I have a lasting long-term disagreement with my wife over the value of magical realism, and of the many branches of fantasy literature that are sort of like magical realism — you know, Borges, and K.J. Bishop, and pretty much everything ever directed by Ikuhara, and suchlike. All the fantasies where the weirdness is essentially symbolic rather than systemic. I’m very fond of this stuff. She really doesn’t like it.
(Although she does seem to like Utena, or at least to be willing to tolerate it…)
(…there’s a lot of local cultural pressure in that direction, though.)
This makes me sad, because it prevents me from sharing stuff I care about with a person I care about. That happens sometimes. Right now it’s making me particularly sad, because I’m currently a bit obsessed with Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine — an innovative and brilliantly deranged tabletop RPG system by the innovative and brilliantly deranged Jenna Moran — and I find myself wanting to set up a game that borrows a lot of bits from it, but a lot of the bits I like best are sort of magical-realism-flavored in the relevant way (I think), and it seems like that might be a serious drawback for at least one of the players I would most want to be involved.
It’s possible that there’s just nothing to be done about this. But it’s also possible that if I can defend my taste well enough, if I can explain what it is about magical realism that I think works so well…or, at least, what it is that’s capable of working so well…that it will be compelling. That I can inspire an appreciation of the subgenre even within someone who’s inclined to be deeply skeptical.
That sort of thing works sometimes, right?
My wife’s core complaint, as I understand it, is that the settings and narratives of magical-realism stories make no sense. That things just happen, for no reason. That there’s no system determining what’s possible and what’s not, making all outcomes equally meaningless. That you, the audience, are not allowed to understand what it is that’s going on.
There’s clearly a direct sense in which this complaint is very grounded in reality. I’d be hard-pressed to dispute any of the actual claims in the above paragraph, except for the value judgment that is “making all outcomes equally meaningless.” Not having a system, and not really understanding what weirdnesses are and aren’t possible, are pretty much the concepts that define the subgenre.
Nonetheless the objection rings hollow to me. The literature I love isn’t being nonsensical for the sake of being nonsensical, and it isn’t even being nonsensical for the sake of being cool. It has a real and powerful logic behind it, and the choices that are made are made for reasons that the reader can comprehend. Just…not if he tries to comprehend them in the same way that he would comprehend the magic of a Brandon Sanderson novel. It’s a different logic, with a different set of operational rules.
There’s a cop-out answer here, a false path, which is meta-narrativity. It’s about making a statement, or developing a theme. The author is making trying to convey something meaningful and important to you-the-audience, and the important question is whether or not it does that successfully. It is of no consequence whether or not you can build a canon or a continuity to explain it. And if you don’t believe that, you should be satisfied with the midichlorian theory of the Force. My wife would be very irked with that explanation, I believe, and rightly so. Stories are meant to immerse you in their events. That is what the art form does. By telling a story at all, you are implicitly making a deal with your audience: care about this thing I’m making up on its own terms, let some part of yourself pretend it’s for real, and you’ll get something out of it. If you’re willing to betray that deal just to make a point, you have no business telling a story in the first place. Write an argumentative essay or something.
But there’s also a true answer, a valid explanation of the logic behind magical realism. Or so I posit, anyway. And, in its shortest possible formulation, that true answer is this:
Magical realism reflects the world, not as it exists within a techno-sociopolitical model of reality, but as it exists within your ordinary subjective anagogically-reasoning mind. Then does whatever is necessary to inject magic into that world.
The universe is many different things, all at the same time.
But “the universe” is really big and hard to talk about. So let’s try again, going with something much simpler.
An apple is many different things, all at the same time. On the very most fundamental level, the “truest” level, it’s a mess of quantum foam or 1-dimensional superstrings or sub-elementary-particle realities of some kind. It’s also — simultaneously — a bunch of quarks, and a bunch of atoms, and a bunch of organic molecules.
(…except that none of those things is true, really, because physics and chemistry don’t recognize concepts like “apple.” When you model the universe at quark-granularity, it’s going to be very hard to find the boundaries where apple becomes not-apple. But in theory you could, if you were Laplace’s Demon or some comparably omniscient entity. You could extrapolate the workings of a human mind, and figure out how to express the human-formed apple/non-apple distinction in terms of stupidly complex quark arrangements, presumably working through a succession of quark-based models of atomic physics and chemistry and so forth.)
And that apple is also a biological entity, of course, with cells and an ecosystem and a genetic lineage that you can talk about in the language of evolution. And it’s a commodity subject to the laws of economics. And it’s a powerful cultural symbol with unavoidable connotations of knowledge and sin. And it’s a deeply personal mnemonic trigger with equally-unavoidable connotations of romance and innocence and joy, at least to someone with wistful memories of going apple-picking with his college girlfriend.
All those things are true, all at once. And we can understand them all, to a greater or lesser extent. But we can’t understand them all simultaneously. Our ability to work with our own simplified models of reality isn’t anywhere near good enough to do that. Talking about the apple in a way that expresses both the truth of its quark-nature and the truth of its commodity-nature might well require more computational power than exists in the universe, and certainly requires more computational power than exists in anyone’s head. I, Balioc, am a mighty demon indeed…but I can’t even count how many orders of magnitude there are between me and a guy like Laplace’s Demon.
