Magic is everywhere in speculative fiction, with good reason: it’s very cool, and it allows characters to solve problems they otherwise couldn’t. But sometimes writers introduce a power or ability to address (or create) a specific conflict and then don’t think about it afterward. The magic just stays there, haunting the story with cries of “I could be really useful here” and “Are you sure you don’t want my help?” Today, we look at a few stories with such magic and how this problem could have been prevented.
Spoiler Notice: The Owl House and To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
1. The Shirshu: The Last Airbender
Avatar’s magic system is famously well put together and one of our go-to examples for how to properly consider all the ways a special power might be used. However, it does have its flaws. I’m not talking about bloodbending, healing, or even the Avatar State, all of which muddy Avatar’s reputation for elemental excellence. No, today it’s time to critique The Last Airbender’s most accomplished sniffer: the shirshu – a creature that’s part mole, part giant anteater, and all contrivance.
We first encounter a shirshu when June the bounty hunter rides hers onto Zuko’s ship. It’s not long before the exiled prince has contracted June to search for the Avatar, and that’s when we learn the full extent of her beast’s olfactory powers. In effect, the shirshu can smell anything in the world at any time. How that works, I have no idea. Real animals (including humans) can track scents that are left in the environment and fade over time, but that doesn’t seem to be what the shirshu does. Instead, it can home in on a person just by sniffing something that smells like them, no matter where they are in the world.
Shirshus are also very discerning. By sniffing Katara’s necklace, June’s shirshu can tell that Zuko is looking for Katara. It doesn’t head to the North Pole where the necklace was made, nor does it just look for Zuko as the person who’s been carrying the necklace recently.
Naturally, Zuko uses the shirshu to track Aang down for an episode so they can have one of the best fights in the series. Much later, as the climax approaches, he again contracts June’s shirshu, this time to find his uncle Iroh. Like last time, the shirshu isn’t following any scent trail but rather consulting its scent-based GPS tracking system.
So… what about all the other times people need something tracked? We can see why June wouldn’t want to work for Zuko anymore (mostly because he can’t pay her), but he’s hardly the only one looking for Aang. Other interested parties include the entire Fire Nation, which has more than a little money to throw around.
We can still explain that, though: maybe they don’t know about June or June won’t work for them due to ethical concerns. However, that still leaves all the other shirshus. There’s nothing to indicate that June’s beast is exceptional in its abilities, and while we never see any others, there are apparently enough of them that some unrelated smugglers have darts coated in shirshu venom.* Really, you’d expect all the major powers to have shirshu breeding programs, considering how useful they are.
It’s pretty clear what happened here: the writers wanted a way for Zuko to quickly find Aang that he couldn’t use again in future episodes. Finding Iroh in season three is probably just a bonus. For my money, June should have been a skilled bounty hunter who knew how to track Aang until her shirshu was close enough to follow the scent of Katara’s necklace without an omniscient nose.
2. Ardra’s Tricks: The Next Generation
In the episode Devil’s Due, Picard and his crew encounter Ardra: a being who claims to have godlike powers. Specifically, she’s claiming to be a figure from the local planet’s mythology. If she can convince the population, then she gets to rule the planet and own all its corn.*
To support her claims, Ardra has a bevy of magic powers to show off. She can change her appearance at will, appear and disappear, and even cause earthquakes with little more than a thought. Her teleportation lets her infiltrate the Enterprise as well, and for her denouement, she makes the entire ship disappear.
Now, I can already hear you saying that a lot of those “magic” powers sound like stuff the Enterprise can do with its technology, and you’re not the only one to think that. Picard’s pretty sure Ardra is a fraud, and with a bit of sleuthing, he’s able to prove it. The flashy costume changes were just a personal holoprojector. The teleportation was a transporter. The earthquakes were caused by pressing on the planet’s crust with a tractor beam, and Ardra made the Enterprise disappear by enveloping it in a dampening field that completely shut down the entire ship. The magic is exposed as mere trickery, and our heroes warp off to their next adventure.
Except, wait a minute. Some of those effects are pretty impressive, even by the Enterprise’s standards. While Starfleet has holodecks everywhere, none of them are portable until Voyager discovers a mobile emitter from the 29th century. Just think how easy infiltrations would be if a Federation agent could change their appearance to look like anything. Plus, it would finally be a way to get Moriarty off the holodeck like Picard promised back in season two.
Transporting into and out of the Enterprise at will is also really powerful. In The High Ground, bad guys being able to do that supplied the main drama of the episode. But Ardra’s most impressive achievement by far is being able to KO the Enterprise with a single dampening field. Eventually, the heroes overcome it, but Ardra’s a con artist operating from the space equivalent of a creepy white van. If her tech can take out the Federation’s most powerful starship, even for a little while, that sounds like something the good guys would be interested in. It might come in handy during the Dominion War is all I’m saying.
