Fantasy is Also Horror II: Who Gets Magic Powers and Why Are There No Good Answers?
Good evening. The time is late and clouds shroud a moonless sky. The dark is deep and you know not what creatures lurk therein. Welcome to my blog.
The second video in my YouTube series arguing that fantasy settings are also always horror settings deals with the questions of who gets access to such powers and how. In most fantasy settings, these questions both end up linked to whatever practice of functional magic exists within the media. We’re going to look at the three most common fantasy-setting systems of accessing magic; which are (a) Metric Magic, wherein anyone can learn or practice supernatural powers, (b) Genetic Magic, wherein magic or supernatural powers are genetic or inherited, and (c) Spooky Magic, wherein random people may end up discovering magic or being born with magic or other supernatural powers, akin to a lottery system. As it turns out, all three options are chock full of terror.
METRIC MAGIC HAS THE SAME PROBLEMS AS GENERAL MAGIC BUT WORSE
In a lot of fantasy settings, magic is just a dark and secret art that few discover and practice…or, put another way: a science. Any series of steps that can be repeatedly relied upon to produce a given result isn’t a dark and secret art, it’s a science, and this is how magic functions in many fantasy settings. I call the phenomenon ‘Metric Magic,’ for obvious reasons. And it’s terrifying.
In my first video/blog entry, I already addressed the potential for chaos and daily terror in any world with Metric Magic, and I don’t want to spend too much time repeating myself. Suffice to say, if anyone can learn magic, anyone can learn magic. Mao, Stalin, and Hitler included. There are also the long-term consequences of magic that functions like science, the largest of which starts out looking pretty damned innocent: people will start studying it like science. Which is nice if they’re studying magic as a means to cure cancer, but not so much if they’re studying magic as a means to assault an entire city with a necromantic plague.
Any setting where magic is a tool that anyone can learn to use, it will end up being used like a tool that anyone can learn to use; not necessarily functionally different from a tool like a knife or a crowbar. Its use and nature depend more on the wielder than on the tool itself.
BUT GENETIC/INHERITED MAGIC GIVES EUGENICS A WIN
If magic or supernatural abilities are something you can be born with, you have to address the question of how you end up born with them. If the answer is tethered into gene sequences, DNA, or any other reproductive phenomena, then eugenics is correct in that setting. After all, the nonsense pseudo-science of eugenics mostly thrived on the stupid notion that some people were born superior to others; so what happens if that’s…actually true? And what happens when the reasons aren’t just blind chance, but scientifically detectable genetic code? How quickly would some people use this as an argument for new social hierarchies? How quickly would some people use this an argument for fascist breeding agendas? In a world where powers could be familial, inherited, or otherwise genetically-reproduced, bloodlines start mattering a lot more. We have a historical perspective on a vast swath of time where bloodlines mattered. They were not good years.
If magic or supernatural abilities are gene-linked in your setting (or the setting of any media you consume), give yourself a while to wonder how that might affect eugenicists, the eugenic agenda, a GATACA-knock-off future, etc. If there was a way to control for these things, you can bet there’d be someone trying to control for them. And that control might look like the gene-by-gene game-rigged-for-the-rich of GATACA…but it might also look like breeding programs, medical tests performed on prisoners, or just plain old proof that genetic superiority does, indeed, exist.
On the other side of things, maybe magic and supernatural abilities arise in disenfranchised or marginalized populations. Depending on timelines, and on who ends up with magic power versus geopolitical or we-got-the-guns power, being born with magic might work against you. In small enough numbers, powered individuals may well end up on the wrong side of a genocide. Genetic superiority generally rests in the eye of the beholder, and a couple hundred freaks out of a population of a few million might start to look like more of a deviance or a danger than an evolution or advancement. If there’s a blood test or an obvious deformity, being in a small enough out-group doesn’t make you powerful, it makes you endangered.
In either case, genetic or inherited supernatural abilities sounds like a terrifying scenario.
HOWEVER, SPOOKY/LOTTERY MAGIC WOULD BE ABSOLUTELY TRAUMATIZING
But worlds where powers aren’t inherited aren’t necessarily better! I do prefer them, personally, because I don’t like to consume media set in worlds where eugenicists have a good point…but it would still be horrifying.
