Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Magic and Technology in Modern Fantasy Literature

The Abhorsen TrilogyOn the surface, magic and technology seem to be completely opposite of each other. After all, science is based on hard fact and logic, while magic involves waved hands and muttered nonsensical words. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, many fantasy authors have taken on the challenge of looking at them in connection with each other, possibly spurred by the need to think about the place of magic in our own technologically dominated era. Two authors in particular have created worlds with unusual magic-tech interactions—Garth Nix and Ilona Andrews. In Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, magic and technology exist separately on either side of a wall, and elements of one or the other can rarely cross that wall, while in Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniels series, magic and technology exist in waves, with only one working in the world at a time. While on the surface, it seems like magic and technology in these worlds are antithetical, at the fundamental level they prove to be two sides of the same coin, both working towards the same purpose.

Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series begins in a parallel-Earth setting, with the feel of the 1920’s. There are cars, tanks, and guns in common existence. Airplanes are a novelty, but it is possible for young people to learn how to fly a plane and get certified. The government is set up much like it is in Britain, with a parliamentary system and several different parties contesting for seats. However, this is only the way of the world south of the Wall. North of the Wall, the world is much like a traditional fantasy world. People live in villages and travel around by foot or by horse if they are wealthy. Communication between villages is primarily through the courier system, or by magical means. The magic in the world is called the Charter, and is controlled through a vast number of Charter marks that can be spoken, written, or even visualized while whistling, humming, or singing. These two worlds are almost completely separated, which provides an intriguing duality to examine.

Magic BitesIn contrast, the world of Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels is a bit different. It also is an Earth-like setting, but it is modern rather than historical. It is set in and around Atlanta, Georgia, but an Atlanta that is very different than the one there now. In this world, magic and technology existed in harmony at one point, but soon magic began to decline, causing technology to gain dominance over the world. This precipitated the Age of Iron of classical history, and events proceeded as known to us until the opposite breaking point was reached and magic began entering the world again much as technology did. The story is told in this second transition period, when magic and technology are both dueling for dominance. Magic itself is a mixture of many different classical systems: witches exist in covens, elemental magicians and sorcerers travel around much like they would in classic fantasy, and religious people can work magic through the blessing of their particular deity. When magic has control of the world, modern technology will not work, and when technology is in control the reverse is true.

In both worlds, technology and magic do not work at the same time, and in both of them there is evidence of magic breaking down things made under the influence of technology. In Nix’s world, the magic world and the non-magic world exist as two separate countries, called the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre. The Ancelstierre side of the Wall is guarded by a contingent of the army, and patrols are sent occasionally into the Old Kingdom. When the main character, Sabriel, travels into the Old Kingdom herself, she encountered the remains of one of these soldiers. She does not have a great deal of time, and so gives him final rites and uses Charter Magic to cremate the body before remembering to check for his dog-tags. However, the magic had already destroyed them: “…both the chain and disc were machine-made in Ancelstierre and so unable to withstand the Charter Magic fire. The disc crumbled into ash as Sabriel raised it to eye level and the chain fell into its component links” (Sabriel 65). The magic was able to destroy the machined items so that they were completely useless. At another point in the story, a magical being had crossed the Wall and entered the building where Sabriel was. Even without performing any magic, the creature still caused the lights to go out (Sabriel 22). Both the direct and indirect use of magic causes technology to fail. While there is no direct evidence that technology causes magic to fail as well, at a later point in the series two citizens of the Old Kingdom need to travel into Ancelstierre and they leave a great deal of their belongings near the Wall rather than bringing them with them (Abhorsen 207-208). It could be that they did this because they wanted to fit in with the mode of dress in Ancelstierre, but it could also be due to their belongings were imbued with and made by magic. Thus, through inference, it seems likely that both magic and technology in Nix’s world act corrosively towards each other.

