In all of my fantasy books, the magic systems are logical, and, if you will, as some readers have put it, “have rules.” And I think it’s fair to say that I was among the first of U.S. fantasy writers to develop and carry out such an approach through an entire series, as well as three different series that followed. But I didn’t do it just because it was a “neat” or nifty idea. I did it because, simply put, anything in nature, science, technology, and civilized human societies that works has rules or, if you will, underlying frameworks.

“Laws of nature” tend to be rather inflexible. If one jumps or falls off a cliff here on earth [excluding those in the ocean depths], the result is always going to be a rapid descent, the results of which will range from painful to fatal. Likewise, all human technological progress has resulted from gaining understanding of how the universe works and actively applying that understanding in an organized fashion. If magic were “real,” as I postulate in my fantasy series, any real advancement in its use would come from disciplined study of magic and application of that study.

The problem with human-made laws, as well as with the commandments reputedly handed down from various deities, is that breaking them often affords the rule-breaker an advantage or momentary gratification of some sort, again often an advantage or gratification that costs others, which is why all societies have penalties for rule-breakers. Problems with societal rules usually happen under several circumstances. The most obvious is when someone with great power does so and gets away with it because of that wealth and power, but those transgressions are usually comparatively infrequent – until you get a society such as U.S. society today, where there are over 400 billionaires. The second problem, common to almost all societies, is when society, government, and/or religion mandates or forbids certain behaviors and practices more because those particular rules are more to maintain power – political, religious, or both – than to enhance law and order. Denying women, minorities, or those of other faiths civil rights extended normally to the majority is far more about control and power than anything else. This problem is compounded when the “rules” don’t make sense to a significant segment of society or conflict with the “rules” of as different set of believers.

The “believer-believer” conflict was one reason why the Founding Fathers wanted to separate church and state. It’s also one of the best reasons for a nation’s laws to be based on those basic principles on which all “believers” and non-believers agree, and not to attempt to use laws to impose religious practices.

There have certainly been working societies with no formal “laws,” but they have tended to be either very tightly socially controlled or the equivalent of absolute rule by the most powerful. And all that brings me back to the point that to presume that an organized society exists without rules and that magic has no structure is a fantasy too unrealistic for me.

2 thoughts on “Rules”

  1. JakeB says:

    I have noticed that each year I seem to get less and less tolerant of all those works of art or entertainment which don’t pay attention to the rules: the cases where consistency or reason is sacrificed for a moment’s drama or the sake of a (usually trite) scene. Since I have also recently realized that the world contains far more books than I can ever read or movies than I can ever watch, I find it best to simply put aside those that fail the reasonability test immediately, and find something less irritating.

    All that said, I want to give a shout out to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Rule of Names”, which is the earliest story epitomizing a non-fuzzy magic that I know about.

  2. Sam says:

    I grew up in the 80s and 90s and a lot of my exposure to fantasy and science fiction was through the mediums of television and movies.Among my favourite shows were cartoons such as Transformers and Astro Boy as well as live action shows such as Doctor Who and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I never was that interested in Star Wars which I believe at that time would have to have been the most popular mainstream science fiction/fantasy franchise.

    However unlike most of my peers I also enjoyed reading. I started with Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl and by the time I was 10 or 11 was reading Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis among others. I particularly enjoyed Asimov’s robot stories and the concept of artificial intelligence has fascinated me ever since.

    Over the years I’ve become more aware of how “dumbed down” science fiction and fantasy are in the mediums of television and cinema compared to the books I read. Most of the works of fantasy and science fiction I read have their own internal logic even if “real world” logic doesn’t always apply. However movies and TV shows just seem to make it up as they go along or oversimplify to a ridiculous extent.

    This is particularly noticeable when books are adapted into movies or television. My brother put me onto a fantasy Tv series called the Dresden Files which I watched and found enjoyable enough that I sought out the books the show was adapted from. I could not believe how much the source material was butchered by the show. The most blatant example being the use of werewolves in the show as opposed to werewolves in the the books. The author of the books had crafted a story where there were different types of werewolves created by different types of magic and where turning into a werewolf by getting bitten was a myth with no basis in reality. What did they show do? They introduced only one type of werewolf which was created by being bitten by another werewolf.

    I have to say that while I don’t like internal contradictions in storytelling I’m fairly open to a variety of concepts that many would consider implausible and/or nonsensical. One of the most fascinating concepts to me is the TARDIS from Doctor Who which in addition to being a time machine is bigger on the inside than the outside – or as the Doctor describes it dimensionally transcendental. The premise is that the TARDIS is the product of an extremely advanced civilisation with a far greater understanding of physics than ours so that things that seem impossible or at least unlikely to us are eminently possible to them. I’d like to think one day in the distant future we might be able to build time machines that are bigger on the inside even if it is nonsensical.

    Then of course there are concepts in fantasy that deal with things that aren’t easily quantifiable. For example a story about a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a long life and great wealth. What is a soul? How much does it weigh? Mr Modesitt’s fantasy works tend to deal with physical reality albeit a physical reality with different rules to our own. Things like the afterlife and the soul if they exist are not part of the depiction of his magical systems to the best of my recollection. However there are works of fantasy I have read where the afterlife is a place that can be visited. If a dead man jumps of a cliff in the afterlife can he die? Fantasy can deal with realms where normal physical rules do not apply or apply in a way that is seemingly nonsensical but may have it’s own internal logic.

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