A World With Magic, or Without — Which is Better?

magicImagine this. You are sitting at home one evening by yourself, reading or watching television or doing whatever passes the time, when a fairy pops into being and offers you a chance to change the world. She is dressed in a long robe that covers her whole body and stands the height of a mortal woman. A hood obscures her face except for her eyes, exceptionally bright and a vivid shade of green, and the tip of her long nose. You see no wings nor any aura of magic or trail of fairy-dust, and you know that she is a fairy only by the way your eyes open wide and your breath comes in fearful gasps and your heart pounds, and of course by the fact that she appeared suddenly from thin air.

The fairy carries a ball about the size of a tennis ball that glows with pale blue light. You reach out to touch it, entranced, but the fairy draws it back out of reach. “Ah, not yet!” she says. “If you touch this orb, you will change the world. I must tell you the nature of the change before you make that decision.”

“That’s – that’s nice of you,” you say around gulps.

The fairy shrugs. “Informed consent,” she says. “There are rules about these things. Anyway, if a mortal lays hand on the orb and wills it, the world will be infused with magic and many things now impossible will become possible.”

“Such as a fairy materializing in my living room,” you say.

“Precisely, and that is normally impossible.”

“So how did you manage it?”

“I got a special dispensation. You wouldn’t be able to make this choice otherwise. If you say no, the world will continue as it is, with little magic in it except the subtle kind and sorcerers (the real ones) operating under the radar. If you say yes, while grasping the orb, all of that changes.

“Some mortals, perhaps one in a thousand, have the aptitude to become great magicians. They will develop mighty powers, those of them that survive anyway. Magic is dangerous and will become more so if you choose to set it free. But those who survive to master the Art will have great powers to shape the course of fate, to sense and manipulate the minds of others, to bend time and space to their will, to heal the afflicted and afflict the healthy, to make powerful blessings and curses.”

“Will I be one of these people?” you ask.

“Sorry,” the fairy says. “I’m not required to tell you that. You must make the choice not knowing if the powers of magic will be yours to command.”

“Oh.”

“And that’s only the beginning. If you touch the orb and make it so, the worlds of faerie and the mortal world will touch one another more closely. My kind will appear frequently to offer wonders and terrors, to beguile the hearts and minds of men and women, to trade in blood, to be bound by cold iron. Marvelous beasts and creatures of myth and legend will roam the wilderness and the streets. The Sphinx may return to ask her deadly riddles. Dragons will soar above the mountaintops, cruel and wise, benevolent and deadly. Great warriors will arise to do battle with monsters, heroes such as are never born today, and fairy children and the offspring of the gods will walk among mankind.”

“What about the dead?” you ask. “Will we see ghosts, vampires, zombies, those returned from the grave?”

“Of course!” says the fairy. “It’s all part of the package.”

“How about technology? Will that still work for us?”

“More or less. The rules of physics won’t be repealed, but they already ride the waves of probability. With powerful magic flowing through the world, the improbable will become commonplace and technology will become somewhat unreliable. It will still work when it works.”

“I don’t know,” you say. “It sounds like a dangerous world.”

“Oh, that it is,” the fairy says, “but the world is dangerous already. You are protected in the swaddling of civilization for the moment, but just over the horizon of tomorrow are dangers that will freeze your blood. Storms and famine and drought and flood come and the fabric of life itself is unraveled. Safety is an illusion. You will live to see what I mean, and your children (if you have any) will see more of it.”

“Only one person in a thousand can be a magician, you said?”

“That might be a liberal estimate,” the fairy says. “Perhaps that many, perhaps as few as one in ten thousand, will be able to wield the power in a great and artistic fashion. Of course, everyone will have their little spells.”

“Sounds like a world in which the powerful could dominate the rest of the people,” you say.

“Again,” the fairy says, “how is that different from the world as it is now? Don’t the powerful whistle the tune now and make the world’s governments and the world’s people dance to their will? Is money any less elitist than magic as a source of power? The wealthy and greedy will be replaced as ruling class by the sorcerous and enlightened. Will that be better than what you have now, or worse, or neither? That’s for you to decide.”

