“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
-Arthur C. Clarke
The above is a very well-known and often quoted rule, at least by fans of science fiction and fantasy. And the reason that this bon mot is so often dropped is that it is absolutely true. If you went into the past, your smartphone would effectively become a magic tablet, even without cell service. Let’s face it, we don’t use phones to talk to one another but let’s get back on track.
In movies, TV, books, and comics there is a clear delineation between magic and technology. Magic is inscribing runes or glyphs, speaking specific words, and making gestures to make the impossible real. Technology uses physics, chemistry, and engineering to make the impossible real.
So what’s the difference? Well, physics, chemistry, and engineering are all real and magic is not, as far as I know. But they essentially accomplish the same things, narratively speaking. Whether you’re firing a plasma pistol or shooting magic flames from your hands ends up with the same result, someone’s painful death. Unless you miss but let’s just say that orc or stormtrooper got what they had coming.
Again, aside from flavor, how do they differ? A plasma pistol should have a limited number of shots, like any projectile weapon. Do wizards have ammo? It depends on if they are using their own reservoir of magical energy, in which case, yes they have ammo and it’s limited. Even if they are channeling magic from outside their bodies, that has to take a toll so again, a wizard is limited on how much they can do.
Of course, an energy weapon can be hooked up to an external power source that would effectively give the shooter unlimited ammo, or near enough to deal with their foes, so that’s different. Of course, a wizard could use some sort of ritual that allows them to focus magic from another dimension. It becomes a zero-sum game.
Some science fiction tries to use real science to justify the fantastic things that are accomplished in the course of their stories. This is more prevalent now than it was in the past. In the Lensman books by E.E. “Doc” Smith, faster than light travel was accomplished by use of an inertialess drive. Other than the idea that being inertialess would allow you to travel faster, it has no scientific legitimacy. If you’ve not heard of the Lensman stories, the first one, “Triplanetary”, was published in 1934.
Note: A man by the name of Michael Pedler claimed to be developing an inertialess drive and raised $6.8 million to make it a reality. Spoilers, we do not have inertialess drive space ships.
So how does inertialess drive work? It just does, that’s all you need to know. In fact, that’s how a lot of science fiction tech works. I’m sure there are some that have a basis in theoretical physics or other disciplines, and I’m quite confident that some of my readers can cite examples that counter this. While I admit I’m painting with a very large brush, I don’t think I’m wrong.
For magic, it’s the same thing. Why does saying certain words and waving your hands or a wand allows you to break the laws of physics? Because it does.
In the Harry Dresden series, which is about a wizard private eye operating out of Chicago, magic has rules. He can throw up a shield spell to protect himself but it takes energy. If he does it too much it can wear him out.
Too counter that, he makes rings and a bracelet that captures the energy he generates while walking around each day, like a self-winding watch, and uses that power to avoid being damaged or to throw some of that force back. While this is clearly something we cannot really do, it does have a scientific feel, despite being magical. And like the inertialess drive, it works because it does. Side note, if you’ve not read them, I suggest you check them out. After you’ve read all my stuff.
Does the lack of a solid scientific basis make it less enjoyable? For me, not at all. When you create a weird and wondrous world, it doesn’t need to be entirely realistic. The rules just need to be consistent.
In a very real way, science fiction and fantasy are closer than people think. It may come down to a matter of preference.
I have a friend who loves fantasy and superheroes but does not care for science fiction. To me, this is puzzling, not just because of all the reasons I’ve listed above but because to my way of thinking, superheroes and science fiction are very closely linked. While there are magical heroes and villains, most have origins closely tied to scientific means or more accurately pseudo-scientific means. If radiation really bestowed superpowers, I would’ve dosed myself a long time ago. I know I’m not alone in this.
In spite of that fact, he just doesn’t care for science fiction and nothing I could say would change his mind. He likes what he likes.
Of course, fantasy leans into the destiny of heroes and queens and kings and science fiction tends to be a little more inclusive and more democratic but the idea of a hereditary nobility still persists in the distant and not so distant future. But in both, emperors are usually evil. Another overlap on the ven diagram of these two genres. Interesting.
Maybe we should think of fantasy and science fiction as potato chips, each with a different flavor. You might love sour cream and onion or barbecue but they are both crispy and delicious. Also, they are both still chips.
So conjure up, or nano-build, a big bowl of crunchy goodness, share it with your favorite cyborg or sorceress, and realize you aren’t so different after all.