Hello, Mythcreants, I hope you all are doing well!
My story has a little bit of science and a little bit of magic, which I’m working on blending reasonably.
I read somewhere online that in a lot of sci-fi stories, the authors and screenwriters have scientific explanations for the weird occurrences and strange experiments—and a blogger said that having a scientific explanation for a science fiction concept makes it less believable. Is this true? If so, how do I make a science fiction concept make sense without providing an explanation?
Thanks for your time!Murphie
Hey Murphie, Oren here. Great to hear from you again!
I’m not sure what exactly this blogger said, so here’s my take on scientifically explaining your story’s speculative elements: It’s not automatically bad or unbelievable, but it has a high potential to be.
If you have a robust, believable explanation for how your advanced tech works, then, great, that can add a lot to the story. You still need to make sure the explanation isn’t boring to read, but that’s a challenge for any form of exposition. This is a big selling point for books like The Martian and Project Hail Mary, both of which are near future scifi. Note, I’m not saying the tech in those books is scientifically accurate; I’m saying it feels scientifically accurate to most readers.
This can also work for magic, though it’s much harder. While magic and tech often accomplish the same purpose, they are themed differently, so a “scientific” explanation for magic is much harder to sell. It’s not impossible though, and the Horizon games do a decent job, with most of the seemingly supernatural abilities actually being advanced technology that humans no longer understand.
The difficulty is that a lot of speculative elements are simply impossible to explain, especially when they’re following established tropes that persist because people are used to them rather than out of any inherent believability.
For example, it’s very difficult to create any kind of scientific explanation for classic wizard spells, where the wizard chants magic words from a spell book, makes fancy hand gestures, and then sprinkles in a few miscellaneous components. Any explanation would have to be so complex that it would also qualify as magic.
The same thing can happen for scifi tech. There’s no realistic explanation for giant walking battlemechs, as the physics just don’t work out. Likewise, it would be extremely difficult to scientifically explain why space fighters engage each other at close range, more reminiscent of WWII dogfights than modern air combat.
So when deciding whether to scientifically explain something, the key is deciding whether you can have a plausible explanation at all. If you can, then great! If not, then you’ll just end up calling attention to unbelievable elements, and probably breaking theme to boot.
Hope that helps, and good luck with your story!
Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.
Comments on Should I Explain My Magic?
I’m faaaaar into the fantasy side of the spec fic spectrum (spec-fictrum?), so I’m looking more at the magic side than the tech side. And…it’s a delicate balance.
With too little explanation of how the magic works, the conflicts can feel nonsensical. Like we know the characters have a skeleton key, a set of lockpicks, and a crowbar, but act like they can’t open a padlock unless they have the right key. The story will be trying to build tension by having a character that’s been poisoned, but I’ll just be sitting there thinking “Why aren’t they just using the healing spell from chapter 3?” Even if they never used a healing spell specifically, if the magic feels like it can do anything at any point, it’s the same result.
But on the flip side, over-explaining magic until it feels more like science soon wears away at the mystique and coolness that makes magic so intriguing in the first place. It also very easily leads to long, boring exposition dumps that soon feel more like an instruction manual than a wondrous fantasy world. At that point, why even bother with magic at all?
Personally, I think a good way to strike the right balance is to explain the what, but not the why. Establish up top that healing magic requires the mage to be bathed in moonlight and you get to keep the tension (of course they can’t just use the healing spell, it’s the middle of the day and they’re in a deep dark cavern) without bogging the story down in unnecessary detail, keeping the magic cool and mystical.
As I said, I’m not much into sci fi, so I can’t say much on that side.
“Like we know the characters have a skeleton key, a set of lockpicks, and a crowbar, but act like they can’t open a padlock unless they have the right key.” Every hidden object game ever! What do you mean “you need a lockpick for this?” I have a perfectly serviceable crowbar in my inventory!
It’s sometimes hard to strike the balance between under- and over-explaining. I’m more on the ‘winging-it’ end of the spectrum myself and what I usually do is I keep my magic consistent (like you, I do relatively little with sci-fi).
I agree it’s probably a good strategy to establish the what but not the why. For instance, I’ve established that Isadora Goode’s boon, a dangerous creature, can stay in the world for ten minutes and only be summoned once a day. That’s the what. Why that is, I’ve never established. I’ve also established in the same series that necromancy is not magic and requires a contract with a supernatural entity (usually a demon or god), but not why that is the case. I give information that is necessary to understand what is happening, but I don’t go too deep into things.
