• Member Since 15th Apr, 2012
  • offline last seen June 3rd

bookplayer


Twilight floated a second fritter up to her mouth when she realized the first was gone. “What is in these things?” “Mostly love. Love ‘n about three sticks of butter.”

More Blog Posts545

  • 77 weeks
    Holiday Wishes

    Merry Christmas to all my friends here.

    And to those who have read Sun and Hearth (or who don't intend to, or those who don't mind spoilers), a Hearth's Warming gift:

    Read More

    11 comments · 724 views
  • 85 weeks
    Blast from the Past: Now 100% Less Likely to Get Me In Trouble

    Hey, some of you guys remember that thing I did a long time ago, where I wrote up 50 questions about headcanon and suggested people answer them on their blogs, and then, like, everyone on the site wanted to do it, and then the site mods sent me nice but stern messages suggesting I cut that shit out because it was spamming people's feeds?

    Read More

    12 comments · 932 views
  • 87 weeks
    Full Circle

    Wanderer D posted a touching retrospective of his time in fandom, and that made me remember the very first I ever heard of the show.

    (Potential implied spoilers but maybe not? below.)

    Read More

    21 comments · 923 views
  • 91 weeks
    Sun and Hearth is complete, plus post-update blog

    If you've been waiting for a complete tag before you read it, or are looking for a novel to start reading this weekend, Sun and Hearth is now finished and posted.

    Read More

    19 comments · 805 views
  • 91 weeks
    Sun and Hearth Post-Update Blog: Chapter 20 - Judgement

    Post-update blog for the penultimate chapter of Sun and Hearth. Last chapter and epilogue go up tomorrow.

    Chapter 20 - Judgement is up now. Spoilers below the break.

    Read More

    6 comments · 364 views
Feb
2nd
2016

Writing Magic in Equestria · 3:43am Feb 2nd, 2016

“But magic is as magic does. Just funny that way.”

That’s one of my favorite quotes from the show, and one that I think says a lot about Equestria.

Magic in Equestria is mundane, but mysterious. There are magical fruits and potion ingredients all around Ponyville, and places with permanent cloning spells or powerful ancient artefacts less than a day’s walk away. Yet the study of these things seems haphazard and and full of trial and error. They’re just there. Magic is as magic does.

If you compare magic to science and technology, it’s as if the setting is an early twentieth century countryside with advanced alien technology scattered around. Intellectuals might be able to figure out the basics, if they ever got around to looking and studying it, but they haven’t really gotten there yet and in the meantime ponies with no idea what it does wander around and poke at it, figuring out how to make it do things.

This is one of my favorite parts of Equestria as a setting, and I love to play with it in fics. Whether it’s canon stuff like the sonic rainboom or the zap apple magic, or my own invention like the homesteading spell, the Tunnel of Love, or the Maidens Day ritual, I feel like magic woven into the setting makes a memorable set piece to wrap a fic around.

Thinking about the ways I’ve done it, and what I like to see, I thought I’d offer some suggestions for how to do this in fics. None of these are “The Way This Is Done,” but more “How To Do This Like bookplayer,” if that’s a thing that you might want to do.

Spells and potions are the most common things authors use, and the hardest to use well. They’re the easy way to get whatever magic effect you want to happen. And, of course, they can always not work and backfire.

...and that’s usually pretty much it. The problem is that there’s not much memorable about them, at least not the way they’re usually used. There’s no scenery, there’s no history, there’s no indication that they’re used regularly for anything. Even if they don’t do what the characters wanted, they do exactly what the author wanted and then they’re out of the picture. They tend to act as pure plot device.

So, if you’re going to use those, don’t do that. Give the spell or potion a history; even if it’s newly created, give it a history of the testing that happened before the start of the story. Give it possible side effects that you’re not going to use, which is also a great place to hide side effects you are going to use. If it’s a serious story, talk a little about the ethics of it. If it’s not a serious story, throw in some side effects that are funny and won’t affect the plot.

Basically, make it feel like it’s a thing that exists outside of your story.

The same is even more true of magical locations or rituals. Tell the readers who in Equestria knows about them, who goes to them and what they are or aren’t used for. Give them unimportant details; you have to mess with the rock a bit to get it to fit properly over the cave entrance, or the ritual works better if everypony is wearing a hat.

With rituals and locations, you can play with details in the atmosphere, too. Plants and animals might have evolved to use the magic of the location. Specific behavior might have developed around the ritual, whether a party or something more solom. All of these details can be used to imply the history and the current cultures of the ponies who use them.

Now, when it comes to all of these things, spells or locations or potions or what have you, it’s important not to info dump just so that your readers know you did all of your homework. There might be some instances where an info dump makes sense: Twilight explaining a spell or Granny Smith telling some history, for example. But make sure if that happens you limit the info dump to the information they’d logically throw at the characters. Otherwise, you want to focus on showing the readers as much as you can. Describe things that imply the history, toss out a brief reference in dialogue without explaining it, let the characters share incomplete understandings that add up to a bigger picture.

And let the characters react to the magic, not just the situation they find themselves in. Let them feel powerful or in awe or excited or nervous as the magic works. Let them be angry or confused or sad when it doesn’t do what they want. Don’t rush through those moments to get to the plot or you’re selling the uniqueness of the magic itself short.

Finally, keep in mind how all of this ties into the plot and theme of your fic. If you’re kicking off your plot with a magic thing that appears every decade and grants a wish to one lucky pony, it’s going to work best if wishing is a part of the story that comes after, whether it’s the power of hope, or the downsides of wishing vs. working for something.

But it’s important to note that being too matchy-matchy isn’t the best way to go either, part of making the magic feel natural is making it feel like it applies to more than just your specific plot. If the magical thing that gets your characters together has a history that dates back to Hearths Warming, it doesn't have to have been created for the founders those ponies happened to play in Hearths Warming Eve. Making it a totally different pairing or historical figures will make it feel more like this is a thing that other ponies have been exposed to.

On another magic related subject, I want to talk for a minute about thaumobabble: when a character (often Twilight) launches into a bunch of sciency/technical sounding words about how magic works. This can be an odd piece of writing, because the first thing you have to understand about it is that absolutely no one cares what it actually says.

