The Science of Magic
June 11, 2012 2:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of stories that feature magic depicted as a science.

I'm interested in depictions of magic as a physical force or natural phenomenon with precise laws. I'm especially interested in stories in which magic is used in/controlled by machinery (ie, machines powered by magic, AIs able to use magic, etc.).

Some examples of what I mean would be the Red Star comic series, the Full Metal Alchemist anime, games like Final Fantasy, the book The Golden Compass, etc.

Examples from any type of media are welcome. Thanks!
posted by Sangermaine to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Perdido Street Station, or any other sci-fi/fantasy that contains the word "thaumaturgy"
posted by sparklemotion at 2:36 PM on June 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

The science of magic is called thaumaturgy in China Miéville's Perdido Street Station.
posted by usonian at 2:36 PM on June 11, 2012

Star Wars? The Midichlorians were some sort of symbiotic creature (?) that lived in people and allowed some hosts to detect and manipulate the Force.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:37 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read a portion of a book a couple of years ago that may apply, but since I haven't gotten back to finishing it, I cannot be was a fantastic read, though, so I need to follow up!

It's called "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell"
posted by newfers at 2:38 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I liked the way Magic was treated as a physical science in Lev Grossman's 'Magicians' series. I'll be throwing my money at him for #3.
posted by Kakkerlak at 2:40 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Last Dragonslayer series by Jasper Fforde does this very much, complete with meters, forecasts, and a regulating body.
posted by piedmont at 2:42 PM on June 11, 2012

The "machine spirit" in the Warhammer 40,000 universe might count. This might be more of a religion than magic, except that religions are arguably magical within the universe, and the machine spirits are treated as real beings rather than things which are merely believed to exist.
posted by vorfeed at 2:47 PM on June 11, 2012

The concept of "Sparks" from Girl Genius may also fit, but I feel that's more like "Science is Magic" than "Magic is Scientific".
posted by sparklemotion at 2:47 PM on June 11, 2012

Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey is set in an Austenesque universe where magic is a parlor science like electricity.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:48 PM on June 11, 2012

Master of the Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy.
posted by expialidocious at 2:54 PM on June 11, 2012

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a fan-fiction which depicts Harry as a scientist who tries to figure out what makes magic work.
posted by lholladay at 2:54 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Lawrence Watt-Evans' Ethshar series (starting with The Misenchanted Sword). All magic has definite rules (and one form of it is strongly hinted to be superscience-related), and many of the stories deal with characters trying to figure out how to get around those rules.
posted by Etrigan at 2:55 PM on June 11, 2012

ie, machines powered by magic

In The Legend of Korra (the new Avatar series), electricity at power plants is created by fire benders, which sort of fits your theme.

I think there are some examples in the original series (Avatar: The Last Airbender) where certain devices are controlled by bending, but they don't count as machines, I'd wager.
posted by SNWidget at 2:58 PM on June 11, 2012

Brandon Sanderson is really good at creating magic systems which are both unique and quantifiable. I highly recommend the Mistborn trilogy!
posted by Strass at 2:59 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Brandon Sanderson defines his magic systems really well. There's not really a scienc-y feel to the Mistborn trilogy, though certain peripheral groups do treat it as a science. The breakdown of the magic is a central point in Elantris, though it's more linguistically based than hard science.

The other author I immediately thought of was Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicles). Not all of the magic feels like science, but a lot of it does.

