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working writer wending her way through the labyrinth that is self-publishing

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Is magic disappearing?

Magic: n. 1. The art that purports to control or forecast natural events or forces by invoking the supernatural.
2. Exercise of slight of hand or conjuring for entertainment.
2. A mysterious quality of enchantment (the magic of exotic lands)

Many fantasy/sci-fi writers are big into science—and this makes sense, especially in terms of writing science fiction. Research into these realms separates a good sci-fi, or steam-punk novel from the mediocre. But when science becomes the foundation for fantasy writing as well I wonder—is this becoming the norm?

Is it myth versus hard science that is the issue here or does it run deeper than that? We live in a masculine, action oriented country—there is no arguing that. Our government is run by men--men make more money than women doing the same job.  We are constantly busy, men and women alike, with little time for reflection or just being. Achieving our goals becomes paramount, not the journey. Even yoga has turned into a power exercise, asana done quickly with no regard for the deeper meaning, which is a preparation for meditation. The feminine principle becomes lost and ignored in our rush.

From my viewpoint a fantasy is a fantasy—unexplained phenomena—suspension of disbelief. But there are those who above all want to be correct in how their animal, plant or alien characters relate. I don’t mean to denigrate them; we all want to explain our character's strange and wonderful abilities—it adds depth and breadth, but my question is: what has happened to magic?

With magic anything is possible, with magic a character can move from place to place through the ether—there are no scientific manuals to explain how this is done. Time travel can be accomplished with a snap of the fingers, or holding an amulet, or going through standing stones into the past like Diana Gabaldon’s books. To communicate with a being outside of our sphere of understanding can be accomplished easily with magic. If fantasy lacks this element then where might we find it? In a children’s story? Fairytales are full of magic as is Tolkien’s work. Harry Potter? Lots of magic.

 I may be way off base here, writing about apples and oranges, but I get the feeling that some writers are reluctant to acknowledge the unseen, the part of us all that is not explainable—hearing the phone ring and knowing who it is before you pick it up, or feeling a connection with a person you just met for no particular reason you can put your finger on. Communication with dogs, cats, birds or horses that we shrug off, saying it can’t be. Many fantasy stories seem to go for the horrific, the shocking and gruesome rather than the more subtle elements which can be even more frightening—for example: The Picture of Dorian Grey, Edgar Allen Poe—ghosts and things that go bump in the night.

I worry that magic may be going the way of the adverb. I refuse to exclude adverbs from my writing although I do pay attention more closely to how many I use and whether they’re absolutely necessary. And I must embrace the magic, the mystical, the mythology that isn’t tangible, explainable or seen. It’s what keeps me going as a person and a writer.

If you write sc-fi or fantasy do you use magic or do you rely on science as your foundation? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


  1. I'm a pure fantasy writer - I miss the old days of fantasy too - and it shows in my writing. The Coming Storm series, the Servant of the Gods series, and Song of the Fairy Queen are all true fantasy. Even so, I can't knock the blend - Anne McCaffrey (who just passed) blended sif-fi and fantasy wonderfully in her Dragonriders series.
    So much these days is driven by what is perceived to be popular, though - like paranormals and steampunk (although I have nothing against them and enjoy both) - that that's all you see. And that's a shame, for both readers and writers.

  2. I don't write sci-fi or fantasy, but most of my novels have a supernatural element to them, perhaps a bit of magic realism. Without these flights of imagination, we might as well just read newspapers.

  3. So Valerie--where can I find your books? hopefully they are paper since I don't own a kindle..I think the reason people are self-publishing is because of what you say--'what's perceived to be popular' is the only thing agents will take...

    I agree with you Stephen. There has to be more to our world--I like the idea of 'supernatural element' here and there in a non-fantasy type book...

  4. Hi Nikki,

    Personally I think life itself without some sort of magic popping in here and there makes for a pretty dull experience. Just my perspective, of course!

    I love bringing magic into my own writing, because that's what I want to read too. And yes, I'm willing to suspend belief if it "makes sense" – even in a nonsensical sort of way – and stays true to the character’s usual behavior.

    [Prime example: Janet Evanovich, author of the Stephanie Plum numbers mystery series, surprised me with several of her "in between the numbers" books. She keeps the same “real” characters and environment (bail bond recovery/chaos), BUT introduces a sort of magical realm existing just below the surface of their everyday lives, such as people controlling lightning, a real Santa Claus, etc. And it works.]

    When I write, I've found it’s more liberating to invent my own magical rules. I have a lot more freedom to take my storyline and characters in whatever direction I want if I create the world from scratch. But I like starting from a point of reality. Just my preference.

    I’m beginning to agree with you: “Many fantasy stories seem to go for the horrific, the shocking and gruesome rather than the more subtle elements which can be even more frightening…”

    I hear you. I prefer the creepy versus the graphic, myself. In other words, I want my readers to have chills instead of “ews.”


    Eventually, when I start to query, I’ll need to succinctly explain what genre my manuscript falls into. Now, how do I boil down "mystery, amateur sleuth with quirky friends, bits of fantasy, maybe more supernatural than paranormal, and kinda skirts around the sci-fi realm"?

    Or something like that. ;)

    Thanks for your post!

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Tracy! Yes, how to boil down the genre is a tricky one-I'm struggling with that right now since the niche on Amazon is important...good luck with your writing!

  6. I agree with you, Nikkie that when you ground a story in the real world you are entitled, (because it works)to have an element of the 'unexplained'. It's that which gives the creepy edge. Saki did it brilliantly. But where I might disagree,is when you create a full blown fantasy world. Then, irrespective of science you do, I think, need some consistency in grounding in that magical world. There have to be some rules otherwise you risk the 'with one bound he was free' syndrome.

    Really interesting post, and discussion, Nikkie

  7. Thanks for your comment, Mike. Not sure what you're referring to 'with one bound he was free' but I think I get the gist. I agree that consistency is definitely important--you can't have people flying all over the place, so to speak..

  8. I like the tradition in Latin American fiction of magic realism. The world is ordinary, but magical and supernatural things happen. (I like to think of the real world as that way too.) Current work is set in a highly technologized future, but with some unexplainable elements. I've been known to fall off the edge into surrealism, which I think of as alternative reality where the rules and logic are different. But that's a different question altogether than the one you posed . . .

  9. I like the idea of the ordinary world where weird things happen--if we really look around we can see it every day--does The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Zafon fit into this fiction? I loved that book.

  10. I don't know that one. The one I read in college was called Strong Wind, a Latin American classic, but I don't remember the author. A recent one is Trash Sex Magic by Jennifer Stephenson, hilarious and very weird.