There are three reasons to even bother to write it:

Characterization-- if you want to show that a character is smart or well read or has an understanding of the technical concepts of magic.

Characterization of the magic-- if you want to show how complex the magic is, or show that it’s been studied and thoroughly understood.

Convincing the readers that this is a thing that could work-- if you want an effect that’s way outside of what canon magic should do, or that directly contradicts something magic is supposed to do. (For example, Twilight’s thaumobabble in Rainbow Rocks about the mirror.)

What thaumobabble is not for is actually explaining your headcanon for how something works. Because if that’s your goal, the chances are you’re going to be saying more than is relevant to the plot. Nine times out of ten, your readers don’t care about your headcanon and their eyes are glazing over at the thaumobabble, registering it as “technical stuff,” so you want as little as possible to convey whatever you’re trying to get across about the character or magic.

Which brings up an important point about thaumobabble: if you need for people to actually remember something, you need to have a character restate it in plain English. Then you should probably do that again when it actually comes up. This is going to require you to have a character on hand who doesn’t already understand the babble, because otherwise you get into what Sci-Fi authors call the “As you know, Bob” conversation, where characters tell each other things they already know and would have no reason to explain. Luckily, Equestria doesn’t have a shortage of ponies who have no idea how magic works, so most characters are on the same page as your readers.

Equestria is a fantasy setting, and magic can be one of the coolest ways to convey a theme, start a plot rolling, or cause trouble for your characters in a way that will make your fic different and memorable. You get out of it what you put into writing about it, so pay some attention to how it fits your story and setting. It’ll pay off in the long run.

Since this is a Monday Blog Post, a big thank you to: bats, diremane, First_Down, sopchoppy, Bradel, stormgnome, jlm123hi, Ultiville, Singularity Dream, JetstreamGW, Noble Thought, horizon, Sharp Spark, Applejinx, Mermerus, Super Trampoline, Quill Scratch, Peregrine Caged, blagdaross, Scramblers and Shadows, BlazzingInferno, Merc the Jerk, and LegionPothIX.

If you contributed money to me, and you’re not listed above, you can let me know who you are. I mean, if you’re into that whole me knowing who you are thing. (I have heard from one person, and thank you!)

If you want to see your name in links, or get other fabulous prizes, check out this post for information on how to subscribe: Subscription Info.

Report bookplayer · 834 views ·
Comments ( 53 )

I noticed you didn't talk about sigils at all. I'm actually working on a story about a pyromancer unicorn who isn't very good at casting spells with her horn so she uses a lot of runes and sigils and alchemy instead.

3728113
Those aren't used much that I've read. I tend to associate them with ritual magic, but I've used them as part of earth pony magic myself. There's tons you could do there with the history of language and written symbols in Equestria. That always reflects the culture it comes out of (some people argue that it help create it, in fact.)

Even if you're writing a silly comedy, one where you aren't being deep about anything or going into a lot of detail, you can still mix it up, magic-wise. My "soldier in Equestria" parody has the alicorn quartet summoning an unstoppable human warrior with a ritual that includes the sacrifice of a Care Bear.

If you compare magic to science and technology, it’s as if the setting is an early twentieth century countryside with advanced alien technology scattered around.

You were so close to a great analogy, Bookplayer. I was reading this sentence and I thought you were going there, and I thought it was ingenious. :twilightsmile: Then I saw you weren't. :facehoof:

I thought you were going to say "If you compare magic to science and technology, it's as if technology is modern-day science while magic is what science was during the Renaissance, i.e. science before the scientific method."

Based on canon events surrounding Twilight Sparkle, it's clear that magic in Equestria is mundane and replicable. Yet you get quotes like what you have. How to reconcile that disparity? Well, it's important to remember that science was once called "natural philosophy." It seems Equestria is still somewhere at that stage in terms of its study of magic.

3728113
And that is important because... why?
No, seriously. How is that factoid important to your plot and your character, other than adding an extra step when casting some spell? If it is, then great.

3728117

That always reflects the culture it comes out of (some people argue that it help create it, in fact.)

Can you elaborate on this statement please, as I'm not entirely sure what you mean.

3728129

I thought you were going to say "If you compare magic to science and technology, it's as if technology is modern-day science while magic is what science was during the Renaissance, i.e. science before the scientific method."
Based on canon events surrounding Twilight Sparkle, it's clear that magic in Equestria is mundane and replicable. Yet you get quotes like what you have. How to reconcile that disparity? Well, it's important to remember that science was once called "natural philosophy." It seems Equestria is still somewhere at that stage in terms of its study of magic.

I have to disagree. They have the scientific method, and they have technical language to talk about magic. If Twilight studied it, she could probably understand it, though some things would still be outside her understanding.

But something as "magically" ("technologically") advanced as, say, the mirror pool is sitting around, having been obviously created by somepony, given that it's triggered by a rhyme and solution is hidden in the library, but without anypony who might use it bothering to know how or why it works.

That would be like if there was a matter reproduction system sitting around in a field in the 1910s. People might figure out what these buttons do, and they're sure as hell going to use it, and maybe the top scientists could reverse engineer it, but who's going to go looking at all the technology scattered everywhere.

3728130
Language is a system of symbols, as is writing. So it reflects the culture in that people have symbols for things that are important or useful to them. Things where there're a lot of useful distinctions to be made will have a lot of different symbols that mean almost, but not quite, the same things.

Some people have put forward the theory that can work the other way, as well, that we have a hard time understanding concepts that have never been useful for us to have a lot of symbols for.

So, if you have a culture where computers are very important, they'll have different words for different kinds, different brands, different technical stats. On the other hand, bread might not be very important to them, so they might only have a few commonly used words for bread.

The theory I mentioned goes that people in that culture, over time, will be more able to recognizes differences in computers than they can recognize in bread. Since there's no way to communicate it the differences in bread, their brains don't learn to analyze it, even if they were trying to.

