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On the Disruptive Technology of Magic


When I began writing the Night Angel trilogy, I deliberately started with a world in which there were few magic users, and most people would rarely encounter one during their lives. I mentally compared them to professional athletes in our world–if you have a normal job, you might glimpse a seven-foot tall basketball player walking through the airport someday, and be awed. On the other hand, if your job is an athletic trainer or referee, you might see professional athletes every day, so as the Night Angel trilogy progressed and the characters grew, we saw more and more magic.

In Lightbringer, I wanted to go high magic. After all, why not? I soon found out. Mo’ magic, mo’ problems.

Having lots of magic makes for lots of narrative problems. First, the main problem for any secondary world fantasy is setting the stage, defining the rules, the institutions, the time period, the religious and cultural beliefs and all the other expectation-setting that we’ve come to call world building. In Night Angel, I’d given myself a low bar to clear: at least at first, the world is straight-forwardly quasi-medieval European. You’ve been there before, you can make good guesses about how things work. In Lightbringer, we’re in a different place and time entirely: this is a Renaissance era quasi-Mediterranean setting. Not only is there a huge number of real cultures to draw from, but it was already a time of rapid technological and social change.

Take one small example: up until 1480, sailors aimed their cannons by resting them on the gunnel (the gun-wale), literally the side of the boat. You propped it up, moved it closer or farther to adjust elevation, and boom. But if the other ship got too close, you couldn’t hit their decks anymore. Then someone had a bright idea: you put the gun belowdecks and made little doors to open when you wanted to fire. Thus the boat could still be relatively watertight, and you could shoot at the hull of the other ship for as long as you could still shoot.

Within twenty years, the idea of portholes had spread throughout the entirety of the Mediterranean basin. No one was shooting from the gunwale any more.

But no one treats magic like this. In secondary world fantasy, usually the only person to do anything new or game-changing with magic is the protagonist. Entire towers full of magicians do research for hundreds of years, and they never learn anything new.

One of the things I love about science is how it’s additive and changing. Someone makes a new metaphor: the heavens are like nine rotating spheres, the body is like a system of gears and pulleys, the brain is like a computer–and everyone rushes to use that metaphor to unlock more mysteries. At some point, the utility of the metaphor gets used up, and someone makes a new breakthrough with either a new metaphor or recently with pure mathematics where metaphors don’t work anymore

Would this happen if people could use magic? I think yes, undoubtedly. Then why doesn’t it? Because world-building that rationally is hard.

So we get the work-arounds: there are only three wizards in the whole world and it never occurs to any of them to press the bright red button, or the people are so superstitious they never use their magic bazooka in their wars with their neighbors, or this is so difficult no one has studied how to use the magic bazooka until you came, Chosen One.

In the first case, where the number of magic-users is small and separated, I’ll buy it. But in the other two cases? Within recorded history, we’ve seen cultures get hit with technology so advanced it had to seem magical: when Native Americans encountered horses, and when they encountered firearms. The awe with which they viewed these innovations must have been more intense than we can imagine, but they adopted the new “magic” quickly. If you run into something that will save you from starvation and help you kill your enemies, that’s a carrot and stick combination that humans don’t resist.

As I’ve written the Lightbringer series, I’ve tried to bring a sense of human curiosity to my magic system, and to an era that in our own world was in the midst of multiple scientific upheavals. In one way, that’s terrifically difficult because it’s a big expositional burden, but in another, by choosing light as the basis for magic, I have an excellent playground. Think we understand light? Try explaining to a child that her orange truck isn’t orange at all, actually it absorbs all the colors except for orange and reflects that. So really, it’s every color except orange. Ha!

You’ll suddenly be that uncle who lies to and confuses her. (Not that I would have any firsthand experience.) Now try to explain a particle wave to anyone. Unless you got good grades in college-level physics, you’ll likely sound like you have absolutely no clue. (“There’s this thing? With a cat? And dual slits?”)

Showing a living world where magic is deeply a part of the culture, the religion, and especially the science has been a huge challenge. I keep waiting for–and still fully expect–a reader to ask me a question at a signing that makes so much sense with what I’ve made so far that I can’t believe I’ve overlooked it.

But I don’t fear that question, because the nature of humanity itself is to surprise you with what purposes they turn their tools to. Consider the internet: People thought of sending TV signals over the internet long ago, but who would have guessed that people would spend hours every day poring over pictures of food, cats, and babies posted by friends they haven’t seen in ten years and didn’t even like in the first place?

I hope that you find the magic in the Lightbringer series to be wondrous, rational, surprising, and fun. But most of all, I hope that you find an exciting story full of surprises and populated by characters who engage you deeply–both heart and mind.

THE BLACK PRISM (US | UK | AUS)  is now available in trade paperback! Look for THE BLINDING KNIFE  (US | UK | AUS) next month on August 27th. 

about the author

Brent Weeks

All Orbit books by Brent Weeks

  1. trevor

    July 23, 2013
    at 1:17 pm

    You’re fantastic, Brent.

  2. Manu

    July 23, 2013
    at 1:57 pm

    “someone makes a new breakthrough with either a new metaphor or recently with pure mathematics where metaphors don’t work anymore”.

    Well, pure Math can be thought of as a kind of ultimate megametaphor :)

  3. David Karger

    July 23, 2013
    at 3:04 pm

    Back in the golden age of science fiction, this kind of continuous addition (of science) appeared often. I’m reading E.E. Smith to my son; his Lensman series plays out a continuous stream of technological improvements (in space warfare) through the series. That model seems to have faded from our science fiction, perhaps because we can no longer figure out what the sequence of improvements would be.

    • Stewart

      July 23, 2013
      at 8:16 pm

      My experience has been that most military sci-fi actually really embraces scientific evolution. David Weber, Steve White, John Ringo to name a few all have series where this comes into play and you see over their series how advances happen (and rarely through the protagonist’s involvement).

      That said, I think Brent makes a good point that hypothetical societies based on magic are harder for authors to show disruption and evolution. It is a case where the author has limited time and unlike Sci-Fi (even wide out there sci-fi), the author generally is the only one that really can think through all the logic.

      Brent – I don’t think you (or your genre) is alone though on some of the questions that you could be posed on why someone didn’t think something up earlier.

  4. Michelle

    July 23, 2013
    at 3:59 pm

    That was an awesome read. Thanks as always, Brent!

  5. Paul (@princejvstin)

    July 24, 2013
    at 11:24 am

    Hi Brent!

    I think its the educational paradigm and the nature of magic that often keeps it from being used as a science, or develop along science/tech lines. Anyone can use a new technique for harvesting, or stirrups, or portholes, so they spread quickly.

    With magic, secrecy and a limited number of practitioners means that such changes are going to spread more slowly. It *should* spread, rather than never be shared, of course.

    There is of course the whole question of how organized and rational magic systems can or should be.

  6. Brendon

    July 24, 2013
    at 1:37 pm

    The Wheel of Time series actually does this progression of magic through the gloablization of gateways. Throughout the series the knowledge of how to instantly travel from place to place gradually grows to every corner of the continent, with at first being very few people who knew the weave. This series has a lot of time to do this, compared to the trilogies that are common.

  7. greg

    July 24, 2013
    at 8:24 pm

    Hey Brett

    Great thoughts on magic and how people really think and work…. i have to read the series to see what i think and if I can break it… I pretty much think I cant but hey I broke my own setting to the point I cant really write in it… I don’t think people would be people if there were anything like magic…. magic is the singularity pretty much….

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