Friday, March 29, 2024

On Democratizing Magic

On Democratizing Magic     


I propose ‘democratizing magic’ as a trope fit for several genres: superheroes, fantasy, science fiction. A story with this trope subverts and transforms its genre. A story democratizes magic this way:

1. There are magical superpowers, poorly understood, which a few wield to dominate the many. The superpowered fight among themselves, with collateral damage; more oppression for the normals.

2. A low-powered superhero, alienated by low rank, teams up with rich and/or smart normals to investigate the science of superpowers.

3. Montage sequence of labs, experiments, chalkboard scribblings, an ‘aha!’ moment, gizmos and tests. The team solves the superpower riddle through the power of technobabble.

4. They invent super-tech, which can give anybody superpowers. These superpowers include strength, invulnerability, shields, flight, levitation, telekinesis, telepathy, super-senses, and healing touch.

5. They finance mass-production of super-tech. It sells well. When the superheros and supervillains hear about this, they don’t like it. Only they, the elite, should have superpowers, for if everyone has superpowers, then they aren’t “super”. They stop their endless internal quarrels to focus on their real enemies: the People.

6. Conflict! Pow! Zap! At first the People lose ground, then they master their new powers, and push back.

7. Victory for the good guys! Superpower to the People!

8. A supervillain darkly hints that now that everyone has the powers, their troubles have just begun... cue the sequel teaser trailer!

          An example of a story democratizing magic is “The Psychohistorical Crisis”, a science-fiction novel by Donald Kingsbury. It is a tribute to Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy. In the Foundation galaxy, the scientist Hari Seldon writes down the equations of “psychohistory”, a deterministic science of historical prediction. These equations have a flaw: Seldon’s Paradox, which states that any psychohistorical prediction, if known by the population being predicted, sets into motion psychohistorical forces that negate the prediction. The psychohistorians solve Seldon’s paradox by making psychohistory a cult secret.

          In Kingsbury’s tribute novel, the psychohistorians have long been in charge. This makes psychohistory itself the source of power; so inevitably forces arose, seeking to discover psychohistory’s secret equations. The outcast rebel psychohistorian Eron Osa finds a mentor, under whose protection he reformulates psychohistory as a probabilistic science of negotiation, knowable to all, and beneficial to all who know it. Seldon’s equations leak, galactic order starts to unravel, and Eron Osa challenges the psychohistorical old guard to a prediction contest. In the contest, the old methods predict inevitable galactic catastrophe. The book hints that the new methods will predict a galactic Golden Age for all who use its methods. There the book ends, on the cusp of psychohistory getting democratized.

          I would like to read many more stories democratizing magic. I think that the times call for such stories.

          For instance, if J.K.Rowling wanted to democratize Hogwarts magic, Hermoine’s the Witch to do it.

          Or in the Star Wars universe; I propose “Force of the People”. In it, midichlorians do indeed give you Force powers. A Jedi trainee runaway falls in with group of outcasts. They clone vats full of his midichlorians, and sell Force shots. The Jedi and the Sith hear of this, and don’t like it. Their Force troops advance at first, but then are pushed off-planet by the Force of the People. A Death Star shoots at the planet, whose collectively-raised Force Shield catches the blast and bounces it back at the Death Star, vaporizing it.

          Or in any superhero universe. Use your own characters. I envision a comic; its rebel low-rank superhero is Working Joe; he teams up with supervillain Dr. Diablo and tycoon Big Boss. Their respective superpowers are, respectively, super-productivity, evil-genius smarts, and tons of money. They invent and market the Adeledicnander Transmodulator, which gives its wearer Working Joe’s civilian superpowers. Their motives are varied. Big Boss is in it for the money; Dr. Diablo wants revenge on both superheros and supervillains; and Working Joe is in it because it’s the right thing to do. Each of them thinks the other two’s motivations are crazy, but none the less they cooperate enough to found the Transmodulator Corporation.

All of these formulas leave room for sequels. What happens to a world when everyone has superpowers? Law, politics, money, and customs; all must change. Any sequel exploring these will be a metaphor for our own struggles with technological change.

So the sequel world will not be in the same genre. No longer will a lone vigilante save the day: instead it will be a super-policier, with super-cops taking down super-crooks; then the super-judge must make a super-ruling setting a super-precedent.

Or it can be a super-worker’s stuggle. He can fly to work, then fly to the store, but the work doesn’t pay enough for what he wants from the store. So he joins a super-union, they have a super-strike, and after super-struggle, they get a super-raise. 

Or it can be a super-rom-com. Super-he gets super-klutzy courting super-she. After super-hijinks, the lovers reach super-bliss.

There are many other possibilities. The power to lift weights or fly or heal by touch won’t solve life’s problems; it’ll just raise the stakes.




Thursday, March 28, 2024

Magic for the People!

          Magic for the People!


          Consider these three fictional worlds: Harry Potter, Star Wars and Avatar, the Last Airbender. In each of these worlds there is efficacious magic, wielded by a genetic elite; and in each of these worlds those elite magicians constantly bicker, and the common folk just have to take it.

          I object! And I counter-propose that, in each of these worlds, the common folk shall scientifically investigate magic, deduce its nature and principles, and invent technologies to duplicate or surpass the powers of the magicians. Magic for the People!

          Obviously most of the magicians would oppose this move; but a few renegade magicians would side with the common folk for reasons of their own. This creates conflict, which is always good for story-telling.

          In the Harry Potter world, Hermoine is the logical candidate for scientific revolutionary. She knows both Muggle and Wizard worlds; she knows how science works; she sees how little the wizards know of their own magic; and she has no stake in the wizard-world power structure. When she does actual science on their magic, the wizards will feel disquiet, and rightly so; for as soon as Hermoine figures out how to give Muggles magic, then she’ll go on global TV.

          Star Wars has already set the stage for the democratization of the Force; for it is now canon that Force powers depend upon having midichlorians. If it’s as simple and material as that, then let there be midichlorians for all! It’s a simple matter of medical technology. Of course neither Jedi nor Sith would take kindly to common folk doing Force tricks; only a real rebel would dare take on them both.

          Avatar, the Last Airbender, also has openings to the democritization of magic. The Avatar can take bending away from people; perhaps he or she can give it to people.

          In all of these stories there is the technical problem of what pseudo-scientific explanation to give for the magic. I recommend an elliptical approach; the viewers and reader don’t really want your pseudo-science, unless you can make it interesting. The trouble  is that your lone imagination is no match for the marvels of the real universe; so perhaps your magic-science should simply be an imitation or parody of known physical law. Or you can imitate traditional magics; Voudon or some such; and there are modern analyses of traditional magics, such as the Law of Contagion and the Law of Similarity. What you should show is the scientific process; the questioning and errors and experiment and error-correction; as compared to the dogmatism of the magicians.

          In all these stories the conflict is built in. Our heroes are sages, rebels and explorers, up against secrecy, ignorance and power.

No magical battles, please; we should establish early on that a machine gun beats a light saber.

          In the end, the people win; perhaps in the form of a non-magician successfully winning a magical contest. Power to the People!





Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Lunar Defenses

Lunar Defenses


The first words spoken by Neil Armstrong when he set foot upon the Moon were, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He intended to say “a” man, but somehow that word got lost. He blew his line!

He and others then planted American flags. But in the 55 years since, the unfiltered actinic lunar sunlight has bleached those flags pure white.

So those solemn first words turned into glorious nonsense, and the flags into flags of surrender!

The Moon was better defended than we realized...