I know there have been studies that refute some or all of this theory, but I also know it's something that's still undergoing testing and debate. But it's an interesting idea to consider when you're talking about magical symbols.

3728137
Incidentally, this sort of thing lying around is one of the most common characteristics of magical settings, but it often also ends up feeling like one of the most discordant; in real life, we don't have ancient awesome technology, and thus such things can create bizarre anachronistic issues or fridge logic as we have the setting simultaneously rely on such things and real-world tropes (like the past being more primitive).

Not to say they can't create a sense of wonder in the world, but it can also make things a bit weird.

Unfortunately, a lot of settings treat such things inconsistently.

Ha. Nice blog there. Eh. Magic is messy.

Basically, make it feel like it’s a thing that exists outside of your story.

The same is even more true of magical locations or rituals.

Couldn't agree more; another point to have your characters fuss at each other about.

I think I love the potential mix of magic like technology with magic like myths and wishing stars.

I've always thought of magic as more complicated electricity in fantasy settings. Most settings describe it as some form being able to manipulate energy in some capacity, and it powers all the wondrous devices that allow for those with access to them to do unprecedented or mundane things. And all those symbols, strange herbal mixes and incantations are just people directing the natural flow to do something it normally wouldn't like turn a duck into a skyscraper made of toothpicks. Or whatever other piece of fresh insanity the wizard has cooked up. Anything that the flow doesn't want to do is more difficult than things it does.

3728150

Not to say they can't create a sense of wonder in the world, but it can also make things a bit weird.

I think that's actually what I'm trying to mitigate here, I'm just coming at it sideways. I think that making this ancient magical stuff more a part of everyday life, or placing it in history, can make it feel less discordant-- more like medieval villages still using Roman aquaducts even if they have no idea how to build them (at least no one in that village does) than "Oooh, those are the ancient ruins of great power where nobody goes and there are gold coins hidden everywhere."

Though the terrifying-unless-it's-plot-convenient Everfree forest does give us room for some of the latter around Ponyville.

3728137

I have to disagree. They have the scientific method, and they have technical language to talk about magic.

Where do you see them having the scientific method for magic?
Having technical language is not exclusive to the scientific method. Alchemists had F-tons of technical language. Too much, in fact.

If Twilight studied it, she could probably understand it, though some things would still be outside her understanding.

But she didn't understand a lot, and the way she concluded she didn't understand some things seemed to defy the reasoning of a scientist. We pass it off as "Eh, magic is funny like that" but I now think the real reason is because Twi doesn't have the tools of the scientific method. Hence why she relies on her own ingenuity and photographic memory to get by, but hits a lot of walls where it seems she has no tools at her disposal despite magic being millennia-old as a national tradition.

Twi is the one character who is at the cusp of discovering the scientific method, simply because she's so smart, so curious, and loves organization so much. But she hasn't hit that epiphany yet; we just assume she has because we take the method for granted.

ut something as "magically" ("technologically") advanced as, say, the mirror pool is sitting around, having been obviously created by somepony, given that it's triggered by a rhyme and solution is hidden in the library, but without anypony who might use it bothering to know how or why it works.

3728150

it often also ends up feeling like one of the most discordant; in real life, we don't have ancient awesome technology, and thus such things can create bizarre anachronistic issues or fridge logic as we have the setting simultaneously rely on such things and real-world tropes (like the past being more primitive).

This is exactly the sort of things which happen, when you have a world of ppl who love discovering knowledge, but without the system in place to do it, um, systematically and then spread it into the zeitgeist.

Look at all the lost classical alchemical knowledge which was "rediscovered" centuries later in Europe. So significant is this factor that it led to a flourishing of proto-scientific thought.

3728213

This is exactly the sort of things which happen, when you have a world of ppl who love discovering knowledge, but without the system in place to do it, um, systematically and then spread it into the zeitgeist.

Look at all the lost classical alchemical knowledge which was "rediscovered" centuries later in Europe. So significant is this factor that it led to a flourishing of proto-scientific thought.

Beyond the fact that Twilight is pretty explicitly a magical scientist, the real problem is that in real life, we didn't see a lot of lost knowledge - only marginal amounts of technology was lost, and most of the knowledge that was lost was not very useful.

The reason why people forgot how to make stuff like the Antikythera mechanism was primarily because it was only ever held by a small number of people and what they did with it wasn't especially useful.

3728224

Beyond the fact that Twilight is pretty explicitly a magical scientist,

Where do you see them havingTwilight using the scientific method for magic?
I'm honestly asking, because I don't commit the entire show to memory.

the real problem is that in real life, we didn't see a lot of lost knowledge - only marginal amounts of technology was lost, and most of the knowledge that was lost was not very useful.

Not to the degree of what happens in AD&D settings, but it's definitely there and definitely a template for worldbuilding.
Also I disagree with the words "marginal" and "most" in your sentences.

The reason why people forgot how to make stuff like the Antikythera mechanism was primarily because it was only ever held by a small number of people and what they did with it wasn't especially useful.

Like I said, the system is not in place to spread and cement new knowledge.
And electricity wasn't especially useful either, when it was first tamed.

The big lesson I take from this personally is "make your world feel real", with which I wholeheartedly agree.

3728229
My opinion? The scientific method as a thing is kind of meh. Many of the important parts of it—gathering data, trying to view it without bias, and using it to update your beliefs about how the world works—are intrinsic to the way our brains work. The only stuff the method really adds on top of that is a reliance on counterfactual thinking that helps people figure out what data would be more interesting to collect. But you can get by without that step pretty well—it just slows down how quickly your results will converge to decent models for phenomena.

To me, I think that Twilight shows she's got the important bits down any number of times. It's most obvious in "Feeling Pinkie Keen" (s1e15), "Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3" (s4e21) and the Equestria Girls movies in my opinion. She does plenty of creative problem-solving elsewhere, but those are the places I think she most clearly gets confronted with evidence that something doesn't work and has to proceed to re-theorize. I suspect people could discuss how good her theorizing and experimental design is at length, but what I'd call the key elements of rational inquiry above (gathering data, trying to view it fairly, and using it to update your beliefs) are all on display in those places. Basically they're on display any time Twilight has to do a narrative try-fail cycle, because she's going to tend to respond to that cycle through reanalysis instead of with, say, a training montage (a la Fluttershy).

