What’s a good term for the magic in Babel?

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.


26 responses to “What’s a good term for the magic in Babel?”

  1. I remember back in the 1980s, Lyndon Hardy’s “Master of the Five Magics” showed magic become commercialized in a fantasy world — alchemists, for example, are into mass-production of the most cost effective potions. But i have no suggestions on naming.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another example is Walter Jon Williams’ *Metropolitan* series in which magical energy accumulates due to geomantic conditions and is tapped to run society (rather like oil). One might call the genre “Magicpunk” in the sense that cyberpunk means a story in which computers pervade society and are used by people at all levels to keep the world running.

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    • I vaguely recall WJW complaining that people insisted on reading Metropolitan science-fictionally and kept asking for explanations of things he wanted to leave unexplained because *magic*. I had a similar reaction to Scalzi’s The God Engines. Scalzi says it is fantasy, and he ought to know, but it seems obvious to me that it is dystopian post-Singularity SF (mechanistic deity, instead of mechanistic magic?)

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  3. I’ve used engineering magic to refer to works like Operation Chaos and Lord Darcy – perhaps also Magic, Inc. and The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump.

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  4. I like “Applied Magic,” as opposed to traditional magic, whose nature is murky and which needs to be used sparingly.

    Applied magic is something you could study in school, get a degree in it, get a job in industry producing magical products OR work in academia researching the behavior of it.

    With traditional magic, you can’t really do any of that. You’d study as the apprentice of a magician, who’d dole out very little info at a time, largely because he/she didn’t have much. You’d do a lot of reading of old, confusing and even contradictory books on the subject. You’d use the stuff with great trepidation, and with uncertain results.

    Maybe the fundamental difference is reproducibility. If magic is really an underlying property of nature, you’d expect to be able to do reproducible experiments and thus apply the scientific method. At that point you don’t really have magic–you have new physics/chemistry.

    “Scientific Magic” might also work.

    I remember one book (can’t remember the name) in which it was explained that the reason magic was so unpredictable was because all magic originated from compelling some demon/fairy/elf to do things for you. You might get a good one or a bad one, an agreeable one or a disagreeable one, or one too powerful for you to control. But few people practicing magic even knew about the creatures who powered it, hence the inconsistency. (You could get industrial magic out of this if you could unionize the demons and arrange for standard work contracts.)

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    • Lord Darcy (actually his forensic magician) worked entirely on reproducible magic. Wizards were always working on new spells and refining them, just like our scientists and engineers invent things.

      In MRK’s Glamourist Chronicles, you have to have the talent, but the spells are consistent and again, the heroine and hero invent new stuff. This leads to some lovely images, like the faintest remaining flutter of a magical animation at the Colosseum that’s somehow barely survived the centuries.


  5. I don’t have a good term but I have another example: Ted Chiang’s novella “Seventy-Two Letters”. The magic system is an extension of the idea of golems: writing specific combinations of letters on an inanimate object makes it move and behave in some way, and the development of industry has been a process of figuring out new combinations to produce desired results. The setting seems otherwise very similar to 19th century England, but soon it becomes clear that the fact of this magic being possible is just one of two huge deviations from the natural laws of our world, and Chiang has set things up so that the one is used to undo the other– that is, magic is eventually used to make their world more like ours.

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  6. In Ian MacLeod’s The Light Ages, the magical substance Aether is part of industry. And of course there’s Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, where gods and magic are part of both industry and finance. Perhaps “systemized magic”?

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  7. Technological magic? Magic-driven technology?

    In the Kingston Cycle, imprisoned magicians are forced to generate electricity by some process that also includes controlling ghosts. The electricity produced in this way is then distributed throughout society and powers an industrial revolution. It’s called “aether” and initially shrouded in some mystery and not identified as electricity, but by the third book it’s clear that aether is what we call electricity – by then the imprisoned magicians have been freed, Aeland have had to live without aether for a while, and people start figuring out other ways to generate it.

