A song of magic and science
I am up to book 4 of Song of Ice and Fire, and something has been troubling me. In GRRM's world where magic is real, and by extension, the gods both old and new, it is irrational to be an atheist. To deny the power of a god or magician is to deny the nature of reality. As much as there is merit in scientific thought (a big chain over the mouth of the river was a deft move after all, napalm or no) when obsidian kills a zombie with +11 fire magic, all bets are off.
This is a fundamental difference between our world and fantasy lands but the rules of life should change accordingly. Yet religion is still presented as a slightly absurd notion, and magic often treated with the scepticism we rightly place on the David Copperfields of our world. I didn't notice or mind this when I was 11, but I have to say I find this more than a little disconcerting as a 33 year old atheist. In a world of magic, religious fundementalists are completely sane and justified in their fire and brimstone beliefs. And if a Seer sees your death in the flames of a fire, you'd be a damn fool not to put on fresh underwear. All this is fine as long as the world is consistent, all the way down. But in the land of Westeros -- like so many fantasy lands -- there are little things that bother me, and these details make all the difference. If magic is real, then why bother with leaches and potions at all? If the gods are real, then burn the non believers at the stake.
In a recent interview for google authors, GRR Martin commented on how happy he was to see the uber geeks of silicone valley -- traditionally Scifi nerds -- embrace fantasy. He went on to say how there has been a divide between the two genres, but that this is closing as the fans of both find themselves drawn equaly between fantasy and scifi. Group hug. Perhaps he has a point, if you consider how much scifi is mere fantasy with laser swords. But this is my point, there should be a divide between fantasy and scifi, just as big as there is beween a theist and an atheist.
Magic 1, Atheism 0.
This might seem like an absurd argument to be making, after all a fantasy land is fantastical by default. Doubly absurd is the fact that I myself have created one such land for my own book. But if you read my book, you'll see that it is pretty much a long winded answer to this problem. Everything in my world is done with magick, and there is no place for science at all, other than the mundane application of heat to food you achieve when you cast a spell to cause a rock to ignite. And the more I think about it, thew more certain I am that this is an important distinction to make. A world that tries to incorporate both magic and science is doomed to have logic faults that run down to the core. And by extenstion there is a fundamental difference between scifi and fantasy. One of the very first arguments I had online (in an "Aintitcool news forum of all places back in the late 1990s) was about this very argument. The argument got into the absurd bickering about which sub genre was superior -- which is silly, but at the start it was about defining terms. I think the definitions still stand:
Science says the world is chaotic, yet works because of elegant principles that we humans can comprehend with reason and experimentation, and perhaps even exploit to make the world a better place (that is, better for humans)
Magic says the world is intrinsically a balanced system of light/dark, good/bad, chaotic/ordered powers, that humans stand in the center of, to exploit it all by the power of our will (or some choice spoken words and few pints of blood as the case may be).
In a magic world, the universe (gods or force or whatever) cares about us, is effected by us, is created, in essence, for us. The scientific world (ie. the real world) could not care less if humans conquer the galaxy or are reduced to bacteria. I don't think you can have it both ways.
I love a Song of Ice and Fire more than any other story I have read for a long while. The characters are real, I feel their plight and pain and am shocked and saddened by the twists of fate that befall them. But in the end, magic will win, because in GRR Martin's world, it is real.
The heros of our real world that I belive in; Sagan, Darwin, Dawkins, Hawkins -- these men would be fools in the land of Westeros, madmen who would need locking away for insisting that a comet is merely a large lump of ice in orbit, or that there is no evolutionary benefit for a reptile to develop the ability to breath fire. Madmen, the lot of them -- burn them at the stake in the name of R'hllor.