Real Magic by Isaac Bonewits... So magic does have rules, and they are very logical rules even if magic is used by illogical people, but you are right: most people won't care about the science that makes it possible. It's a very frustrating thing really.

My opinion? The scientific method as a thing is kind of meh. Many of the important parts of it—gathering data, trying to view it without bias, and using it to update your beliefs about how the world works—are intrinsic to the way our brains work.

And yet, natural philosophy before it turned into real science, is kind of a mess of ups and downs. So human history disagrees with your optimistic appraisal of the human brain.

Also, when I say Scientific Method, I don't just mean the list of rules on a piece of paper. I mean the entire scientific apparatus we now have embedded in our civilization. Maybe I'm missing the better word/ phrase for it, in which case let me know.

But you can get by without that step pretty well.

Yeah... I'm looking at history here and... no.

To me, I think that Twilight shows she's got the important bits down any number of times.

Oh yes. That's why I say she's the one character on the cusp. Though I might have to add Starlight to that list soon. Sunset, no because Hasbro will never let her return.

But Twilight still hits walls where she shouldn't, such as in Feeling Pinkie Keen. I think this is because Twilight's approach is still intuitive. She has honed her intuition to an unspoken approach close to the scientific method, which has given her successes, but she still hasn't made the leap to formalized system.

Nice post! I agree that the semi-explained nature of magic in Equestria lends itself to some wonderful world-building opportunities. I try to include them in nearly all my stories, even if there's no real connection with the plot -- it just adds verisimilitude to the story, which is essential to drawing in readers.

3728275
Ah, but here's the thing. Science, as we have it now, is also incredibly hit-and-miss. You don't have to look much farther than the current replicability crisis in psychology[1] to see that. The Popperian paradigm has serious problems. Kuhn seems to have captured the reality of science as a human endeavor best in my opinion, though most scientists don't much like what he has to say (basically: "bad" theories are just the ones that go away when all their proponents die and the remaining crop of students decide something else worked generally better).

Believe me, I'm not saying the pre-Renaissance era was great for science. I'm saying the present era is a lot worse for science than most people realize. It's still good—it almost has to be, with the way modern societies have devoted resources to it. But in my mind there's no magic formula the natural philosophers hit on to help them unravel the way the world works. They had a few helpful ideas, but in practice most of science is just educated guesswork and experimentation even today.

I'm fine with that. And we do have more rigorous philosophical grounding than we used to. But current science is just a minefield of bad results that people have stumbled across by having a poor understanding of what they're doing, and the social structures underlying a lot of academic science (needing to publish for tenure, etc) really exacerbate the problem. Science, like everything humans do, is a social endeavor. We're better at it than we used to be, but in my view we've never stumbled on a magical formula to somehow make people stop being people and turn them into Scientists.

-------------------

[1] A crisis that some might charitably describe as "apocalyptic".

3728309
(1) LOL, when I saw the footnote marker, I thought it was to apologize for using psychology as an example of science. I still want that apology, btw.

(2) Oh yes, there are definitely niggles in the philosophy of science. Hell, even fields as respectable as theoretical physics have these arguments. I don't really pay attention to them, but IIRC it boils down to the fact that scientists aren't trained philosophers, and so make logical mistakes when thinking about certain theoretical problems.

(3) However, this isn't a binary statement of "We've mastered science and ponies haven't, Humans Fuck Yeah (god I hate these ppl, why are they even here)!!!" My point was, maybe Equestria is the way Bookplayer described it, because ponies have less of a handle on the philosophy and methodology of science (and the systematic implementation it requires) than we 2016 humans do.

Bookplayer offers no explanation for the above, merely saying "it's a fantasy setting" and let's it go at that. I think that's the wrong way to go about it. I've always treated MLP FiM not as a fantasy setting, but as a sci-fi setting, an alien planet. Equestria isn't Middle-Earth, it's Arrakis.

Another thing: the less clearly defined the rules of your magic is, the less you as an author can use it to solve your characters' problems. If the readers aren't aware that this problem is something solvable with magic, you shouldn't pull a spell out of your ass and make it go away. That's Deus Ex Magic, and makes a reader feel cheated.

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

That sense of "this was designed for the story" is part of what makes plot devices feel like plot devices. It can honestly break a story. Making things, magical or otherwise, exist outside the story is something not enough writers do. Then again,

solom

we shouldn't always do as bookplayer does :(

Given that I'm that one out of ten who actually does care about thaumobabble, this was a good reminder for me. And yes, the show does point towards most ponies treating magic as most people do technology: Very few know how anything actually works; they just know that it all does the job. Furthermore, those who do know how some effects work generally have very specific knowledge, usually because it's part of their job.

Still, I would liken the technology to our modern conveniences rather than UFO debris. There are definitely some ponies doing magical research, even if they sometimes have to use repurposed colanders as part of their equipment.

3728316

(3) However, this isn't a binary statement of "We've mastered science and ponies haven't, Humans Fuck Yeah (god I hate these ppl, why are they even here)!!!" My point was, maybe Equestria is the way Bookplayer described it, because ponies have less of a handle on the philosophy and methodology of science (and the systematic implementation it requires) than we 2016 humans do.
Bookplayer offers no explanation for the above, merely saying "it's a fantasy setting" and let's it go at that. I think that's the wrong way to go about it. I've always treated MLP FiM not as a fantasy setting, but as a sci-fi setting, an alien planet. Equestria isn't Middle-Earth, it's Arrakis.

...I don't see anything I said that implied that magic wasn't a science. It is in Equestria.

As far as I can tell, our only disagreement is whether ponies are capable of understanding the magic around them if they study it with their current tools.

I think they more or less are (about early twentieth century scientists--generally having a handle on things but with some areas (In the real world: physics, neurology, and astronomy) still needing major breakthroughs; in completing Star Swirl's spell, Twilight basically worked out the theory of relativity for magic.) But most ponies are uneducated and will use super advanced magic developed by ponies like Twilight and Star Swirl (or complex naturally occurring magic) and say, as Granny Smith does, "magic is as magic does."

