Monday, January 21, 2008


An "Elemental" Thought Experiment

This morning I started a book report on Steve Erikson's Gardens of the Moon (which was entirely awesome), but probably won't be able to get back to it until a while later. In it, though, I talked a bit about epic fantasy, and reading as widely as possible to familiarize myself with what's been going on in the subgenre for the last decade or two, having been away for a while.

On Friday, in reference to Todd Alcott's "rewriting" post, I mentioned that part of my writing process is to read things similar to what I'm currently working on, to make sure I'm not reinventing the wheel, and to see how other people have approached similar ideas. In the epic fantasy I'm currently noodling around with, currently untitled (though I'm pretty sure the world in which it takes place is called Avani, if anyone's interested to know), there are several different "schools" of elemental magic, each with a mini-pantheon of supernatural beings who have transcended the mundane into a purely elemental plane. One of the reasons I was interested to check out Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series is that I knew he had used a similar idea, with "Warrens" of sorcery, each with its own Ascendant beings.

I've been thinking a lot about "elemental" magic systems, which have been used in everything from Bill Willingham's Elementals series to the current Avatar the Last Airbender series. What's interesting to me is that they invariably use the classical earth, air, fire, water system of antiquity, with perhaps one or two extras tossed in. At present, the magical system of Avani is similar, with six or seven "elements" with very similar flavors (based on the eight-element system I originally cooked up for the Te'Maroans a few years back).

Last night, though, I woke up in the middle of the night with an interesting thought. (Or, at least, it seemed interesting to me at 3 o'clock in the morning.) What if, instead of using the "elements" known to the ancients, a similar system was built around fundamental "elements" now believed to exist. Not the periodic table, though, but something a little more streamlined.

Was it possible, I wondered, to have a system of magic based around the four fundamental forces? Gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force?

Of course, with the Standard Model there's really only the two forces, right? The three combined and then gravity. And unless I'm misremembering, doesn't the addition of the extra spatial dimensions allow M-Theory to combine all for into one? But for the purposes of the thought experiment, let's leave them as four distinct forces.

So here's what I'm trying to figure out. What would magic (or superpowers, if you like) that controlled gravity look like? Or electromagnetism? Or (and here's where my 3 o'clock brain was starting to stumble) the weak nuclear force? Or the strong? Which could set a bush to burning, for example? Which could be used to turn a stick into a sword? That kind of thing.

Any suggestions?

That's a tough one. The appeal of a magic system based on the four classical elements is, I think, that it resonates with our everyday experience. It's a form of what is sometimes called "folk science": explanations consistent with our intuitions.

But the four fundamental forces are very far removed from everyday experience; there is no obvious commonality among the phenomena governed by the electromagnetic interaction (i.e. almost everything experienced by humans before the 20th century). A system of magic based on those four forces would seem arbitrary to characters and readers who weren't familiar with modern physics.
Most likely your familar with the basics of elementle magic: Earth Air, Fire, Water. Or North, East West, South. I've seen the Hermetic Qabala worked into some fantasy stories but not handled very well. There's also a 5th element as well called Spirit, which is a combination of all these magical/philisopical elements.

You might weant to look in that direction. Aleister Crowley's system of magick is a good breeding ground for a magical system based on Will.Or The Golden Dawn.

Jim Shannon
Mmmm. Points well taken, Ted. I've been falling in love with the idea since yesterday, though, and an email from a friend has really helped crystallize a lot of it in my head. I'm not giving up on it yet!
Thanks for the tips, Jim!
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