“We could find ourselves under the heel of Sauron or Emperor Palpatine or Lord Voldemort!”

“Yes. Of course, millions of people in the past century have found themselves under the heels of Hitler and Stalin and similar tyrants. Would they have been more dangerous with magic? Perhaps, but it’s difficult to see how, isn’t it? Magic might have been their undoing. Their enemies of good heart might have stopped them before their crimes could be committed.” The fairy holds the orb out to you. “Enough. You have been informed of the choice and of the consequences for the world, if not for yourself – that must remain a gamble and a choice of faith. Make your decision, mortal. Change the world or leave it unchanged. Touch the orb and will a new world to be, or bid me go.”

What would your choice be?

Image credit: subbotina / 123RF Stock Photo

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18 Comments

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

18 responses to “A World With Magic, or Without — Which is Better?

  1. Under this scenario I’d most likely opt for the status quo that represents what’s known. Why reorder the world for no reason? The best argument here is that you aren’t any worse off choosing magic, BUT in so doing you essentially start from scratch. I’ve had most of a lifetime to learn the world I’m currently residing in and have no desire to spend it’s remainder having to learn a new one. On the other hand, were I far younger or possessed a greater incentive, that would be different.

    • You do have a point. The fairy didn’t make her case all that well, did she? Perhaps she really wanted to leave the person making a neutral, unbiased decision. She dropped a couple of subtle hints, though. She pointed out that the world today stands on the edge of catastrophe. She also suggested that the determining factors of the elite might change from the “wealthy and greedy” to the “sorcerous and enlightened.” Is that a change for the better or for the worse? Finally, she pointed out that heroes would walk among humanity, such as are never born today.

      On the other side, she also didn’t really spell out how wrenching the transition would be. Fairies are tricky creatures and one trusts them or takes them at face value, only at great risk.

      • Well said. If someone I loved was dying and there wasn’t any hope and such a change might possess that hope then I’d be more likely to say “yes.”

  2. I know my Faery lore and there is no way I could unleash unseelie horrors on the world. Things may look pretty bleak right now, but letting the sidhe open the gates would in no way make it better.
    I think we’d be pretty quickly in a “survivors envy the dead” scenario, and they are never good.

    • Setting aside the specific mechanics of my little mini-story to remove the issue of “can we trust the faerie,” this raises a deeper question. Within the context of magic, is progress a real concept the way it is with technology? If it’s possible to raise the mana level or to make the world a more magical place than it is now, is that something we should fear?

      Let’s offer a different fantasy/hypothetical scenario. Suppose you were a mage traveling in some wondrously magical place within the circles of the world, and you stumble upon a secret cave. Within that cave is a powerful talisman that’s been buried since the dawn of creation. By taking that talisman into your hands and willing a change, you can create the same end result as the fairy was talking about. Suppose that, rather than happening instantly or overnight, the change would take a hundred years (and your own life would be extended so you can see it).

      No fairies involved, and so Faery lore does not apply. Would you do it?

      • Hmmm…
        I’m not sure removing the actual faeries makes that much difference. People act badly enough to each other with guns and bombs, I doubt things would be radically improved by adding magic into the mix.
        To start with, true magic would require time to learn how it works. Even if we did have decades to work out how to use the magic, and compensate for technology not being 100% reliable, the destabilisation that would occur would be unprecedented. Our current forms of government, law and religion would collapse almost inevitably under that kind of strain.
        It would perhaps be possible that if magic AND PRAYER suddenly started working ‘properly’ being capable of miracles, then we may be able to adapt, but I’m still not sure I’d grab that amulet… The church had its go at power in medieval Europe, it wasn’t nice, I can’t see rule by dictatorial Warlock being any better.

      • Prayer being a form of magic, that’s a given.

