Sunday, April 11, 2010

Adding magical elements to an Enlightenment world

I thought I'd set the ball rolling with some posts about world creation and I'd welcome your thoughts on any of the below. I don't want to create a perfectly imagined world - I'd rather be writing a novel with my limited time, frankly - but thinking about how the world works will at least give me a springboard for filling in the many blanks.

First up - magic. I've been giving some thought to how magic might work in this alternative Regency literary universe and come up with a few ideas.

Post-Enlightenment 'civilised magic' is compelled to recognise the limits set by eighteenth-century rationalism (Hume, the Encyclopedists etc) and Newtonian physics. This means that it focuses on magic which:

a) Affects human states - suggestions, illusions and hypnosis, physical and mental enhancement.

b) Protects the 'rational' universe against the incursions of irrational forces such as ghosts and other fantastic creatures - banishments, exorcisms etc.

So, in level 1 D&D terms, that would mean that Sleep, Phantasmal Force and Detect Magic would still be viable, even if Magic Missile (which requires creation ex nihilo) would not be.

The more in conformity with physical laws the magic is, the less likely it is to cause problems for the practitioner.

In addition, there would also have to be strict legal or cultural prohibitions on the use of magic to control the minds of others.

Affects which while in theory not out of bounds - true invisibility as opposed to misdirection, delayed ageing, physical transmutation, reanimation (the headless chicken effect) - require a lot of energy, complex rituals or other appropriate McGuffins. Hence the need for magicians to work together.

Being able to do anything outside these limits involves finding loopholes in the eighteenth century understanding of the way the universe works, but they only work once. Hence the increasing unreliability of alchemy, traditional magics etc. down the years.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the paradigm barrier, other creatures (of form to be determined) in turn seek loopholes to find their way into the physical universe from which they've been barred by logic.

At the moment, I'm envisaging magecraft as a hereditary gift rather than a learnable trait, one which may have been bred into certain aristocratic lines but contains a good deal of randomness in terms of where and in whom it turns up (eugenics is so dull and takes me to some politically uncomfortable places).

So, any reflections? I acknowledge something of a debt to Mage: The Awakening here in my thinking, but hopefully not an overwhelming one.

To my mind, the three big unanswered questions are how magic then intersects with class, gender and religion in this universe.

Will 'civilised' magic have moved towards greater professionalization and openness to middle class applicant? Do tensions result?

Is magic a permissable profession for women?

What's the position of the Established Church, Catholicism and Dissent towards magic?

More on these issues to follow in later posts as I turn towards the society I'm writing about.

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