You seem to think think they're a lot further behind, not having the scientific method yet (meaning magic should be a lot more mysterious, I guess?)

My point was simply that this very advanced magic, made by ponies in some cases, seems to be laying around the world with no instruction manuals to start from.

3728419

You seem to think think they're a lot further behind, not having the scientific method yet (meaning magic should be a lot more mysterious, I guess?)

Keep in mind that even without the modern and formalized scientific method (including the global network and dissemination), natural philosophers accomplished a lot of what we would definitely call science. Around 200 BC, Hipparchus measured the distance from the Earth to the moon. Aristarchus then measured the distance to the sun. His math was fine; his observational accuracy was too poor. Otherwise a Greek dude in 200 BC would have accomplished what isn't measured until 1761.

And ofc tons of other things in history.

My point was simply that this very advanced magic, made by ponies in some cases, seems to be laying around the world with no instruction manuals to start from.

I think my point was (though I probably meandered a lot, due to my excitement at this idea) that even though ponies learned and know a lot of magic without the scientific method (and institutionalized system), the way "lost knowledge" seems to be lying around haphazardly can be explained precisely by the lack of said scientific method and institutionalized system. As evidence, I pointed to a similar situation in human history and attributed that to the inadequacies of proto-science.

Now, maybe it would be more accurate to attribute the fragility of knowledge to the rise and fall of civilizations. But we know Equestria has been remarkably stable for at least a millennium. That is an awfully long time for knowledge to be nurtured and yet remain haphazard.

3728462

I think my point was (though I probably meandered a lot, due to my excitement at this idea) that even though ponies learned and know a lot of magic without the scientific method (and institutionalized system), the way "lost knowledge" seems to be lying around haphazardly can be explained precisely by the lack of said scientific method and institutionalized system. As evidence, I pointed to a similar situation in human history and attributed that to the inadequacies of proto-science.
Now, maybe it would be more accurate to attribute the fragility of knowledge to the rise and fall of civilizations. But we know Equestria has been remarkably stable for at least a millennium. That is an awfully long time for knowledge to be nurtured and yet remain haphazard.

Ah, okay. We're totally in headcanon area here, but I propose a different (Equestria specific) explanation for the magic laying around: Cutie marks.

In Equestria, scientific advancement is going to be directly linked to how many ponies get cutie marks that direct them to study it. Other ponies can study it, but they're going to remain laymen, maybe pushing forward but without the possibility of making breakthroughs. In canon, we've seen four or five ponies in Twilight's generation with the "talent" for studying and advancing magic: Twilight, Sunset Shimmer, Moondancer, and Starlight Glimmer (maybe Sunburst?) But we also see, for example, Apple Bloom studying potion making, and then getting a cutie mark in something else. There goes one mind in another direction.

Over time, I think it's easy to see a way that the past weight of magical technology would outstrip the ability of the current generations to study and understand all of those things specifically. Over, say, five generations you have twenty magicians advancing magic and building things, making spells, working out potions. Then you have four ponies to study and understand all of their life's work.

Now instead of five generations, make that 33.3, just since Luna's fall. That's about a hundred and thirty three ponies like Twilight, and it's up to Twilight, Moondancer, Celestia, and Starlight (and this generation, they lost Sunset) to keep track of not just every advancement they made, but every device they made and how it works.

And that assumes a stable distribution of cutie marks in magic. If one generation gets a boom of ten, then two generations go without, you have a period where things advance really fast then one where nothing moves and it has to be rediscovered.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Most graduates of Celestia's school are like Lyra or Lemon Drops or Twinkleshine, and you occasionally get a Flim and Flam making magical stuff off to the side of the establishment. But when it comes to powerful magic, most ponies don't have the cutie mark for it. That would make keeping track of and making advancements bumpy and non-linear.

3728498
I can accept that "magical prodigy" CMs are exceedingly rare. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson had once said (he's a wonderful anecdotalist), the entirety of human civilization basically rested on the major scientific breakthroughs of like 20 prodigy scientists. I always like headcanon which has a direct Earth parallel.

However, I don't think that the rarity of magical prodigies can explain the bumpiness of magical advancement, if a formalized institution is in place for building upon knowledge systematically. I think such is the power of the system we have in place on Earth now... the requirement for global dissemination of what would have been guarded secrets, the reliance on data over authority, the mutual and open cross-examination of all peers who propose a new discovery...

We've seen how all human political systems fail, or how it can fail in another century, give or take (the USA's vaunted democratic republic system, for example). But I have yet to see a credible way how the current scientific system can fail by its own internal forces (rather than by an external force). Scientists may not be angels, but they got the best polity running on Earth right now. Maybe it helps that there's no power or money in science.

TL;DR, I think if the culture of modern science is firmly in place, then it wouldn't matter if only one scientific prodigy shows up every few generations (like with humanity). You still wouldn't get the "ancient magical ruins no one understands".

3728636

TL;DR, I think if the culture of modern science is firmly in place, then it wouldn't matter if only one scientific prodigy shows up every few generations (like with humanity). You still wouldn't get the "ancient magical ruins no one understands".

What part of the culture of modern science have we not seen in place? We know they have a university, advanced math, technology (X-Ray machines, Twilight's set up in Feeling Pinkie Keen,) quantum physics (I just noticed today that Twilight mentions it in The Hooffields and the McColts.) They write books and papers, and analyze those books and papers in reports...

Now, there is the issue of communication and dissemination of their information, we don't see a high school in Ponyville, and Spike seems to be the only near-instant communication in Equestria. (Edit: actually, they're implied to have telegraphs in The Last Round-Up.)

And you could argue that Princess Celestia's school has a monopoly on this information, which is arguably stunting things.

So what else would you expect to see in a world with a culture of modern science, short of somepony actually explaining the scientific method? (Which, frankly, I rarely see in my day to day life, even when people are talking about advanced concepts.)

