Ever since I heard of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law—any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic—I’ve often found myself thinking of how magic would end up being studied in a post-scientific revolution civilization. I know a lot of fantasy authors don’t like making their systems of magic explicit, because it inevitably makes it magic less magical (and not making it explicit is also incidentally in line with Tolkien’s thoughts on how magic should work: internally logically consistent the way logic in fairy tales and dreams are internally consistent, no matter how weird.)
One of the magical systems that I think works pretty well is that established by Ursula K. Le Guin in her Earthsea Cycle (and apparently lifted wholesale by Christopher Paolini in his Inheritance Cycle.) The idea is that there is a language—the language of dragons—that can be used to manipulate the universe itself. The True Speech. Every object in the universe has it’s own name by which it can be explicitly addressed, and potentially transformed.
I’ve also been fascinated by systems that revolve around the elements. The magic system from Avatar: The Last Airbender is perhaps the best of these, but elemental schools have been a staple in the Final Fantasy games, are part and parcel of the Wheel of Time saga, and are present in MMOs like the World of Warcraft.
But systems of magic implemented in games never translate well to stories. Often times it’s just about uttering magic words and formulae, but ideas that seem derived directly from Dungeons and Dragons or from Wizardry seem too mechanical. Things like memorization and spell points and mana. Perhaps it just seems too silly because it’s so pervasive in gaming. It has become too familiar, which then makes it unmagical.
The reason why I started thinking about this was because I was trying to rationalize why magic users have to perform rituals, use reagents, and utter verbal formulae. So I started imagining a system where practitioners have to perform rituals, use reagents, and utter verbal formulae not because they are essential for performing magic, but because these are the only ways that the practitioners can form the relevant patterns in their head, and it is the patterns themselves that are necessary for magic to occur.
I’ve actually tried to translate a consistent magic system into a science-fictional advanced technology, divided into elemental schools not because it is essential, but more out of pedagogical convenience. But if I ever end up writing a fantasy novel, I’ll have to see if I can succeed in showing, not telling, without turning magic completely banal.
But this got me to thinking about how a lot of magical systems basically end up being programming. One of the recurrent notions in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea stories is that, because dragons speak the True Speech, and True Speech creates reality, then dragons cannot truly lie. If what they say is untrue, then it becomes true.
This leads me to the notion of the “=” operator in most computer languages, which, while it can be used identically to how it’s used math, to denote equation, it’s also often used to assign values. Whereas in math, “a = b” can be true or false depending on what a is and what b is, in programming “a = b” is always true. If a does not already equal b, then it will. Whatever is written becomes true. You cannot lie in C. Or BASIC.
Actually, one of my favorite “there are wizards among us” stories is entitled “El Regalo” (The Gift) by Peter S Beagle (of The Last Unicorn fame.) Part of his anthology The Line Between, Beagle chronicles the misadventures of a 15 year old Korean American girl named Angie and her 8½ year old brother named Marvyn, both of whom come to discover that they have magical powers. In this tantalizing tidbit that is just calling to be expanded to a full length novel, they find themselves pitted against an ancient, malevolent sorceror only known as El Viejo, The Old Man.
The multicultural environs necessarily places this novella in a major metropolitan area. Given my Southern California-centrism, I immediately imagine that this is L.A. (Beagle did write a novel entitled Unicorn Sonata that was set in L.A.) But I suppose this could just as easily be NYC, particularly since Beagle grew up there.
Which leads to why, of all the fantasy series that I’ve read, The Earthsea Cycle exercises such a strong hold on my imagination.
Never mind the wonderful elucidation of the system of Magic, the interweavings of Taoist philosophy, and the beauty and the lyricism of Le Guin’s writing. True, these alone make the series worth reading. But as a person-of-color who aspires to be a writer of speculative fiction, the fact that Ged is a brown guy is awesome.
Pam Noles’ essay on how groundbreaking it was to have a non-white major character pretty much encompasses anything I have to say about the subject, and is far more articulate than anything I could write. But suffice it to say that I was eminently saddened by the Sci-Fi Channel’s wanton rape of Le Guin’s material, of which UKL herself has much to write about: (1) A Whitewashed Earthsea: how the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books (2) Frankenstein’s Earthsea.
But Earthsea resonates with me and my cultural heritage far more than just due to the coincident skin color. I ought to write UKL some day to ask her if certain concepts were deliberate. Like Ged himself, my parents come from an archipelago. My distant ancestors were all seafarers, some of whom braved the open seas, reaching as far as Madagascar to the west and Easter Island to the east, and some even theorize that they might have actually made it to the South American mainland. And in the beginning of certain Filipino creation stories, just like the creation myth of Earthsea, there was only sea and sky.
The Old Powers recall the indigenous animistic beliefs of Southeast Asia. And even the magic system, where to name something is to bind it, resonates.
(Not that this has anything to do with it, but the concept of the Verdunan, the Division, is key to the final book in the cycle. For some reason, I automatically think of the Ati-Atihan, which is a festival on the isle of Aklan which supposedly commemorates the arrival of the Borneans and their agreement to share the land with the indigenous Ati. And these are probably just false cognates, but what if Ati is related to the word “hati”, which means “half” in some Austronesian languages. Given the typically diminuitive stature of the Ati, does this connote “halfling”? OK, I’ve probably read way too much J.R.R. Tolkien. But getting back to the Verdunan, what if the Ati-Atihan is actually hati-hati’an, meaning “division”, which makes sense if the festival commemorates the partition of the island between the Ati and the Borneans. Anyway.)
In summary, The Earthsea Cycle inspired me to find my own authentic voice with regards to speculative fiction, to leverage my unique cultural background in order to build worlds that have not yet been described. I have yet to actually take pen to paper. And while I lament that there have yet to be any Filipino Americans to brave the genre of science-fiction and fantasy, I know that there are writers out there, some of whom are writing such stories. And I can’t really say much unless I’m going to put in some effort, too.