Superscience, the Uncanny, and the Miraculous

This post has grown out of a discussion regarding my earlier post on the subject of magic in fiction and a comment that was made regarding Clarke’s Law.

Clarke’s Law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Now, Arthur Clarke was a science fiction writer and in terms of fiction there is one sense in which I agree with it as a piece of advice for writers, and another sense in which I disagree with it.

In terms of plot devices (and this is the sense in which I believe he meant it) it doesn’t matter if you dress some bit of legerdemain in ornate robes or a silver spandex vacuum suit. If an element in the story does not exist in the real world, then that is what I call a fantastic element, and it doesn’t matter if the thing is considered plausible by some scientists or not.

If you introduce a character who can regenerate, it doesn’t matter if you explain it by magic or a mutant power or nanotechnology. You say the character can regenerate and the reader either accepts it as part of the world of the story or doesn’t. Willing suspension of disbelief depends on a great number of factors, but is largely independent of genre designation.

However, there is another sense in which they are not indistinguishable.

That is to say that in terms of constructing a story, different types of fantastic elements have different narrative functions.

For purposes of this discussion I will describe them as Superscience, the Uncanny, and the Miraculous.

Again, let me stress that these categories do not refer to the in-story handwavium that the author uses to explain the elements, but to the function they serve in advancing the story.

Superscience is something that is impossible in our world, but which follows definite and consistent rules within the story. Superpowers in comic books, the abilities of vampires and werewolves, magic spells in urban fantasy series like The Dresden Files and The Rivers Of London, warp drives and phasers in Star Trek.

Superscience can be a lot of fun. Writers often construct scenarios where one superscience power is pitted against another one, or a hero must use his ability creatively to solve a problem. These are the kinds of plot elements that make for great late night drunken conversations at cons. Could the Hulk beat a sandworm? What would happen if Rogue from X-Men touched Sylar from Heroes? Could a Dalek become a vampire? (Exsanguinate! Exsanguinate! Exsanguinate!)

And while Superscience is often defined as (small m) magic in the story world, it is really just a variant form of technology in terms of how it works in the plot.  That’s is how magic works in my Dracoheim universe of stories–it is nothing more than a branch of engineering, and magi are simply people with advanced degrees in a difficult subject.

I am using the term Uncanny here to refer to fantastic plot elements which are inexplicable, yet thematically linked. The clearest examples of what I mean come from Horror. In the classic haunted house story, the events will often escalate in a predictable pattern, but are themselves lawless and incomprehensible. Bad things happen without reason or rhyme, and the reader is kept off balance, never knowing what is coming next, just that it’s likely to be horrible.

However, Uncanny does not have to mean bad, or frightening. The magical adventures in James And The Giant Peach, The Wizard Of Oz and The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe are Uncanny in my sense.

Nor are Uncanny elements limited to the supernatural. Dr. Zarkov from Flash Gordon is a source for Uncanny inventions, devices with strange and unpredictable powers that come and go to advance the plot. Firearms in action movies often exhibit Uncanny properties in the hands of the heroes (sometimes the villains) and much of the alleged science on, say CSI, is Uncanny.

The risk in using Uncanny elements in the protagonist’s favor is that it can kill tension by giving a story a sense of inevitably. If the reader thinks that some unpredictable event is going to save the hero at the last minute, there is no point in worrying about what is going to happen next. The Harry Potter novels, in my opinion, suffer from that.

The Uncanny requires a light touch.  Sometimes it is just there to provide a feel for a story, a sense of the unknown. (Clive Barker is a master of that, in my opinion).

In terms of effect on the story, though, it can’t be counted on, and should be capricious, if not downright malign, to the heroes’ goals. An Uncanny story is full of monkey wrenches and banana peels, patches of ice and sudden dead ends. If the heroes succeed it should be in spite of the Uncanny elements–even if they can use some of them to their advantage–rather than because of them.

The Miraculous is the hardest for me to describe. It is a bolt from the blue, a completely unforeseen moment that changes everything. In Portal Fantasy the event that trapped the hero in another universe generally falls into this category, even if some explanation of it is eventually given. Miracles, almost by definition, are things that happen once and can’t be undone or understood. Even if the effect of the Miraculous is ongoing (a boy wakes up one morning able to fly, or a woman takes a wrong turn and drives her car into the City of Brass and then must survive there) the event itself stands alone, sui generis.

These three forms of Fantastic elements can co-exist in one story, of course. In A Princess Of Mars, John Carter’s transit to Barsoom is a Miraculous event, much of what he encounters there is Uncanny, but his Earthborn strength and agility on the Red Planet is Superscience (as many of the Martian inventions become over time).

There is, unfortunately, a tendency for Fantastic elements to grow more explicable over time. These categories are on a continuum. What was at first Miraculous can, with repeated use in an ongoing series, become Uncanny, and then just a type of Superscience.

The TV series Supernatural is a textbook case of that, with angels and devils beginning as terrifying agents of change and degrading as the series went on into sidekicks.




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Session 12 of “Liberation of the Demon Slayer”

I have no idea who could have asked if the Seduction proficiency helped with tying people up.

The Mixed GM

Here is the full party:

Niblog the Untrustworhty = Assassin PC
Exardell = Mystic PC
Duffles the Unfortunate = Mage PC
Joan = Fighter NPC
Glevina = Elven Ranger NPC
Sherry = NPC Cleric
Broon the Smart Hobgoblin = Hobogoblin NPC who carries a torch / manages finances

Hans = Fighter PC (player is unable to join for a while, so he is sitting at the tavern and visiting the horribly wounded former adventurers)

Session Report
We have a new party member! Duffles the Unfortunate, a mage with a funny hat. It only took 45 seconds to get them up to speed (We kill stuff, take the gold from the dead, we have a powerful magic sword that we did not return to the town like we promised, and we killed the concubine of a powerful demon). The player was a little shocked, but went along with the party anyway.

