Science as Magic, Magic as Science

In episode eighteen of the r. r. campbell writescast, author Ryan Decaria imparts some of my favorite writescast wisdom of all time.

Treat science as magic in science fiction, and magic as science in fantasy.

-Ryan Decaria on the r. r. campbell writescast

At the core of this quote lies a truth that may be difficult to see at first: that underlying all science and all magic—in fiction or otherwise—is a sense of awe and wonder, the very vision that, along with necessity, drives the advent of all technology, big or small.

When writing science fiction, one of the many critical choices a writer faces pertains to how “hard” they’d like to go with the use of science in their manuscript. Should they ensure every calculation is correct and presented to the reader step by step, that those watching the story unfold have insight into every last machination or chemical process that drives the science in the story?

Or, conversely, should writers make ample use of what the Writing Excuses podcast calls “handwavium,”  an approach through which the writer goes full throttle in their treatment of science as magic, ignoring the nitty gritty in favor of spending more time focusing on the plot and further developing character?

Often the answer is “a little of both.” Sci-fi author Scott Birrenkott explores these questions deeply in episode fifteen of the r. r. campbell writescast, but for the purposes of this blog, let’s focus on the science-magic dichotomy and how it was put to use in EMPATHY: Imminent Dawn.

In keeping with the belief that maintaining a sense of awe and wonder is imperative in sci-fi, I elected to pursue the path outlined by Decaria in his quote above, namely one that adheres more stringently to approaching science as if it were magic.

For example, one of the foundational technologies in the world of the EMPATHY series is that of the pocketab, derived from a combination of the words “pocket” and “tablet.” As its name might imply, the device is similar to a cell phone aside from one key difference: that pocketab users can shrink or expand their device with a simple hand gesture.

What makes this remarkable—and vastly more magical than scientific—is that the action of expanding or contracting one’s pocketab defies the law of the conservation of mass, which states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed.

That is to say it isn’t through some sort of collapsable and expandable apparatus that one’s pocketab grows from phone to tablet size (or vice versa), but that the expansion and contraction of the device has its roots in literal changes to the matter that makes up the pocketab itself.

Beyond the pocketab, there’s of course astium: an element unique to the EMPATHY universe, the very thing that makes EMPATHY different from its competition. Astium is treated with a great deal of “handwavium” in that its particulars are never addressed (at least not in book one); instead the only additional information readers are privy to about it aside from its existence is the location where it was discovered and mined.

Though pocketabs and astium are both examples of science as magic, EMPATHY: Imminent Dawn does go harder (relatively speaking) where the actual neuroscience in the book is concerned. This is particularly true for the cerebral install location of the EMPATHY nanochip, the use of that technology once installed, and how exactly it’s powered once in use.

In this way, EMPATHY: Imminent Dawn takes the hybrid, middle-of-the-road approach between full magic and hard science in a way that’s meant to appeal to readers of all backgrounds and interests. It’s my goal to maintain this balance as the series advances from book one all the way through book five.

The particulars of the science-magic implementation in this series will start to become apparent once Imminent Dawn is released in January 2019, but until then, see if you can examine the sci-fi you view and watch through this lens. Which direction do your favorite books, movies, and TV shows seem to take? What does that buy them? What does it cost? How does it keep you invested as a reader or viewer?

Want to know more about EMPATHY? Stay tuned to this blog, my Twitter feed, and my newsletter for more. Thanks for visiting.

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