Go to content Go to navigation Go to search

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Clarke’s Third Law, which immediately grabs you by the lapels and demands the answer: what is magic? You may think you already have it, but better minds than ours have struggled, to no avail. Best we’ve got, and I’ll paraphrase: Magic is what we mean when we’re not pointing to science or religion. Note the dual exclusion, there: we aren’t dealing with a simple dialectic. (We usually never are.) Let me quote at some little length from The Bathhouse at Midnight; it’s the nearest thing to hand that says what I want it to say:

In general, the many attempts to define and classify magic and religion can be put into two categories. The first is the belligerently rationalist, paradoxically allied in this with the eclectic “New Age,” and the views of some anthropologists, in which magic and religion are regarded as essentially the same phenomenon—a good proportion of Soviet writing fell into this category, as do many “New Age” effusions, albeit with a different emphasis. The second is the more common binary approach in which magic is seen as “alternative religion,” the “other side of the coin” of religion, or as a corruption of it, or as parasitic to it, or as a deviation from a spiritual or social norm, or as a semiotic system of oppositions. A recent thoughtful attempt to defend a qualified binary approach remarks ruefully, “Scholars in earlier decades of this century were luckier: they knew both what magic was and how to find it. They simply opposed its characteristics to those of either science or religion, which they knew as well.”

We have a trinity on our hands, a trio, a triskele. (When Ryan says “qualified binary approach” above, he’s leaving out science. But we all have to stand somewhere.) —Clarke, I think, is making the signal error of conflation, boiling our triad down to mere dualism, either/or, with magic as essentially the same phenomenon as religion; he’s as Soviet and New Age as the next fellow. But that doesn’t make his Law any less true. Ryan goes on to cite David Aune’s working definition:

Magic is defined as that form of religious deviance whereby individual or social goals are sought by means alternate to those normally sanctioned by the dominant religious institution.

It’s not what I’m getting at, not quite, but it does square the triangle nicely, don’t you think?

Spin got much better by about page 150—

Have you read Spin yet? If you haven’t, well, I’m probably going to spoil it a bit, so maybe you might want to skedaddle. Up to you. I’d recommend, and this is nothing against Messr. Nielsen Hayden, but I’d recommend you also avoid this post until after you’ve read it; it doesn’t, you know, spoil much, but still, there’s stuff in there I think it might be better to be surprised by. Here’s what I took away from it, which doesn’t spoil the book at all:

Many of the genre’s classics are in essence carefully-tuned machines designed to attract readers whose primary conscious loyalty is to rationalism, and lead them by a series of plausible contrivances to a sudden crescendo of mystical awe.

And oh, I see; oh, I get it. —Most of what spoils in the post is quoted from the flap copy, so you might want to avoid that, too. (Buy the paperback.) Maybe you won’t. Me, I’m not a fanatic about remaining unspoiled or anything, but I do tend to avoid the coming next week bits on shows I really like. (Whichever, I’d definitely recommend you avoid the Washington Post review everybody’s citing, which is some of the most egregious Whoosh! Zap! Science fiction isn’t just for geeks anymore! boosterism I’ve read in quite some time. “The long-anticipated marriage between the hard sf novel and the literary novel,” which finally presents “insights into the human condition as rich as those contained within any mainstream mimetic fiction”? Please.)

Still here?


Spin got much better (for me, you should understand, of course) by about page 150, when we fire the first blast of shotgun ecopoiesis at the planet Mars.

Then the ocean was ablaze with firelight as far as the horizon.
No single one of those rockets would have impressed a local crowd even in darkness, but this wasn’t one column of flame, it was five, seven, twelve. The seaborne gantries were briefly silhouetted like skeletal skyscrapers, lost soon after in billows of vaporized ocean water. Twelve pillars of white fire, separated by miles but compressed by perspective, clawed into a sky turned indigo blue by their combined light. The beach crowd began to cheer, and the sound merged with the sound of the solid-fuel boosters hammering for altitude, a throb that compressed the heart like ecstasy or terror. But it wasn’t only the brute spectacle we were cheering. Almost certainly every one of these two million people had seen a rocket launch before, at least on television, and although this multiple ascendancy was grand and loud it was remarkable mainly for its intent, its motivating idea. We weren’t just planting the flag of terrestrial life on Mars, we were defying the Spin itself.
The rockets rose. (And on the rectangular screen of the TV, when I glanced at it through the balcony door, similar rockets bent into cloudy daylight in Jiuquan, Svobodnyy, Baikonur, Xichang.) The fierce horizontal light became oblique and began to dim as night rushed back from the sea. The sound spent itself in sand and concrete and superheated salt water. I imagined I could smell the reek of fireworks coming ashore along with the tide, the pleasantly awful stench of Roman candles.
A thousand cameras clattered like dying crickets and were still.
The cheering lasted, in one form or another, until dawn.

