Why Magic is Hard

Kyle smiled, but it was fake again.  He had always wanted to buy unlimited use rights to some little spell for moments like this. He’d looked though, anything remotely useful was pretty expensive. There were a host of destructive spells that could be had cheaply, that was the nature of magic, but those didn’t really lend themselves to casual use. That’d be easy to introduce, Sure I can show you what my fancy magical degree is good for, grandma. Let me just blow up this end table.

He’d have to work with something in the public domain, but anything reasonably easy to remember and perform was overused. There was a 50/50 chance he’d end up looking like an idiot. “Um, maybe I can manage a spell.”

“Just, ‘maybe?'”

Kyle tried not to sound put upon. He’d had this conversation at least a dozen times with people who’d learned everything they knew about magic from TV. “Without coordinating the spells ahead of time I’ll run into problems with the power requirements. Have you ever taken a magic class?”

She shrugged, “Senior year of high school. We just learned the basics, and practiced focusing energy.” She grinned, “I fell asleep in class a few times trying to do that; it was at 8am.”

“Did they ever let you cast a spell?”

“For the final. All the magic classes met in the gym and together we cast a spell that let us know where the nearest sheep was. That was so odd! We all focused as much energy as we could and used, um… ‘bindings” to hook ourselves together, then our teacher made some gestures, chanted some Latin, and I knew where the nearest sheep was. I just knew it was kind of north by northwest about 5 miles away. It was like feeling where my own foot was. That was the final. We went back to our class rooms and wrote down where the sheep had been. If you got it right, you got 75% and if you’d contributed energy to the spell you got the other 25. I don’t know how they knew if you’d managed to contribute any energy, but I got 100.”

Kyle grinned. He’d done Yorkic’s Sheep Finder as well back in high school. It was a popular spell for classroom demonstration.  It was relatively simple, in the public domain, could be applied to an entire group of people, and there was no practical use for it what-so-ever. Modern farmers tracked their livestock using implantable GPS transponders and smart phone apps.  Even if you wanted to use a spell, there were better ones, so you were never fighting with some poor shepherd over the spell’s power requirements.

Kyle had looked Yorick up after learning the spell. Everything the modern world knew of the spell and it’s author came from “The Magic and Mages of the Dutch” a volume written by a near contemporary of Yorick. “The Magic and Mages,” was one part spell book, one part who’s who, and one part self aggrandizing memoir. It’s author painted Yorkic as a jerk who would require one-quarter of the meat from any animal he found whenever it was butchered even if that price deprived the shepherd of the food they needed to survive. Then again, “The Magic and Mages” seemed to have something bad to say about every magic user other than its author.

The Sheep Finder might just work at the moment, it was getting late on a Saturday night after all.  Kyle tried to remember the words and gestures used to trigger it, but came up blank.  Like most of his contemporaries, Yorick had used Latin to trigger the spell and some gestures to tune it.  Kyle had taken classes in that sort of thing, but his focus in college had been “Contemporary Magic”.  Modern spells were all triggered by directly denoting the equations they were intended to change, because most were developed bottom up based on real world science.  Yorick and his contemporaries had used trial-and-error.  It allowed them to pull off some utterly inexplicable things, a physic connection to the location of sheep included, but developing new spells had taken years or even decades.  As such, only the most important of legacy magic saw use, and even then modern users tried to reverse engineer them into modifications of real world science.

“Did you have to do that spell at an odd time?”

“Oh yeah! We all had to come in at 5:30 in the morning on a Saturday. A lot of the kids really hated it, and it was really hard not to fall asleep meditating that day.  We were avoiding normal school hours because of the scale law.” Jessie drained the last of her drink, a neon pink thing with an umbrella sticking out of it. She looked around like she was trying to find a waitress. Kyle wondered if he should offer to buy her drink.

“The non-scalar law,” he corrected then immediately regretted the pedantic impulse. “It’s the equation that dictates how much magical energy is required to do a spell. It’s the minimum of the golden ratio, expressed as 1.61803399 or the theoretical amount of energy the spell would take if only one person were doing it, times the cube of the number of people currently doing it minus Merlin’s constant, divided by the number of people doing it.”

Jessie raised her eyebrows. Kyle realized he was in a bar reciting a mathematical formula.

Taking entirely the wrong tack he tried to explain the same thing, only without the math. “What a spell does, any spell, is it warps space so the rules of reality are different. Like, you can give gravitons an electrical charge so they can’t penetrate the ground. That makes things float in the spell area. But the more you warp space the harder additional change becomes. So if more than one person tries to do a spell at the same time it’s like a bunch of people trying to stretch a huge rubber band one inch a piece. The first guy that does it has a pretty easy job. Then a second guy comes along. Now together they need to stretch it two inches. It’s still easy, but each guy pulling has to work somewhat harder. As more and more people join the group it gets harder for every member of the group.”

“I guess that makes sense,” she sounded distracted and looked around for the waitress again.

“The sheep finder is particularly lousy because whatever it does to entangle your brain with the nearest sheep is really far from our own reality.”

She gave him a lopsided smile, “I suppose it would be.” Then she grinned and said in a teasing tone, “And that’s why a big strong mage like you can’t even magically light a match?”

“Well,” he hedged. “I didn’t say I couldn’t, I said it would be hard! Um, without the lecture it’s not at all impressive if I pull this off. But, yeah, public domain spells are really hard to use. If they weren’t I suppose more people would use them and then they’d get hard to use.”

She winked, “You’re all talk.”

