by Keith Morrison
©2007 Keith Morrison
- And it came to pass that the Messenger of Deity did proclaim, I bring unto you these Ten Commandments! And thus did the Messenger say unto the people the Word of Deity, and the Commandments thereof. And the Commandments of Deity were ten, the which the Messenger spake thus:
Thou shalt not worship any gods before me. Thou shalt not make for thyself an idol. Thou shalt not make wrongful use of My name. Remember the Day of Rest and keep it holy. Honor thy parents. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife, nor his house.
And silence fell over the people, and thus did the Messenger easily hear someone calling for his attention.
Excuse me, I was just wondering, I mean, theyre great rules and all, but, umm, how are we supposed to defend ourselves if we cant kill if the circumstances warrant?
The Messenger of Deity pursed his lips and looked skyward. Well, I suppose I might have been trying to keep it too punchy. Thou shalt not murder has the proper ring.
And the people nodded their understanding but another person waved her hand. What does honor thy parents mean? Does it include my in-laws? And what happens if someones parents are like criminals or bad like that?
And far beyond the clouds, Deity stared in horror. For in this most ill-starred of moments, did She realize that She had just inspired the creation of lawyers.
- The Book of Norso-mri, Chapter 4
There are a great deal of questions to be answered when trying to determine how magic and a societyand even more importantly, a society founded in part of magicwill develop. It is perhaps the single most important part of any world-building project where the two factors come into play. You can get away with geographic fuzziness, you can be skimpy on the flora and fauna, neglect the astronomy and the weather
but in a story with actual characters, those characters have a cultural baggage, and interactions with other characters, and bunches of other stuff you cant easily ignore. Okay, you can ignore itbut if you do, the odds of your story sucking increase precipitously.
Consider, for a moment, someone writing a story that includes me as a character. Im certainly not about to describe my life in detail (nor have I any willingness to share it all), but there are certain facts about me that are sufficiently well known that I dont mind talking about them. In listing them, Ill also point out what they tell us about the larger world I (as well as the character based on me) exist in.
Im a heterosexual male. The fact that I make a differentiation between physical sex and sexual behavior says something about the society I live in: Namely, that sex roles are not set by physiology. It also says, however, that society still recognizes that there is a distinction between homosexual and heterosexual behavior. If everyone was bisexual, thered be no need to add the adjectival qualifier; likewise, thered be no need to add the qualifier if homosexuality wasnt around, as the fact Im male would automatically define my sexual behavior.
Im bilingual. That implies a world where there are at least two languages, and quite likely more.
Im an atheist. Much like the sexuality description, the fact theres a specific word for my belief (or lack thereof) in a deity means things. It means I live in a world where people do believe in religion, but the deities in question arent obvious (if they exist at all), so that disbelieving their existence is possible.
Im a Canadian, which distinguishes me from Americans and Europeans who have the same skin tone and speak the same languages. So there are political entities that are not necessarily defined solely by language or religion.
Youll note that I pointed out I have the same skin tone as others. This means that the population I come from is varied enough to make those large-scale distinctions in physical appearance meaningful, grouping humans into large, general groups. I wont get into the issues related to that, as everyone is familiar with the concept of racism.
So six simple pointsthat Im a white, atheist, straight, bilingual Canadian malecarry a lot of cultural and social baggage with them. And thats before you get into the specifics. For instance, the fact Im a native-born Canadian from New Brunswick, that my father is a fisherman, and that I grew up on a farm. Those carry a great deal of implications about my background and the world I came from, even if you only used the crudest stereotypes about what those things mean.
Heres another one: The fact that I, a middle to lower-middle class kid, volunteered for military service and was accepted into officer training at an elite military training facility without needing some sort of sponsorship. Theres a lot of baggage in that simple statement; that the military exists, that you volunteer rather than being drafted, and that an officer class both (a) exists, and (b) isnt restricted to an aristocratic social class.