And it’s not (just) the enormous spectacle and it’s not the heroic scale and it’s not the collective celebration and it’s not the defiance (though I’m a sucker for that stuff, to be sure); it’s not even (just) the delicious way “shotgun ecopoiesis” rolls across your tongue. It’s what comes next:

“Bear with me. You understand the Spin ratio?”
“Roughly isn’t good enough. One terrestrial second equals 3.17 years Spin time. Keep that in mind. If one of our rockets enters the Spin membrane a single second behind the rest, it reaches orbit more than three years late.”
“Just because I can’t quote numbers—”
“They’re important numbers, Diane. Suppose our flotilla just emerged from the membrane, just now, now—” He ticked the air with his finger. “One second, here and gone. For the flotilla, that was three and a fraction years. One second ago they were in Earth orbit. Now they’ve delivered their cargo to the surface of Mars. I mean now, Diane, literally now. It’s already happened, it’s done. So let a minute pass on your watch. That’s approximately a hundred and ninety years by an outside clock.”
“That’s a lot, of course, but you can’t make over a planet in two hundred years, can you?”
“So now it’s two hundred Spin years into the experiment. Right now, as we speak, any bacterial colonies that survived the trip will have been reproducing on Mars for two centuries. In an hour, they will have been there eleven thousand four hundred years. This time tomorrow they’ll have been multiplying for almost two hundred seventy-four thousand years.”
“Okay, Jase, I get the idea.”
“This time next week, 1.9 million years.”
“A month, 8.3 million years.”
“This time next year, one hundred million years.”
“Yes, but—”

Yes but nothing. One hundred million years, just like that! This is the aching genius heart of Spin: to take all that dizzying powers-of-ten billyuns and billyuns of cosmic grandeur and with a deceptively simple macguffin boil it all down not to something we can understand, no, but experience. We—you, me, him, her, us—we get to touch and taste and hear and see what happens next. One year passes, and Mars is terraformed and ready. Launch some hardy colonists, and ten hours later there’s an ancient Martian civilization to talk to. Decades pass, and the galaxy itself is a different shape, the sun grown red and bloated, and we get to see it all—


Which sits me, I think, on the lonely end of the critical spectrum regarding this book. I found the cosmological speculation more compelling than the humanstuff (rather than vice versa, or middlin’ each)—which is not to say the book is without its rich insights into the human condition; just that those are more usually found in the general, than the specifics of Tyler Dupree’s lifelong—dalliance? relationship? obsession?—with the Lawtons, Jason and Diane.

A triangle? Yes, and no, and it’s not like that. Jason is science, and technology: the Newton, the Einstein, the Hawking of the Spin, as we’re told. He cares about nothing but the Perihelion Project, and comes complete with an engineer father who builds a labyrinth from corridors of power and all but fixes the wings to his back. But Diane isn’t religion, or even a credible evocation of the religious impulse, for all that she’s the spiritual seeker of the two. But she’s not running toward so much as away; she ends up tumbling into the first thing she sees: the arms of Simon, devout Christian, her opiate. Not so much God. —So it’s hardly a fair fight: Jason’s apotheoses underpin and are exalted by the apotheoses of the book itself; Diane’s, or rather Simon’s, are glimpsed at second and third hand, by vaguely embarrassed narrators, rendered stiff and strange by technically correct words like “chiliasm” and “Parousia,” alienated from the Plain People of, well, whatever. (I kept thinking of Robin Wright in Forrest Gump, always skulking away from the plot to wallow in the mythic excesses and shortcomings of the Boomers while we wait so very patiently with Forrest for her one day to see the light.)

Then, it’s not supposed to be a fair fight. There’s never (really) a question that the Spin is a phenomenon of science; that science is the only way we can engage it. (This is a science fiction novel, after all.) Religion’s a response, and the shapes religion takes in that response are background details, and only occasionally plot points: as interesting as the highway piracy, say, and rendered in about as much detail. (And did anyone else wonder if maybe Wilson’s played his share of Car Wars? —Just asking.) Diane isn’t supposed to uphold one leg of the great epistemological debate, anymore than Tyler’s supposed to make it a tripod (Tyler? Magic? Ha!), or even play a hapless shuttlecock batted with his readers between the two. He’s just this guy, you know? His job is to live and tell the tale.

