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Magiconomics

Thanks to He Who Needs No Linkage, I found this discussion of the economics of Harry Potter. It's a fascinating read, and reminded me of some other books in the genre.

Ms. McArdle is right; if you look too closely at the relationship between magic and the real world in Rowlings' world, it doesn't hold together very well.

Any time a creator introduces a fantastic element to their story, it vastly complicates things. On the one hand, magic (or its equivalent; as Arthur C. Clarke noted in his famous Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") is a great way to jazz up a story. On the other hand, you run smack into the "deus ex machina" hazard.

It happens a lot in comics. During the 1970's, Superman had grown so powerful that it was almost impossible to generate any real dramatic tension -- he literally could do almost anything. DC had to "de-power" him a bit. Even then, they had to bring enough kryptonite to earth to rebuild his entire home planet several times.

A few authors have managed to pull it off quite well.

David Eddings, in his Belgariad/Mallorean series, described magic as "The Will And The Word." The sorcerers in his world can do almost anything, within some limitations. All they have to do is muster their will, focus their attention, and release it with a word.

The drawbacks are that using magic can be physically exhausting -- so for most tasks, it's easier to do it the "mundane" way. Also, the laws of physics still apply; one character uses sorcery to lift a giant rock, and sinks himself into the ground up to his armpits.

Another limitation is that one cannot unmake anything. Attempting to do so tends to disintegrate the sorcerer.

Finally, it takes a very specific confluence of events to unleash a sorcerer's ability. They have to be worked up enough to have sufficient determination, a very specific goal in mind, and it has to NOT involve obliterating something. Many would-be sorcerers found their first of sorcery to be their last.

Another creator who found great ways to deal with beings of great power is Joss Whedon, the creative deity behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. In the Buffyverse, vampires and demons are tremendously powerful, and very few humans can stand up to them. He balanced this out by giving them weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and also had one of his characters (Spike) explain just why he had no interest in conquering or destroying the world:

"We like to talk big, vampires do. 'I'm going to destroy the world.' It's just tough guy talk. Strut round with your friends over a pint of blood... the truth is I like this world. You've got dog racing. Manchester United. And you've got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It's all right here."

And my most recent discovery, Jim Butcher, the author behind the Dresden Files. His protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a wizard -- and lists himself as such in the Chicago Yellow Pages. He's an amazingly powerful wizard, and his world features demons, werewolves, faeries, and vampires -- lots and lots of vampires -- all living unnoticed among us.

There are drawbacks to Dresden's power, though. For one, he does not get along with technology. Gadgets of all kinds tend to screw up in his presence. He drives an ever-increasingly-battered Volkswagen Beetle (it's so simply built, it tends to resist his influence) and his apartment doesn't even have electricity.

Further, we humans can -- if sufficiently riled -- wreak havoc on the mystic forces if we set our mind to it. The above-mentioned technological incompatibilities work both ways, sometimes, and magical defenses against high-powered weaponry is spotty at best. So the dark forces find it to their benefit to keep a relatively low profile, allowing people's natural instinct to deny and ignore inconvenient facts to keep things quiet.

Rowlings doesn't do that. Her magic doesn't come at any great price to its users, and for most hings it's far easier to use magic than to do it "muggle" fashion. There is also no real reason why the muggle world isn't far more aware of the magical world, other than plot convenience.

However, as Ms. McArdle notes, that doesn't really get in the way of a hell of a great story. And Ms. Rowling, if nothing else, is a hell of a great storyteller.


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Comments (19)

Larry Niven had a good syst... (Below threshold)
Mark L:

Larry Niven had a good system of magical economics in his stories "What Good is a Glass Dagger" and "The Magic Goes Away." He had magicians drawing upon a fixed reserve of "manna" -- the force powering spells.

JT, you're an Eddings reade... (Below threshold)
C-C-G Author Profile Page:

JT, you're an Eddings reader?

I knew there was a reason I liked you. :)

Of course, Eddings is no Tolkien, but for "lighter" fantasy, he's one of my favorites.

And it doesn't hurt that we share a first name.

When you consider that this... (Below threshold)
JLawson:

When you consider that this series is for kids, it's not too surprising that the economics of magic aren't exactly up to adult scrutiny. And there's actually a few things touched on in the last book about limitations on magic (which I don't think will spoil things if I mention one here) such as just WHY you can't magic food out of thin air.

Well, I don't read HP for economic theories. If the magic system is cohesive enough to work unobtrusively in the context of the story, that's good enough for me. A lot of the SF I read requires a suspension of disbelief, and it's only if something REALLY gets out of whack that I'll go "Um, no, that's not right..." and lose interest in the story.

I always liked Niven's syst... (Below threshold)
Farmer Joe:

I always liked Niven's system, too. If a wizard stayed too long in one place, he'd use up all the manna in that area, and his spells would stop working. He'd have to move. If enough wizards were in close enough proximity they'd create large dead areas. There were also specific ways that wizards could attack each other (or other kinds of magical enemies) using very costly spells that could drain the manna from an area quickly.

This also explains why there isn't any magic in the modern age. All the manna got used up.

"There are drawbacks to Dre... (Below threshold)
headzero:

"There are drawbacks to Dresden's power, though. For one, he does not get along with technology. Gadgets of all kinds tend to screw up in his presence. He drives an ever-increasingly-battered Volkswagen Beetle (it's so simply built, it tends to resist his influence) and his apartment doesn't even have electricity."

Dresden drives a Jeep, and has electricity in his apartment - he has an old dial phone that shocks him when he touches it and an old tape based answering machine (how would that answering machine work without electricity?).