So fine. Our models are limited. We focus on one “level” of reality at a time, zooming in and out as necessary.
These levels-of-reality are stacked, with some of them being “deeper” and “more fundamental” than others, such that you can completely derive the less-fundamental ones from sufficiently complete knowledge of the more-fundamental ones. Something like that, anyway. It’s probably not actually a single ordinal column — I don’t think you can perfectly model economics by using the rules of poetic metaphor, or vice versa. But there’s a rough sense in which sociology is derivable from psychology, which is derivable from biology, which is derivable from chemistry, all the way down to the quantum foam or whatever.
This is important.
What is magic? Magic is changing the rules of reality. It allows for new rules, different rules, added by the person laying out the fantasy.
But at what level of reality are those rules applied?
There are a lot of answers to that question that totally fail to work, at least if you want a story that feels like a story. “Oooh, ooh, I’m going to create a magic system where gravity causes particles with mass to be repelled from one another instead of attracted towards one another!” It’s not clear to me what world you end up with there — I know very, very, very little about physics — but I’ll bet money that it doesn’t contain many events that a human would regard as narratively worthwhile. Things get almost as wonky if you futz around with the core rules of chemistry or biology. Or even with the rules of economics or psychology. That’s not how you create a functional fantasy.
The standard fantasy story starts by modeling the world on the level of society, politics, and technology. There are people who have techniques for doing stuff, and those people interact with one another. The reified objects of this model, the irreducibles, are “people” and “techniques.” The magic, the new set of rules, generally takes the form of modifications to the technology. People have different techniques for doing stuff than the ones we’re familiar with, and the techniques need to be used in odd-seeming ways, and maybe people get access to them in odd-seeming ways. A wizard can throw a fireball, or see distant events in a bowl of water, instead of not being able to do those things. And maybe he can do those things just by saying just certain words in a certain order, or maybe they also require him to be in a specific psychological state, or to be born of a certain bloodline, or something. These truths have to be taken as brute fact, in the context of the story — they can’t be derived from any underlying rules of “physics,” because the narrative isn’t modeling things at the level of physics, it’s modeling things at the level of technology. If any actual causal explanation is provided, it’s almost certain to be a phlogiston-style explanation that doesn’t have any moving parts / predictive power / broad applicability. Like “elemental spirits” or “mystic energy” or “mind-power.”
(NOTE: This is true even of very sophisticated and high-complexity magic systems like Brandon Sanderson’s. Allomancy provides an excellent example here. There are lots of rules explaining exactly what allomancy can and can’t do, and exactly who can do what with allomancy, and exactly what allomancers have to do in order to achieve the effects they desire…in other words, Sanderson goes into tremendous detail explaining the specs of the technology that he’s provided, all the things that a clever and curious user would want to know. But there’s no underlying science. No way to model the process that goes [eating tin –> heightened physical senses] in terms that can be understood and applied elsewhere. It’s just a thing that’s true. If you try to label the causal arrow that connects the Shards of Adonalsium and the effects they have on the universe, you’re pretty much reduced to calling it “magic!”)
(Which is fine. Better than fine. I’m glad that Sanderson gave us a story, not a bizarro-world physics simulator.)
Some fantasies also mess around with the rules of sociopolitics directly, usually by creating sapient nonhuman species whose normal behavior is somehow weird by human standards.
Now, the thing is…when you model reality on one level, you’re also modeling everything that can be derived from that level. The more-fundamental levels don’t even exist — if you ask about the traits of an individual atom in Gandalf’s hat, the only coherent answer anyone can give you is “it’s not there” — but the less-fundamental levels will arise emergently. When you set up a bunch of rules about quarks, those rules will determine in what ways the quarks come together to form atoms (or fail to do that), so your rules implicitly contain atomic physics within them. And so on.
Changes to your model will ripple upwards, affecting your universe in more and more drastic ways. Tinkering with the rules of atomic physics makes biology look completely fucking different. As in, “the concept of biology is not even coherent anymore, we need wholly new mind-structures to incorporate the wholly new words we’d need to describe the things that are going on instead.”
The level of individual personal narrative is above the level of techno-sociopolitics. So when you tinker with the techno-sociopolitical rules, individual personal narratives become completely fucking different, at least when the individuals in question have any contact with the changed rules.
A lot of bad fantasy just sort of ignores this, and tries to pretend it isn’t true. (“Yeah, my world has teleportation magic that allows wizards to travel to pseudo-China and back in the blink of an eye. But the culture is still pseudo-medieval-England with no real trade or foreign influence, because…look, Kings of Leon!”) A lot of good fantasy does exactly the same thing, only with better execution. The Lord of the Rings, for example. (“…explain to me again how all the life-changing elvish technology somehow hasn’t spread to anyone else? How it is that Gondor, nestled up against Mordor as it, has no contact whatsoever with Harad?”)