“But on the flip side, over-explaining magic until it feels more like science soon wears away at the mystique and coolness that makes magic so intriguing in the first place. It also very easily leads to long, boring exposition dumps that soon feel more like an instruction manual than a wondrous fantasy world. At that point, why even bother with magic at all? ”
Long, boring exposition dumps should always be avoided, but otherwise – one might “bother with magic” because it fits the story one wants to tell. It can serve other purposes than evoking wonder. It all depends on the kind of story it is.
My magic system is based on science as it primarily just allow a wizard to manipulate physic laws at will, but the whole system keep working (so for any action there is an equal and opposite reaction unless the wizard circunvents it on purpose), at least in the early levels. More advanced magic that mess with the mind, spirit and such are somewhat based on scietific theories, but don’t need an explanation as my MC don’t get too far in his studies.
Anyway i think one should always explain what’s going on, every magic system have to have rules and be consistent with them, even is the reader don’t get a course on it.
If you have a reasonable-sounding explanation, if that explanation isn’t too big an info-dump, then okay, especially if characters can exploit the explanation to solve their problems or start the story in the first place
Just be careful, or you’ll get Midi-chlorians. Do you want Midi-chlorians? Because that’s how you get Midi-chlorians
I also recommend you check out Sanderson’s Laws of Magic, particularly Sanderson’s First Law
I suppose it can also depend what *vibe* you want for your magic. If you want almost a second set of the laws of physics, more explanation and hard rules would fit, like in a lot of Sanderson books. If you want your magic to lean into a sense of wonder, mystery, and coolness, for lack of a better term, then less explanation tends to work out better.
In scifi genre they talk about hard and soft science fiction realms. See eg https://www.enclavepublishing.com/science-fiction-hard-versus-soft-2/
Where soft (is similar to magic) like StarWars and hard science fiction is like the Martian (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_(film). I have seen similar taxonomy in magic worlds.
Compare Harry Potter and The Magicians, SyFy (2015 – 2020) where in the latter they try to explain the magic and give it a set of rules.
The article https://fantasybookfanatic.com/hard-magic-system-vs-soft-magic-system/ about gives pros and cons (which is better viewed on the webpage then here):
Pros and Cons
The major pros and cons of a hard magic system are summarized below.
the concrete rules of hard magic make it easier to develop the plot, world-building, characters, etc. the specified overarching rules limit magical possibilities
easier to convey the different uses of magic to the reader when explicit supernatural laws are in effect constrains the reader by closing their mind off to seeking the bounds of the magic system on their own
readers believe they have a firm grasp on the ins and outs of the magic system every individual use of magic must follow an airtight line of reasoning
To be honest imho I like the hard magic better, where you, as the story evolve, you get to understand the rules and where they stems from. That is part of the journey. Like a characte arch.
When you have soft magic I think you fall in the trap of overusing the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina : “Oh Harry has a problem. Let him use a spell he found in a bottle that just came in from the sea.”
Mythcreants have previously divided magic into four categories (following Sanderson, I think): You have the hard-soft dimension, and the rational-arbitrary dimension, which gives four possibilities all in all. Hard-soft is how much you explain to the reader. Rational-arbitrary is whether magic seems to follow something like natural laws or not.
In this schema, Harry Potter’s magic is hard but arbitrary. It’s explained to the reader, but there’s no real system to it – various magical rules are there because they fit the plot, not because there’s any inherent logic to it all. Sanderson’s Mistborn magic, on the other hand, is both hard and rational. It’s not just that the way it works is explained to the reader, but there’s also an inherent logic to how magic works, so you can figure out in advance what’s possible or not in this magic system.
You could in theory have rational and soft magic, if the author figures out this coherent system of magical laws but doesn’t explicitly state them in their books (although after a while, a keen reader could probably figure out a lot), but I don’t think that’s very common.
Then you’ve got the kind of magic that Gandalf wields in Lord of the Rings, which is both soft and arbitrary. It can work well to evoke a sense of wonder in readers if it’s done by a side character, but it’s hard to keep any tension up if it’s the main character who seem capable of just about anything.
