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Rambling Writer

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The Automaticity of Magic · 5:17pm April 29th

In some ways, I love fantasy because of the easy outs it provides. In other ways, I loathe fantasy because of the easy outs it provides.

Although, technically, there's really just one: "it's magic". How does the fridge work in a pre-industrial society? Cold spell. Why is the guards' armor so strong? Strengthening spell. How can the court stenographer record things so fast without fingers? Dictation spell. But do you ever stop to think about how automatic a spell can be?

Dictation, for instance. Think about all the things that it would need to do: take the right series of sounds, turn it into words, split each word into the right vowels and consonants (how does it differentiate between, say, "here" and "hear"? Does it also have a context identifier built in somewhere?), map each vowel and consonant to the right orthographic symbol (and THEN there's punctuation), and finally write those symbols out (properly oriented and spaced on all sides, of course!) on a sheet of paper of indeterminate size without going off the page on any side. How does it do all that?

Eh, it's magic. I don't have to explain it.

I get the appeal of simplicity, I use it myself, and I'm not going to turn into Old Man Writer shaking his cane at those lazy young whippersnapping writers anytime soon. If nothing else, it's like, "How can my computer access the Internet? Technology." But if these spells are too easy, with a dictation spell being something any competent mage can whip up in seconds, it can feel like magic is just pre-made computer programs handed off to a magical society, where you press the right buttons and the right thing happens without any further effort. (How the heck does ONE transfiguration spell handle ALL the biological transformations?!)

I think part of this comes from my own thinking of magic as like a muscle; if you want to do something, you need to handle all of it on your own. There's no automatic action for muscles, except maybe in muscle memory. In my writing (original and FiM both), magical skill can often be loosely divided into two subcategories: strength and finesse. In physical terms, strength is, well, strength, how well you can manipulate the gross details. Finesse is more like dexterity or control, how well you can manipulate the fine details. Think of it like bench pressing vs. playing the piano. The brute work of levitating a house requires strength, while the precision work of healing requires finesse. This is part of my interpretation of Sunburst: he's got the strength of an average unicorn and the intelligence of a well-above-average one, but he lacks the finesse to put more complicated stuff together properly. He can write piano songs in his sleep, but he can barely play "Heart and Soul". The best mages, naturally, are the ones with both strength and finesse.

When looking at magic like this, I notice that a lot of mages in fiction just happen to be both strong and deft in magic, able to both throw titanic fireballs and weave hyper-complex wards with ease, as if pumping iron also makes you better at five-finger fillet. While there's nothing wrong with that, it also leaves out the possibility of someone being strong but having no fine control or vice versa, and the issues that could cause. ("You can't turn us invisible? You moved a mountain yesterday! Literally!" "I just picked something up and put it somewhere else! That's different from constantly bending light rays around you and having it look convincing!") In fact, having a strength mage provide the power for a finesse mage could be a good team-up. Friendship, away!

Of course, all this thought doesn't apply to every application of "it's magic". How does the fridge work? "See, this gem lattice here uses magic to generate cold. (That's the way it works in arcanophysics, stop looking at me like that.) Feed it a constant stream of magic -- from this mana line here -- and it'll keep the inside at a constant temperature." Easy. Or perhaps the dictation spell is a feature on that particular pen, pre-charmed by workers the same way computers are pre-programmed.

If you want to get a good look at just how hard automating something can be without computers, check out this two-part series showing how a jukebox works, because HOLY CRAP. Each one is a little under half an hour, just to give you an idea of what you're in for.

Just a few thoughts because I was bored and had nothing better to do.

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Comments ( 18 )

Trust me, there are plenty of mages in fiction who can blow up a mountain but not do much else. That's actually a common starting point for main characters, because you can be born strong but finesse has to be learned. Then there are the cases where it's more like programming and "power" isn't even a discrete thing; it's all about skill.

Yeah, mechanical pseudo-computers like jukeboxes are always fascinating.