        You are quite right that the current forms of government, law, and religion would all collapse, or at least be transformed beyond recognition. The same thing happens with advances in technology, however. In the Middle Ages, and for thousands of years before that, society had stable institutions: monarchy, hereditary nobility, established state religion, patriarchy, slavery or serfdom providing a source of forced labor. A serious of technological advances starting in the 15th century with the invention of the printing press (which promoted widespread literacy and accelerated the pace of scientific discovery and technological change) completely changed the material circumstances in which we live, and this has led to monarchy being replaced by representative democracy, hereditary nobility with plutocracy, established state religion with religious liberty and church-state separation, patriarchy with gender equality (or an approach thereunto, still in progress), and slavery or serfdom with wage slavery.

        That change, too, has been wrenching, although it’s taken more than a hundred years and is still ongoing. It led to civic upheavals, revolutions, and wars of unprecedented bloodiness. Has that change been worth it? If you had control over whether Gutenberg would print his famous edition of the Bible — i.e., over whether the invention that started it all would be invented — and you knew what would happen over the coming centuries, both good and bad, would you choose to go for it or not?

        This question is a pretty good parallel. Another, perhaps even better parallel involves the invention of agriculture and the beginning of civilization. Humans had a very workable, stable form of life in pre-civilized times that lasted at least a hundred thousand years. Suppose you could prevent that from happening and leave our species in the pre-civilized Garden of Eden forever? Would that be a good choice, or should the genie be loosed from the bottle?

        One can in every hypothetical make a case for either the progressive or the conservative choice.

      • All true, but all these changes have moved power away from an elite that existed before (creating larger and more flexible elites it should be noted). Technology is available to all, you don’t have to be a electronics wizard to own a PC, the printing press brought literacy and knowledge to the masses, agriculture brought civilisation so that those who knew the magics of metal, clay and thread working could concentrate on that instead of gathering and hunting, and those tools, clothes pots and weapons were usable by any member of that society.

        Magic coming back concentrated in a small elite would probably undo all of that. Sure humanity would survive, but at the whims of those few with magic, I would not want to be the one to blame.

        Even assuming limits on the magic that would mean magicians might create potions of strength, or +5 machine guns because their numbers would be so limited and they would be entirely in control of production they would automatically form a self-selecting elite.

        Giving magic to everyone equally however is another proposition entirely, even if that possibility was limited by having to follow a certain diet (only those who eat no gluten, or meat, perhaps -so you could choose to gain magic by restricting your diet) or relied on ‘magic spells’ that anyone could learn. In that case, if I know I will have as much magic as everyone else, sure I’d give humanity that chance- at least everyone would still be on a reasonably even footing.

      • Is technology usable by anyone? To some degree, but the highest levels of it and its greatest power are expensive and under the control of those with the most money. The changes have disempowered elites of the past (the landed nobility, the formal priesthood) but empowered new ones (the wealthy capitalists, the professionals and politicians), and it’s questionable whether the individual who does not belong to these groups has more or less freedom (although materially, in terms of wealth, we’re all better off now).

        There are requirements to belong an an elite no matter the circumstances. In ancient and medieval times, it was right of birth joined with cunning, ruthlessness, and (in many cases) physical prowess. Today, right of birth is still involved although not so formally, and the other requirements are cunning, ruthlessness, and (in most cases) business savvy. Today as before, only a few can be at the top.

        I don’t think giving magic to everyone equally would be possible, unfortunately. But what would be the requirements to belong to a magical elite? Right of birth would still be a factor (to the extent that magical talent is inborn), as would cunning and intelligence. Ruthlessness? Maybe, but that depends on whether something like the Wiccan Rule of Three or other conceptions of karma or the return of intent is operative. Perhaps the answer to that question would be necessary before an informed decision could be made.

      • Technology is usable by anyone, while you may argue that only the ver rich can afford the best technology, this is not actually true.
        It is true that some resources are limited, we don’t let just anyone have weapons grade plutonium, but anyone can launch a nuke. You don’t have to be descended from a secret blood-line, all you require is training.
        As I said each elite has been larger than the elite it replaced and are more flexible. The modern elite in America is purely financial and includes those dot com millionaires who came from nowhere with nothing more than an idea, Europe has slightly more social inertia, but the ruling class is larger than ever before.