And in the cutie mark theory, I'm not talking about scientific prodigies. I'd talking about scientists. Cutie marks mean that Equestria will have a limited supply of academics, period. As far as we know, the ponies I mentioned are the only professional scientists in the field of magic in Equestria, at all.

3728146 isn't that one of the major theses of 1984, that you can control language to control thought to control people?

3728648

What part of the culture of modern science have we not seen in place?

You rattling off a long list of examples, and I don't remember any of them. I really do not commit the show to memory.

University = Do you mean the School For Gifted Unicorns? We only had 1 canon episode showcasing it, and it wasn't shown to be a university, but rather a grade school.
Advanced Math = Which you don't need modern science for. Hence my 200 BC Greek astronomers example. And Babylonians invented early form of calculus.
X-Ray machines = Lack a retort for this because I can't remember it.
Twilight's set up = She's a mad technologist ala Frankenstein. We can't know whether all of that equipment is custom. Based on what she plunked onto Pinkie's head, it may very well be. Custom-kitted laboratories is a trademark of alchemists; they go it alone.
Quantum physics = I guess I finally have a reason to rewatch that eps.
Books and papers = Alchemists also have books and papers, so it depends on the context.
Telegraphs = I think technologically speaking, Equestria is about 1900-1920 AD. But it seems technology is divorced from magic, so they may not share the same schools of thought. The Doctor pony seems to confirm this in his rant to Derpy, IIRC.

So what else would you expect to see in a world with a culture of modern science, short of somepony actually explaining the scientific method?

Basically, a lack of haphazardness and mysticism when it comes to magic. There would be no ancient ruins with inexplicable magic. And Twilight would never accept a lack of explanation as explanation.

Prior to this blog, I had thought Equestrian magic is scientific, based on all those things you had listed above. But now I believe that while Equestrian magic isn't magical, it's actually proto-scientific. It's awesome. :raritystarry:

Cutie marks mean that Equestria will have a limited supply of academics, period. As far as we know, the ponies I mentioned are the only professional scientists in the field of magic in Equestria, at all.

I'm hesitant to extrapolate that far. We know that there's only a few prodigies, but we can't know that there are no ordinary academics. How do we know Moondancer's friends aren't ordinary academics (unless they all mentioned their day jobs, and I just forgot)?

3728759

University = Do you mean the School For Gifted Unicorns? We only had 1 canon episode showcasing it, and it wasn't shown to be a university, but rather a grade school.

Twilight and Moondancer remain students there into adulthood, and in The Cutie Re-Mark we see Twilight giving a lecture to a crowd of adult ponies about Cutie Mark Magic.

X-Ray machines = Lack a retort for this because I can't remember it.

Read It and Weep
vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/mlp/images/8/89/Doc_still_looking_at_X-ray_S2E16.png/revision/latest?cb=20130411140743

How do we know Moondancer's friends aren't ordinary academics (unless they all mentioned their day jobs, and I just forgot)?

Lyra lives in Ponyville, so unless she's living on a grant that's unlikely.
Twinkleshine is an events coordinator at the castle.
Lemon Heart could be one.

We can't know there aren't more, obviously. But there's no evidence that there are more, and it provides an alternate explanation that also fits with the technology and science that we can see they have access to.

3728756
Orwell did use that concept, modeling it on the propagandists in the real world who used it (both then and now.)

Advertisers try to use it as well... in fact, the word "delicious" was almost never applied to food until the rise of print advertising. Advertisers couldn't show the most important quality of food in print, so they needed a word to associate with good tasting food, to make people want to buy it. They settled on that one, and it worked to the point where now we hardly associate delicious with anything other than food.

My take on this has usually been that regardless of how deeply you delve into how a particular instance of magic works ("thaumobabble") you need to establish what it does and what its limitations are, especially if it's an important plot point. Everyone hates the Star Trek episodes where they're just trying to solve some arcane technical problem ("The unobtainium generator is down and won't respond to reversing the polarity!") and come up with some bullshit solution at the last minute.

3729132
I think that depends entirely on how a plot is constructed and what the conflict you're presenting is.

To use your example, if the conflict is "The ship is going to explode if they don't fix the unobtainium generator. How will they fix the unobtainium generator?" then you're absolutely right, that needs to be foreshadowed as part of detailing the problem.

If the conflict is "First Officer Sparkle knows everything about the unobtainium generator, but due to a small mistake she broke it and now she won't touch it. Can they get First Officer Sparkle to get back in the saddle and fix it?" then it doesn't matter if she ends up using some technobabble to fix it. The drama of the conflict is just in getting her to touch it again.

The answer to the question that's central to your story should never pop out of thin air at the end. But that doesn't always mean that tangential answers need to be treated the same way (though they can be if it doesn't detract from your actual story.)

3729177
Of course. That's sort of what I was trying to get at with "if it's an important plot point". If the details don't really matter, then it's just sort of a MacGuffin and doesn't need to be all that well explored, since the real conflict lies elsewhere.

Comment posted by MLai deleted Feb 3rd, 2016

Additional recommended reading for those interested in the use of magic/tech in stories:

Entry One: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic (or sci-fi tech, etc) is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic/tech/etc. (3728328, 3729132)
Entry Two: Limitations are more important than abilities.
Entry Three: Build on what you have before adding new elements. (3728356, most of the blog post)


(3728366, Technobabble And The Audience Surrogate)

On another magic related subject, I want to talk for a minute about thaumobabble: when a character (often Twilight) launches into a bunch of sciency/technical sounding words about how magic works.

I think it's important to draw a distinction between thaumo/techno babble and actual technical discussion. They work about the same for those readers who shy away from the slightest hint of "technical stuff", but there's a world of difference for whoever's actually following along. For the most part, FIM does reasonably well at proper thaumo/techno talk; reusing the Rainbow Rocks mirror scene as an example, the bit of Twilight's lecture which we get to actually hear is her restating the Pythagorean Theorem. (Presumably, her friends' confusion was primarily due to all the stuff she covered during the preceding scene break.) In contrast, actual nonsensical babble tends to come across as ridiculous at best, and is usually a fairly effective immersion-breaker.

