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The Problem of Magic

Given that non-trivial magic exists, how can any non-magician possess power?
This is a core problem with magic in world-building. In this world, physical coercioin is keystone source of power. In a world with magic that has physical extension in a non-trivial way, how can anyone without magic possess power? The corollary question is, of course, what are the core constraints on individual use of power/magic?

In non-magical societies law and custom serve to constrain individual power, backed by force of arms. We see this play out in terms of dictatorships, warlords, democratically elected representatives, etc. In a magical world, as Graydon Saunders, Octavia Butler, and others, have pointed out, individuals with the effective physical force of a battalion are most likely rise to domination. Unless there is some sort of check on the magician’s power.

But what can those checks be?
In any world where Immortal Dark Lords (IDL) can arise, even with low frequency, stable societies based on anything but magical power seem unlikely. The task of the world-builder is to so organize underlying constraints so that either this is addressed (few authors), this is ignored (most fantasy authors), or this is the driver of the story (Saunders, Butler, etc.).

Graydon Saunders built world with at least a hundred thousand years of history under various IDLs, rising and falling from power as other IDLs rise to challenge and evventually overthrow them. The Commonweal is the egalitarian response to create a society that is not ruled by an IDL, at he.
Butler, with her seminal Doro and Patternmaster series, explicitly shows a world in which the telepathic Patternists rule in strict hierarchy over weaker telepaths, with slave ‘mutes’ (including non-telepathic powered people, normal humans, and animals). Notably, she correctly pointed out that the ability to control other minds is the greatest power.

So then, unless a truly chaotic IDL world is desired, how to balance magical power so as to create a nominal human society?

Robert Cialdini has done seminal resesarch on the theory of influence and has identified six key types of influence that work on human minds.
1. Authority
2. Social Proof
3. Scarcity
4. Liking
5. Reciprocity
6. Consistency

French and Raven have divided sources of power into six main orthogonal axis:

  1. Coercion
  2. Reward
  3. Legitimacy
  4. Expert
  5. Referent
  6. Informational

There are some obvious correspondances between the lists but I won’t digress ro e here. However, Authority is a form of Legitimacy backed by Coercion (in hierarchal relationships) while Authoriity as Legitimacy backed by Expertise would be another interpretation. Consider the type of Authority a police officer has as compared to a medical doctor.

Traditional societal power includes Authority through Coercion, but also Authority through Rewards that create bonds of obligation through Reciprocity. Consider the ‘Big Man’ systems in various cultures in which the leader obtains and maintains their power through largess. Beneficiaries, then, are obligated to return favors of various sorts. For a modern cultural touchstone, consider the Godfather movies.

The above frameworks provide interesting parameters magical parameters to tweak. Eliminate Coercion as a type of power that magic can supply. That removes several of the major issues with IDLs, simple domination, and opens some room for mundance governance. For example, what if magic can only provide rewards? An example might be the traditional rewards that a god or a djinn might bestow on followers or the un/fortunate that rubs the lamp the wrong/right way. In such a world, IDL are much more like modern familial and legislative aristocracies that provide legislative largess to corporate supplilicants in return for monetary support, such as in the United States today. Pick your own examples.

Or perhaps magic only provides Informational power. Given that massive fortunes in our world have arisen through this mechanism, Informational power is certainly puissant. Perhaps, then, diviners, seers, mystics, fortuntellers etc. exist. They can’t directly mind control or enslave the masses, and would die by the sword as anyone, but they are invaluable to mundane rulers. And at the same time, very difficult to capture and control. In fact, one should only be able to capture those seers who are no good at it. Good ones see you coming and are long gone by the time the gendarms arrive. There are a few good examples of this in the literature.

Thinking through the consequences of magical power with physcial extension is crucial to developing a world that properly explains why IDLs don’t exist, or exist only extremely rarely. The typical run of fantasy novels are particularly prone to this failure. The above frameworks provide some ideas for tweaking magic so that the most obvious paths to IDL are blocked. If you can think of other relevant frameworks, or would like to provie counter-examples to my thesis, please comment!

I’ve Been Thinking

Which is something that happens on the regular. Not that I ever expect it.

But daybreak, the cat, drool, laptop, morning, and there then the thoughts trip triple, stutter and flow. Sun from the left, and perhaps there are no words the thought comes briefly but no, not so, one and then another are there, find fingers, keys, pixel-lit and spit themselves to distant server farmers, tilling, ringing in the changes. Words without thought, leading the way

Or somesuch times the other ways round. Then, days on days, finally on waking the thought niggles under the mind-skin, a notice-splinter unwilling release or relief until words, my words, that prolix ungent, salve the sting; until precisely chosen those sharper-than-swords pinch, pull, and extract that shard, that needle driven in, the logos in my mind’s eye, and then ahh. Nothing like the feeling. This the thing I could not think other than. This! And it may not be all that. No, once candled before the screen perhaps no more than a blahg post or so. A short, a novella. A spurt of carmine poem.

Hard to know, when that long splinter is still buried. Must needs pull it out, draw its characters on the screen, write with it as a pen. Is that my blood? Perhaps, certainly, what other ink should I use? But the story it tells, ah, yes, perhaps there is something there after all.

Then, yes, I know it is real.