That might be in the TV ser... (Below threshold)

That might be in the TV series, headzero, but I'm quite certain about what I said applying to the books -- his car is the Blue Beetle, although the blue parts are rapidly diminishing as they progress; he has a spell ("flickus bicum") that lights his candles; and he refers frequently to his "icebox" that is, literally, an old icebox, not a refrigerator.

I bet his office has electricity, though, but definitely not his home.

J.

Re: #5That's Dresd... (Below threshold)
BigFire:

Re: #5

That's Dresden Files, the TV series. In the book, he drives a ever stripped down re-conditioned VW bug (the interior eventually got stripped of pretty much everything not metal by a demon), and has no electricity in his home. The only technology he has in his home is the phone.

Now, if you want a truly co... (Below threshold)
C-C-G Author Profile Page:

Now, if you want a truly complex system of magic, check out the Recluse series by L. E. Modesitt.

His mages frequently have to have day jobs.

A Jeep is much cooler than ... (Below threshold)
JLawson:

A Jeep is much cooler than an old Volkswagen. But Jay Tea is correct - there's NO electricity in his home, no phone, but he does have running water.

I think he does have a gas stove, though I've seen numerous mentions of cold showers because of no water heater. I guess his magic would screw up a water heater's thermostat, which is dependent on a tiny bit of electricity from a thermocouple heated by a pilot light. And a failure in one of those... well, knowing Dresden's luck?

http://www.waterheaterblast.com/

Heck of a way to start the day...

Yes - I was refering to the... (Below threshold)
headzero:

Yes - I was refering to the TV show, sorry. Gave up reading dead trees about 12 years ago unless they were technical manuals.

Modesitt is a fantastic wri... (Below threshold)
Rich:

Modesitt is a fantastic writer. I have read the entire Recluse series and am now reading his Corean Chronicles. Everything magic or powerwise has its consequences. He seems to like telling the stories from both sides in his books.

FWIW, you can get atleast t... (Below threshold)
Retread:

FWIW, you can get atleast the first two Dresden books in audio version read by, of all people, the actor who played Spike.

Rich, there's a new Recluse... (Below threshold)
C-C-G Author Profile Page:

Rich, there's a new Recluse book due out in September.

I can't wait!

"The low opportunity cost a... (Below threshold)

"The low opportunity cost attached to magic spills over into the thoroughly unbelievable wizard economy. Why are the Weasleys poor? Why would any wizard be? (...) ...they lack things like new clothes and textbooks that should be easily obtainable with a few magic words. Why?

The answer, as with so much of JK Rowling's work, seems to be "she didn't think it through"."

I think she didn't think it through because she's not a fantasy writer. (Weirdly, that also may be why the books seem more accessible than others in the genre.)

The convention that magic has to cost something is like the convention in SF that if there is anti-gravity it has to be reflected in the whole of the world-building. Bujold does a great job of this. Her spaceships have inertia dampeners and artificial gravity (the same thing) and so her worlds have floating pallets, lift tubes, and gravity controlled fountains as municipal artwork.

Whatever is true in one situation has to be able to be applied to other situations.

The answer, as with so m... (Below threshold)
John Irving:

The answer, as with so much of JK Rowling's work, seems to be "she didn't think it through"."

Actually, if you read the books, she apparently did. . . but good authors don't have to explain outright the background details of their world, they let the story do it for them.

The explanations for the economics are scattered hither and yon, but they are there. .

I don't know all the rules ... (Below threshold)

I don't know all the rules of magic, but it's my understanding that things can indeed be unmade. It's called subtractive magic and any ethical wizard either does not or cannot use it. Subtractive magic is derived from the underworld and always has unpleasant implications or outcomes.

I suppose that the rules of magic were written long ago and people who are familiar with them look to make sure those rules are being followed when reading such stories, so perhaps the concept of subtractive magic is unique to the Sword of Truth series, (a Google search of the term always references Terry Goodkind's books) but I think it makes things a little more interesting.

Terry Pratchett had several... (Below threshold)
Jeff:

Terry Pratchett had several great plot devices for limitation of magical power, the best one being an application of Newton's Third Law to leviation: if you tried to lift something too large, you'd end up with your brains in your boots. Or something to that effect.

has AL GORE been turned int... (Below threshold)
spurwing plover:

has AL GORE been turned into a toad yet?

Well, if we try to start po... (Below threshold)

Well, if we try to start poking holes in Rowling's books, we'll find some big enough to levitate a truck through. I agree that there are economic problems, but there are other problems as well (such as why wizards, very few of whom were not raised at least in part by or around muggles, have so little understanding of muggles; the alternate problem of muggles not knowing about wizards is minor by comparison). The writing, though having moments of brilliance, is generally good, but not often great. The plots have seriously large holes in them much of the time. (Consider the last book, in which the passage of time, considered by Dumbledore to be necessary for Harry to behave correctly at the correct time, is actually irrelevant: Harry behaves correctly because the sequence of events has brought him to the right state of mind at the right time. This same sequence of events could have happened more quickly with the same end result. Yet when Harry is given this reasoning, at a time when he is skeptically questioning his relationship to Dumbledore, and even though Harry's character was pointing this way from the very beginning of the series, Harry simply accepts that time was needed before he would do what he would have done anyway, given the sequence of events.)

But the thing is, these problems can be ignored most of the time, and the story is so immersive, and the characters so believable most of the time, that Harry Potter is a wonderfully fun read. Rowling has earned her money, even though serious magical fantasy buffs will never consider her books useful in advancing magical theory or considering the ethics of the superhuman or supernatural, which is where most magical fantasy really shines. But like much magical fantasy, the Potter books are in part a call for normal people to behave heroically, to be better than their baser natures. Rowling really brings out Spartan ethics, for example, in a way that is very emotional for someone who is already steeped in them.

Anyway, the point is that it's easy to criticize the Potter books, but that criticism does not diminish the achievements of the books.




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