As I mentioned earlier this week, the best Dragoncon panel had Jim Butcher and Lev Grossman (of The Magicians and its sequels) discussing the role of magic in the modern technological world.
I wasn’t sure exactly where that would take me based on the description. As it turned out, it was largely a discussion about what magic is and what makes it different from science.
Butcher was the one who said that magic is “the technology we want to have.” He meant in the sense that magic isn’t neutral: it responds to its users and maybe even chooses them, so that the people who get to access it are worthy (though given the magical villains in Butcher’s books, I don’t quite see that [then again, Butcher also said that magic only works if you really believe you’re doing the right thing with it. So if you’re evil enough to believe mass murder or mind-control are the right thing, perhaps that’s a different kind of worth.). It’s a technology that cares about us, and one we’re to some extent in charge of: if we’re scrying the Superbowl, we don’t have to worry about disputes between the NFL and cable carriers or whether the cable or the power’s going to go out mid-game (I’m heavily paraphrasing).
Another point he made that I really liked restated Lisa Goldstein’s observation about the magic/science difference: Any idiot can turn on a light switch. Butcher likewise pointed out that while our smartphones have powers that certainly seem magical (communication across thousands of miles, magical mapping of our location, ability to research all manner of knowledge), it takes no special skill to access them. I don’t have to know how to make a smartphone or an app to use them; I don’t even have to understand the technology. With magic, by contrast, you can have mentors or teachers but you have to do the work yourself or bind something (djinn, demon, spirit, etc.) to do it for you.
I think that’s a huge difference, even given that there are exceptions (magic rings, magic swords, etc.). James Blish’s Black Easter is an excellent book that draws heavily on medieval European magic tradition. One of the things he emphasizes is that magic back then was hard work, as magicians had to make almost all their own equipment to be effective. The book also deals with why someone would make that effort rather than just take up science: the sorcerer believes there are forces and beings that science doesn’t acknowledge and won’t deal with.
These insights don’t do much to help my own writing, but I did find it fascinating.