“You could in theory have rational and soft magic…but I don’t think that’s very common.”
One possible example is A Song of Ice and Fire; that theory’s brought up in the Mythcreants article about creating a rational magic system, and it makes a good argument that the magic there is actually rational.
Right! Had forgotten about that.
I suspect what the original statement meant is that if you explain something using scientific language to explain tech or magic beyond our current understanding of physics, then by definition you are telling anyone who knows better exactly how it couldn’t work. Trying to explain exactly how your virtually magic space drive works is just an invitation for someone to be annoyed, while any explanation that attempts to justify psionics relies almost entirely on well documented pseudoscience. The problem is that there are two different types of explanations used in science fiction and to a lesser extent fantasy settings, and they are easily confused. Some works focus on merely using scientific sounding words, generally known as technobabble. The more useful approach is to focus more on providing a mechanism and limits rather than trying to tie your fictional magic or technology explicitly to real science.
The fundamental problem with technobabble is that it doesn’t actually tell you anything of substance from a narrative standpoint. It really is often just filler. What midichlorians really get wrong is not that they are an explanation, it is that they aren’t. They are just a scientific sounding word applied over a fundamentally unscientific concept that was better treated as fantasy style magic in the first place. Similarly, Star Trek’s reliance on technobabble actually is an example of the dangers of using this, which is that it actively makes it harder to predict how the heroes are going to solve a given problem. Whether or not the transporters work is not dependent upon a mechanism that we can understand, it is dependent upon a useful cheat from the writers with science words pasted over it.
The point Brandon Sanderson is making with his laws of magic is that you need to understand limits and have some idea of the mechanism if you want to make valid predictions within the story, which is really just another way of saying that you need good foreshadowing with Chekov’s gun within your magic system. The problem is that technobabble is the exact opposite because it makes foreshadowing harder. Soft magic doesn’t undermine this point. The key to using soft magic is that the heroes aren’t the ones controlling it and using it to solve problems. Soft magic is a source of conflict, not a source of resolving conflicts.
The Expanse is a great example of how to do all of this right. We don’t get a word salad explanation about how the Epstein drive works. Instead we focus on the punishing biological effects of acceleration for a given level of thrust. Similarly, the protomolecule is an excellent example of a soft magic system done well. While it cheats on acceleration at the end of Leviathan Wakes, the key is that the heroes aren’t the ones using it. They are instead struggling to keep up in their conventional spacecraft(a hard magic system). The other element is that this is all thematically consistent about the fact that squishy humans are poorly suited to space travel.
Couldn’t you talk about THREE ways of doing it?
1. Explain it from a real-world science standpoint. This is tricky. If you’re really good at science yourself, you can do impressive hard scifi. If you’re not really good at science yourself, you’re gonna annoy science savvy readers because you get things wrong. Worst case scenario is when you rely on completely debunked pseudoscience.
2. Technobabble. The problem is what you stated – no real explanation. Still, I personally think a little technobabble can be fine if it’s in passing and more used to provide flavour than crucial plot points.
3. You make up alternative laws of physics and/or laws of magic for your world. They’re different from how our world works, but it’s clear that it’s because this story takes place in an alternate reality. This is what Sanderson does in the Mistborn series and other series, but you could also do this in a more science-fiction-looking than fantasy-looking way, and still have it come across as “alternative world works differently” rather than “this author doesn’t know their science”.
This option can go into a lot of detail regarding mechanisms, or it can stay more superficial with regards to rules and limitations. Going into detail places greater demands on the author to make it all internally coherent etc, but it can still work well.
3. also works in the Lord Darcy stories. As they’re set in an alternate 1980s setting where magic was codified in the middle ages (and a few other things went differently in history), magic is clearly understood and a mage can tell you why they can do X but not Y. The limits are needed to make sure that Lord Darcy’s forensic wizard can’t just snap his fingers and conjure up the culprit – where would be the fun in that in a mystery story, after all? They can tell you how this piece of magic works through the law of sympathy or suchlike. It sounds scientific and in this world it is – in ours, it is not.
I like your approach #3. This can work for sci-fi as well, just think about all the stories that use other dimensions, subspace etc to explain faster-than-light travel. Helps gloss over the effects of time dilation too, if you don’t want to have to deal with that since this would require the author to know a lot of science, hence be #1.