Basically, any description of me, even in the very crudest terms, implies a whole lot of background hovering there. And that implicit background means the hypothetical author describing me, not even getting to what I look like, has a whole world sort of fleshed out. Get into what Im wearing at the moment I type this sentence (mass-produced casual clothing with artificial components), where I am (10,000 meters over Ontario in a jet aircraft) and what Im typing on (a portable computer with more processing power than was used to fly humans to the moon and back 38 years ago) and youve got one hell of a job if you had to describe the world Im in to someone not as familiar with it as the people reading this (on a distributed computer network).
The whole point of this is to demonstrate that theres a lot of implications regarding the very basic descriptions you have of someone in a fictional world different from our own. Even without planning to, youve got background. Thinking about that background, just a little bit, even if you dont intend on any of it necessarily being relevant to the story, will help prevent the kind of train wrecks that can result when you dont think about such things, and the implicit (but no less real than the explicit!) bits of your story-world end up making no sense whatsoever.
Lets have a look at some facts which an author can only ignore at the cost of creating a senseless story-world. There are three things which lie behind every society that has ever existed: Humans are (1) social, (2) political, (3) hierarchical animals. We gather in groups, those groups have leaders, and those leaders gain their position by some kind of political process.
The political process may be a very simple one, based on simple individual strength. Thog smash if you not do what Thog say.
It could be based on group strength. Thog and buddies smash if you not do what Thog and buddies say.
It could be based on bribery. Thog promise repeal of capital gains and inheritance taxes if Thog gets to be in charge.
It could be based on manipulation. Krag, you know what Thog heard guys say? Guys say Krag is stupid and dresses funny. Thog think Krag should do something about it.
It could be based on charisma and inspiration. Thog have a dream!
It could be based on group consensus. But Thog not want to be battle leader! Battle leader has to be in front of battle. Thog prefer serving obligation in Texas Air National Guard.
And so on and so forth. But whatever the process of choosing a leader, a leader will be chosen. Put a dozen kids together, or a dozen adults for that matter, and ask them to do something. Someone will gravitate into a leadership position, someone will try and seize it, or the group might decide to organize it, whatever. It will happen. Similarly, put a group of people in a situation and they will form at least one group, cooperating. Even if you try to get them not to, its in our genes. It cant be helped, and to stop it requires constant action. Thats why reality TV shows have to put their guinea pigs into artificial situations (aside from the artificial situation that only one person wins and everyone else goes home with nothing) to create constant interpersonal conflict. A more honest form of Survivor would allow people to win as groups.
The three facts of human social interaction explain why a great many ideologies just dont work worth a damn, when the rubber hits the road. Pure communism is impossible because humans naturally gravitate toward hierarchies. Pure Ayn Rand-ish objectivism wont work either, because humans are not the theoretical Homo economus; we form groups, and we dont always act out of pure rational self-interest. Note, also, that these facts influence the shape of social systems that largely do work. In the Real Worlds representative democracies, theres still the need to display hierarchy, not just on the part of the people in charge but also as an apparent need for the general population. We like displays of power, even when we arent the ones in power, or when the power being displayed is purely ceremonial. Dont believe me? Well, there seems to be a reason why constitutional monarchies are so common. Even though the monarchs in the majority of those countries dont have any real power, and could be tossed out in favor of a republic if so desired, they stick around and really dont seem to be going anywhere.
People like the ceremony and the ostentatious displays of trooping of the guards and guys in funny hats standing guard at the gates of the palace. People like the idea of the fancy palace. People accept the fact that to show respect, everyone must rise when the occupant of the palace enters and cant sit until he or she does so, and use formal modes of address, andthis is the part I likethe ruler gets their own theme music for entrances.
And thats the President of the United States. Thought I was talking about some aristocratic git whose only claim to leadership was because of who his or her father was, didnt you? Oh um, sorry. I mean some other git. Easy mistake to make.
In other countries, the head of state (i.e., the symbol of the nation) is different from the head of government (i.e., the actual management of the nation). Both positions can be filled by election (for instance, France and Israel have a President and Prime Minister), or or at least one can be hereditary (the aforementioned constitutional monarchies, which include countries, like my own, that have someone elses ruler as head of state and a local representative). However the head of state is selected, they usually get a ceremonial role and serve as the symbol of the hierarchy we seem to need.
