Rob's musings on The Thaumechanical Man

Is it really science fiction?

It isn’t clear to me whether The Thaumechanical Man is science fiction or fantasy. It doesn’t fit cleanly in either, but neither does it bridge or mix the two the way, for instance, Piers Anthony’s fiction does.

The fantasy/sci-fi division is an old argument, often centered around the two strongest known cases: Star Wars and Star Trek. In Star Wars, the story itself could just as easily be told in a world with horses and swords and magic. The technology is part of the scenery, not part of the story. In Star Trek, the stories generally revolve around warp drives and phasers and transporter beams.

This quality works in the other direction, too. Case in point: The Warlock in Spite of Himself. In that series, what they call magic is actually telepathy and telekinesis, and the main character is from a star-faring society, and the plot line revolves around him figuring out how it all works. That one’s cleanly categorized as sci-fi.

It confuses things that neither Panthropolis nor the Third Empire feel like they have a higher level of technology than we do. Panthropolis is slightly more advanced than our world, but the time spent in researching alchemy and thaumaturgy have leeched from their research in chemistry, telecommunications, electricity, and a few others. This confusion clears up a lot when we get to Hell, as the Hellians have a tech level somewhere between Expanse and Star Trek: Enterprise.

A clear issue is the existence of magic. Is it even possible to write science fiction with magic? Of course it is. In Dune, spice basically grants magical powers. Telepathy and telekinesis are endemic to sci-fi, but I think that “it’s all just psychic powers” is as tired a trope as “it was all a dream.”

For this issue, I’m going to invoke “in the real world, magic is just a technology we don’t understand.” Electricity was once magic. Nanosurgeons would be miraculous to us. When the technology involves laws of physics that we don’t even have access to, you have to call it magic even if it’s as rudimentary as banging two rocks together. However, if you define it strictly enough, you can treat it like a technology. My goal with magics is to be able to describe each of them mathematically, if for no other reason than to reduce inconsistencies.

How the FX are accomplished, however, is all window dressing. What really matters is the story. Could the story be told if it took place in a fantasy setting? Sorry, no, that’s a red herring. I don’t think we’ve effectively established that it isn’t actually a fantasy setting, so this perspective doesn’t work.

You could ask if the story revolves around understanding the implications of the technology, but that doesn’t work, either. Most books with a rigorously detailed magic system revolves around the workings and implications of it (Raymond Feist, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Brandon Sanderson,

It all circles back around to how you perceive the tech/magic divide. At the bottom of it, I wrote this conundrum into the story with my foundational assumptions about the world. Any magic, if sufficiently reduced to practice, is indistinguishable from technology. Thus, fantasy becomes indistinguishable from science fiction. If I did it right, this question should be unanswerable.

Alas, this leaves me with a dilemma. I don’t know how to categorize it, but Amazon needs a category, doesn’t it? I picked science fiction because my writing style is more resemblant of Heinlein and Niven than McCaffrey and Tolkien. Maybe you can help me out. Where do you think it belongs?


  1. Victor

    Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from Magic.” That’s basic, but here’s one for consideration. A race, easily a half billion years older than Humanity, built a world. It existed as a place of refuge, for meditation and advancement of the soul. The race transmogrified, and the world was empty, but self repairing. It even had an AI unit which we would call a person, ensconced within it’s myriad layers. After a million years, or so, across the various galaxies, a theft occurred. A device, stored because of it’s dangerous nature, was stolen. The thief was almost caught, and had to discard the item. After half a million years, it fell onto the designed planet. The item was designed to interface consciousness with the Quantum field. That would have been terrible ennough, but the thing turned any conscious creature, from most plants to Fully Sentient beings, into extensions of superposition. Even plants could alter the outcome of the collapse, so that they had a measure of control over their environment. The level of control escalates as a function of intelligence, so that some humans, or near humans, exposed to the field, can alter reality seriously enough to break something. Herein lies a tale where Magic is technology, but no one knows that it is.

    • clempson-admin

      Hi, Victor. That’s an interesting premise. Are you writing it? The refuge planet sounds like the Shore Leave planet from the original Star Trek, but without the amusement park quality. That was definitely a case of technology that looked like magic without people knowing it was tech.
      When I was younger, I always thought of real-world magic as being able to alter the outcome of probability. That would make it scientifically undetectable, except through statistical analysis. If someone could do that at a quantum level, collapsing superposition in a favorable direction, I’m not sure how that could be used in a story. The obvious example is that a person could control the decay of radioisotopes, making energy generation easier. Deuterium is only 156 PPM on the ocean’s surface, but if you could get a volume to decay all at once, the energy generated could easily run a steam engine?
      You don’t have to go that far to find examples of tech as magic. The cargo cults of the south pacific built models of control towers and airplanes, and then performed chants into fake radios, hoping that it would summon the great birds that carried the magic cargo. Nonetheless, your description would make a good setting for fiction.

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