Leaving the town in the keeping of the man who is sweeping up the ghosts of Saturday night

This is in reply, more or less, to posts made by some writers I know. First Alexander Hellene talks about the Mythic in fiction,  then Xavier Lastra discusses magic use as a plot element in genre fiction, and then Rawle Nyanzi examines the trend of demythologizing in anime.

One of the common points in these essays is the idea that over-explaining the Fantastic robs it of its Magic–“Magic” used in the narrative sense of an element that inspires wonder in the reader.

In fact, in much modern fantasy small “m” magic is almost entirely divorced from capital “M” Magic. It is treated as another branch of technology, even when the trappings of it are deliberately mystical in nature.

And while I agree with this as far as it goes, I think that it may not go quite far enough. It is not comprehension of a phenomenon that demythologizes it, it is a shallow comprehension of the phenomenon. 

Allow me to use an example from my own professional life–electricity.

When I was a kid electricity was magic. It came out of the wall and made stuff happen, and terrible things would happen to you if you stuck anything into its lair. That’s all a kid knows, and that’s all a kid needs to know.

It’s a primitive, animist understanding. “Reddi Kilowatt lives in the walls and will do magic for you, but he’s scared of storms and if there’s a bad windstorm he goes and hides. And every now and then he gets mad and burns down a house. Make sure to propitiate him by turning off lights when you leave the room and unplugging extension cords when you’re not using them.”

Then I grew up a little bit, and I started working with electricity, both professionally and around the house. My understanding changed. There are these things called “electrons” and they move along wires in one direction or another, and if you hook up the wires right then it will work right.

This is a sophisticated understanding. “Electricity is a purely physical thing, just a flow of electrons from one place to another. It follows simple rules and if you obey the rules then everything will work out just fine.” 

That’s as far as most people ever get in their understanding, and, frankly, that’s as far as users of electricity in an industrialized nation with access to well-maintained generator and transmission stations ever need to get.

Then I got deeper into it. I took a job where I was doing more general maintenance and less just security systems, and I started learning about lighting circuits and transfer switches and emergency generators and wiring for HVAC units.

I’m kind of hands-on learner, so I learned by trial and error, which involved getting shocked a fair deal and the occasional project catching fire. Small fires. Mostly just a lot of melted plastic and dark looks from my boss.

And guess what? Reddi Kilowatt came back. With a vengeance.

Because now that I work with electricity on a daily basis I realize that there are some things that I simply can’t comprehend. I can’t work out why something works the way it does, I just know it does. Most of the time, anyway.

There’s a ghost in the machine, a ragged edge of the wild lurking just past the printed schematic.

Let me give you an example: a lot of commercial air handlers use three-phase motors. That means there are two “hot” leads and one neutral going to the motor. Now, when you replace a three-phase motor and put wires on the new motor in exactly the same way the wires were on the old motor, sometimes the new motor will run backwards. And what you do then is switch the position of the two hot leads. Then it starts running in the right direction.

I have no freakin’ clue why this is.

I am sure that a sub-atomic physicist could explain this in terms of electron flow, or something, but I can’t wrap my head around it. It makes no sense to me at all.

And that’s a relatively simple example. Recently my two bosses had an issue with the gym lighting, which involves a spaghetti mass of contactors and momentary switches. They fixed the problem, but couldn’t explain how they fixed it, or even articulate exactly what the problem was. It didn’t work, they tried a lot of different things and stopped when it worked the way it was supposed to.

That’s what might be called a mystic understanding. “I am aware of certain principles that govern the behavior of electricity, and I work to apply those principles, but at the heart of the the meeting of matter and energy is something essentially unknowable, something wild and inchoate, and if you ever start thinking it’s tamed it will turn around and fry your ass.” 

Seriously. Search for “Arc Flash Safety Videos” sometime. After you watch a couple you’ll start turning on lights with a ten-foot non-conductive pole.

Anyway, to get back to my main point, wizards in much modern Fantasy are written at the sophisticate level of understanding, not the mystic or the primitive. I find the D&D term “Magic User” to be particularly apt for that sort of wizard–they are users, not admins. They know what buttons to push and that’s all.

And I suspect that is largely because the authors don’t venture past the sophisticate level of understanding of the world around them. They don’t have to–somebody else so thoroughly takes care of the deeper machinery of civilization that they don’t even know it exists. They can’t see the edge of the wild from where they are.

Which is a shame because I think that the Edge Of The Wild is the natural setting for Fantasy. And I think it lurks all around us, once you open your eyes to see it.

For more on my thoughts on this issue, here’s a post I wrote about childhood vs. adult magic. 





About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, New Wave, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Leaving the town in the keeping of the man who is sweeping up the ghosts of Saturday night

  1. Oh this is excellent and so true. I am going to rethink how I’m writing fantasy.

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  4. Mary says:

    Yeah, there’s a lot of things you can do with magic.

    I had fun with it in Dragonfire and Time, where the wizard heroine was thinking about how the thrill had gone out magic — she was doing good work and all that with it, but it didn’t have the thrill. . . .

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