Quasi-Scientific Powers: A Blog About Magic

Is There Any Argument To Include ‘Magic’ In Science Fiction?

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“Magic is, by definition, not science. It is, therefore, that which cannot be entertained within science fiction. Its banishment, however, has been less than total” – Brian Stableford. 

Perhaps the best way to tell the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that while the former emphasizes science, a great deal of fantasy deals with magic. 

By definition, magic is the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces. Imagine magic disciplined into an “applied” science. Some SF writers have dabbled in it, leading to a varied array of stories about magic, or – more precisely – quasi-scientific powers.

It’s all James George Frazer’s fault. In The Golden Bough: A Study In Magic and Religion (1890), magic is represented as a kind of proto-science based on presumed natural laws: the law of similarity and the law of contagion. The first states that one can influence a process by imitating it, or influence an object by operating upon a likeness of it; the second states that objects once in contact remain associated, so that – ah, stuff it: anyone fancy any cake?

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke. 

No matter how determined SF authors have been in shutting out the mysterious lure of magic, they have invariably kept returning to it. It is said that one branch of specialised (science-based) jargon can easily pass into fantasy territory; strict boundaries btween the two no longer apply. Why should there be any boundaries in fiction?  

As just one example, psionic power can be converted into witchcraft, and vice versa. The combination of “careful extrapolation and absurd premises” fuelled the fantasy that appeared in “Unknown Worlds,” at one time a short-lived companion magazine to Astounding Science Fiction. One of its most notable stories was “The Devil Makes The Law,” (aka “Magic, Inc”) by Robert Heinlein.

A number of SF authors have toyed with pseudoscientific versions of supernatural phenomena. The shape-shifting inherent in “There Shall Be No Darkness” (1950) by James Blish comes to mind. The world really thrives on the mythology of magic in Black Easter (1968) by James Blish, while a world “where magic works and has been disciplined for application” featured in Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos (1971).

Yet perhaps the most awesome SF/fantasy crossover is the The Book of the New Sun, a four-volume series by Gene Wolfe. He pioneered the innovative concept of “science fantasy” whereby conventional science fiction was rearranged into a new “posthistoric” Dark Age centuries after the collapse of our own civilization.

The first volume: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) carries one of my all-time favourite SF book covers (see above), so – if the whole series can be found this Winter during my festive book hunt – then some thoroughly enjoyable reading is in order!

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“I’d like to see little girls playing Avengers in the playground and doing the Scarlet Witch hand gestures” – Elizabeth Olsen.   

While scientific mishaps created (most of) the comic book heroes we know and love today, there are plenty of mystical mavericks ready to fight for justice, especially in Marvel Comics.

Leading the way, dazzling the least-suspecting with her luminous pink hex power is the Scarlet Witch. Wanda Maximoff became one of the most prominent female members of the Avengers; she married everyone’s fave android-in-green-tights: the Vision. 

The mutant mystic made her big screen debut this year in Avengers: Age of Ultron, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Apparently, her character’s powers were useless against the real dangers of filming: “You’re looking around and it’s like all these prestigious actors dressed up in costumes and none of us could stop laughing because we kept screwing up the scene.”  The actress confirms that the Scarlet Witch will make a second appearance in next May’s Captain America: Civil War and the next Avengers adventures.

Sure, my comics radar was well aware of Dr. Strange: the Master of the Mystic Arts, but somehow, his title never appealed. Even when you’re seven years old, a moustachioed man in a mini-skirt, with tights, does not look cool.  

However, having realised (in my teenage years) that he was actually wearing a long tunic, and some of his comics (from the early 80s) were actually quite impressive, the prospect of seeing him on the big screen is intriguing; the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch has signed on to play him has only piqued my interest further. It’s not due for release until 4 November next year, so that leaves plenty of time to catch up with the doctor’s exploits (back issues).

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“m’I tuo fo ym ecaf” – Zatanna Zatara. 

DC Comics – not to be outdone – have their own formidable canon of mystic heroes.

Perhaps this stable’s best-known mystic is Zatanna, who made her debut in Hawkman #4 in 1964. Most notable for her odd knack of casting spells backwards, not only is she more glamorous than either Dr. Fate or the Spectre, but her fondness for white rabbits should be generously rewarded.  

This black-clad, top-hatted, curvaceous conjuror just happens to be embroiled in DC’s Identity Crisis storyline, with all its magical mind-wiping madness. 

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“Pick up any one of the Essential Defenders reprint trades and you’ll see the Hulk and the Silver Surfer venturing into the worlds of magic with the Atlantean prince Namor. Rocking” – Charlie Jane Anders. 

Despite his penchant for blue tights and yellow helmet and cape, there was nothing about Dr. Fate that made me want to grab his comic. Funnily enough, whenever his so-called ongoing series was revived, it never lasted long – so it seems unlikely that we will see him on the big screen any time soon.

So, is there any room in this dizzying technological age for a little bit of hocus-pocus?

You could fly from one side of this galaxy to the other, see a lot of “strange stuff,” but never see anything to make you believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everyone. No mystical energy field controls my destiny! It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

Or is it…?

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Abracadabra!

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5 thoughts on “Quasi-Scientific Powers: A Blog About Magic

  1. Hey there my friend, great post. I love Zatanna, one of my all time favourite characters, Doc Fate is also rather cool and his new series is really rather great too (though the blue and yellow never really worked for me, his Helmet of Fate is amazing though) If we ever get the long awaited Justice League Dark movie, then we hopefully will see all of DC’s memorable mystics onscreen together (Del Toro was down to direct, fingers crossed!)

    • Thank you, as always, kind sir!
      Thot u might b a Zatanna fan – had to include her so I cld use 1 of her crazy backward quotes!
      As soon as I’d finished, other egs came to mind: does the Phantom Stranger count as mystic as well?
      There cld be at least half a dozen members of th X-Men who may v well b classed as downright mystical & b included here!
      Thanks for reading
      Cheers!

      • Phantom Stranger is definitely a mystical character (and one of DC’s most powerful heroes), along with Deadman, Madame Xanadu (who is awesome by the way) and of course the amazing John Constantine. And the Endless, especially Death who’s my personal fave.

      • Yes, of course, John Constantine!
        But he – like PS & Xanadu – is more horror-orientated, that’s why he didn’t feature here.
        You may like to know I’ll be doing a celebration of that Cockney smartass Hell-defier in a Post next month (in time for Halloween).
        Oh, & th Endless! Death is irresistible – she’s cute! 😉

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