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[GUEST POST] Jeff Somers on The Magical Side of Science Fiction

Jeff Somers was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and regrets nothing. He is the author of the Avery Cates series (and the recently released Avery Cates short, The Shattered Gears) and The Ustari Cycle books: Trickster, Fabricator and his latest novel, We Are Not Good People. Jeff publishes a zine called The Inner Swine and has also published a few dozen short stories; his story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2006, edited by Scott Turow. His guitar playing is a plague upon his household and his lovely wife The Duchess is convinced he would wither and die if left to his own devices.

Sufficiently Advanced: The Magical Side of Science Fiction

by Jeff Somers

Once in a blue moon I find myself with some time on my hands while I await bail and/or an attorney, forced to sober up and think about things for a while. This is in fact usually exactly the phrase the judge uses – think about things for a while. This time, I found myself thinking about magic and Science Fiction.

I write in a lot of genres – from mystery/thrillers to cyberpunk/dystopian Sci Fi to urban fantasy. Often what I do is a mix of genres – my Avery Cates books were often described as noir-ish Sci Fi, and my current book, We Are Not Good People, is an urban fantasy that also has a distinct noir vibe to it. I think a lot of my characters would be at home in a Raymond Chandler novel.

Since I initially made my mark writing Science Fiction about cyborgs and digitized intelligences and a futuristic society, a lot of people still know me for that, and the fact that We Are Not Good People deals in magic – as in magic spells – seems odd. While the dividing line between Fantasy and Sci Fi isn’t as clear as it once was, there’s still some strong opinions out there – that magic is “sillier” than Sci Fi, or that magic obviates any need for logic, or that Science Fiction is always kind of firmly based in the scientific world. But you know what? Science Fiction has plenty of well-worn and widely accepted tropes that are basically just magic stuffed inside a shiny box with buttons on it.

Let’s consider some of the things people put in Sci Fi stories that might as well include a wizard’s robe and staff.

Time Travel

That most timey-wimey of Sci Fi concepts, time travel is theoretically possible, but not in the bam yer in the middle ages! way that most Sci Fi stories present it. In stories, some mad scientist or Time Lord invents a box, and when they mash some controls the box transports them to another time period. Sometimes they will include a term extrapolated from the name of a famous physicist – the Hawking Parameters! The Tyson Particles! If you swap out the button-mashing for a theatrical waving of the hands and some murmured words, it would be magic. I submit that the presence of a box with mashable buttons is not sufficient to render this concept the science portion of science fiction. I will wrestle all those who disagree.

Telepathy/Telekinesis

Sci Fi also loves to toss mentalists and psionics and such at you. A man wearing a black trenchcoat and really cool sunglasses squints and points and things fly through the air. Yes, that sure does sound like some serious hard Science to me – although I do appreciate when writers add in throbbing, swollen skulls to imply that the brain itself has doubled in size, as if psychic powers were gland-based. The violations of the laws of physics inherent in telekinesis are pretty serious, I think, although all I remember from twelfth-grade physics is an experiment about waves using Slinkies that went horribly, horribly wrong.

FTL Travel

Apparently one of the first things we humans will get around to inventing as soon as we get off our collective butts and stop being so argumentative is FTL travel. You need the sort of creative physics that leaves scientists wearing bathrobes for twenty years as they pace around a mental ward mumbling to themselves to even sort-of-kind-of-maybe-if-you-squint make FTL travel possible, and even then you’re talking about specific particles, not, you know, a spaceship shaped like a bathtub that’s the size of Maine. I’d say an Infinite Improbability Drive is less magical than an FTL engine.

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] Jeff Somers on The Magical Side of Science Fiction

  1. Simon Ellberger // December 22, 2014 at 11:20 am //

    I am about to buy “The Ustari Cycle” books, but I can’t find “Fabricator” anywhere. Any idea where I can get it from? Is it part of an anthology?

  2. I’ve always thought that magic melds quite well with sci-fi, the way scientific tropes seem to have similar counterparts in magical constructs.

    For instance, a scifi story set in a technomagical world or psychokinesis vs magical powers. In a lot of cases, I feel that at their very core sci-fi and magic concepts/feats are different only in how they are labeled and achieved.

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