        I can’t see how magic could be possible at all, so imagining that everyone would have equal access is as easy…
        If you are treating real magic as an extension of the magick practiced by Wiccans then there would be no blood-line issues, only issues of training and perhaps natural talent, which already apply to technology. That sort of magic would simply be a new technology and would have great impacts, but nothing insurmountable, or unprecedented.

        Deciding however, that perhaps the magic should be limited to those of ‘Noble birth’ would wind Europe back a little, but I cannot imagine the havoc it would cause in America and China. Similarly picking any ‘gene’ that already exists and calling it the magical gene would just become a tool for racism (or sexism). I certainly wouldn’t like to pick a gene for magic to live on. Actually in this case I think the unmagical majority would fight hard and dirty to eradicate the ‘magic gene’, through ethnic cleansing, pograms and witch-purges. Although against magic how little chance would they have? and faced with that kind of opposition our magical elite may by attrition have to become the majority.
        I wouldn’t mind making everyone who was poor magical, just to see what happens though. Would the rich give that up for magic, and would the magical wish themselves wealthy and free of magic?

      • No, I’m going to disagree with your assertion that technology in its strongest manifestations can be used by anyone. It’s not at all true that anyone can launch a nuke. I can’t, for example. True, I COULD launch a nuke if I had one, or if I had access to the launch codes and their entry portals from a nuclear powered nation-state, but I don’t have these things, and I can’t get these things (even if I wanted to, which of course I don’t). The limiting factor isn’t technical ability but wealth and/or political power. Technology allows the wealthy and powerful to assert dominance and control over other people in ways that their horse-mounted, sword-swinging, steel-clad ancestors could not. We can all use technology to the extent we can afford it, which means all of us can use a little bit of it, but only a few can use it to full extent.

        What if technology WAS limited in its use by ability to craft it and fully understand it? We would then have a society dominated by techno-nerds, whereas today we have one dominated by business tycoons. Given the prevailing moral characteristics and ambitions of both groups of people, I suspect the nerd-dominated society would be a considerable improvement. That’s not a bad parallel to a magical world, which would be dominated by gifted magicians — unless, of course, the personal characteristics typical of a gifted magician are not uplifting or desirable. As I said, much depends on whether or not some sort of karmic factor is operative. Without knowing that, we couldn’t know what we were getting into.

        When I referred to “right of birth,” I was thinking of talent and ability, not formally-established bloodlines. Sorry, I guess that was a bit confusing, and that’s my fault.

      • You agreed that you COULD launch that nuke, but wouldn’t want to, nor would you be granted access to it.
        Technology is restricted by those in power as you suggest, I don’t deny that, but you accept that the technology itself doesn’t care. I actually believe given the raw materials I could turn my physics into a working nuclear weapon. I just need access to the materials… Which are restricted, but wouldn’t the magic potions and possibly spells also require materials and components, some of which may already be restricted. Those in power would simply extend the restrictions to maintain their power.

        In any case the nuke is not a very complex piece of technology, it is little more than smashing two rocks together really, and whilst it may be devastating it is hardly an apex technology. The highest levels of technology are arguably to be found in smartphones and gaming consoles, which exceed almost all military equivalents in that the military buys older models than the general public. And while price is a factor, price is also often a factor in magic in fantasy, isn’t it? Learning magic and spell books cost gold, research takes time, whether magical or scientific. If these factors are true then, magic is little more than a technology, apart from the fact that only those with ‘the gift’ can attempt it.

        I agree it would really help to know the rules of magic in advance here. It would let us make a guess as to how powerful an individual may be, how easily a spell might be learnt, and how the magician may be limited, by birth, by power, by wealth and by philosophy. That would then let us decide whether it was a risk worth taking, but without that data, it can not be worth the risk can it?