Ill use the Canadian example. The Governor-General, as representative of the Crown, gets the pomp and ceremony: the trooping of the guard, the theme music, the respect of people rising when she enters (3 of our last 4 have been women). The Prime Minister, the actual leader of the country, doesnt get that. A while back there was a news report that our current PM, Steven Harper, tried to insist that people should rise when he entered a room. His own staffpolitically loyal and many personally appointed!told him to get stuffed, and the idea was dropped. The state, and the respect due it, is represented by the (generally rather powerless) Governor-General and, when she decides to visit, the (equally rather powerless) Queen. The PM doesnt get that deference when it comes to ceremony. The position is taken.
In the case of America, however, both roles are filled by a single person. This has led to a situation, which predates the current occupant of the White House, where the head of government of the United States receives a level of ceremonial deference unheard-of in most other liberal democracies. In subjective terms, whether our cousins south of the 49th parallel admit it or not, and regardless of the actual behavior and policies that come out, the US elects a monarch. This has grown over time in the history of the US; much of the pomp and ceremony the last few presidents have enjoyed would be quite foreignand indeed probably antitheticalto the founders of the country. Humans have an apparent apparent need for some sort of hierarchical symbol of leadership, both by people and the actual leaders; since America cant satisfy that need via the rather harmless outlet of an aristocracy and nobility, it instead gets expressed in the person of the President. Letat, cest-il.
This is, I believe, why aristocracies of some form or the other feature so prominently in fantasy and science fiction, why even a future descended from our current world feature Star Kingdoms and interstellar dukedoms. I think its because people know, on a gut level, that such is entirely possible.
There is a fourth basic fact about humans: Were religious. Now, that doesnt necessarily mean belief in the supernatural; as Karen Armstrong points out in her book A History of God, you can believe something called God is important even if you dont think such an entity actually exists. Buddhism considers the existence or non-existence of gods to be irrelevant. Secular humanism has its own belief structure based on human goals, abilities and understanding of the world. Im an atheist, yet I have beliefI have faithin the human capacity to understand the universe in which we live, in the ability of humanity in general. Like pomp and ceremony, this has been a part of our world since humans evolved. The widespread disbelief in a supernatural aspect to our world is a recent phenomenon, and weve yet to see how it pans out. Regardless, Im fully of the opinion that, in all probability, some form or another of religion will always be with us. It isnt merely the manipulation of the unwashed masses in order to keep control, as some believe. It is part of us. The aggressively atheist former Soviet and current Chinese sorta-communist governments have proven that in their inability, despite much effort, to stamp out religion. Religion may, indeed, be the opiate of the masses but Marx apparently didnt realize that that opiate was of internal origin.
And this is more than likely to be true on a planet where gods, or something close enough to them for government work, are objectively provable.
Which segues nicely into the other part of the discussion. While the form of human societies in general on Gayajan would be likely very familiar to usthe draconian ones we touched on last columnthe major difference, magic, is not. Aside from imagination and extrapolation, the only examples we have are literary. Im leaving aside comic books (not precisely a font of logical extrapolation), various fantasy RPGs (ditto), and the secret world genre (its just like our world, but with vampires and slayers!). Instead, lets look at Randall Garretts Lord Darcy series, an assortment of crime mysteries and espionage mini-thrillers. The Earth in Darcys world has magic, magic that was systematized in the early middle ages. The world of the stories is the 1960s, but their 1960s is very different from that of the author. There are no aircraft. Steam-powered trains are only just now becoming more common. Ocean travel is still by sailing ship; traveling to the New World is still fraught with danger, with ships able to disappear without a trace. There is a form of long-distance communication over wire, but it cant operate over long stretches of wire (for unknown reasons, and we never do find out if that communication is electromagnetic like telegraph, or magicalits part of the background and just is). Lights are gas lamps and candle, and the horse is still the fastest method of getting around most of the time. Europeans are still in conflict with the red men of North America.
