Hello and welcome back this week to Factually Deficient! I would like to take this space at the top of this week’s post to remind everyone that as much as I love writing wildly fanciful fictions in answer to relatively sane questions, I can’t do it without you! I would be delighted if you all continued to send me your questions about life, the universe, or anything so that I can answer them in a manner best described as “wrong”.
BUT ANYWAY, this week’s question comes from Victin:
How can people cast magic in fantasy books and other media if magic is not real? Shouldn’t that be, like, impossible?
Victin, you are begging the question, an idiom we are already familiar with. Here, you should not be asking “How is magic possible in fantasy books?” but rather, “Is magic real?” The answer might surprise you.
The renowned botanist Arthur C. Clarke or someone once made the following famous statement:
Any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Many people misinterpret Clarke’s words as a comment on how impressive technology can be. In fact, he is alluding to the little-known fact that much of what we know as “technology” is in fact not technology at all, but magic disguised as such.
But how does magic exist? Where does it come from? Our answer turns back on itself, returning to the realm of science. What is magic most often compared to, or described as? I don’t need to tell you that the answer is fire. Just as fire is a chemical process, once thought to be an element in its own right, so, too, magic is a simple chemical reaction, for all people think of it as an elemental power.
And, like fire, one of the most prominent ways in which we use magic today is for light. My readers may have noticed that today, there are very few (if any) examples of technology which are unexplained enough that the lack of explanation may be due to the presence of magic. However, this is simply because where magic is used, alternate explanations are invented, so as not to alert the general population to the existence of the chemical process known as magic. One can easily identify cases of technology which Mr. Clarke would doubtless have euphemised as “sufficiently advanced” by explanations which seem particularly unusual, or even far-fetched.
A case in point: the fluorescent lightbulb. Now, the incandescent bulb makes sense: the wire is heated, causing it to glow, and it therefore sheds light. In contrast, the story of the fluorescent bulb is full of holes. Are we truly expected to believe that a lightbulb– an item which is found in abundance in every household– would contain in it not one but two kinds of poison? One of which if the glass of the bulb so much as cracks would necessitate the entire building to be fumigated?
No; of course not. The entire business with the phosphor powder and the mercury bead is just a blind, a blind invented to make people sufficiently wary of breaking a fluorescent lightbulb as to negate any risk that the magic will be let out and discovered.
And so too with almost anything you encounter in your daily life. When the technological explanation seems unlikely, more often than not, the process is actually chemical– to be specific, magical.
Disclaimer: Most if not all of the claims in this post are ludicrous fabrications, bearing no relation to the truth. The author does not advocate opening fluorescent bulbs, and recognizes that Mr. Clarke may not have been a botanist.