      • No, I COULD not launch the nuke, BECAUSE I could not gain access to it. That this is not an intrinsic, technical feature of nuclear weapons technology itself is true, but so what? Either you can do something or you can’t. What difference does it make why? The point I was drawing was that technology is not egalitarian and we do not live in an egalitarian world; that’s an illusion. We live in a world dominated by plutocrats, just as our ancestors lived in one dominated by hereditary nobles, and the hypothetical magical world we’re talking about would be dominated by the most powerful mages.

        Regarding smart phones and gaming consoles, who reaps the greatest benefits from those, the users or the companies that provide the services? Also, what exactly do you mean by “the highest levels of technology?” Are you referring to the most recently-developed techniques that are outside the laboratory, or the tools that can provide the most powerful control and the greatest wealth to those who make use of them? And finally, quantity is just as important as quality. You have access to the same kinds of technology as Jim Bezos (who owns Amazon). Can you influence people’s buying decisions as much as he can?

        There might be a nonzero monetary cost to magic, but a world dominated by mages would be as if our technological world were dominated by those best able to understand how it all works — scientists and technicians (techno-nerds as I said earlier). Frankly, I wish we lived in that world. I’d trust the motivations of scientists over those of corporate CEOs any day.

        We can never know the consequences of any decision to make a change, especially one this huge, for certain. A lot of my reason for posting the above is to provoke consideration of the world we live in now, and whether in fact it’s worth preserving in its current form. Thank you for helping that along. 🙂

      • I disagree completely about technology not being egalitarian. It is completely, only society stops use of certain technologies, that is societies “failing” not the technologies, you could gain access to those nukes in a number of ways, if you wanted to, unless you are suffering a complete failure of imagination. My preferred tactic would be a naval operation against a submarine since the codes are held on the submarine, but I don’t want nukes so why would I bother? Holding the world to ransom? – I neither want the power, money or the attention.

        I’m confused about your question regarding the highest level of technology, neither definition is appropriate for what I mean. Technology progresses by each generation of technology building on the last, mobile phones and consoles are the most rapidly developing part of the technology market and therefore have more generations than any other, thus they are the highest on the pyramid, with the most generations beneath them.

        I hate to break it to you but most of those CEOs have engineering, science or mathematics based degrees (economics included). They are in charge… have been since the 1700s!

        Actually the reason I had given this such a lot of thought is that it is tangential to the plot of the novel I’m working on, where Europe has had active mages since Elizabeth I signed a treaty with the Secret Commonwealth of Faerie. The treaty stated that any creature with magic would be granted land rights and title, in exchange the faeries granted every family with title magic. That way I could add magic while preserving the status quo at the time, later European history is of course messed up by those events compared to our own, but that’s another matter. The hero industrialises iron production in order to level the playing field for the common man. All of which, of course, biases my position somewhat.

      • You cannot separate technology from the society of which it is a part, and without which it cannot exist. If society is not egalitarian, then neither is technology. Or to put it another way, technology does not make society egalitarian. I believe you’re also mistaken about most CEOs having technical degrees; most going on all CEOs have business degrees (entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are exceptions) and it is their business expertise (whether or not formally acquired and papered — in this sense Gates and Jobs are not exceptions), not any technical expertise they may have, that gives them their power and influence. Most scientists and engineers either work in academic research or are employed by the real powers in society. They don’t run things. More to the point, technical knowledge doesn’t run things. It just empowers the people who do, using other advantages. Bill Gates does know something about writing programming code, but he had people working for him who were better at it; his business and marketing skill made Microsoft and his vast fortune.

        That sounds like an interesting story idea. Thanks for sharing it. Actually, with magic restricted to the titled British nobility, that sounds rather nightmarish.

      • Technology and society can so be separated, criminality does it all the time, and any time a different culture adopts a new technology that is exactly what we see. If your lack of imagination cannot separate them don’t tar me with the same brush 😛

        Business degrees are (as much as it pains me to say it technical degrees- they aren’t art degrees or media studies, but a combination of law and science), and most science graduates do not work in academics or even as scientists- they actually work in the financial sector, as depressing as that sounds.