On the other hand, magic allows featsat least in terms of crime investigation and espionage (the main focus of the stories)far beyond what was possible in the 1960s, and even some things beyond today. Magic can tell with absolute certainty that a given bullet came from a given gun, or a button from a certain dress. Magicians can put a body in stasis, preserving a crime scene indefinitely until the investigator is done with it. You actually can see the last thing a murder victim was able to see, using his eyes in a special projector. There are honest-to-goodness truth serums and love potions and invisibility spells that spies can use. The culture understands sociopathy and psychopathy, and mages can cast spells on potential serial killers and rapists and mass murderers to make them useful citizens incapable of harming innocent people.
In other words: While we can understand the societya very medieval style European systemit differs from any real culture in enough ways that its not just the 15th Century, except with a court wizard who can smite potential assassins. Magic has made Lord Darcys society different, retarding some things (science and technology) and advancing others (the mentioned treatment of psychopaths).
The one other thing magic (or at least some kinds of it) does, relates back to something I said earlier; the bit about theoretical political-economic systems falling to pieces when forced to operate in the real world. Add magic or some kind of high tech, especially the ability to control minds, and a lot of bets are off the table. A good example of this is Stirlings Draka-dominated world that forms the background for Drakon. Through genetic engineering, the ruling Homo drakensis and the servant Homo servus are far from baseline human. The Draka have the will to dominate as an inborn part of themselves, not just a cultural artifact, while the servus are willingly obedient and loyal. Its not a one-way relationship, however. The Draka are just as much slaves to it as their presumed servants, because the Draka have the instinct for protection and responsibility bred into them. A Draka wont needlessly sacrifice the lives of their servus (they have dedicated genetically altered soldiers for the cannon-fodder) and will, in fact, sacrifice themselves to protect important members of the servus subspecies, such as researchers working on critical projects.
With normal humans, that scenario would be inherently unstable. The master class is outnumbered, has minimal creativity, and doesnt have exclusive access to weapons and technology; the underclass is more creative, intelligent, educated, and keeps the entire system running, and no member of the underclass can ever be promoted to the master class. But because of hand-waving genetic mind control, the system is reasonably stable, at least for a longer time than it would be with normal humans.
Getting back to the magic, consider three things: The ability to do magic, the training required to do magic, and the power of magic. Ability determines who can use magic; everyone, or a select few (the latter being the usual default for most fantasy). Training can be easy or hard: easy if it can be done without much effort or almost instinctively (like throwing a small object reasonably accurately over a short distance), or hard, requiring much study and effort (like, say, quantum mechanics, or computer programming, or being a high-end athlete). The power of magic is exactly what it sounds like: Does it have a great effect on the world (can you call down bolts of lightning, move mountains, create monsters?), or a small effect (can you only do small things like, say, light a match?).
There are 8 possible combinations, each with their own repercussions on the society, but for me the interesting one is Everyone/Hard/Powerful.
If you have a mage character from a world where its everyone/hard/weak, no one is going to have much respect for him or her. Perhaps a grudging acknowledgement of their dedication, much as wed say for someone who makes it their mission to collect the entire several-hundred-issue run of Action Comics but at the end of the day, who cares? In a few/easy/powerful setting, however, the mage character had damn well better be respected and/or feared, because he or she will be one of the people who run the place.
That said, on Gayajan, magic ability falls very clearly in the everyone/hard/strong category. And that said, just because everyone could do it doesnt mean everyone does. Everyone in this context is a general case, something like the aforementioned quantum mechanics. Generally speaking, its possible for anyone to learn quantum mechanics; but just because everyone can, doesnt mean everyone does. Some people dont have the patience; some dont have the interest; and, to be honest, some simply dont have the mental capacity.
In the case of magic on Gayajan, it isnt just knowledge thats critical, but the ability to sense etheric energy. Humans can (and so can most of the other intelligent entities on the planet), but it requires some effort to do so, an altered mental state. For the human brain, at least, this is something were rather good at. Humans alter their mental state all the time through assorted means; concentration, ritual, practice, applied pharmacology. Now admittedly this is auctorial fiatits the way I need the world to work in order to tell the stories I want. Given that, I think it still has some advantages: It allows different schools of magic without needing the underlying mechanics to be different. It makes it a more controllable force. And, as a side benefit, it allows for another method of mental alteration: Physiological. Some people are born with altered mental states, some get it by accident. Some, perhaps, by intent. Some possible story options there
So what does everyone/hard/powerful mean? To answer that question, Ill have to enumerate some rules for this setting of mine.