There’s also a lot of good more-realistic fantasy that treats this thing like a feature rather than a bug. Here I’m talking about narratives like LeGuin’s Earthsea and Bakker’s Second Apocalypse. They feature societies that look exactly the way you’d expect them to look, given the magic they have — and some of the people in those societies have lives that are really bizarre, because that’s where the logic of the worldbuilding leads you. If you’re willing to count sci-fi tech as “magic,” Bujold is a great example of this; technologies like the uterine replicator and Jacksonian cloning generate pretty much the same usages, and the same conflicts, that they would in “real life.” And thus you get, uh, things like the Durona Group and the ridiculous mass-reproduction plot from A Civil Campaign. At the end of this path lies Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, where you devote yourself entirely to unpacking the crazy ramifications of your techno-sociopolitical-level rules changes. It can be a lot of fun.
But this approach has costs. In particular, when it comes to personal narrative, it leads you inexorably to an uncomfortable trilemma. You can
(a) have magic totally absent;
(b) have magic that’s present but is lame enough not to do much; or
(c) have magic that warps everything around it, so that the narratives become freaky and unrecognizable, totally in thrall to their own internal logic.
If the thing you want is one of those things, that’s fine. But maybe it isn’t, always. Maybe you want a story about magic that feels interesting and important, but doesn’t warp everything around it. Maybe you want to consume a text about something that’s discernibly similar to your own life, but with magic in it, so that you can imagine how it might feel to engage with that magic. Maybe you want to imagine how magic might change the rules that seem to govern your actual day-to-day existence.
Magical realism models individual personal narrative directly. It doesn’t talk about the broader effects of technology or society or politics, in the same way that conventional fantasy doesn’t talk about covalent bonds or superstrings. It just asks you to think about life as you ordinarily perceive it, with your ordinary everyday consciousness, not trying to encompass abstractions. And then it changes the rules. With magic.
The rules of your ordinary everyday non-abstract life are unlikely to be anything particularly abstract themselves. They’re probably things like “wanting something really really hard doesn’t mean that you’ll get it.” Or “the popular crowd is intimidating, but it doesn’t actually have any real power.” Or “even the most extraordinary-seeming people turn out to be just regular old humans in the end.”
So you introduce some magic —
— and you get a world where wanting something really really hard does mean that you’ll get it. Like Utena. And then you have to play out the consequences of that being true.
— or a world where the popular crowd actually has terrifying levels of power over life and death. Like Yuri Kuma Arashi. And then you have to play out the consequences of that being true.
— or a world where the extraordinary people can turn out to be numinous monsters with incomprehensible appetites. Like The Etched City. And then you have to play out the consequences of that being true.
And, like…if you try to apply these rules on a techno-sociopolitical level, and build a whole techno-sociopolitical world up from them, it quickly becomes incomprehensible and absurd. But you don’t have to do that. The narrative is not modeling anything techno-sociopolitical; it is modeling individual people and their private worlds. Within its confines, technology and society and politics (in the broader sense) don’t exist, any more than individual atoms exist in The Lord of the Rings. And the individual people, and their private worlds, are real and important. They deserve some magic too.
Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine has a really cool way of approaching this idea. Several really cool ways, in fact.
It presents you with a variety of sub-settings. And within those sub-settings, it presents you with these really broad-brush narrative-level rules that are metaphysical truth. Like, in the glitzy neon Tokyo-esque retail wonderland of Arcadia — a place specifically designed for shopping adventures in the classic slice-of-life anime mold — there are defining principles that state “You will spend more money than you intended to.” and “Boys have to carry bags for girls.” Those are, according to the game mechanics, actual laws of the universe in Arcadia! Like gravity or natural selection!
And, to me, this seems like an incredibly powerful and useful thing on a narrative front. It represents a small piece of the universe the way it actually feels, from the inside, in some minor but telling ways. It manifests, as game truth, some things that have all the perceived reality and perceived weight of natural law (like “you always spend more money in this place than you intended to”). It externalizes some aspects of PC decision-making, in ways that parallel the ways in which actual day-to-day decisions feel somewhat externalized. It’s clearly magic. There’s no place on Earth that has that effect on everyone. But it’s magic that changes the rules in an understandable, meaningful way.
It makes no bloody sense, if you’re modeling the universe techno-sociopolitically. The Arcadians, if they are anything like actual humans, would ruthlessly exploit these features of their terrain in all sorts of weird ways; before long, Arcadia would bear no resemblance whatsoever to a friendly little shopping arcade. But who the hell cares? Our techno-sociopolitical models aren’t anywhere near granular enough to produce effects like that. And they’re good effects.
Similarly, Chuubo’s reifies specific kinds of genre expectations and narrative arcs in a way that pushes PCs down certain coherent character-development paths. Sometimes this gets so magically-realistic that you can feel your brain dribbling out through your ears — your PC can become a world-shattering god without actually shattering the world, or even changing much of anything for anyone else, just because his own personal story is about that kind of apotheosis. It’s a weird, mind-bendy, non-systematic way of looking at existence. But the things it’s talking about, and playing with, aren’t actually any less real than the things that conventional wizards-and-empires fantasy talks about and plays with. They’re just…less atomic. Less abstract. More rooted in the little details of life.
And I think that’s pretty neat.