He sighed theatrically. He had no idea if she was impressed or bored out of her skull and worried for her friend. Still, at least she wasn’t hiding in the bathroom. “I can try. Just don’t laugh at me if I can’t manage it.” Kyle hadn’t said anything about fire, but lighting a match was probably a good bet. There were about as many ways to make heat with magic as anything and enough heat to light a match was only marginally useful. If there was a spell he could probably do it would likely be some tiny bit of pyromancy. “I don’t suppose you have something that will burn?”

At Least he Doesn't Have to Fix Her Printer
Fire!

For some reason I cannot adequately explain, even to myself, I'm trying to write and to write better. So if you like my story let me know. All feedback is appreciated.

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12 comments on “Why Magic is Hard
  1. Thaumaturgical_Support says:

    So, here’s where I finally explain some of the big details about magic in the story. (Well, that and the intro page; which I should probably change. It gives too much away.) This a little more coming in future installments, but this is the bulk of it.

    Hopefully, it doesn’t come off as infodumpery. but I don’t know that I would change it even if it did. I hate stories that refuse to tell you important things about the world for 3/4 of the novel (or series?!?) just because the author couldn’t find some seamless place to fit it in.

    If I did this right, this will be a reasonable sort of conversation about what Kyle does for a living. If I did it wrong, you now know why magic is as it is and how the setting works. I’m an amateur – I can live with that!

    • irrevenant says:

      It works great. You’ve managed to work in the infodump in a manner that doubles as characterisation. It’s very clever

  2. Lucie says:

    You have been writing like the wind. Jeebus. I have to catch up!!

    • Thaumaturgical_Support says:

      I cheated: the entire novel was half written when I started. Perhaps half of what I’ve posted/scheduled thus far is actually new. 😉

  3. Lucie says:

    Filing that under “notes for next time”. Ha!!

  4. Tucson Jerry says:

    Just a friendly hint from a wannabe writer: use the em–dash to interrupt thoughts, not the underscore. Having been a programmer, it drives my eyes nuts. To get an em–dash hold down the ALT key and type in “0151” from the numeric keypad.

    • Thaumaturgical_Support says:

      Oops, those were intended to remind me to italicize that bit. I try to reduce everything to ascii characters before I post, so I don’t have non breaking spaces and smart quotes rendering oddly.

      I might still need some punctuation. Grammatically speaking, I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing. Which is an unfortunately common situation. It’s basically a line of dialog that only exists in the character’s mind. I’ve modified the section slightly to give it a dialog tag and otherwise treat it like a thought.

  5. so, would it be safe to say that casting of yorick is going to be dependant on how many people are taking class that can provide energy vs those coasting on others? Alas, poor yorick, I knew him, in ratio.

  6. Um the Muse says:

    Ooh, I wonder if that’s how archmages are born; if somebody creates/ casts a unique spell, they might end up *gaining* energy. (C*1^3-M)/1 where C is the “golden ratio constant” and M is Merlin’s constant reduces to C-M. We know what C is, but don’t know M.

    Even if you can’t actually gain more energy (is there such thing as conservation of magical energy? Doesn’t seem likely, given the formula, but you never know), it would still be an incredibly cheap spell, compared to what these magical engineers are used to using.

    • Thaumaturgical_Support says:

      > if somebody creates/ casts a unique spell, they might end up *gaining* energy.

      That will be discussed about 4 story updates from now. For now I will say, “that would be an astoundingly bad thing.” 😉

      > We know what C is, but don’t know M.

      It’s probably the result of another formula or some other blasted thing that keeps magic reasonably expensive as though there were an infernal author out there trying to cover up their short comings. 😉

      > is there such thing as conservation of magical energy?

      I don’t think that’ll ever be discussed in the story so I’ll elaborate a little on how I see it working.

      Short answer, yes. Magic is neither created nor destroyed. Magi gather it, use it for a spell, and that disperses it again.

      Now magic being used to create other forms of energy can look very lossy. For example, I use 1 merlin to cast a spell that makes 1 watt then I do it a second time (concurrently) and the cost of the spell goes up to 1.5 merlin. What happened to the extra .5 merlin? Nothing. Remember, the merlin was never converted directly to electricity it just changed the rules of physics such that electricity was created. That job became harder, but it’s the difference between generating electricity with a rusty apparatus and generating it with a well oiled one.

      Oddly enough, this line of thought is somewhat important to an aspect of the story. I.E. what if Kyle’s spell found a horrifically dangerous way of generating light? For example, what if physics were changed such that oxygen and nitrogen reacted to A) emit light and B) create an incredibly toxic compound? Well – that could happen, but it doesn’t *typically* because that’s *probably* a bigger change to physics than a more direct emission of light, and thus a more expensive spell. Likewise emitting hard radiation along with the light and letting outer horrors into reality along with the light are all expensive magically.

      To tie up one final detail, I should note that conservation of energy is probably *not* preserved for everything ELSE besides magic. After all, you could cast a spell that explicitly modifies the rules of thermodynamics.

      > it would still be an incredibly cheap spell, compared to what
      > these magical engineers are used to using.

      So this is something I just never had the chance to address in the story i.e. are their super cheap spells? What are they like? Off the cuff, and given the above, I’d say A) yes B) they modify the universe in some preposterously tiny way so they are mostly useless. Thus a spell that makes Krypton difluoride ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krypton_difluoride ) slightly harder to form might be of the C-M type.

      I actually had an idea for how that could be useful to the story, but it just doesn’t show up in “book one” and it might never show up because it seems a bit “overpowered” to me.

  7. irrevenant says:

    Typo (I think): “a physic connection to the location of sheep”. Psychic?

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