Friday, 24 July 2015

Science And Magic - And The Arcanist

Hi guys,


People often ask me where as a writer I get my ideas from. Usually I resist saying something like the bottom of a packet of cornflakes and try to give them some sort of vaguely intelligent answer. But the truth is I often don't know. This is one reason I seldom tell people in the offline world that I'm a writer. In the case of the Arcanist I do actually know where the idea came from though. The Arcanist and a companion book which has yet to be finished were written as a response to one of my favourite computer games of all time – Arcanum. A game which sadly doesn't seem to run on either Vista or Seven – at least not for me.


Arcanum was a fun role play game which I spent uncounted hours playing before finally retiring that computer due to advanced old age and worn out keys! And while it was similar to many other role play games of the time it had one aspect that I found fascinating. The interaction between technology and magic.


In Arcanum magic and technology oppose one another, with each the downfall of the other. So for example wizards had to ride in the back of trains, as far from the engine as possible, because their mere magical presence might upset the delicate workings of the steam engine. Meanwhile the presence of technology might upset the ethereal balance of spells.


This dynamic also impacted directly on how you designed your character. If you wanted a spell caster to run around and zap people, you needed to make sure that he didn't learn any technological skills and only grew in certain attributes. Otherwise you'd end up with a weak character – which was never good when it came to fighting the big bad and winning the game. Similarly if you wanted a technologist as your character, you had to advance only certain technological skills and attributes or risk having his guns misfire etc.


That dialectic between magic and technology stuck with me for many years, not least because I realised that it is a tension that exists in the real world of the twenty first century. One that began in my view with the age of enlightenment and reason. Because science and magic are both aspects of two opposing world views.


Science is part of what is often called the materialist world view. The belief – and I use that word intentionally – that the universe can be understood. That it is all nuts and bolts, atoms and forces. And that if only we have enough time and knowledge we will eventually be able to weigh and measure, name and put to work everything there is. Nothing is beyond logic and reason.


Standing against this is the world view of the idealist. A view that says yes hey, science is wonderful and all, but it's not everything. There is more to this universe than those things that can be weighed and measured. That there are things called souls and true free will. That there is an actual right and wrong and life has a purpose. And that those who attempt to put everything in little rational boxes are actually cheapening the whole meaning of what it is to be human.


As you can see these two world views oppose one another directly and so for those who are firmly stuck in one camp the other is a complete load of twaddle.


Enough said about the philosophical side of things. I could waffle about this stuff for hours and bore the pants off you – please check that your belts are still done up(!) – but instead what fascinates me about this as a writer is the practical side of this debate. And despite the fact that all this sounds dry and academic there is a practical side.


What occurred to me is that for the past few centuries the world view of materialism has been in the ascendant. Ever since science started uncovering the explanations for many things that formerly seemed mysterious, the materialist has been crowing. Believing more and more strongly that everything is pure nuts and bolts.


But – and this is what mattered to me – as belief in the materialist world view strengthens it necessarily means that belief in the idealist world view weakens. That those who believe in magic and spirits and whatever else, are little by little relegated to the category of fools and madmen. They are considered delusional and sometimes even called liars and con men.


As a writer the question that struck me was what does any of this mean for magic and the unexplained? Especially if as many claim, magic is dependant in part upon belief? Does magic work but we simply refuse to believe it? Does it not work because the collective will is so anti-magic that it can't? And perhaps even more strangely – does science itself work in part because we believe in it?


It was this understanding that led me to start writing two books last year based on the opposite interactions between magic and technology. Both books began with the same character in the same social position; a man with a knowledge of technology and the gift of magic, but living in two completely opposite worlds. Superhero fans will probably think bizarro worlds here!


The first book was one in which magic and technology complimented one another. This is the book that became The Arcanist. The second world was one in which magic and technology interfered with one another as in Arcanum. That book, which may yet be finished one day, is tentatively called Wings.


Both books became in part an exploration of what it would mean for the worlds to have magic and technology both and for these forces and understandings to either work together or at cross purposes. They were also an exploration of what it would mean for a technologically minded man to have magic.


In one world for a technologist to have magic would be a complete disaster as it would undo everything he strived to achieve. Imagine him building a flying machine and have it fall out of the skies because there was wild magic in his bones. Equally for the world itself it would be a disaster as societies could not advance. Technological advances would be undercut by magic. Magical advances would be undercut by technology.


Given this, and the desire of all societies to advance, my thought was that this sort of world would swiftly become divided and isolationist. The natural inclination would be to isolate magic and technology with some cities and lands embracing technology, some embracing magic. In time those with one or other of the particular arts would find themselves forced to live in the appropriate land.


That is the world of Wings, where a died in the wool technologist suddenly finds his world turned completely upside down as he discovers he has magic – at the same time as all the technological devices around him start failing!


In the other world of course a technologist would welcome magic. Just imagine how much better his inventions would work with a spark of magic to boost them. Consider a gun built with both the best metallurgy and chemistry known and then boosted with a spark of magic. That would be a weapon to fear! Or how about spells enhanced by wizards who apply technological principles to them.


This is the world of The Arcanist where our hero has had both the aptitude for technology and the spark of magic for his entire life. And where he uses both to win his battle.


Anyway, enough rambling from me. Now you can all go rushing out to second hand stores and start hunting down old computer games!


Cheers, Greg.






  1. That is really interesting. I liked the Arcanum game too!!
    I'm sorry to hear that you can't play Arcanum any longer. If you don't mind to spend some money then you can get a copy of Arcanum which runs on Windows (XP, Vista, 7, 8). Maybe you know The sell old games which yo have to download.
    This is the link to the game.

    I searched for your blog because I wanted to know more about you and your books, especially about The Arcanist because I bought a digital copy over at Amazon.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for the link, and I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

    Cheers, Greg.

  3. Hi,
    you're welcome. I just bought a copy of "The Arcanist" and need to read it. So I hope I will enjoy it.

  4. Greg,
    I enjoyed the Arcanum greatly. The mix of science and magic was excellent. When do you expect to complete the companion book?


  5. Hi Samuel,

    I'm glad you enjoyed it. Not sure when the companion book will be completed. I have about two thirds of it written but then hit a wall not knowing how it ended. So I put it aside for a bit to finish off the third Wizard at Law (done) and then finish Spaced, which has hit a wall with my editor. At this stage I'm at sixes and sevens as they say. But my best guess would be not until next year - depending on if and when inspiration strikes.

    Cheers, Greg.

  6. Having just finished the arcanist i am quite interested in the companion book but i am also wondering if we have seen the last of theria?

  7. Hi,

    I don't know I'm afraid. The companion book is about two thirds written but I hit a snag when I realised I didn't have an ending for it. That's the trouble with being a pure pantster as opposed to a plotter. And I did start a sequel to The Arcanist, but only got two chapters in before I as they say started having creative differences - with myself!

    Cheers, Greg.