The issue here is interesting: Ardra is a con artist who claims to have supernatural powers, except she can actually back those claims up. In real life, such charlatans can only practice their tricks under highly controlled circumstances. Otherwise, they could use their powers to make money, and they wouldn’t need to con anyone. If you have the ability to predict lottery numbers, it doesn’t matter if you do it with psychic senses or a really powerful algorithm.
It seems like Ardra could make a killing either through piracy or by selling her dampening field to one of the many militaristic powers in the Alpha Quadrant. Squaring this circle is difficult, since no traditional con artist would be able to trick the Enterprise – not when it has sensors that can tell what you ate for breakfast with a casual scan. Perhaps this plot would have worked better if it had focused on an away mission, with the Enterprise sent off somewhere else. Bamboozling a tricorder doesn’t sound easy either, but it could probably be done without giving the con artist military-grade firepower.
3. Fusion: Steven Universe
Steven Universe is a show about two things: feelings and fighting. Just a whole lot of both all over the place. But since magical powers don’t usually cause problems with balancing feelings, it’s the combat we’re worried about today. Steven and the Crystal Gems have to fight monsters, other Gems, and monsters that turn out to be other Gems.
One of the powers that Gems have is fusion. Like the name implies, this allows two or more Gems to fuse into a new Gem whose personality is a gestalt of the original fusers. More importantly for our purposes, the new Gem is also much more powerful than its component Gems. For example, Pearl and Amethyst can fuse into Opal. Opal can defeat much more powerful enemies than Pearl and Amethyst can as an unfused team. Since any two Gems can fuse this way, it’s not hard to guess how it becomes an issue in fight scenes. If fusing is so powerful, why ever fight separately?
To the writers’ credit, they do take steps to limit fusion’s power, at least at first. Mainly, they do this by showing why certain fusions are either unviable or just a bad idea. Pearl and Amethyst really don’t like fusing with each other, and their personality clashes make it difficult for Opal to maintain her form. Garnet and Amethyst can fuse into Sugilite, but Sugilite loves fighting so much that she’s a danger to her own team. Early in the show, all three of the main Gems fuse into the giant Alexandrite – a Gem so unstable that she can’t get through a family dinner, let alone a battle.
So far, so good, but it doesn’t last. The cracks first appear when Pearl and Garnet fuse into Sardonyx. Unlike previous fusions, Sardonyx is perfectly stable and has a healthy personality, raising the question of why she wasn’t formed in any of the previous battles where our heroes nearly lost their lives. In the same episode, Pearl develops an unhealthy addiction to fusing into Sardonyx, so that explains why they don’t form her afterwards, but it does nothing to explain why she wasn’t used before. It only gets worse from there.
The dam breaks a few episodes later, when the main characters form Alexandrite to battle a giant foe. There’s no sign of Alexandrite’s previous instability; now she just kicks ass and takes names. There’s no explanation for why she’s completely stable now, but it means that any time the Gems face a difficult opponent, they can simply fuse together and overcome it. Or if the enemy is too strong for even Alexandrite, then the good guys have no hope of winning anyway.
More fusions emerge further into the show. Some of them have built-in limits, but others don’t. Past the halfway point, it’s pretty obvious that the heroes can get through any fight by fusing, unless of course there wasn’t money for a guest voice actor that week. And the show still has a lot of fights, despite Steven preferring to solve problems without violence. To enjoy any of the battles, you have to work hard at forgetting that they’d be over if the characters remembered their most powerful ability.
Why did this happen? It’s simple: fusions represent both a big combat boost and an opportunity to explore the characters’ identities. Since exploring identity is a huge part of the show, the writers had a major incentive to introduce as many fusions as possible. Any limitation on their use was never going to hold – not when it was in direct opposition to the writers’ main goal.
If I’d been hired to do a content edit on Steven Universe, my solution would be to make fusions more specialized rather than simply more powerful. Instead of having a higher ass-kicking stat, fusions would be able to do specific things. Perhaps one fusion is good at making stuff, so the characters form that one when they need to build a spaceship. Another might be a talented negotiator, and so on. That way, it’s easy for the writers to justify bringing in a new fusion without making the fights boring.
