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Mixing Science and Magic: A Recipe for Disaster?
by Paula Fleming

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

A friend emailed to lament the difficulty she was having with a novel in progress. A shaman-in-training from a hunter/gatherer culture gets sent by magic to 21st-century Earth. While studying to be a shaman, she learned to hear the "earthbeat," the ecological rhythm of the world.

Says the author, "I want the whole book to have a sense of the fantastic and the mysterious--that's what I love about fantasy. Where I get hung up is when I bring her into our world, where I could actually tie in ecological science and give the earthbeat a real, definible face. Possibly avoid having the book written off as New Age woo-woo, etc., written by someone who was too lazy to do research. But the two tones don't seem to meld."

Is this novel doomed, or can magic and science appear in the same work and both carry credibility?

Yes, they can, but the author has to come to some personal judgements on philosophical matters.

Some Examples

Anne McCaffrey's Dragons of Pern series blends SF and F tropes: humans settle another planet and selectively breed or genetically engineer the local fauna; then their descendants live in a quasi-medieval society with keeps, guilds, serfs, a warrior class, and telepathic dragons.

China Miéville's Perdido Street Station made the final ballot for the 2001 World Fantasy Award. It includes magic, or at least biological or physical phenomena that appear magical to those who don't understand them. All sorts of funky critters run around in the book's universe, from mantis people to alternative-universe-netherworld giant spiders. Yet the protagonist is a scientist -- working with late-1800s technology, but nonetheless a scientist on the cutting edge of his world's understanding.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, which is about as hard as SF gets, contains chapters from the point of view of "the little red people" who live in dust piles and try to talk to the big people who've come to their planet. It also tells tales of "Big Man," a folkloric character akin to Paul Bunyon and Pecos Bill.

On Babylon 5, we met the Technomages, people who developed technology to a high level and modeled it on illusion and other magical forms. And, of course, the X-Files frequently juxtaposed magical and scientific phenomena and thinking, often putting them into direct conflict with each other.

The Essential Questions:

As with any other unconventional approach to writing genre, we need to ask ourselves why we're doing this. Most genre stories fall neatly into the science fiction or fantasy categories. Are we combining the two because we think the technique is complicated and tricky and will impress the reader? Are we just not adept enough at our craft to carry the story through a scientific universe or a magical universe? Those aren't good reasons. So why might a story combine fantasy and science fiction elements?

Take a moment now and try answering the following questions:

  • What is magic? Magical thinking? What problems does it solve, or fail to solve, in the plot?

  • What is science? Scientific thinking? What problems does it solve, or fail to solve, in the plot?
  • Do you think one mode of thought is better than the other? Why? What do your characters think? Why?

  • Do you think some problems are more susceptible to one mode of thought than the other? What do your characters think? Will they change their minds during the story?

  • Do certain personalities deal better with the world in magical or scientific terms? If a character changes their mind about the efficacy of magical or scientific thinking, how will they change personally?

After giving these questions some thought, we should know whether we need to put both magical and scientific elements in our story for it to work. We should have a pretty good idea, too, what we want to do with the elements. So now let's think about how we'll work with them.



We often use lush prose to describe magical worlds, to convey a sense of the arcane or the possibility thereof. Also, we may want to convey a heightened sense of aesthetics -- a majestic dragon, an imperious queen, a shimmering pendant, and so forth. In a story about physical or social science, on the other hand, we often use more precise, terse prose to convey a sense of practicality, to make our extrapolations feel possible.

Here are some ways to unify the tone of your story:

  • Pay extra attention to the voice of your point-of- view character(s). Does their language arise from their world view and culture? Is it consistent through the story, only changing as the character undergoes deep change? Consistency of the characters' voices can bridge differences in the narrational voice. In the novel about the time-traveling shaman, for instance, the shaman's vocabulary and way of seeing the world could be the reader's touchstone as the narrational voice describes both shamanic rituals and bird-counting ecological studies.

  • Develop a metaphor that summarizes the story's theme. In Green Mars and Blue Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson has the character Nirgal see the world as "the white and the green." The "white" is the rational and absolute; the "green" is intuition and the unmeasurable force of life and growth. This image appears over and over to describe different events.


If someone practices the scientific method, they do so because they believe it works. Likewise if someone practices magic. Whatever your personal beliefs about science and magic, your characters must have believable reasons to do what they do. For example, our shaman may smoke an herb to hear the earthbeat, because what she hears under the influence usually corresponds to the tribe's subsequent success at getting food. Dr. Dana Scully persists in performing autopsies because the cause of death she discovers usually corresponds to other facts in the case.

If either the magic or the science is noticeably weaker than the other, then the story will not hang together as a whole. Here are some points to consider:

  • Do any of your characters seem stupid for persisting in their beliefs?

  • Have you researched your science deeply enough so that, even though everything you know probably doesn't appear in the story, the tale conveys credibility to the reader? (If possible, have at least one science fiction fan read your work to give you feedback.)

  • Have you developed a magical system that is comprehensive and internally consistent enough that the reader can buy into it, or at least understand why your character(s) buy into it? (Again, try to have a fantasy fan give you feedback on whether you've accomplished this.


Ideally, stories should try to tell us something we don't already know. Especially when we combine genre tropes in an unusual way, we should do so to explore thematic material not accessible only through science fiction elements or fantasy elements.

We've already thought about some of the questions our work might address. Now let's consider some plot techniques that could help us address them:

  • You can go home again, but home won't look the same. Our transplanted shaman is probably incredibly homesick; but if she manages to return home after having adventures in our time, home may look colorless, taste bland, and feel boring without the Internet and cable TV. She will probably observe her native culture with a critical eye, sharpened by perspective and experience. Having a character leave and return provides an opportunity to address issues around the relative value of magical vs. scientific thinking.

  • No matter where you go, the challenges are the same. Societies with shamans typically require them to make a significant sacrifice and/or undergo hardship to be given that sacred position. Likewise, post- industrial Earth visionaries often give up a great deal -- they may risk assassination, they may be imprisoned, they may be alienated from their family or community, they may forego popularity and financial rewards. If she decides to try to save the 21st-century environment, our shaman may have to undergo a modern equivalent of her initiation rite. Repeating such ordeals provides an opportunity to compare the character's ability to cope with magical vs. scientific thinking.

*   *   *

With a clear idea of why you're blending magic and science, you can use unities of tone, system, and theme to concoct a very successful and delicious story, one that challenges our preconceptions of how the world works in genre stories.

Copyright © 2002 Paula Fleming
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.


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