Conveniently, writing good thaumo/techno talk overlaps quite a bit with writing equivalent plain-speech explanations. After all, technical jargon primarily exists to remove ambiguity and condense explanations between people familiar with the subject, not because it's necessary for actually understanding the subject. An easy way to ensure your technical stuff doesn't dip into babble territory is to start with a plain-speech explanation, then look for sections which could be misinterpreted and concepts which take a lot of words to communicate, and replace those with whatever technical terms you've come up with. (Plus, it can also be helpful with characterization – replacing different amounts and parts of the original explanation lets you fine-tune how "technical-sounding" the speaker comes across, as does the choice of which particulareplacement terms they use.)

There are three reasons to even bother to write it:

[...]

Convincing the readers that this is a thing that could work-- if you want an effect that’s way outside of what canon magic should do, or that directly contradicts something magic is supposed to do.

Trying to convince readers that this is a thing that could work is something babble absolutely should not be used for, and which proper technical explanations should be used for only with caution. After all, if nine times out of ten your readers' eyes are glazing over at the technical stuff, then nine times out of ten your readers are completely missing the justification for whatever you're trying to convince them of. The one in ten readers who like technical explanations will appreciate them, but that's usually not a sufficient reason to leave the rest skeptical about a critical plot point.

3730349
>directly references Sanderson's Laws.
>makes excellent points regarding technical writing in fiction.
>has no stories on the site for me to read.

You utter tease.

3728781
I'm not eager to deny every single example you give. Rather, I'm trying to see if every example you give which at first blush seems like it can only be a modern entity, actually existed in antiquity. I didn't know this either before I took this position, so every refutation I'm making, I'm also learning as I make it.

in The Cutie Re-Mark we see Twilight giving a lecture to a crowd of adult ponies about Cutie Mark Magic.

Antiquity had numerous "universities", or centers of higher learning.

X-Ray machines

I'm pretty sure I remember the Doctor, as a technologist, complaining about magic. It fascinates me that there may be a tension between technology and magic in Equestrian academia. Perhaps technological advancement has embraced the scientific method, but it is looked down upon by the establishment of mages?

We can't know there aren't more, obviously. But there's no evidence that there are more, and it provides an alternate explanation that also fits with the technology and science that we can see they have access to.

My gripe with your proposal is that I feel if a formalized system is in place, then it wouldn't matter if there's a dry spell of magic cutie marks. You won't have any scientific revolutions during the dry spell, but you don't get a dark age either.

3730349

I think it's important to draw a distinction between thaumo/techno babble and actual technical discussion. They work about the same for those readers who shy away from the slightest hint of "technical stuff", but there's a world of difference for whoever's actually following along.

Personally, I refer to both of them as babble when you're making up the technology or magic system, especially if that information isn't going to come up again. At that point, it doesn't matter whether "thaumatic resonance has been harnessed to power the hyperdrive and the Leverworth's coil has moved widdershines." Those thing can, and should, be totally internally consistent within the explanation, but people following along have no better idea of what's going on than those who skip it because those things are not real. That's not how it works, because it doesn't work, because it's made up. You could just as easily have said "the spellglow has been harness to power the transport reactor and the fragment engine has moved clockwise." Both sentences mean the same thing.

Edit: What I mean there is unless you're sticking to actual physics, I classify it as babble because any explanation is no more real than any other one.

Trying to convince readers that this is a thing that could work is something babble absolutely should not be used for, and which proper technical explanations should be used for only with caution. After all, if nine times out of ten your readers' eyes are glazing over at the technical stuff, then nine times out of ten your readers are completely missing the justification for whatever you're trying to convince them of. The one in ten readers who like technical explanations will appreciate them, but that's usually not a sufficient reason to leave the rest skeptical about a critical plot point.

Considering this, I think it comes down to what I said before: That's true if you're talking about the resolution to a conflict.

If you're establishing something, I disagree with your statement.

Let's say you want Celestia to be able to take over Luna's dream walking for a night. Luna has already said in canon that Celestia has no power over it. So Celestia goes to Twilight, and asks her to design a spell.

In my experience, giving Twilight a paragraph of thaumobabble about the phases of the moon and borrowing resonance from cutie mark magic tells readers "This was complicated, but Twilight was able come up with a workaround that will work for the moment. Now Celestia can use Luna's dreamwalking ability, and the plot can begin."

Buying into the idea is the price of entry for the fic. The thaumobabble just gives an excuse for working around canon without it seeming like something they could have done any day of the week, or making Luna seem stupid for thinking Celestia couldn't do it. Yes, you could have Twilight just say that, but that feels less in character for Twilight (who loves explaining things, and wouldn't hesitate to use technical language around Celestia) and makes the whole thing feel more like "I need this to work for my story" than "the characters in the setting found a way around this."

3730509

My gripe with your proposal is that I feel if a formalized system is in place, then it wouldn't matter if there's a dry spell of magic cutie marks. You won't have any scientific revolutions during the dry spell, but you don't get a dark age either.

My gripe with your explanation is that with all the other infrastructure mentioned in place, I don't see how a simple lack of scientific method would have anything to do with preventing a dark age. We see that Twilight can and has studied magic back to circa Hearth's Warming, and that's available at the school. What does not using proper experimental protocol have to do with nopony knowing about the mirror pool?

And if your explanation doesn't explain that, then Occum's Razor says there's no reason to assume that all of this stuff around them isn't a product of a society using the scientific method.

I love this blog and I love this comments section.

3730349
And I love you, mysterious user.

3730557

Those thing can, and should, be totally internally consistent within the explanation, but people following along have no better idea of what's going on than those who skip it because those things are not real.

What I mostly failed to communicate there was that the explanation should have valid internal logic, because people who follow along often can tell the difference, even if they don't know what all the terms mean. A properly put-together explanation has structure to it that a throwing-terms-at-the-wall one lacks, even after the terms have been jargonized. Note that that isn't quite the same as self-consistency – an incoherent explanation of a real-world phenomenon may well be self-consistent, but it would still fall under what I'd call technobabble instead of technotalk.

