[tsat home] [#30] [editorials]

When Magick Isn't
by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
©2003 Quentin Long -- all rights reserved

Arthur C. Clarke said it first and best: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magick." Among other things, this maxim conceals within it the only definition of 'magick' that really holds water: Magick is anything the other guy has up his sleeve that you don't know about -- it's Secret Knowledge of one kind or another, a mystery to be sought after.

Sadly, there are a number of writers out there who seem to have a very different concept of magick. This concept, as revealed in their stories: Magick is a plot device, an arbitrary, made-to-order deus ex machina with no limits whatsoever, other than whatever is necessitated by the momentary exigencies of the plotline. There is no Secret Knowledge, no true mystery; instead, there is just a veil to keep the reader from noticing the author's controlling hand.

The differences between these two approaches to magick can be summed up in one simple question: Is magick a source of awe and intrigue... or is it just a crutch?

Of course, some authors might argue that it doesn't make any difference whether they use magick as a crutch or not. Ultimately, everything is a story is laid down in accordance with the author's wishes, isn't it? So what's the problem if magick works that way, too?

The problem is, the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. When the story keeps whapping the reader upside the head with the fact that what he's reading is just a fabricated narrative, how long can he continue to hold his disbelief in abeyance? And once the reader's suspension of disbelief is lost, it's only a matter of time until the reader himself is also lost (to the author)!

So yes, the author is fully in control of every event in his narrative... but he can't afford to behave as if he has total control! Because for all the things the author does control, there's one thing he doesn't and can't truly have power over -- the reader -- and any author who forgets that he doesn't command the reader, does so at risk to his own storytelling abilities. True, the reader wants to be taken along on whatever journey the author has prepared for him (if not, why would he have started reading the story in the first place?), but that just makes it possible for the reader to suspend his disbelief. It does not mean that the reader will docilely accept any and every crack-brained notion the author feels like throwing into his narrative!

This, finally, is the trouble with magick-as-crutch: It requires a mindset that lets an author reduce the secrets of the Universe to a mere plot device, and with that mindset, it's difficult to avoid the kind of blatant, ham-fisted manipulations which make the reader all too aware that he's just reading a story.

[tsat home] [#30] [editorials]