4. The Enjoining Spell: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Let’s be honest: Buffy is about 60% underused magic by volume. Willow alone learns and then forgets more magic than I can keep track of. But the most egregious example of forgotten magic is the enjoining spell, introduced near the end of season four. Ironically, this spell was the capstone to the only unambiguously good arc in that season: Spike turning the heroes against each other by spreading malicious rumors. He does this as part of a deal with Adam, the season’s main villain. That’s the high-water mark for Spike’s threat level, and it’s after he gets the chip in his head so he can’t fight anymore.
In a conflict where the heroes have been driven apart, it makes sense that the resolution would focus on them coming back together. I just didn’t expect it to be so literal. After an offhand comment about Buffy needing other characters’ skills to defeat Adam, Giles announces that he just happens to know a powerful spell that can imbue Buffy with other characters’ skills. Like fusion, except without any of that pesky exploration of new identities.
Once the spell is cast, Buffy supposedly gains Giles’s academic knowledge, Willow’s magic, and Xander’s… sarcasm? Buffy doesn’t start creeping on women, so I’m not sure what other trait of his she might have inherited. Then Buffy goes to fight Adam, and it’s immediately clear that she’s gained a lot more than a few skills. For one thing, her physical strength is now through the roof. In previous fights, her attacks barely annoyed Adam. Now she can send him sprawling across the room with a well-placed kick. She also has magical powers far beyond anything Willow can do, including a bulletproof force field and a spell that turns missiles into doves.
First question: Giles, why would you hold out on us like that? This spell would have been really useful back when Buffy had to fight the Master* or when the Mayor turned into a giant snake demon at graduation. If Giles only discovered the spell recently, it really seems like he’d have mentioned it to the group so that Buffy would know she had an ace up her sleeve.
Second question: Why don’t they ever use this spell again? It certainly would have been helpful when Glory tried to bring down the walls between dimensions or when Buffy had to fight an army of ubervamps to stop whatever the First Evil’s plan was. That’s not even considering the many powerful bad guys of the week that show up in the next three seasons.
Believe it or not, that second question has an answer, sort of. Defeating Adam is actually the penultimate episode of season four. In the final episode of that season, Buffy and her friends are attacked in their dreams by the First Slayer. She’s angry because slayers aren’t supposed to have friends, for reasons, and now she’s gonna murder them for using a combo power spell. That seems like a reason to avoid using the spell again, except Buffy is then able to defeat the First Slayer without too much trouble. It turns out the trick was believing in herself.
Rather than explaining why such a powerful spell is never used again, the First Slayer story only draws attention to how silly the situation is. No explanation would actually have been better. If we actually wanted to explain why this spell was a one-off, it could have required a rare ingredient that they can’t replace. The show actually does this with Angel’s soul-granting spell, at least at first. Of course, a spell should still be properly foreshadowed if it’s going to defeat a main villain, but that’s another problem entirely.
5. Body-Swapping: The Owl House
Much like Buffy, The Owl House has an approach to its magic that can be politely described as laissez-faire. Each character’s power level fluctuates wildly between episodes, with magical abilities appearing and disappearing seemingly at random, especially in the first season. Everyone’s magic is all over the place, but the character who’s allest over the place is definitely Eda, the self-styled most powerful witch of the Boiling Isles. Rather than taking all day to examine every instance of magic gone wrong, let’s look at just one: the body swap spell.
At first, this is simply a one-off plot device to allow for some comedy where the main characters inhabit each other’s bodies. Sure, it’s a little annoying that Eda gets yet another power for her ever-expanding collection, but, whatever, it shouldn’t have any impact on the larger story. The characters will go through some wacky hijinks, then return to their original bodies and move onto the next episode, right? RIGHT?
So thought I, the world’s sweetest summer child. The characters do have some wacky hijinks, but as the episode draws to an end, some guards appear to chase them. Still, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. Eda has plenty of fireballs and curses to deal with a few guards. But instead of using those, Eda casts her body swap spell over a large area, catching both the guards and a number of civilians who happen to be walking by.
This does allow the heroes to escape, as everyone else is largely unable to act due to the disorientation of being in a new body. But it also opens a major can of magic worms, even by Owl House standards. Eda’s spell is quick to cast, affects a big area, and completely incapacitates its targets. Perhaps more importantly, it can’t be dodged, which is how Owl House witches normally avoid magical attacks.
To be clear, Eda was already so powerful that the show struggled to create tension in its many magical battles. The body swap spell makes that so much worse. Now Eda has an ability that can, as far as we know, one shot any enemy she might encounter. At least some of those enemies are supposed to be threatening, which leaves the show with two options: either establish that a bunch of villains are arbitrarily immune to body-swapping or never mention the spell again and hope everyone forgets.
