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Hard ReadingLearning from Science Fiction$

Tom Shippey

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781382615

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781382615.001.0001

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A Glimpse of Structuralist Possibility

(p.160) 9 Introduction
Hard Reading

Tom Shippey

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

A further sub-genre of science fiction is “worlds where magic works”. This chapter demonstrates the root of the idea in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (first edition 1890), which argued that magic was a concept parallel to science rather than opposed to it, and offered tentative laws of magic to support the theory. The parallel was eagerly seized on by many authors, who developed Frazer’s laws, and their application, in a manner increasingly Newtonian, creating more and more detailed, logical and complex scenarios. The sub-genre exemplifies once more the penetration of science fiction by cultural anthropology. A further intellectual movement picked out by some authors was the development of theories of the occult, again stemming for the most part from Frazer and his contemporaries.

Keywords:   Magic, The Golden Bough, Newtonian laws, Cultural anthropology, Occult

Like item 4, above, this piece started as a talk delivered at the Birmingham Novacon, that of 1974. It too turned into an article in Foundation, and formed the basis for successive entries on ‘Magic’ in the Nicholls and Clute (subsequently the Clute and Nicholls) Encyclopedias of 1993 and 1999. Since then the ‘New Age’ movement has led to a considerable revival of interest in magic. Ronald Hutton’s 2003 discussion (see especially his chapter 4) covers the long nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century arguments about it better than I can. In an article of 2007, not included here, I tried to work out what Tolkien, Charles Williams, and most of all C.S. Lewis thought about it, Lewis being extremely learned in the recondite field of Renaissance magical and proto-scientific thinking, and typically coming out with highly and deliberately contrarian answers.

However, rereading this piece years later reminds me as usual most of all of what I did not know back then. One thing I did not know was that not only did Randall Garrett write his ‘Lord Darcy’ stories about magic for John W. Campbell, he was also busily writing ESP stories for him at the same time, as ‘Mark Phillips’ and in collaboration with L.M. Janifer. If I had known this, I might have made more then of the point about Garrett’s Sir Thomas Leseaux (on p. 177). When the magic theorist in the alternate world angrily dismisses as old-wives’ tales things that we know work (like penicillin and digitalin), there is a deliberate parallel with the scientific theorist in our world angrily dismissing things that, well, are rumoured to work, but which cannot be admitted to work because they do not fit current scientific paradigms: phenomena like dowsing, or telepathy, or ghosts, or supernatural apparitions and warnings. All this was very much part of Campbellian sf. Much of it went well off the rails, like dianetics and the famous ‘Dean Drive’ for spaceships, and most of all Scientology. But there was a perfectly valid point behind it all, which was the one famously made by Thomas Kuhn: (p.161) innovations are much more readily accepted if they fit an accepted framework, and innovations which do not, which contradict such a framework, are liable to be dismissed as mere insanity or childishness, till the weight of evidence becomes overwhelming – at which point suddenly everyone will prove to have been in favour of change all along. I remember, incidentally, putting some similar point to Sir Roger Elliott, Professor of Physics at Oxford University, author of the ‘Elliott Equations’, well-known to nuclear physicists, and at that time my next door neighbour, and handing him one of Analog’s factual articles in support. He read it carefully, handed it back, and remarked, ‘These chaps just won’t do the experiments’. If I had been quicker on the uptake I would have replied, ‘But where would they get the funding?’, which is what John Campbell might have said. (No, Campbell would never have said anything so moderate.)

Whatever the case, another hook-up between sf sub-genres is obviously between the ‘world where magic works’ story and the ‘ESP’ story. The former connects to ‘alternate history’, the latter to the ‘world-changing invention’ story, as in Bester’s Demolished Man (1953) and The Stars my Destination (1956). It makes me want to draw another diagram, like the ones on p. 82, above and p. 164, below, but this time of ‘the inner structure of science fiction’. But maybe that is a job for another time and another book …