One of many things I liked about R.F.Kuang’s recent novel Babel, was how the magic worked. The concept was that silver had a special quality to it so that if you inscribed a word in one language and a translation of that word in another, the loss of meaning or the ambiguity left behind would fuel a magical effect in some way related to that gap in meaning. It is a sufficiently subtle rule to limit what magic could do in the world without placing any hard limits on particular spells. This post isn’t about that though.
The thing I don’t have a good name for is that the magic in Babel is incorporated into an industrial world systemically. Of course, there are many examples of fiction where magic lives alongside technology, most of urban fantasy for example or the Force in Star Wars. The difference with the silver magic in Babel is that it is not a separate domain. Silver is used to empower Britain’s industrial revolution and is incorporated into inventions. That idea of magic entwined with technology also isn’t a new thing, P. Djèlí Clark’s Djinn novels imagine an alternative history for early twentieth-century Cairo, where everything from trams to proto-computers is powered by djinn and related magic.
I’ll zip back to science fiction for a moment because two famous and related works highlight the divide. In Dune, the spice, and the powers it grants people, is essentially magic. In Star Wars, as I already mentioned, the Force is essentially magic. However, in Dune those powers are fundamentally linked to a central technological aspect of the setting: interstellar travel. When the spice supply is impacted, it has an economic and practical impact on society. In Star Wars, the Force is not (in general) integral to key technology. The destruction of the Jedi has political impacts and cultural ones, and I assume some economic ones but Galactic society doesn’t grind to a halt. The trains or spaceships don’t stop working if there aren’t Jedi using the Force. I guess lightsabres are in some way force dependent but otherwise stuff, in general, just keeps on working.
Spice, djinn and silver are all industrial magic — a term which for corporate reasons is associated with Star Wars even though it is a counter-example. I’d considered “rational magic” as a term. That works for the silver in Babel because it is subject to systematic study but it works less well for Clark’s djinn or for Herbert’s spice.
In Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, magic was codified by Isaac Newton and the protagonist is shown to engage in the empirical study of the effects of magic. However, the setting is our world (or at least the part of world bordered by the M25), so while the magic might be “rational” (systematic, open to formal study and experimentation) it is industrialised or woven into the economy. I feel also that “rational magic” would cover a whole panoply of overly structured magic systems. However, I suppose magic systems with established rules can become industrialised. In the Avatar cartoons there is a whole industrial revolution between Avatar Aang and Avatar Korra but even in the earlier series, elemental powers are used to power and control some machinery.
Industrial magic? Mechanical magic? Magic central to economic activity? I’m not sure.