The extent to which the humanstuff is celebrated, I think, is the extent to which the book’s about lives lived in these extraordinary circumstances, and not adventures had. (The spirit of a recent manifesto, if not so much the letter.) And to that extent, my glass is as high as anyone else’s. But the life that is lived—Tyler’s life—is such a dreary one, full of empty apartments and distant relationships that do nothing but foil his unrequited love for Diane. To his—and the book’s—credit, Tyler’s aware of how thin and dreary it can be, and certainly the great existential irruption of the Spin excuses his disengagement, much as its glitches and hiccups excuse his and Diane’s nominal infidelity. But the mean and frustrating paucity of Tyler’s perspective is a drag on the book; his fixation on the Lawton siblings rendered thin and strange without the excuse of an epistemological proxy fight; I can’t help but think it all deserved a voice as interested in the immediate world and the people in it as Jason was in the glory of the Spin. (Molly: perfidious Molly: we could have used more of her, and more like her.)

(And: I have yet to encounter anything more dreary, to use the shibboleth one last time, in all the mimetic fiction that I’ve read, than Carol Lawton’s anachronistically Sirkian off-stage tragedy, revealed to us at the very end not in a flash of insight or melancholic epiphany, but thrust almost as an afterthought into Tyler’s disengaged hands with a flat and emotionless and artless monologue, rounded neatly enough, I suppose, by a homily.)

So Jason is science, for what it’s worth, and religion’s a reflex. What about magic, then?

Well, Jason’s the magician, too. In both the Clarkean and Aunean sense. —The technology of the Spin (and what comes after) emerges from the sluggishly simple science of the Hypotheticals, out there eating ice and shitting information, and all these billions of years later it’s become too big to need an explanation, indistinguishable from magic. But that only gets us so far as Langford’s application of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a completely ad-hoc plot device.”

Religion may be a reflex—a response—but it was shaped by a very real need; a sometimes surprisingly sophisticated salve for an appalling and unspeakable ache. (Actually, a number of them, but let’s conflate.) —The genius heart of Spin is to make the cosmological personal by so suddenly and drastically shifting the flow of time, and this can’t help render the personal cosmological, as all these deaths—of you, of me, of the ecosystem, the planet, the species, the Sun, the galaxy, the universe—all collapse toward the same dull point in the not at all distant enough future. No wonder Tyler turns away, numb! No wonder Diane runs as far as she can! No wonder Jason gives up everything to the effort to understand! And it’s from that effort to understand that Jason (and the Martians, and the Hypotheticals) pulls his great act of magic, gifting us all with world enough, and time: individual and social goals realized by means alternate to those normally sanctioned by the dominant religious institution. (Rationalists may despise magic, and lump it as essentially the same phenomenon as religion, but theocrats hate it, too; it is a hacker’s art, a tinkerer’s art, above all a troublemaker’s art, and theocrats count them all as essentially the same. —For centuries, “magic” was all we had of science, and technology.)

That this great magic trick is almost entirely accidental, incidental to the attempt to understand—this grace is but an epiphenomenon—well, that helps explain how this deus ex machina doesn’t feel like a cop-out, which may well be the book’s great magic trick.

(That the book’s initial faith in technocracy is almost touchingly naïve—whatever else it says about us all, the relatively sane and measured response to the Spin insists upon an America healed of the grosser excesses of Bush fils; and the boiling frog reads less like an explanation than an excuse [for after all, those Danish cartoons had little enough effect on the daily round of Muslims everywhere when they were first published last September, and yet months later all it took was a few opportunistic hackers muttering about how much hotter the water had gotten for riots to erupt]—that’s a allowance I’m happy enough to make. That the similarity of the book’s structure to Rapture and Tribulation and chiliasm may be little more than the fidelity of both to iron laws of storytelling—well, it doesn’t make the parallels any less wicked.)

So, anyway: yeah. I read Spin, and I liked it, quite a lot. Now, up and on to the next

  1. Patrick Nielsen Hayden    Mar 6, 10:07 AM    #

    What “trade paperback”? SPIN is out in mass-market paperback, not trade.

  2. Kip    Mar 6, 10:31 AM    #

    Eek. Pardon me a moment—

    There. (That’s why they pay him the big bucks, folks.)

  Textile Help