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[GUEST POST] Paul Guthrie with A Different Take on Magic

The Wrong God fits in the speculative fiction genre, but it breaks with a lot of traditions. It began with an observation: in traditional fantasy, magic is old wisdom. There is a sacred text, a prophecy, and/or a really old wise-man to explain to the hero what must be done. As a scientist, this annoyed me. Where were the stories about the discovery of magic? Since magic in fantasy literature tends to be lethal, how did the poor bastards survive? So I set out to write such a story. It’s about two contemporary scientists, Andy and John, who discover magic and get into trouble.

Any discussion of magic in speculative fiction has to invoke Clarke’s Dictum: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What do we mean by the word “magic”? It has to function like technology, in that it can be used to accomplish desired tasks. It has to be inexplicable to current science, even seeming to violate established physical law – to be impossible. And it has to have rules. Before I could describe the discovery of magic I had to decide how it worked.

Consider some of the issues that come up in describing the discovery of various kinds of magic. To be concrete, let’s make it specific to something out of the Judeo-Christian tradition: the summoning of demons. King Solomon was supposedly good at this, so it would have to have been discovered before his time.

The issue with summoning demons is how to do it and survive. One can imagine an early researcher discovering that demons exist, without summoning one. The first summoner seems unlikely to have lived through it, but perhaps there was a witness. One can only speculate as to the number of casualties before someone thought of magical containment. But what kind of containment? Perhaps someone tried a circle…nope. (Presumably everyone left meticulous notes.) A square? Well, you see the problem. How long does it take to discover that you have to have a pentagram inside a circle, you stand in that, and you make a triangle for the demon? (That’s one version of how to do it, anyway.) Discovering magic involving demons would be a nasty business.

So I decided that magic would have to start small. You wouldn’t be able to do much with it at first. The main result of learning to do magic would be to mark the do-er as “other” – and we all know where that leads. And there I had my back story. Ordinary people throughout history discovering the ability to do small magic and being killed for it, by whatever religious authority prevailed in that time and place, unless they proclaimed that religion.

Making the story contemporary had a couple of attractions (other than being easier to write); it allowed me to play games with the idea that our current understanding of science and technology is already indistinguishable from magic for many people. The science and technology in the book are accurate, according to what we think we know at the moment. Only the magic is made up – and Andy and John approach that using scientific methods.

I ended up with a story about magic, written in the style of hard SF, built around a contemporary political thriller. Check it out at

Paul Guthrie is a scientist by training and vocation. He received a BA in Physics from Cornell University, followed by a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Massachusetts. His first job was working for NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt MD, primarily in the development of computer models to simulate the chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere in order to understand ozone depletion and climate change. After thirteen years he left NASA and joined a consulting firm in San Rafael CA, working mainly on air pollution issues for the EPA. By then he was irrevocably committed to the use of computers and the development of software. In 1999 he left the environmental field entirely and became involved in developing software for biotechnology and medical applications. Starting in 2002 he decided to pursue another interest, that of writing fiction. He continues to live in the San Francisco Bay area. His book The Wrong God is available in various e-book formats at Amazon, Smashwords, The Wrong God website, and the various e-book retailers.

7 Comments on [GUEST POST] Paul Guthrie with A Different Take on Magic

  1. So what was it that needed to be said about “the fundamentalist Christian right and current politics”?

  2. You didn’t really discuss your magic system.  You somewhat discussed the advent of the system, yet not how one initially stumbled or found the magic, what are the rules governing it, who can use it, et cetera that are usually present in a hard magic system ala Sanderson or Rothfuss.  And I also am wondering what you meant by the obliquely derivise last lines.

  3. @R & Sensawunda: My apologies — this is sloppy editing on my part.  I meant to remove that line (which I have now done) because we’re not about politics and religion here at SF Signal.  If you’d still like to discuss it, I respectfully request that you do so elsewhere or contact the author directly. 

  4. @JohnD I really don’t want to do politics.  I can’t stand politics, and I hate soapboxes, so I pointed it out more as a jest.

  5. Ah. Thanks for the clarification. 🙂

  6. I seem to remember Harry turtledove doing an excellent job at portraying magic as science in his Darkness series.  (I think that’s what it was called)  The concept was what would world war II look like played out in a world of magic and dragons.  The manhattan project was run by mages and wizards performing highly experimental work in the field of magic.  Turtledoves magic system was unique (at least to me) in that it followed a set of hard rules.  It held to laws, formulas and even Newton’s laws.  Magic could be theorized and predicted.  It was basically science without the hardware.

  7. That sounds interesting.  I’ve held off reading Turtledove, but I love hard magic systems.  Maybe I’ll check it out.

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