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This is my writing calendar as of today.

Had some ups and downs, learned some more about my own process and how I can get out of my own way. I am still on track for the year, one quarter into it. (With a caveat, that I will discuss below.)

Current Stats:

* indicates stories written this year

Stories accepted: 

  • “Mystery Train” (6,300 words, Weird Western)*
  • “My Foe Outstretched” (3,800 words, Science Fiction)
  • “Fragile” (4,600 words, Science Fiction)
  • “She That Was So Proud And Wild” (4,700 words, Dracoheim Universe Fantasy)
  • “What Lola Wants” (3,200 words, Crime Noir) *

Stories Out On Submissions: 

  • “Conessa’s Sword” (4,500 words, pre-Industrial Fantasy)
  • “In The Darkest Hour Of The Night” (3,500 words, Weird Horror)
  • “In The Driving Lane” (5,300 words, SF Horror, originally published in Sins Of The Future)
  • “Replevin” (1,000 words, Memoir)
  • “Serpent Walk” (6,200 words, Science Fiction) *
  • “In The City Of Dreadful Joy” (4,700 words, Dracoheim Universe Fantasy) *
  • “The Irregular” (3,700 words, SF Military)  *
  • “Watchman, Mark The Tide” (3,700 words, Weird Tale)*

Stories Complete and Available:

  • “Everyone Knows This Is The End Of The Line” (1,200 words, Dystopian SF–rejected once)
  • “Heartbeat City Homicide” (5,400 words, SF Noir)*
  • “The Hopeful Bodies Of The Young” (4,200 words, Dracoheim Universe Fantasy)*
  • “The Island Of Forbidden Dances” (7,900 words, Dystopian SF)*
  • “All The Kisses In The World” (9,000 words, Dracoheim Universe Fantasy)*
  • “Milk, Bread & Eggs” (4,500 words, Humorous SF)*
  • “The Lord Of Slow Candles” (3,700 words, Modern Fantasy)*

Incomplete Stories: 

  • “The House Of Spectral Discipline” (10,000 words, Horror/Erotica)
  • “The Mad Fishmonger” (4,400 words, Kaiju Romance)
  • “A Dreadful Feast” (6,600 words, Zombie)*
  • “A Murder In Plague Town” (2,000 words, Medical SF)*

That comes to 71,100 words written so far this year. If I can keep this pace up the rest of the year I’ll break the quarter-million mark–280,000 words, or longer than the entire Book Of Lost Doors series.

Can I keep up this pace all year? I honestly don’t know. Some days I can’t stand to look at my computer. But sitting and cranking out words seems to have become a habit. I am actually–for the first time in my life–running into a problem figuring out what my next story is going to be. I’ve always had more ideas than I had time that I was willing to devote to writing them, but now that I’ve gone Pulp Speed my output is beginning to outstrip my inspiration.

There are worse problems to have, I’m sure.

You’ll notice that I have included incomplete stories in my count. I’ve started a seperate folder for Unfinished, by which I mean stories that I haven’t finished yet–I am confident that I can pick up these at a later date. After all, many of the stories listed above were completed after a hiatus during which I worked on other things.



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Session 11 of “Liberation of the Demon Slayer”

I’m here to exercise questionable judgement and chew bubble gum, and bubble gum ain’t on the equipment list.

Seriously, folks, this game is awesome.

The Mixed GM

Here is the full party:

Niblog the Untrustworhty = Assassin PC
Exardell = Mystic PC
Joan = Fighter NPC
Glevina = Elven Ranger NPC
Sherry = NPC Cleric
Broon the Smart Hobgoblin = Hobogoblin NPC who carries a torch / manages finances

Hans = Fighter PC (player is unable to join for a while, so he is sitting at the tavern and visiting the horribly wounded former adventurers)

Session Report
Picking up from the end of the last session, the party speaks to the wounded prisoner that they rescued from the mutated, demonic gnolls on level 4. He says that he worships the great K’tulu and a rival K’utulian cult lurks on level 5. The party lets this priest of a dark and evil deity go in peace.

They head down the stairs to level 5, passing the dark elf enclave in peace.*

On level 5, they once again meet…

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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. 





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Session 09 & 10 of “Liberation of the Demon Slayer”

There are still seats available at the virtual table! Thrills, chills, giggles, guffaws, and more! And we don’t always die horribly. Sometimes we just get maimed.

The Mixed GM

Here is the full party:

Niblog the Untrustworhty = Assassin PC
Exardell = Mystic PC
Joan = Fighter NPC
Glevina = Elven Ranger NPC
Jerry, son of Terry = Fighter NPC who carries a torch

Hans = Fighter PC (player is unable to join for a while, so he is sitting at the tavern and visiting the horribly wounded former adventurers)

Session Report
Due to session 09 being cut short, I will combine the sessions in this post.

Who needs spellcasters?

This party doesn’t!*

* Actually, they do.

After the slaughter of last session, they returned to town and picked up a few new friends. For some reason, other than Glevina, we have decided that every NPC they hire is now part of the same family. Terry, Jerry, and now Joan (pictured below).

Joan The Icewind Dale games had the best portraits for characters. Period.

On the 4th floor of the…

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It doesn’t get more Pulp Rev than this!


The Spring Issue of Cirsova will be out!

2-1 front cover only jpg

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