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  8. Operation Chaos is one of the first SFF books I remember reading and clicking with. Tom Swift and His Amazing McGuffin were books that I just swallowed up like krill, but Anderson’s book really made me sit back and go “Wow.” I’m afraid to re-read it, in case the Suck Fairy has visited, but it still looms large in my head.


  9. Well this is a long time discussion that has been going on for years in fantasy fiction. It’s essentially a discussion revolving around the idea of numinous/mythic magic-fantasy versus mechanistic/systematic magic-fantasy. Numinous magic is mysterious, intuitive, emotional, chaotic and embedded, simply existing as forces in the world (including gods and beasties), built into it in a sort of magic realism sense. Numinous magic can be operated and controlled by some people, studied at a magic school, etc., but it is not fully understood and not fully explained to the readers.

    In contrast, mechanistic magic, which apparently Jim Baen used to call “fantasy with rivets” is systematic, sharply categorized and ordered, industrial, science-leaning, uses a learned set of rules and processes, is explained in detail to the readers, etc. Mechanistic magic has been around for a long time in stories, but in modern English-language SFF, rose to a certain popularity through a combination of 1800’s occult systems, pulp fiction in the 1900’s that leaned towards science fiction and the developed popularity of D&D and other RPG fantasy games and tie-in stories in the 1970’s.

    Mechanistic magic fantasy stories are the ones likely to also include science fiction elements along with fantasy ones and/or to mix the magic in their settings with scientific and industrial factors. But many mechanistic fantasies are also pre-industrial in setting and might use magic as a substitute for more mimetic mechanical inventions and tools. As you can imagine, numinous style magic was associated more with women/women writers and/or literary stylistic writing, (mythic, folklore, epic saga), and as such sometimes looked down on or seen as separate, while mechanistic style magic was associated more with men/men writers, rationality and hard hitting action and as such, often seen as higher status. Though that aspect has eased up a bit.

    But, while we can loosely identify these two sorts of poles to approaching magic in fantasy stories, they aren’t really that clearly divided in fantasy fiction. Most fantasy stories mix numinous and mechanistic aspects and which one seems to be dominant can be a matter of debate. RPG fantasy, which has become a more established sub-category (based again on setting,) definitely would be put in the mechanistic category. But a fantasy story that combines mythic elements with say a magic school might be harder to parse.

    In the case of Babel, the process of the magic is industrial and systematic. But it also involves the magic simply existing in the world of the story as part of regular life, embedded in the silver, and requires emotional, cultural, abstract meaning — the difference between a word and how it can be translated into a different language, a difference of mental perception, making the process partly mythic. So is it numinous or is it mechanistic or is it both?

    This is not an uncommon combination in Asian and Asian-Western fantasy stories and may have to do with Asian myths, folklore and storytelling traditions that differ from more categorized western ideas. For instance, in Fonda Lee’s Green Bone series, the magic is in jade, numinous, but there is also a system. There are a people who lived with the jade and are inert to its magic — and thus can handle and cut the stones. There are a people who learned and trained with touching the jade for centuries and thus can use the magic in the jade to varying degrees without necessarily going insane, though they have to constantly watch out for that danger — a mix of intuition/emotion and system/training. And then the rest of the world not ethnically and genetically of these two peoples can possibly use the magic in the jade, but it will very quickly drive them insane. And the story centers on the possibilities and dangers of globalizing and industrializing the production and use of the jade after a devastating world war.

    So mechanistic or systematic magic are probably the terms that you are looking for, but fantasy stories and magic elements do get more complicated than just one term, a lot of the time. It might not quite fit what you are looking for regarding Babel.

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  10. Infrastructural magic?

    Looking at some of the above suggestions, it seems to me that some ways of thinking about magic are ontological/analytical, and some are teleological/practical. How does the magic “work” vs how the magic is used.

    Which is most important to you as a reader/reviewer/critic? Which is most important to the writers creating these systems? Which is most important to the people who live in the worlds created by the writers? There isn’t a single right answer; even a single individual might be in an ontological/analytical mood, or in a teleological/practical mood.


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