Powerful means likely to be useful on the large scale. Theres going to be a demand for magic users. But just because everyone can do it, that doesnt mean the magic users will inevitably be running the place; they dont have a monopoly on potential. And theres one other reason: In the system Ive set up, using magic isnt simplebut disrupting magic is a lot easier than using it to implement a particular effect. As an analogy, think of a plutonium-core nuclear bomb. If you want the thing to explode successfully, you need precision construction of the materials, and perfect timing of the explosions that compress the core to initiate fusion. Stopping the nuclear explosion, on the other hand, is a lot simpler. This is one thing they got right in the film The Peacemaker; the protagonists only had to move a small piece of explosive out of its proper place to prevent a nuclear detonation. Same theory as how bomb squads will use small explosives or water cannons in attempts to blow apart a bomb to prevent a larger explosion.
Bringing the discussion back to Gayajan: You might be able to cast a fireball spell on me, but if it takes long enough, I can cast a simpler screw it up spell that causes yours to fizzle. Of course, someone on your side could do the same to me, protecting you, and so on. Thus, King-Wizard Edmund might be able to create these ginormous fireballs but if Sir Heroics squire Humbert knows a reasonably effective disruption spell (and the evil Edmund doesnt have anything other than magic), the King-Wizards attempts to char-broil the good knight will fail miserably, and Sir Heroic carves the evil King-Wizard up like a Thanksgiving turkey.
On the other hand, suppose Edmund has his loyal guard Baldrick bonk Humbert over the head. In that case, its roast knight in a can, isnt it?
This might seem to create issues with the industrial application of magic (since I am a firm believer in the rule that sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology), but when you think about it, its no different from our world. Someone with wirecutters and motivation can do a lot to our technological society, but the potential damage is restricted by redundancy, security, and the fact that people benefit from technology and are thus disinclined to tamper.
Rule 5 gives noble Sir Heroic another chance if Humbert gets bonked. For this example, lets say that lead (element 82, symbol Pb) disrupts etheric energy. If the heat of the fireball is purely etheric energy, and Sir Heroics shield is plated in lead, then the fireball dissipates against it. If Heroics sword has lead on it, Edmund cant use etheric energy to stop it from hitting him. On the other hand, what if Edmund uses magic to fling a boulder at that meddling knight? In that case, etheric energy may have fired the rockbut Heroic has to deal with the very non-magical kinetic energy. Splat! It also means, given differences in mineralogy, that there are parts of the world where etheric energy doesnt work very well at all, and other places where it is in abundance.
Rule 6 allows what wed call enchantments. You can get an object to do something magical without the assistance of the original person casting the spell, so long as there is sufficient etheric energy to power the original spell and the effect. Think of this like a computer: The machines motherboard needs a very small battery to keep the system ready so that when the main power is available, the computer can boot up and do its thing. While the obvious first use of this to create enchanted items like cursed gems or potions of strength, whats more interesting is the industrial application. Say I cast a spell on a barrel (complete with access to a sufficient source of etheric energy) so that if you put the right ingredients into itgo back to the first column to see whyyou end up with beer coming out of the spigot. This simplifies brewing, but it does one other thing: It allows the existence of the magician as craftsman, artist and engineer. Your basic generic magical beer barrel might be fine for the tap at the local bar, but equally, my particular product could command a greater price because I was able to tweak the beer-making spell to make it more efficient, or provide a better head, or fewer calories, or whatever.
And since its not in my interest to give you a barrel that produces my finest draught forever, Ill make sure the spell needs to be renewed at regular intervals. Just so I continue receiving income. Only fair, you know.
Rule 7 is akin to electromagnetic radiation in the way it works, and it has two major significant effects. The first is that if you run around doing a lot of magic, everyone (well, everyone who counts) is going to know about it. So if you want to launch a platoon of flying carpet-mounted troops, your army will be noticed if you dont choose your route carefully. And if you dont, and the people those troops are invading respond in time, Rule 4 can kick inand suddenly your troops are imitating a skydiving team without parachutes.