On preview: just barely beaten to Mistborn, but I'll still second it!
posted by natabat at 3:00 PM on June 11, 2012

Haha, well I was gonna make another comment for Rothfuss, but you've beaten me to that one ;)

Those two are currently my fantasy favorites.
posted by Strass at 3:09 PM on June 11, 2012

The film Wanted had a loom that (ROT13): fcryyrq bhg gur anzrf bs gur arkg crefba gb or nffnffvangrq.
posted by deborah at 3:33 PM on June 11, 2012

There are elements of this in some of Michael Swanwick's works. Stuff that boarders on magical and scientific. Thinking: Stations of the Tide, The Iron Dragon's Daughter/The Dragons of Babel, Dancing With Bears. Some of the short stories in The Dog Said Bow-Wow...
posted by edgeways at 3:51 PM on June 11, 2012

The graphic novel of Wanted was so much cooler than the movie...
posted by Strass at 3:54 PM on June 11, 2012

The entire Wiz Zumwalt series by Rick Cook, starting with Wizard's Bane. Wiz is a computer programmer who gets shanghaid into a world where magic works... and he writes a compiler for magic. One of the books has a supercomputer that performs magical calculations.
posted by babbageboole at 3:57 PM on June 11, 2012

The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane features a lot of magic as science (or vice versa).

The third book would probably interest you the most, there is an intelligent magic-using computer, and iirc, a sentient planet.
posted by Aliera at 4:17 PM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Metafilter's own cstross, Charlie Stross's "The Atrocity Archives" and sequels.

"Magic is a branch of applied mathematics," the Platonic realm of numbers being something our plane of existence has in common with...other places. The old fashioned stuff with pentagrams and blood sacrifices worked disturbingly well, up to a point, but things heated up quite a bit once Turing just how much more could be done if the incantations were handled algorithmically. Since then the British government has been rounding up young computer scientists who are on the verge of accidentally writing a perl script that would summon Nyarlathotep and conscripting them into "The Laundry" an espionage agency tasked with keeping reality as we know it more or less intact.

The laws of magic in this universe are extremely precise, roughly what you'd get if you mash computer science up with Lovecraft and Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition. The technology described seems to me to be exactly what you're looking for.

I suspect you'll want to start reading the novels, but here are two stories/novellas Stross has made available online:
Down on the farm
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:23 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles depict magic in a pretty scientific way, complete with a character who has very technical (and humorously unintelligible) ways of describing exactly how every spell works.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 4:34 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ted Chiang's "Seventy Two Letters" fits the bill nicely.
posted by mumblingmynah at 4:57 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honestly? Most modern fantasy treats magic as if it were really science. Who gets to do magic may be arbitrary, but the people that can generally treat it as if it were a scientific endeavor of some sort. Do A, you always get B, and if you get something other than B, you screwed up. Harry Potter definitely works this way. But so do Raymond Feist's Midkemia novels, Lev Grossman's Magician novels, Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles, the entire D&D oeuvre, etc. These stories tend to have less supernatural than extranatural explanations for magic. It's like they're writing about a world with a few extra physical forces but which is just as explicable as ours.

Tolkien, Lewis, and Martin are exceptions. They all have scientific endeavors in their worlds, but magic is always viewed as somehow a thing apart, responsive more to will and virtue than laws and rules. Indeed, in many instances attempting to get magic to act like science is dangerous, as the forces involved are frequently personal entities that don't take kindly to attempted manipulation. Here we've truly got supernatural phenomena, ones which sometimes defy rational explanation--unless "God did it" counts--and which certainly defy any kind of experimentation. Do A and you might get B, but odds are better that you get nothing, dead, or worse. There's nothing predictable here, no force than can be manipulated like heat, kinetic energy, or electricity.

But again, worlds like that seem to be the exception these days. Even the Dresden Files display a remarkably scientific-minded approach to magic. But truly magico-mechanical stories? The Kingkiller Chronicles definitely fit the bill, as students at the University actually earn money manufacturing what amount to magical appliances. Comic books also seem to play around with this quite a bit, as the distinction between "magic" and "science" gets downright indistinguishable depending on who's writing. So Neil Gaiman's Sandman fits more in with Tolkien and Martin, but in just about everything else--Thor, Dr. Strange, even Superman and Batman--magic works like another branch of science.
posted by valkyryn at 5:06 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and sequels.

Also, if it matters to you, note that her books utilize the good = light = God formula, and subsequently bad = dark = Satan/The Other. I've recently started reading them again as an adult and atheist, and I find it suitably subtle enough not to become distracting or preachy.
posted by DisreputableDog at 5:59 PM on June 11, 2012

Like a few other people here, I immediately thought of Sanderson's Mistborn books when I saw this question.

