Can the combination of magic and science work in fiction?

I read many different genres, but often gravitate towards science fiction and fantasy. But recently, I’ve read a few books that combine them both, most noticeably in Chris Fox’s Magitech Chronicles, as well as the book I’m currently reading, Alex White’s A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought of this combination of technology and magic. Science fiction is based on plausible technologies, but magic is in the realm of fantasy, where the physical laws of the universe as we understand them are easily brushed aside.

But things aren’t quite that simple.

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There’s a quote from Arthur C Clarke‌—‌‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ He also said ‘Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet’. If we could pull someone from a hundred years ago to the present day and show them the internet, they’d consider it magic. Tell them about automatic doors, or self-driving cars, or artificial intelligence, and they’d either be in awe of these god-like manifestations, or they’d cower in the face of such demonic forces.

As I pondered this, I came to see that science-fiction and fantasy merge more than I realised, and there are many similarities between the two genres.

The prime example is Star Wars, with the Force. It’s a mystical force that allows users to control matter with their minds (among other things)‌—‌which sounds suspiciously like magic. But what of all the technologies used in science-fiction‌—‌faster-than-light travel, teleportation, and so on? Sometimes there is an attempt to explain things, but often they simply exist in the story universe, and the reader is left to accept their reality in the story‌—‌much like magic in the world of Harry Potter.

It goes back to that first Arthur C Clarke quote.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

FinalEmpireMistborn1_BrandonSandersonYou could argue that each technology serves a distinct role in science fiction, whereas magic can be used as a ‘get out of jail free’ card‌—‌but in my experience, some of the best fantasy books treat magic in a very similar way to science. Brandon Sanderson is a great exponent of using magical systems, where there are rules over what it can and can’t do. For instance, the magic in his Mistborn series is based around metals, and each type of metal gives different abilities. Then there is the training and study that must go into using these magics‌—‌just as characters in science-fiction often need to train in the use of technologies. So Luke trains to use the Force, and Harry Potter studies at Hogwarts so that he can use more magic. Neither technology or magic can be freely used by the uninitiated.

This appears to be the case in the books I’ve read that combine both tech and magic‌—‌neither are devices for instant solutions to problems. It’s interesting that one of the characters in White’s book has no magical ability (it doesn’t seem to hold her back much, although I’m only half-way through the book as I write this). In Fox’s series, he pushes magic into the realm of religion and belief, but still there are rules‌—‌a god’s power can only be used in proportion to the amount of belief their worshippers can give. This gives possibilities for a more social angle, with characters working to encourage that worship to assist their particular gods.

Books that blend science fiction and fantasy are nothing new, though. In Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the mainly fantasy feel is occasionally layered with a sprinkling of sci-fi. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books have a strong fantasy trope (dragons), and the settings often feel like fantasy worlds, but they’re also science fiction books. And sometimes, older science fiction can read like fantasy because the science, speculative at the time, has now been disproven‌—‌think of Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

Of course, the combination of technology and magic isn’t for everyone. Ultimately, it’s down to personal preference. At the moment, I’m enjoying this blend of magic and science, and am interested to see where other writers will take this growing trend.

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