On the other hand, the second part of Rule 7 confers serious advantages. Suppose you send out scouts to follow an enemy army. The scouts, at regular intervals, cast a small, simple spell that would normally be very hard to detect. However! Since you know exactly what spell is being used, your mages can detect it over a great distance. By triangulation, you can track the enemy movements through your scouts use of the spell. Yes, this is magical GPS. Of course, should the enemy learn this spell, they can detect your scouts as well and deal with them. And then, perhaps, send their own small unit out on a merry jaunt, casting the spell at regular intervals to make you believe the enemy forces are somewhere else entirely. As I mentioned, akin to EM radiation. Think of radio: To hear it at greater distances, you can pump up the powerbut very weak signals (such as those of the planetary probes) can be heard at enormously greater distances, as long as you know exactly what signal youre looking for. As a concrete example, take the Voyager 1 radio, broadcasting at only 20 watts over 13 light-hours.
Those 7 rules form the basis of magic use by humans (and other intelligent beings). Theres only one more little piece of magical technology I need to complete the issues I have to consider for my world: The portathayon. The easiest way to picture this gizmo is to consider its modern SF analog, the Stargate, from the eponymous movie and TV series. The portathayon allows near-instantaneous (well, at light speed on a planet; close enough for government work) transport between two points but unlike the Stargate, these two points are fixed.
A portathayon installation consists of a circular platform ranging in size from 1 to 10 meters in diameter. Surrounding the platform is a wall roughly 3 meters high. The wall holds three metal rings (at the bottom, middle and top) which are the actual magical devices. The spell to activate the thing requires a lot of etheric energy, and when its triggered, everything within the rings is switched with whatever is in the rings at the other end of the line. To create a portathayon connection in the first place, both of its three-ring sets must be powered up for the first time at the same location; then one set of rings gets moved the old fashioned way (i.e., by whatever mundane transport is available) to the far end of the connection, wherever that may be. Once the rings are in place, they are fixed and cant be moved.
What you end up with is a hub system of transport. Important cities will have a number of portathayons connecting to other cities; these secondary cities wil have a smaller number of connections to smaller communities; these tertiary cities have connections to even fewer, and smaller, towns; and so on, until eventually the whole thing bottoms out with communities which have a single connection to a larger center. The etheric energy required for a transport is the same regardless of whats on the platform; the system simply swaps the space within the rings so as long as everything fits within that volume. However, the energy cost is sufficiently high that you probably dont want to waste it on minimal loadsat least, not unless the load was paying enough to make up for it.
With this system, cargo (and people) move along the defined paths of portathayon connections. Some of this cargo will only need the direct link from Portathayon A to Portathayon B; a lot more of it is going to be passed along from A to B to C, and so on, maybe as far as Portathayon Q, or even S or W or beyond. Thus, youre going to see a need for hotels and warehouse space in the central hubs. With transit fees and the like, the hub cities will likely be very rich in proportion to how many portathayon connections they have. For a historical example of this sort of thing, compare Byzantium (the hub of trade routes flowing between in all directions during the citys height) to some trivial mudhole in Britain (at the end of the trade routes).
The portathayon has two important consequences, aside from the obvious ones regarding ease of travel and choke-points. The first is that polities dont have to be physically contiguous. You can have a nation consisting solely and entirely of cities connected by portathayon, whose government exerts no control over anything in betweenbecause it doesnt have to. They might not have any idea of whats in the middle at all. Nations could, in fact, be intermingled, their transportation networks crossing over (but not interacting at all, or perhaps at only a few points). The second is that sieges or assaults on cities with a functional portathayon become an enormous pain in the ass. Unless you can gain control of the other end of their links, or damage their portathayon installation, a besieged city can continually be resupplied and reinforced and theoretically hold out forever.
There is one final method of doing magic that I mentioned last column: Theurgy. Instead of doing magic yourself, you try and get something else to do it for you. Of course, that something else might have its own agenda
Next time, well look at some specific nations and cultures.