What I mean there is unless you're sticking to actual physics, I classify it as babble because any explanation is no more real than any other one.

In a sense, but that's not the whole story. All magic systems are going to deviate from physics as we know it, but the extent to which they do is variable, and the author ought to minimize the collateral damage the changes cause. The obvious type is ripple effects from magic's use (eg, if characters can trivially transmute objects into gold, gold's value crashes), but it's also important to minimize strain on the reader's suspension of disbelief. Changes that are out of character with the setting the reader's familiar with (be that real-world physics or series canon) are much harder to swallow. The careless mishmash of terms characteristic of what I'm calling thaumo/techno babble has a much greater tendency to imply ludicrous conclusions ("Wait a second... by that logic, shouldn't all mages be completely unaffected by gravity?") than thaumo/techno talk which has had some thought put into it.

The thaumobabble just gives an excuse for working around canon without it seeming like something they could have done any day of the week

I suppose that if that's all you're looking for, it could work. My default interpretation of "convince" in this context was "explain what's going on so that the reader can see how the new additions are compatible with the baseline". For people like me, a mere excuse explanation wouldn't have any effect on how plausible a change to canon seemed: from a story-construction perspective it'd be better than not saying anything, but how well the reader could accept the change it's "justifying" would depend entirely on their preexisting ability to suspend disbelief about said change.

3730809
I totally agree that all technical discussion in a fic should have and demonstrate an internal logic within the story and the setting.

But for the purposes of what I'm talking about, for a writer in terms of what to include in a story, there's no useful distinction between an explanation that does and one that doesn't. Personally, I never even thought that someone might use one that doesn't have an internal logic; I was thinking in the other direction of people who spend too much time working out the internal logic and want to show off their work.

In terms of what I was talking about, that's still babble-- if it's not important to the story in one of the ways I mentioned, it's going to hurt the story. I'll admit there might be a few people who might be interested, but not enough that it's worth stopping the story to indulge in a headcanon dump, especially in language that's going to turn off a lot of readers no matter how well constructed it is. You're not actually teaching anyone anything useful to real life or the story, so it's better suited to author's notes or a blog post.

3730867

Personally, I never even thought that someone might use one that doesn't have an internal logic

If only...

I was thinking in the other direction of people who spend too much time working out the internal logic and want to show off their work.

Certainly a problem – I'd just categorize it as a different kind of problem.

Anyway, this is starting to look like one of those cases where we agree on everything important and all that's left to debate is the "right" labels to use for a given concept, as I conveniently demonstrated a sentence ago. I suppose there could be some value in that, but unless anyone's really interested in spending the next day or two arguing semantics, I'm inclined to let things stand as they are.

3730567

What does not using proper experimental protocol have to do with nopony knowing about the mirror pool?

Everything I've been saying is based on my view of human history, and that has been my reasoning: Humanity also has "lost wonders" sitting around, and it coincides with the time before a formalized scientific institution.

Perhaps it's the wrong correlation to make, which is why I had said that maybe the real correlation is that those empires fell and turned to dust, and no knowledge survived no matter how well-institutionalized it was.

And if your explanation doesn't explain that, then Occum's Razor says there's no reason to assume that all of this stuff around them isn't a product of a society using the scientific method.

Again, humanity's parallel example: Most of these great things also existed in antiquity. In fact, many of them turn into the "lost wonders".

Also to clarify, I also feel that there's a schism between Equestrian technology and magic. Granted I'm basing it on the opinion of 1 pony. But he's The Doctor! Are you gonna call him a liar!?! :twilightangry2:

I don't actually care about Dr. Who at all. Show's too Brit for me. :twilightblush:

3730557
3730349

Personally, I refer to both of them as babble when you're making up the technology or magic system, especially if that information isn't going to come up again. At that point, it doesn't matter whether "thaumatic resonance has been harnessed to power the hyperdrive and the Leverworth's coil has moved widdershines." Those thing can, and should, be totally internally consistent within the explanation, but people following along have no better idea of what's going on than those who skip it because those things are not real. That's not how it works, because it doesn't work, because it's made up. You could just as easily have said "the spellglow has been harness to power the transport reactor and the fragment engine has moved clockwise." Both sentences mean the same thing.

If your universe runs on hard magic, it is more acceptable to use thaumababble, but you need to explain what it means quite a bit for the audience to become familiar with it. It then becomes more acceptable to use thaumababble to deliver "bonus" information. Of course, even if you just use it once, writing thaumababble but using real-life terms (or things which closely resemble them) can be a sneaky way to fit in foreshadowing of unexpected consequences. For instance, if a spell contains something having to do with, say, storgic energies, that could be a hint that the spell is powered by the magic of friendship.

I agree that using thaumababble to explain why something unusual is possible is often acceptable, though (especially if you can come up with a real reason why it makes sense, but it isn't worth explaining properly).

In a soft magic universe (which MLP mostly is), taking thaumababble too seriously is a bad idea and distracting, and may mislead the audience into thinking the magic works in a "hard" manner when it doesn't.

Even if you are using hard magic in your story, writing something as technical as this, but in thaumababble:

The fraction of the risk for atrial fibrillation (AF) attributable to established factors (hypertension, smoking, obesity, diabetes mellitus, age, male sex and heart disease) is roughly 50% with hypertension being the most prominent modifiable risk factor.

Is basically going to be incomprehensible to most people. Hell, that excerpt is from a real scientific paper, and I'd wager a good fraction of your audience is going to be lost.

I mean, you can use that as a reader bonus or foreshadowing, but if your readers' comprehension of the story hinges on them picking up what you said in the thaumababble, you're usually in trouble (unless the story is deliberately written as a puzzle for the reader, but that's generally a different kind of story).

3728266 Brendon Sanderson's Laws of Writing Magic generally advise you to treat magic with the same amount of care Applejack does.

The *how* does not mater. That it does is all that's important there.

The *what* is very important though.

It isn't important for readers to understand how magic works, really. If the magic is only the source of problems, the results are the only relevant point. If the magic is going to be used to solve problems, just "if you do X, the result is Y" is needful.

Login or register to comment