For better or worse, the show picks option two. Every time Eda gets into a fight afterward, we’re left wondering if she’ll randomly win via body-swapping. This problem lasts until the end of season one,* when Eda loses all of her powers and has to start over from square one. That’s actually a really good move on the writers’ part, and something I genuinely didn’t expect. It’s not often that a show recognizes one of its characters is way too powerful and takes steps to remedy the situation.
But even with the season two improvement, Eda’s body swap spell is still a major annoyance for over half a season. It’s an especially high price to pay for an episode that wasn’t particularly important to any major character arcs or plotlines, just some consequence-free comedy. An easy solution would be for the spell to come from an item rather than be a spell Eda knows. That way, she could use it once to start the wacky hijinks and a second time to defeat the guards. Then it would be out of charges forever. Problem solved.
6. The Soft Blade: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
Our final entry is another scifi story, so we’re technically dealing with technology rather than magic. However, this particular bit of technology can do so many things that I feel fully justified in calling it magic, so there. The tech in question is an artificial alien symbiote from Christopher Paolini’s latest novel. It calls itself the “Soft Blade,” and it’s like if Venom were way less snarky.
We first meet the symbiote when protagonist Kira discovers it under a pile of rocks. This is supposedly a super-secure holding area, but never mind that. The symbiote quickly binds to Kira as a sleek black suit, and she spends most of the book figuring out all the things it can do. This includes a lot of what you’d expect: the suit provides excellent armor, it can create deadly spikes on command, and Kira can extend tendrils from it to swing around like Spider-Man. If that’s not enough, the suit is also a small spaceship, complete with onboard atmosphere and maneuvering jets. All this for the low price of letting the suit consume nearby minerals once in a while.
Oh, and it can also create enough ships and soldiers to supply a galactic superpower. Huh? Let me back up: the main plot of this novel is a three-way war between humanity and two alien species. One of those species is called “the Nightmares,” and they’re basically the Zerg from Starcraft: an all-consuming biomass that makes ships out of living tissue rather than metal. Despite being 100% certified organic, the Nightmares have even better weapons and technology than the two other parties in the war, and they’re clearly winning. No one is sure what to do, and the only hope is a desperate alliance between humans and the second alien species.
This connects to Kira’s suit later in the book, when we get a big reveal: the symbiote accidentally created the Nightmares in the first place. Early in the book, there’s a fight scene where part of the symbiote gets shot off into space. Out in the vacuum, it apparently absorbs some other casualties from the battle, then turns completely evil for reasons. The fragment settles in a nearby gas giant and sets to work creating the Nightmares, a military force powerful enough to challenge both other galactic heavyweights at once. It does this in the few months Kira spends returning to human space on a slow shuttle.
I had no idea the symbiote could do something like that, and it raises questions about why it was designed as a suit in the first place. Anyone wearing the symbiote as a suit will primarily be using its combat-related powers; they won’t need to whip up a fleet of bioships on the fly. Wouldn’t it make more sense to install that feature at a shipyard or large base, somewhere that has room for such massive construction projects?
More importantly, why don’t any of the main characters try to do that again? They have the full symbiote and could theoretically make a Zerg army that isn’t evil. That sounds risky, but the alternative is everyone getting eaten by Nightmares. It’s extra weird because Kira thinks a lot about how the lost fragment made a huge space fleet in just a few months. It seems like she’s on the verge of realizing the implications of that, but then she goes on to angst about other things.
This tech issue exacerbates an existing plot problem: the heroes don’t have anything to do that can realistically affect the outcome of an interstellar war. They aren’t leaders, so it’s hard to feel like their actions matter that much in the grand scheme. Paolini tries to address the problem by putting the main characters at the center of a diplomatic negotiation between humanity and some possible allies, but even that doesn’t have much impact. It’s only near the end, when both enemy leaders arrive and challenge Kira to single combat, that the good guys have real agency.
When you spend most of a very long* novel waiting for the heroes to finally do something important, it’s extra frustrating that they have a perfectly viable option right at their fingertips. Why even include the symbiote-Nightmare connection if not for that exact use?
I’m pretty sure the purpose of that reveal is to forge a connection between Kira and the Nightmares. Otherwise, they would just be some random aliens who show up to cause a ruckus. But there’s a much easier way to do that: have the Nightmares be the symbiote’s creators. That would make them dramatically relevant without turning the Soft Blade into an industrial-strength replicator.
Supernatural elements are the main source of novelty in our stories, and that’s half the reason to write spec fic in the first place. But with great novelty comes great potential to wreck the plot, so always keep an eye on those spells and antimatter reactors. Otherwise, you’ll have readers wondering why the characters aren’t actually using the tools at their disposal.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?