That dictation spell analysis. That is gold.

I've always liked the old 'elemental affinity' system, where a mage can only use certain types of magic based on their personality. For example, were I to write a My Little Generic Wizard AU, Rainbow Dash would be great at hurling lightning bolts and fireballs, but totally incapable of more subtle cantrips, like levitating a cup.

One of the many (many many) things I love about Avatar: The Last Airbender is the way characters don't get more powerful (except for Aang, who's a learning avatar and doesn't count), but instead develop the powers they do have in logical but unusual ways. Katara using sweat to waterbend is the high point for me.

I've done some primitive GUI programming, and it is HORRIFIC. You really do need to watch out for that kind of stuff. Make sure the words don't go off the screen! Make sure that when you click this button, it affects this text box and not that one! And remember to add in functionality so that Ctrl-A selects everything!

This was really good food for thought, thank you! My thoughts, In conclusion.
How complex, not powerful, a spell is would be tied to how advanced the society is, very similar to how advanced technology is. some spells might not be "invented" yet due to complexity and limited knowledge. And some spells would require constant recasting due to the difficulty of automation.

"Any significantly advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic."-
-Arthur C. Clark-

"Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!"-
-Girl Genious- inspired by Arthur C. Clark to apply to fictional universes.

Brandon Sanderson wrote a couple of nifty articles on the subject, but I always liked his Second Law of Magic:

Limitations > Powers

Good magic systems don't have to explain how they work, so long as they work in a consistent way every time. Lord of the Rings never explains its magic system outright, but you can make inferences from how things are described and how Gandalf laughs off the idea of lighting snow on fire, that there are rules being followed. Likewise, the best way to make an interesting magic system is to put hard limits on what it can do, and stick with them.

Have you seen minecraft computers? Takes literal days to build a calculator.

I've seen a lot more than just Minecraft computers. I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

I use a lot of archotech. Coldboxes in my variants of Equestria (Tales notwithstanding) work roughly similar to modern refrigerators- by taking heat out rather than putting cold in. Essentially a bar of metal inscribed with runes, that when powered will draw heat along the bar from one side to the other, out of the box and into a radiator.

CC'ing the other nerds who would be interested in this.

Comment posted by Changeling2580 deleted April 29th

Brain: all this stuff is really cool...
Mouth: Every time I see China, I think of how much covid-19 has ruined my plans for this year...
Brain: people have died from it, I should be more respectful...
Mouth: I'm hungry...

You misattributed one of those. "Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science" goes to Agatha Heterodyne (Girl Genius!)

Okay, Phil and Kaja Foglio if you must :p

I came to talk about Sanderson. Another quote of his that I liked is "The ability of magic to resolve the plot is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the magic."

In other words, it's narratively fine to have your magic completely unexplained. But if you do then the magic creates problems, not solutions. You see this all the time in Buffy, for example. The magic is inexplicable, and pretty inconsistent about what is and isn't possible, the only big rule is you can't raise the dead if they weren't killed by magic. So Willow will accidentally create the Problem Of The Episode, or set up someone else to resolve the problem, but won't do it herself.

Is it? My bad. I'll confirm and edit.
Confirmed and edited. My mistake. I cliked on the wrong citation link.

Here's a question: Do ponies understand what magic really is at all? I'm not saying they don't, I'm saying they don't need to, since it is culturally practical to mistake the representative nature of its use as facets of reality.

Here's a simple test: Find a pony who claims to be well studied in magic, show him/her a piece of advanced tech, like an iPad, and see if they think it's magic. If they do, they don't know what magic is. Although that's no guarantee that they know what magic is if they identify the iPad as non-magical, just a way of seeing if they, for sure, do not.

Welcome to the future. Prograaming thema is rich !

I'd say "no", because it lets us render some of the more idiotic exposition untrue in-universe, and also early Twilight Sparkle clearly thinks she understands it but doesn't (Feeling Pinkie Keen, It's About Time).

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