Magic and technology are more clearly mutually destructive in Andrews’ world. Many of the modern marvels of engineering are attacked by magic and broken down into rubble. With each passing wave of magic, they topple a bit more. “Inside the [parking] garage, the air smelled of chalky powder, the familiar dry scent of concrete turned into dust by the magic’s ever grinding wheels” (Magic Burns 26). The very way this passage is phrased suggests that this destruction is commonplace to the people of that world, using “familiar” and “ever grinding” to emphasize this fact. This familiarity is emphasized by repetition:

“Now both Downtown and Midtown lay in ruins, battered to near rubble by the magic waves. Twisted steel skeletons of once mighty skyscrapers jutted like bleached fossil bones from the debris. Here and there a lone half-eaten survivor struggled to remain upright, all but its last few stories destroyed. Shattered glass from hundreds of windows glittered among chunks of concrete” (Magic Burns 24). 

It would take a great deal of force to break down a skyscraper, since they are by necessity designed to withstand a significant load. This makes the destructive power of the magic waves more significant. Passages like these occur all throughout the series, to increase the emphasis even further through repetition. As powerful as magic is, it is still able to be disrupted by technology during the tech waves. One of the most powerful types of magic in this world is based off of the castor’s blood. One notable example of this is the blood ward. It prevents any and all magic or people from crossing it. The only way to cross it is either with the blood of a relative or the blood of someone significantly more powerful, and that leaves the ward still standing (Magic Bites 162). If a blood ward must be broken entirely without the castor taking it down, the only way to do so is by killing the creator of the ward. However, like all magic, these wards last only as long as the magic does. Once the magic waves die, the ward will collapse and become useless (Magic Strikes 269). This happens for all magical spells; it doesn’t matter how good of a spell it is, if technology has control of the world, it will not work. Magic and technology are equally vulnerable when the other has control of the world.

In both worlds, however, there are also times when one force is able to work when it is not supposed to be able to do so. In Andrews’ books, there is one particular high rise that has not been destroyed by the magic. This is not due to random good fortune, but rather a very specific and difficult enchantment:

“…the seventeen-story building of red brick and concrete loomed above the shops and bars of Buckhead like a mystic tower. Pale haze clung to its walls and balconies, blurring the crisp man-made edges, as a web of wards worked tirelessly to convince the very magic which fed it that the high-rise was nothing but a large rock… sections of the high-rise even looked like portions of a steep granite cliff” (Magic Bites 61-2). 

In a world where five-story buildings can get destroyed by magic waves, a seventeen-story building that remains standing through magic or technology is extremely impressive. It only works because it uses magic to convince magic that the building is naturally occurring. Even more impressive is how it works on the inside of the building. Everything in it is either technology that somehow works in spite of the magic fluctuations, such as the elevator, or magic that is disguised as technology, such as the key card reader. Regardless of being originally magic or technology, this building and the things that it is composed of somehow manage to defy the natural laws of the world.

In Nix’s world there is also an excellent example of technology overcoming magic. In the third book in the Abhorsen series, the main villain is attempting to unite two large hemispheres, which would release a great evil. The hemispheres had enchantments placed on them to keep them apart, but the villain arranged for them to be transported into Ancelstierre for the uniting. This on its own was not enough to overcome the magic keeping them apart. One fundamental property of the hemispheres was that they attracted lightning even out of a clear sky. Therefore, the villain used this. He arranged for an array of lightning rods to be set up to capture the electricity generated by the lightning and channel it into the hemispheres. This force was enough to overcome the enchantments placed into the hemispheres (Abhorsen). In this example, the direct application of electricity was enough to overcome a very powerful set of enchantments when magic was not able to do the same, providing a contrast to the previous example, where magic was used to cause technology to function when it is not supposed to. If magic or technology can be used to overcome the other, perhaps they are more linked than they initially seemed.

Further insight into the nature of the interaction between magic and technology can be gained with the examination of the language used by Nix and Andrews. For example, the following passage would seem to argue for the mutual destruction of magic and technology:

“For reasons unknown, magic displayed a selective appetite. It chewed some buildings into rubble, while leaving others completely intact. Walking through the area was like trying to make your way through a war zone postbombing, with some houses reduced to refuse, while their neighbors stood untouched” (Magic Burns 25). 