Ian MacLeod's The Light Ages is another good book about magic-as-technology.
posted by dfan at 6:01 PM on June 11, 2012

"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window" is short but awesome (it won Rachel Swirsky the 2010 novella Nebula).
posted by pullayup at 6:17 PM on June 11, 2012

Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy novels.
posted by leahwrenn at 6:45 PM on June 11, 2012

I cannot speak highly enough of Walter Jon Williams' two novels Metropolitan and City on Fire in this respect. It features a kind of geomancy as public utility which is really clever to begin with and slowly reveals itself in ever more ingenious ways. The setting is dense and colorful, and futuristic (even cyberpunk) for a fantasy. The main character is smart, complex, bored, idealistic, frustrated and ambitious. She finds an opportunity, grabs it and launches on an intricate intrigue which ... well you should see what it gains her and what it costs.

I think Metropolitan is terrific. City on Fire suffers a bit from explaining what happened in Metropolitan a bit too much. Maybe take a break between reading them. Everyone I know who reads them wishes for a third, but I understand that's just not in the cards any more so we'll have to be grateful for what we've got.

I would also recommend Michael Swanwick's Stations of the Tide which is science fiction but also dwells on the theme of magic and personal power. It goes way beyond the gimmick of "sufficiently advanced technology" into a place that's weird, funny, beautiful and erotic but also grim, dark, desperate, and horrifying. I think it might be particularly interesting if you are also fan of Alan Moore's works dealing in the same themes (which is pretty much everything since From Hell).
posted by wobh at 7:35 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lev Grossman's The Magicians has a university for magicians that approaches the topic as a matter for Oxbridgesque tertiary study.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:57 PM on June 11, 2012

came in to suggest Duane's Young Wizards, Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and Chiang's "72 Letters" and am delighted to see that they've all been suggested already. I've always been fascinated by this, and for me, the way that spells are constructed using language in the Young Wizards series is just so interesting
posted by taltalim at 8:47 PM on June 11, 2012

You NEED to read the (currently being written) story 'Ra' on Things of Interest (previously). It has math equations for the magic! The second chapter is called 'Sufficiently Advanced Technology'!

Many of the other stories on the site (such as Magic NASA and Placebo Engineering (Magic NASA II)) also tackle the concept of magic as science.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 9:03 PM on June 11, 2012

Oh, I also remembered Mathemagics by Margaret Ball, wherein the protagonist uses formulas in order to cross between her home world and Earth.
posted by DisreputableDog at 9:59 PM on June 11, 2012

Flying Sorcerers, Niven
posted by Surprised By Bees at 12:22 AM on June 12, 2012

Wheel of Time, Eragon
Eragon's magic uses conservation of energy
Wheel of time's magic has some extremely vaguely-alluded-to technological background, as well as precise mechanisms and formulas to produce specific results
posted by MangyCarface at 6:14 AM on June 12, 2012

What springs to my mind when reading your question is L.E. Modesitt's Recluse series.
posted by Lynsey at 11:20 AM on June 12, 2012

Thanks for all the great examples, everyone!
posted by Sangermaine at 1:28 PM on June 12, 2012

I don't remember Lyndon Hardy's The Master of the Five magics very well, but I suspect it might also be worth investigating. It has two sequels I don't know anything about.
posted by wobh at 6:23 PM on June 12, 2012

Sorry I see someone else mentioned it already.
posted by wobh at 6:41 PM on June 12, 2012

I missed the first couple of these, but one of the bloggers is doing a series on the science of allomancy in the Mistborn books. I've only skimmed a couple of them -- it looks like he's discussing how this magic might work in the real world, but you might still find it interesting...
posted by natabat at 10:32 AM on June 13, 2012

The Blue Star -- by Fletcher Pratt
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 6:46 PM on June 16, 2012

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