Mad Science and Magic, Together at Last

“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.

But Then Again…

This is a short piece I wrote, dipping my toe in some Cyberpunk waters. A sub-genre I’m extremely fond of but one I haven’t written much in. The idea behind this is probably absurd and could never happen. But then again…

They sat in that evening in late autumn rain, waiting on a rooftop for the saleryman to emerge from the tube station. Mathis checked her gauss rifle to make sure it was still charged. There was an almost zero chance it would lose its charge, but she was meticulous. Shanna, who had set up a micro-cameras in a three-block radius checked the facial recognition algorithm installed in her eye. Still nothing.
“It’s so damn cold,” she said.
“So it is,” replied Mathis.
Neither woman spoke as the rain beat on roof as well as them. Shanna looked at her partner. Mathis resembled a middle-aged woman. In the past, Shanna asked her if she’d ever consider plastic surgery, they could make her look years younger in the time it would take to eat a meal. Mathis told her, “A middle-aged woman is often unseen, something that in our line of work is priceless.” The younger woman didn’t know if Mathis was modified to look that age or if she was that age. She supposed it didn’t really matter.
“There’s a coffee machine across the street,” Shanna observed wistfully, “Do I have enough time to get us a couple of cups?”
“Probably not,” she said.
“Damn.”
A moment passed.
“What kind of machine is it?” she asked.
Shanna zoomed in and read the name.
“Mestre Do Café. Not terrible for machine coffee.”
Mathis shook her head. “I won’t touch the stuff.”
Shanna smirked, “Coffee snob.”
“It’s not that. Did you ever hear of the Umbrella Man?”
“The legendary killer? Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”
“Do you know what happened to him?”
Shanna paused.
“He doesn’t work anymore. I just assumed he had enough credit to move up to one of the Orbitals and is living his best post-human life.”
“I too heard that rumor, though no one knows for sure. But I heard another one.”
Rain continued to piss down on both of them.
“Are you going to make me guess?” asked Shanna who was in no mood for guessing.
“No. But it is absurd,” she said.
“It has to be better than listening to the rain.”
“Very well. As you may know, the Umbrella Man had multiple body modifications, not crude chainsaw hands or obvious hydraulic legs, but subtle and bespoke enhancements. Invisible to the human eye and to all scans. These were very expensive, but then again, his own fees were such that if you had to ask, you should know that you could not afford them.”
Shanna sighed, everybody knew that part.
“One day he took a commission on a dictator. A terrible man, as all dictators are, but his security was exceptionally talented as well as true believers, which made them even more dangerous. This dictator did not drink alcohol, or use drugs and while he had an appetite for physical pleasures, his partners were scrupulously vetted. So the usual avenues were closed. But the Umbrella Man was undaunted. This dictator had one weakness, which he saw as a strength. He would not eat anything prepared by human chefs, because he did not trust them. Everything he ate or drank came from a vending machine, each picked randomly each day.”
“That’s disgusting!” Shanna said.
“I agree. But it an excellent way to not be poisoned, except for the terrible food and drink but I suspect that this man was already dead, spiritually speaking, so these synthetic meals had little effect. Now the Umbrella Man, as I heard the tale, goes to Mrs. Sai, the noted body mod specialist.”
“I know who she is Mathis, she did my eyes,” said Shanna.
“And a superlative job indeed. But the Umbrella Man wanted something unique, an untried mod. He wanted his consciousness implanted into a vending machine. Specifically, a Mestre Do Café machine.”
Shanna looked at her partner and wondered if she was taking the mickey out of her but she was not one for whimsy. Mathis shrugged her shoulders and continued.
“I am aware of how absurd this sounds. But it is genius, even if it is a bit mad,” observed Mathis.
“A bit mad? It sounds completely bonkers! Even it were true, which I don’t believe, how would he know that this dictator would chose the one he was in? That’s an insane gamble!”
Mathis smiled.
“Ah, but it isn’t. There are thousands of these machines, all over the world, from major cities to the smallest towns, they are omnipresent. However, they are all linked together effectively making them one machine, giving the Umbrella Man a would-wide view.”
“Then why not just hire a digital artiste to get into their system?”
“Mestre Do Café did not become the most prolific beverage machine by having a lackadaisical outlook on digital security. The word from my friends in the business is that their customer data is both extensive and viciously protected. But the Umbrella Man became as a spirit, watching patiently. He knew he would have only one shot, so to speak, to complete his contract. When the dictator placed his order from a machine, and it could be any machine, all he had to do was alter the synthesizing sub-routines for that one cup, and while it tasted like coffee, it also was laced with a nano-toxin that would cause a massive, irreparable stroke. Job done”
The only sound was the incessant rain as Shanna looked at Mathis. It was ridiculous. Urban legend. The sort of story you might tell over drinks or to kill time.
“That’s bullshit,” she said, “How would he get out? Why wasn’t he caught by the digital security? How did it not make it on the grid?”
Mathis checked her rifle once more and sighed.
“As I told you, it’s an absurd tale. Most likely rumor and nonsense, as you said, bullshit. However, even the most preposterous story may have a particle of truth. Do I think a cup of Mestre Do Café will kill me? No. But then again…”