This passage speaks of magic chewing on things, and having an appetite. These are very human characteristics, and they are reinforced by repetition at other places in the texts – “…a lone half-eaten survivor...” (Magic Burns 24), “…chewed to dust by magic” (Magic Strikes 159). The characterization also appears to a lesser extent in Nix’s books. Nix described how a wave of Free Magic “seemed to eat at their very bones” (Abhorsen 345). At another point, a description of a magical object within a character reads: “It is eating away at him, body and spirit” (Abhorsen 124). However, the interesting thing is that this is not the first time this particular personification has been used, nor is it the application that occurs to people first. Another common use of this metaphor is in describing machinery. In a technical news article describing a new airplane engine, some of those exact phrases are used. “…allowing the mill to chew about 0.050” into the plywood”. The article also mentions the “feed rate” of a device, another human characteristic ("Armadillo Aerospace News Archive"). Even besides this, human characteristics, in particular related to biting and eating, are built into the fundamentals of mechanical devices. When working with gears, the small pieces of metal sticking out of the main circular body are called teeth. Both magic and machinery have been granted these human characteristics. This suggests that there might in fact be a solid link between them in the collective consciousness of humanity. If there is a link there, then magic and technology may actually be serving a similar purpose in Nix and Andrews’ work.

This theory is further supported by direct examples from both sets of texts. In Nix’s world, the soldiers of the Perimeter have done a great deal to be prepared for both magical attacks and technological attacks: “…the Ancelstierran soldiers of the Perimeter garrison wore mail over their khaki battledress, had nasal and neck bars on their helmets and carried extremely old-fashioned sword-bayonets in well-worn scabbards” (Sabriel 31). Being soldiers of Ancelstierre, they would also have all the standard issue items for modern soldiers, such as pistols and grenades, and would be trained in how to use them. Along with being prepared to defend against magical and technological attacks, many of them are prepared to attack with them both as well. All soldiers are able to use the technological weapons, but many of them are Charter mages as well, and able to strike offensively against denizens of the Old Kingdom.

They are also prepared for all eventualities with communication: “A telephone handset and a bell-chain proclaimed the usual dichotomy of the Perimeter. Colonel Horyse picked up the handset, wound the handle, listened for a moment, then replaced it. Frowning, he pulled the bell-chain three times in quick succession” (Sabriel 46). The soldiers are fully aware that modern technology might not work at any moment, and prepared a fail-safe to deal with it, along with a standard set of codes so that messages would be understood. This shows familiarity and adaptability with the world they live in. The Ancelstierran soldiers also have a way to communicate over long distances when technology does not work. At one point in the series a group of people are in danger, and one soldier gives the order to alert general headquarters of this fact. He also gives instructions on how this should be done. “Use a pigeon and the rocket. The phone’ll be out for sure” (Lirael 206). Since there is no way to send a long distance message using technology, the soldiers send out a pigeon with a message attached to it, and send off a rocket to alert their headquarters to be expecting the message and to be on the alert for danger. Again, this shows practice and familiarity with the foibles of magic and technology.

The characters in Nix’s book not only show their adaptability regarding magic and technology by smoothly alternating between them; rather, Sabriel also makes direct comparisons between the two. Sabriel travels from the world of technology that she is familiar with into the world of magic with which she is not familiar. However, she does find sources of common ground between the two, which might be surprising considering the earlier discussion: “Lanterns lit the study, old brass lanterns that burned with Charter Magic in place of oil. Smokeless, silent and eternal, they provided as good a light as the electric bulbs of Ancelstierre” (Sabriel 137). Here magic is put to the exact same purpose as technology, and with the same quality.

This flexibility of use is not limited to Nix’s world, but appears in Andrews’ world as well. In the battlefield of magic and technology that Andrews has created, people must live their lives as best they can, and they manage to do this remarkably well. As in Nix’s world, people have found a way to have light in either circumstance. Electricity and electric lights are everywhere, just as they are in the real world, but just as prevalent are an invention called feylanterns. These are lanterns made of twisted glass tubes and filled with enchanted air that glows when magic is in the world: “Magic flooded the world in a silent wave. The electric lamps blinked and died a quiet death, giving way to the blue radiance of the feylanterns on my walls. The enchanted air in the twisted glass tubes luminesced brighter and brighter until an eerie blue light filled the entire house” (Magic Bleeds 5). The switch between feylantern and electric light happens automatically as well, making it very easy for the people of that world to disregard them. It does not really matter which type of light is on to them, as long as they have light to work by.