        You claim that society is not egalitarian, well, perhaps it is not truly egalitarian (but then even gravity isn’t it effects the Farman more than the thin, and those in the polar regions more than those in the tropics), but I struggle to think how a true egalitarian society could work anyway. Does the lazy man deserve the same as the hard worker, the criminal the same as the saint? Of course, Society is not egalitarian because people aren’t, you have shown that you are biased against business leaders, and are pro-nerds, both are understandable biases, but biases none the less, but not ones shared by society at large. I say society is egalitarian, certainly I could enter politics or banking and gain power or riches if I wanted, I didn’t choose those paths, whether something is egalitarian is based upon whether you have opportunities, and as Gates and Jobs (neither of whom had any degree of any type although they did have the luck of being born in America at the right time to be exposed to computers) prove those opportunities do exist, if you can live with the choices to get there.

        To dismiss the Nerds who do make it big, as not being real nerds, but businessmen seems more than a little strange. No doubt if we lived in a world of Mages, you could claim the ones in power were businessmen as well, the ones who did not for whatever reason whether lack of commitment, or ethical concerns would therefore be real mages, but it would be as disingenuous that way round…

        All the systems we have in place, spread power (the recent reversals that may be observed, I more assign to incompetence than malignancy on behalf of those you call plutocrats) granting the little guy a voice that can’t be drowned out. Magocracy would be terrible as you rightly surmise, and might be inevitable if magic just turned up one day. After all even a well intentioned Mage we imagine would be able to cock up on a much bigger scale than some lawyer making the wrong call, or an engineer not checking his figures.

      • Technology and society can be separated in the imagination (and there’s nothing wrong at all with mine, but thanks for your concern), but when we do that both of them become abstractions. In reality, they can’t be. If we have an unequal society, which I argue is quite obvious, then technology does not create an equal one. One does not have to see the technology itself as being at fault for this. It’s enough that it does not cure it or prevent it.

        Business degrees are technical degrees? Well, you’re using the word “technical” here differently than I was, and in a way that’s irrelevant to what we’re discussing. A business degree is not a science or engineering degree, and that’s what I meant about saying it’s not a technical degree. Since we’re comparing technical expertise with magical expertise, a science or engineering degree is what is meant by “technical” and a business degree doesn’t qualify, even if for some completely different purposes it might.

        Bill Gates illustrates what I’m saying here, actually. Yes, he did what he did without a formal degree, but not without his father’s upper-middle-class income. Someone coming up from poverty and accomplishing what he did is vanishingly difficult, and becoming more so all the time. We live in a world in which more and more of the collectively-produced income is hogged by a small slice of the people, in which opportunities to rise from poverty into the middle class are disappearing, and in which threats of foreign and domestic terrorism, real and imagined, are used to justify increasing levels of government surveillance and disregard for civil liberties. As far as our personal liberties and our rights vis-a-vis the elite, we are worse off than Medieval yeomen and in many cases no better off than Medieval serfs, although in terms of creature comforts we do have it better. The claim that we live in a democracy, in a society were all are created equal, is nonsense — poisonous and dishonest nonsense at that, put out by those who sit at the top and would like to avoid opposition.

        “Does the lazy man deserve the same as the hard worker, the criminal the same as the saint?” This is a bit of a straw man, to speak bluntly. A completely egalitarian society is indeed impossible, but the reality is that we have inequalities — massive ones — and corresponding loss of liberty that have nothing to do with native abilities or initiative, that do not have to exist and are imposed from above by a playing field that is not level.

        “To dismiss the Nerds who do make it big, as not being real nerds, but businessmen seems more than a little strange.” I wasn’t focusing on the people but on their abilities, so that’s not what I was doing. I am saying that, given a nerd who is also a good businessman, his business abilities give him his wealth and power. If he were not a nerd, he would still be successful. If he were not a businessman, he wouldn’t be.

        “[T]he recent reversals that may be observed, I more assign to incompetence than malignancy on behalf of those you call plutocrats.”

        We disagree.

        “Magocracy would be terrible as you rightly surmise”

        Compared to what we have today? No. I don’t think it would be.

  3. Pingback: Fantasy Magic and Real Magic | Brian Rush

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