. She's right. I do think that magic is commonly depicted as being unavailable to people lacking certain innate gifts, but that's certainly not intrinsic to all magical systems.)

So why would some phenomena depend on a practitioner's will or desire? Because, in fantasy, the universe distinguishes between persons and mechanisms. The universe recognizes intention; it can be understood as being, in some loose sense, a person itself. And in the same way that we respond differently to real mail and junk mail, the universe responds differently to an action performed by an individual and an action performed by a mechanism. In fantasy, successfully interacting with the universe requires acknowledging that you're dealing with a person and not a rule-bound system.

This doesn't mean that a fantasy universe is necessarily ruled by a capricious god or gods; being a person doesn't mean being arbitrary or inconsistent. But one consequence is that, in a fantasy universe, certain things are not susceptible to mass production. For example, you could say that, in order for your magical radio to function, you need to appease a certain deity, and so you say a prayer each time you make a radio, and your radios always work. That's consistent with dealing with a person. But if you've got a machine that is stamping out functional radios by the thousands, it's no longer reasonable to say that it's appeasing a deity every time. Instead, it makes more sense to say you're dealing with impersonal laws of nature; your radio is an example of applied science, not applied magic.

Which brings us to the importance of the Industrial Revolution. Sarah Monette says, "It's an oversimplification to say that sf deals with the consequences of the Industrial Revolution while fantasy denies the Industrial Revolution ever took place. But it's an oversimplification with a grain of truth at its heart." I agree. The shift away from a god-centered worldview and toward a scientific worldview had been underway for some time already, but I imagine it could seem like an abstract discussion for most people. Once the Industrial Revolution began, though, everyone could see tangible, practical consequences of the universe's impersonal nature.

Before mass production, technology usually involved the personal touch. Every artifact was the product of an individual's care and attention; every tool was born of a conscious act. If a device worked well, it was usually because someone had been concentrating really hard when they made it. After mass production, that was no longer the case. The personal touch vanished from many aspects of daily life.

This perspective helps illustrate why, even though fantasy doesn't have to be pre-industrial, fantasy works so well with a pre-industrial setting. Before industrialization, it was easier to believe that we lived in a universe that recognized persons. And even though fantasy doesn't have to be nostalgic, it's easy to romanticize the days when an individual's labor mattered, and you couldn't be replaced by a machine.

Similarly, this perspective illustrates why, even though science fiction doesn't have to be about technological advancement, it is so often concerned with the notion of progress. Once conscious intention was removed from the creation of devices, inventions could spread so rapidly that you could see society change within a single lifetime. And even though SF doesn't have to be cautionary, it's easy to worry about the dehumanization that can result when conscious intention is removed from too many aspects of life.

I don't claim that this distinction between magic and science is the ultimate explanation of the difference between SF and fantasy. There are countless examples of SF/F for which this doesn't apply at all, and anyone looking for gray areas can find plenty in any discussion that mentions consciousness. But I do find it a fruitful way to think about these two subgenres, so I figured I'd write a post about it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hm. So, where does this leave the weird science stories, such as the post-industrial fantasies of China Mieville or Charles de Lint?

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eh, I dunno, Anonymous. If the discussion that Ted's started here is to be argued out in definitional terms, do you really think it's all that valuable--or accurate--to equate "weird science" with "post-industrial fantasies?" For that matter, don't you think the latter term is a bit anemic for describing Miéville (note the accent aigu in the spelling, btw)?

7:50 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

When you start getting into torque, probability mining, Weavers, and whatever the hell the Tesh were using in Iron Council, I'm not sure Miéville's stuff is really all that scientific — it's got a veneer of sciencey stuff, sure, but kind of in the way that traditional fantasy has a veneer of feudalism without the economics to back it up.

(Which is not in any way a slag against Miéville's stuff, I should add. And I think he's on record as being one of those folks who — unlike Ted, I expect — considers science fiction a subgenre of fantasy.)

Is de Lint postindustrial, or does he just transplant nostalgia for the preindustrial to a contemporary setting? (Honest question. I've never been able to finish anything by de Lint.)

11:02 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Lovely analysis, Ted. As always. :)

Part of my first-blush reaction to this is over at Jeff Vandermeer's, but having taken a little time to chew on it. . .

What strikes me about the division you suggest is it makes Descartes the father of science fiction. Because by your definition (or, at least, my my read of it) magic is the priviliaged effect of personal will over matter.

To restate what I said over at Jeff's, my decision to raise my own hand fits that definition. My hand is made of matter, and it responds to my will and *exclusively* to my will. You can't decide to raise my hand. So my experience of control of my own body is magic, right?

(Put another way, why is raising my hand through the power of thought particularly less miraculous that being able to raise my X-wing out of the swamp?)

Consiousness is a property of matter. Clearly, since I'm made from matter and I'm conscious.

I wonder what someone who hadn't been raised with the cartesian mind-body separation kink would make of your argument. My guess is that it wouldn't make sense.

Or maybe it could just be recast as fantasy being fiction in which the universe behaved as if it were part of your body.


1:49 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

I agree with David regarding China Miéville's novels. While there are a lot of machines in the Bas-Lag novels, I don't think that a consistent physics/thaumaturgy is a high priority in the world-building. And let's be clear: this is not a criticism. I think the novels are terrific.

I once asked China about the golem-making that Judah Low does in Iron Council, and he said, "It's less a question of saying 'this is how the universe works'
than of saying 'this is the way that Judah can do it.'" I think that's consistent with my perspective on the subjective component of magic. In interviews China has talked about how much he's been influenced by Surrealism, and I think that is a good way to understand the world of Bas-Lag. It's filled with incongruous collisions of disparate elements, and asking how they can all be reconciled is less important than it is even in many other fantasy novels.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

Daniel, reading your comments makes me think of the part where I said, "anyone looking for gray areas can find plenty in any discussion that mentions consciousness." :)

We could specify an exception for one's own body for the purposes of this discussion, since the ability to raise one's hand is not generally seen as magical. But if we want to digress a bit, then yes, ultimately we wind up asking what is the relationship between consciousness and physical matter. The scientific worldview that I've described is grounded in the idea that the universe is made of nothing but matter (AKA materialism), which means that consciousness is just a property of highly complex arrangements of matter. In theory, one might be able to mass-produce such arrangements of matter (although this could lead us to the question of whether it's possible to duplicate quantum states, and then we're getting really far afield).

Staying somewhat closer to the original topic, let me suggest that your assertion "You can't decide to raise my hand" is not entirely true. Someone might ask you to do it, and you might do it. It's still your decision, you say? Well, someone might make you think it's your own idea to do it. This is a trivial example of what John Crowley (after Ioan Couliano) describes as intersubjective magic, the ability of one consciousness to compel another. Some of what was once considered magic during the Renaissance was actually subtle psychological manipulation. (Permit me to point out that this can't be mass-produced or automated; it's dependent on the presence of a skilled practitioner.)

In Sean Stewart's Locus interview, he talked about truths of one, truths of two, and truths of three or more. The last is the external world, and if magic is able to affect this, it might be called objective magic; this, as I have been repeatedly reminded, Does Not Exist. Magic affecting the first two categories might be called subjective and intersubjective magic; it may be meaningful to speak as if they do exist in the real world, but I'm open to argument on the matter.

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bugger, it's not the difference between science and magic, it's the difference between SF writers and Fantasy writers. The former more understand science or have more of an interest in it, or both. This is not to say that one is any worse or better than the other.
Neal Asher

3:36 PM  
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