The magically adapted technology exists in more ways than just for lights. There are also cars that have been designed to work when magic has control of the world. The main character, Kate, has a truck that she calls Karmelion which will function even when the tech is not controlling the world: “A beat-up rusted truck, bile green in color and missing the left headlight assembly, Karmelion had only one advantage – it ran on water infused with magic and could be driven during a magic wave” (Magic Bites 8). While the two types of engine do not run in the exact same fashion, there are similarities in function. For example, “Unlike normal cars, the truck did not rumble or murmur or produce any sound one would expect an engine to make. Instead it growled, whined, snarled, and emitted deafening peals of thunder with depressing regularity” (Magic Bites 8). The only true difference between them is in the volume of noise they produce and in the speed they can reach, and both of these deficits can be remedied with a sufficient amount of money, similar to the same situation when modern cars were first in development. Therefore, both are able to serve an equivalent purpose. If both are able to serve the same purpose, then they cannot be fully antithetical, since that would mean they were directly opposed. But are they truly two sides of the same coin?

The double preparation of tools is not limited to magically adapted technology. At one point in Andrews’ series, a dangerous case of magical hazmat needs to be burned out. Since the magic was up, several mages were called upon to incinerate it. However, the magic did not last through the entire cleansing process: “Three guys in heat-retardant suits waved their arms, chanting the fire into a white-hot rage… The magic crashed…The inferno in the parking lot began to die down. The guys in the flame-retardant suits switched to flamethrowers and went on burning” (Magic Bleeds 29). The mages were able to switch from spell to technology without a pause, and the fact that they even had flamethrowers there and ready to use shows just how used to the sudden changes they are, and how little trouble it causes them in the long run. There was no difference for them in function, even without the magical item being founded in technology. They both worked in effectively the same way.

Magic and technology may not be able to exist in perfect harmony in the worlds created by Garth Nix and Ilona Andrews series, but they are able to serve similar purposes. As Arthur C Clarke’s famous quote states, “Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This quote perfectly describes how magic and technology function at the most basic level in these worlds, and the reverse is true as well. Amie Doughty speaks to this during a discussion of several other fantasy series. With reference to other scholars, Doughty describes a split pathway, with science and technology dominating one path and with magic dominating the other. Doughty concludes that “though the magic may have come from a different ‘path’, ultimately it is treated like technology” (Doughty 55). While this is not exactly how magic works in the worlds of Nix and Andrews, it is reasonably similar and provides an interesting perspective. Additionally, it reinforces the idea that magic and technology are equivalent in terms of function.

Technology and magic in these worlds are still two different things. But the intricate relationship between the two in the work of Garth Nix and Ilona Andrews makes one wonder--why is this relationship so important?  What does it matter how magic and technology interact in these works of modern fantasy literature.  It seems that this interest in the relationship between magic and technology could point to a larger concern of both readers and writers of modern fantasy literature, namely, that there is still a place for fantasy in our world.  Perhaps Nix and Andrews' complicated systems of magic and technology are merely a way to reassure themselves--and all of us--that in spite of our cell phones, impossibly tall buildings, and wireless internet connections, magic and fantasy are still vitally important to our existence as humans.

Works Cited
Andrews, Ilona. Magic Bites. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. Print.

---. Magic Bleeds. New York: Penguin Group, 2010. Print.

---. Magic Burns. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.

---. Magic Strikes. New York: Penguin Group, 2009. Print.

"December 17, 21, and 28, 2002 Meeting Notes." Armadillo Aerospace News Archive. Armadillo Aerospace, 2002. Web. 2 May 2011.

Doughty, Amie A. "Just a Fairy, his Wits, and maybe a touch of Magic: Magic, Technology, and
Self-Reliance in Contemporary Fantasy Fiction." Children's literature and culture (2007): 53-76. Print.

Nix, Garth. Abhorsen. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003. Print.

---. Lirael. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001. Print.

---. Sabriel. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995. Print.