Magic, science & the mundane
With Tender by Sofia Samatar, I'm Waiting for You by Kim Bo-young and The Vorkosigan Saga by McMaster Bujold
I’ve realised that the SFF I enjoy best intricately links magic (or their futuristic science) to being human. I’ve recently finished the short story collection Tender by Sofia Samatar. You can read Selkie Stories Are for Losers on Strange Horizons, to get a feel for her writing.
What’s interesting in this piece is that the magic is a metaphor: we have the human element first, the difficult relationship between a daughter and her mother. The way her mother removed herself from her life then becomes a selkie story. Because what is a selkie story, but one about a mother leaving her family, and how that affects the people around her?
To avoid this element of magic feeling shoehorned in, to avoid the metaphor of the magic being heavy-handed, I think the best way to go about it is to think, deeply, about what consequences a piece of magic lore would have for your characters. When a selkie retrieves her seal skin, she leaves, whatever life she has managed to carve for herself on land. There are many ways to look at this: is the relationship she had with her husband abusive, because he was keeping the skin from her, and as soon as she retrieves it, she leaves? If it wasn’t, how strong is this compulsion, for her, that it makes her leave her family – what does it say about women who leave their family, who just feel they have to run away from everything to be able to exist? Or, like Sofia Samatar, we can find an unusual POV on this – what about the children? How do they feel about this?
Taking a piece of folklore or a magic system and thinking about how people would react to it, how they’d use it, is what makes for the best stories. Aside from the cool, fancy battle-magic it allows, what about farmers? Can they use it to plough their fields? What about household chores, can the magic get that out of the way? Does it impact child-rearing, dating, sex, friendship? Focusing on these small elements, and seriously considering the impact of magic on people’s lives, makes for a rich world, that feels textured.
The same goes for technology and highbrow science concepts. I remember when I first came across Einstein’s Twin Paradox (that illustrates how time and relativity work) and being stumped. Not only at the implication of how time works, but at the relationship between the twins. I remember wondering what letters exchanged between the twins would look like, which ones they’d receive when. How would it impact their personal lives, to be living in what is effectively different timelines?
I’m Waiting for You & On My Way by Kim Bo-young are two linked stories, long enough to form a novella together. In a way, they’re an answer to my musings about the Twin Paradox: two lovers are trying to meet at the same time on Earth to marry. To avoid waiting fifty years for each other, they take spaceships and return to Earth, relying on relativity to ‘skip’ time, to gloss over the years they would have had to wait. But they keep missing each other, finding themselves drawn further and further apart in time – and it becomes a love story across the ages, as Earth endures cataclysmic changes, as society collapses and is reborn. Our two characters hang on in there and keep gravitating back towards each other. This story echoes a lot of ideas, of how love endures across time, of how we keep circling back to the same places. All these cyclical themes have hints of reincarnation, even though our main characters don’t die. The science serves spiritual and emotional stakes.
The contrast between the macro of the story (relativity and space, arguably the hardest, most detached piece of science you can use) and the micro (the story of two people in love) is what makes this novella successful. The common thread between Samatar and Bo-young is that they didn’t create something to serve the plot – a magic or scientific discovery that speeds up or facilitates aspects of their story – but analysed how their speculative element would impact people’s lives. And they focused on that.
The more far-reaching the consequences of a bit of magic, the more the worldbuilding feels solid. This doesn’t mean that the stakes only have to be personal, although I do have a preference for stakes that are tied closely to the characters and their growth. Bigger, societal stakes can be at work, yet the human element of the SFF system is in place.
In The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, a new technology is available to women: the uterine replicator. This means they can have a child without being pregnant, without being incapacitated for 9 months and without risks to their health. There is also access to gene editing. This has a huge impact on the society of Barrayar at large. First, too many people have sons, because sons are more valued in this patriarchal society. Then they have a dearth of young women, and a whole generation is missing wives – which means the women have the advantage during marriage negotiations. As a result, most of the women insist on a clause allowing them to use uterine replicators.This, in turn, means women have changed the power dynamics of the couple, because they’re as independent as men with regards to founding a family. They’ve levelled the playing field of child-rearing.
The focus is on human decisions, good or bad – some we’ve seen happen in history before, as patriarchal societies with a limited number of children allowed tend to favour sons, like for example the situation in China after the “one child” law. Bujold explores how technology, mixed with human factors, changes the world she’s created.
So, to summarise, I think science and magic work at their best when they’re linked to the mundane – to the everyday lives of people, and the sort of decisions we know humans make, the sort of usages they’d find for anything unusual introduced to their lives. Magic and science either as a metaphor, or a force for societal change, or an interesting thought experiment on human nature, are intriguing reads that I’m excited to see more of.
20 Dec. 2023