ted chiang on magic and science

by (vanessa)

Sure. Science fiction and fantasy are very closely related genres, and a lot of people say that the genres are so close that there’s actually no meaningful distinction to be made between the two. But I think that there does exist (a) useful distinction to be made between magic and science. One way to look at it is in terms of whether a given phenomenon can be mass-produced. If you posit some impossibility in a story, like turning lead into gold, I think it makes sense to ask how many people in the world of the story are able to do this. Is it just a few people or is it something available to everybody? If it’s just a handful of special people who can turn lead into gold, that implies different things than a story in which there are giant factories churning out gold from lead, in which gold is so cheap it can be used for fishing weights or radiation shielding. In either case there’s the same basic phenomenon, but these two depictions point to different views of the universe. In a story where only a handful of characters are able to turn lead into gold, there’s the implication that there’s something special about those individuals. The laws of the universe take into account some special property that only certain individuals have. By contrast, if you have a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process, something that can be done on a mass scale and can be done cheaply, then you’re implying that the laws of the universe apply equally to everybody; they work the same even for machines in unmanned factories. In one case I’d say the phenomenon is magic, while in the other I’d say it’s science. Another way to think about these two depictions is to ask whether the universe of the story recognizes the existence of persons. I think magic is an indication that the universe recognizes certain people as individuals, as having special properties as an individual, whereas a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process is describing a completely impersonal universe. That type of impersonal universe is how science views the universe; it’s how we currently understand our universe to work. The difference between magic and science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.