I still have a ways to go before I've experienced all of the writing-related activities I should, but Readercon was an excellent second step (joining BSFW was the first). I not only got the opportunity to hear about the likes of writers like Max Gladstone, I got to hear Max Gladstone himself read his own work, have morning coffee with him and a small group of ten or so, and hear him express his ideas in a number of fascinating and useful panels covering different topics.
By far, the most interesting panel for me, and the one most pertinent to my own work, was entitled “If Magic Has Always Been Real.” The panel explored the challenges inherent to any story that takes place in the “world we know”, only where magic is real and has always been real. If magic has always been real, then why have such terrible things happened in the course of human history? How powerful can magic be if it couldn't prevent these things? Is magical power usable as military power? Also, how has its existence been kept secret all this time?
Successful authors have dealt with these challenges in different ways. In Lev Grossman's “Magicians” trilogy, magic is taught only at a few special colleges around the world, where worthy candidates are sought out and tested, and only a handful of the most gifted are matriculated and allowed passage to these magically hidden academies. In Huruki Murakami's 1Q84, events lead the heroine to unwittingly change the course of reality. In popular anime such as Full Metal Alchemist, magic works only at great cost and so is used sparingly.
Especially in stories set in the modern Western world, where (some have argued) magic has been supplanted by religion, there are higher powers and supernatural beings that oversee the world and/or reality and don't allow mere mortals to influence (read, screw up) things too badly. Or, magic is really a sort of ritualized prayer, petitioning higher (or lower) powers to intervene in a desired way, instead of trying to influence events directly by manipulating unseen mechanisms or energies.
An intelligent author can do any number of things to make magic plausible in the world of his or her story. Maybe something happened to make magic impossible for a time, and now it's possible again. Or maybe the story takes place in an alternate history line where history has been affected by magic and so has unfolded differently. Maybe history unfolded the way it did because of magic being worked behind the scenes, and without magic history would have turned out better, or worse, or about the same.
My own take from the whole panel discussion was this: magic is technology – the application of knowledge for practical purposes. It just so happens that with magic, the mechanisms used can't be scientifically measured or explained, in contrast to science fiction, where they can be (at least, in the world of the story). So the important question for an author is, what are magic's limits? What can it do, and what can't it do?
Viewing it this way, as technology, one can ask why people in the world are starving today when we possess the technology to feed every human being on the planet just as easily as one can ask why magic, if it has existed since antiquity, hasn't presented itself a panacea to all of the world's evils and ills.
The obvious (if vague) answer to both is “because things get in the way.” I think some of the most fertile ground for a writer including magic in his or her work, in terms of creating an interesting story, as well as making any pertinent social commentary, lies in choosing what exactly is getting in the way.
The panelists made three very important and useful points for writers using magic in their stories (which I've paraphrased):
1. If you're going to use magic or other fantastical premises, make the reader aware up front, toward the beginning of the story. Don't suddenly endow a character in the middle of the story with some psychic ability or magical power the reader had no idea was even possible in your world.
2. Keeping the existence of magic completely secret in a modern world setting is very problematic.
3. Whatever you do, do not over-explain the mechanics of how magic works in your world. Readers don't want or need to read dissertations or technical manuals.
I think of the me who exists in an alternate world, one in which I didn't go to Readercon this year, and I realize that I'm chewing on and digesting ideas and viewpoints that don't even occur to that guy to think about. I'm betting that I get published well before he does. And regardless of what else that guy chooses to do, I know I'll be hitting up Readercon next year.
by Christophe Maso
You can find Christophe's novel, "Lynxharrow: Path of the Witch" here!