The way the system I call ‘Lottery’ or ‘Spooky Magic’ usually works is this: the world of the supernatural already ebbs and flows and eddies all around us, and certain people are born tethered slightly into those energies, or they grow up to become tethered into those energies, etc..., while others aren’t. The plots in such media usually include a flowering segment, where a character comes into their powers, or an exploratory segment, where a character who has had powers from birth is finally given the context, exposition, and background to begin to understand them.
In a practical, realistic world, however, the odds of ever having the context to better understand whatever powers you were born with are, at best, thin on the ground, and more likely, astronomical.
I provide a pretty discomfiting example in the video, if you care to listen. If you’re short on time, I’ll run through it like this…
A series of questions regarding my sudden strange abilities:
am I sure this isn’t a mental illness? for the case of seers, oracles, mediums, etc; am I hearing voices, having visions, developing a sense that I can see things others cannot? are the symptoms of my power easy to differentiate from the symptoms of an extant mental illness? could these visions be interpreted as hallucinations, could the sense that I can see things others can’t be interpreted as mere delusion? struck either at birth or later in life with my newfound power, can I easily tell the difference? is there reason for me to panic or assume I might be sick?
if I do have a power and am not delusional or otherwise suffering, how do I use it? how do I learn how to use it? who teaches me? do I teach myself? what if I screw up? how badly can I screw up without dying? how badly can I screw up without hurting someone else? if someone else teaches me, how do they find me? am I being surveilled? is there an algorithm searching for me? who has access to it? did they find me via magic, and if so, must I spend the rest of my life wondering who might be looking for me magically? if an organization finds me for the purposes of training me, are they the only people looking? can I even trust them? if I’m find-able, do I have to spend a certain amount of mental energy all the time wondering who might be searching?
do I still need a Real Job? will my power interrupt my Real Job? will it aid my Real Job? should I change jobs, given the circumstances? how will I support myself? do I have newfound needs that go along with the power? how will I provide for them? is it possible to function with this power on a day-to-day basis? can I even hold a job anymore? if I can’t, how do I pay my bills?
is this something people are likely to believe? if I convince them, will that be good for me or bad for me? does my power make me suspicious, untrustworthy? will people think of me as more predatory or more dangerous? how will they respond? how will people close to me respond? should I tell them? should I tell no one? if I tell them, will I have to prove it? can I prove it? can normal people witness supernatural events, in this setting? do they go mad? do their brains rewrite the memory? do they witness it and call me a witch and burn me?
are there other people like me? can I find them? how? do we sense each other? if so, could one of us use that ability to hunt others? is there a secret internet board? if so, who else might have access to it? who might point their TOR browser our way and think we’re all crazy, or terrorists, or actual supernatural things that needed to be destroyed? even if I can find other people like me, why would I trust them?
There are more, of course, but those cover all the basics. They cover enough for you to understand the kind of frenzied paranoia that someone who was born with powers, or suddenly grew into them, might feel. Without a familial connection, friendship, or other relationship with another supernatural-type, a person born with supernatural abilities simply has no context for their own existence. Historically, people who operate without a context for their own personhood, or without a similar person to pattern onto as they grow up, don’t always have the best times. Inside the bounds of a Lottery or Spooky Magic setting, it’s entirely possible that people born with powers go their entire lives without meeting a single other person to tell them they aren’t alone. That’s horrible. That’s…tragic.
But it’s certainly well within the bounds of possibility in a fantasy realm. Because, like it or not, fantasy settings are also horror settings. Any setting where miracles are possible will also have corresponding tragedy.
NEXT TIME ON MY DEPRESSING BLOG
My next couple videos/blog posts will probably be reviews for media that inspires me or that I enjoy, blah blah blah; but I’ll be back to this series very soon with a new episode.
My next video in this series will cover the cost of supernatural secrecy. I think this video, along with #1, already covers the terror of supernatural or mystical powers that are publically known or formally recognized—I won’t repeat myself by covering those points again. But I will delve into the absolute horrors that are likely to occur when supernatural or mystical qualities need to be kept secret.
I suppose three could do it if two were dead…