Friday, August 31, 2012

Traditions of British Magic: Part II

Back in 2005 I wrote a blog post which concluded as follows:

"From the examples I've seen and cited, it seems that British fantasy tends to revolve around a notion of magic as tradition, whereas fantasy written in the US, Australia, and Canada seems to revolve equally strongly around a notion of magic as a research discipline." Earlier, I had noted in relation to several Canadian, American and Australian authors: "In all cases, the nature and structure of magic are important parts of the background of the story, and in many cases they are major plot elements in their own right. Characters tend to solve problems by reasoning logically from their understanding of the rules of magic."

Appropriate caveats were included: my knowledge of British fantasy authors was far from encyclopedic, I noted Terry Pratchett as an exception, and resisted drawing any conclusions. Nonetheless, I have to update: Some outstanding counterexamples have appeared in the last few years.

Charlie Stross had actually started his Laundry series before I wrote the post above, but we didn't come across his writing until a little later. I love Charlie; he's a genre-buster. He's written near-future cyber-sorta-punk (Halting State, Rule 34), far-future galactic SF (Iron Sunrise, Singularity Sky) and cross-world fantasy (the "Merchant Princes" books), as well as the Len Deighton/H. P. Lovecraft-influenced "Laundry" books.

He's also an extremely rigorous thinker. He abandoned the Eschaton books because the universe had acquired too many unresolvable internal contradictions. It's a shame; I liked the idea and was fond of the characters, but I have to respect his decision. Not everyone wants to do the "Down in Flames" trick: even Niven ended up not going that route...

At first glance, that sorts oddly with the Lovecraftian universe, which runs on the logic of nightmares and phobias. Stross' genius is that he doesn't simply have his hackers and math profs appear as shining knights of rationality driving Things back under various Beds. Instead, he takes us into a shadowy, fractal borderland stalked by Hounds of Tindalos, irrational numbers, and middle management. (Really. I'm not making any of this up.) The math of magic is no less rigorous than that of engineering: however, it is vastly more complex, and it's the complexity that allows, e.g. black slimy tentacles to appear in apartment foyers.

Then there's Ben Aaronovitch. His "Folly" books are almost a restatement of the conclusion in my original post, in that they juxtapose a young, innovative, research-oriented wizard with an older, traditionally-trained and basically conservative mentor. One of Peter Grant's first projects is to figure out that you can use computer chips as a sacrifice to power a magical spell: his boss barely knows what computer chips are, much less that they're found in cell phones.

Interestingly, Peter's mother is an immigrant from Sierra Leone. His London, in contrast to how it's portrayed in the books cited in my original post, is aggressively poly-ethnic. (One of my favorite supporting characters is the Somali hijabi cop.) It's definitely a city of now and the future: traditions and history are important in his London (in the first book, we get a glimpse of the founding of Londinium), but they don't define it.

Kate Griffin's London is also poly-ethnic: the main character, Matthew Swift, is white, but the three most important women in the series are or have been of other extractions. Magic here is seen as growing organically out of the workings of the universe. The main character's use of magic tends to be instinctive and spontaneous, but it's made clear that this is due to his unique circumstances, and we're introduced to a number of other modes of magical operation.

As with the Aaronovitch books, London's history plays an important part in structuring the city's magic. But, explicitly, London's magic is also shaped by current events and practices. In my favorite passage from the first book, the protagonist evades a soul-eating shadow by getting onto the Underground and reciting the Terms of Service: it seems the shadow did not have a valid fare...

It turns out the Terms of Service acquire magical validity each time a passenger uses the system. It's good to know, if I'm ever being pursued by a demonic horror, I'll be able to stymie it by using my Tri-Met monthly pass.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

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