Sociality and Magic: Casting Spells Among Others

Some discussion about Jo Walton’s Among Others has focused on how narrator Morwenna Phelps (Mor)  might be an unreliable narrator whose point of view makes magic in the novel ambiguous. Perhaps we can accept fictional magic if we can frame it in terms of psychosis or even the vague comfort derived from having a story told in the first person. So often what we want to do with apparent magic is to critique it—to take it apart and provide an explanation, one that allows us to say that what we thought was magic was instead an organic chemical reaction or perhaps behavioural psychology. The sceptics prefer fraud, drugs, or craziness, usually together.

Walton has said that she didn’t intend for the magic to be ambiguous; instead, she tried to create “a magic system that was unfalsifiable, with plausible deniability, a magic system that really could exist in the real world without any of us being stupid for missing it” ( (If you’re a stickler for the law of noncontradiction, you might as well stop reading already.) One of the central points that Mor makes from the beginning of the novel is that magic isn’t like it is in books.

Magic is always explicable, she tells us. It can be explained because it creates the set of rules that allow it to be rationalized: “You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic…It makes those chains of coincidence” (40). The novel opens with Mor and her sister casting a spell to destroy the Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi, Wales by dropping flowers in a puddle on the site of the factory. The closing of the factory is announced in the newspapers the following day. Later Mor notes that “the decisions to close it were taken in London weeks before, except they wouldn’t have been if we hadn’t dropped those flowers” (40). You are always able to say, no, this is what would have produced it. In this case, the girls happen to cast their spell the day before a pre-existing decision is announced. But Mor knows that the decision was produced by the spell. This is thinking of magic in terms of circumventing (reverse engineering?) causality.

Ursula Le Guin has suggested that Walton moves the boundary of elf-land, by which she means that Walton “alter[s], or make[s] more permeable, the wall between the possible and the impossible.” And Le Guin suggests that if “readers who dismiss fictional magic as soft-brained wish-fulfilment will look at what Walton’s doing at that boundary line, they’ll see a harder, more honest intelligence at work than in the kind of ‘hard’ sf that uses the terminology of scientific theory….”

Walton’s “unfalsifiable” magic flummoxes the Enlightenment impulse to disenchant, which is part of what Le Guin might mean when she says that Walton moves the boundary of elf-land. But it also stirs up more trouble around the distinction between possible and impossible. One way to bring this trouble into focus is to recall Joanna Russ’s suggestion, in her introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women, that fantasy provides women a “method to handle the specifically female elements of their experience in a way that our literary tradition of realism was not designed to do.” (Russ’s short story “The Second Inquisition,” in this collection, is a masterful example.) One of the strokes of genius in Walton’s novel is that fantasy and magic become means to handle aspects of social identification and control, individuation and social enjoinment, that realism often misses. Gender is important to this, but I think Walton goes beyond gender as well.

Social alienation is a prominent theme in Among Others. From the outset, Mor’s loneliness and social idiosyncrasy is intensified by the recent death of her twin sister (Morganna, but also called Mor) and the shifting variants in her own name (Phelps to Markova; Mo, Mor, or Mori). Early on, Mor speculates that her aunts send her to school at Arlinghurst “to get rid of me” (19), although readers might guess that they want her be more like them.  At school, she is a disabled, Welsh outsider among the homogenous sports-loving British schoolgirls, who call her names like “Taffy,” “Thief,” “Commie,” “Crip,” and “Suck-up” (35).

Mor’s alienation is rooted in her flight from her mother, a witch who also seems to be mentally ill.  This  is complicated because her mother is a witch and casts magic spells, so there is no way to parse it out and say that maybe the magic spells and the witch-ness are just a metaphor for a type of domestic or psychological abuse—although I certainly want to hold onto that idea.  Rather, her mother is a witch, and Mor has access to the supernatural, to the ability to cast spells, and she sees fairies. That certainly could be a metaphor for her social alienation from her peers, and it is one that aligns her with her mother, from whom she is trying to escape. We could think about that metaphor extensively, but we can also treat magic literally in terms of social interaction and social coercion. This becomes most apparent in the types of spells that Mor and her mother cast. Some of the most prominent spell casting in the novel involves her mother finding out Mor’s location and trying to harm her from a great distance, especially in the night. In turn, Mor casts spells to protect herself from her mother. We can obviously think about this quite literally. We really don’t even need magic to explain it, but magic offers a unique way to think about how people affect us at distances and over time—or how we somehow manage to extricate ourselves from such influence.

Ultimately Mor finds companionship via reading, but that reading becomes bound up in magic because she casts a spell for a karass—the word was coined by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in Cat’s Cradle (1963) to name a group of people who act towards some common goal without knowing what they are doing. Mor has read everything by Vonnegut Jr.. She discovers her karass when she’s asked to participate in the SF reading group that meets Tuesday evenings at the library in the local town of Oswestry.

The karass is fascinating because one of the rules of magic, or I guess one of the moral lines, as Mor understands it is that you really aren’t supposed to ask for things for yourself. But she casts spells to defend herself against her mother, and the request for the karass is an attempted solution to the horrible inadequacies of the boarding school that she’s at. Of course, it is the boarding school where the prominent alienation that she experiences socially is accentuated. What we know is that prior to this, in Wales, she wasn’t alienated in this way; she had her sister and friends. She belonged, albeit much of that belonging involved her twin and the fairies who help her thwart her mother. Here, in England, not even the things she’s good at matter much: she’s good at school, but that doesn’t mean much. What do people care about? What are the values that people invest in?

The karass is fascinating because inside this intense alienation, she asks for the karass and it’s given to her, but then she struggles with cats cradlethe ethics of it. The flip side of that moral line is whether you really want friends who are your friends because you’ve cast a spell and made them your friends. I like the ambiguity in the novel because there’s no clue, there’s no way in or out of this. Is it magic? It sure is coincidental; although there is a bit of naming involved in it in the sense that she interprets the reading group as her karass. There is a shift that happens, and I know these shifts can happen as part of our psychology. For Mor, the karass becomes a social site of belonging that enjoins her passion of reading science fiction and fantasy. The fact is that she wants it, asks for it, and gets it, and it allows her to belong. So here there is ostensible magic that she asks for in a spell, and I think that seems like quite a coincidence, maybe it is magic;  but later I think, you know, kids find out about reading groups, reading groups pre-exist, and maybe she just found it. That is, I begin thinking of the karass as magic but then it leads me like a golden thread, it leads her back into the world. The end of the novel, for me, isn’t about the conflict with the fairies or her mother, but her new relationships.

Another prominent example of how magic and sociality intersect follows a pattern that is almost opposite my experience of the karass. The three aunts represent everything that is normal about upper-class, respectable British society. In a sense, they epitomize conformity. As Mor puts it, they are very English. They insist that she call them Aunt rather than aunty. Their names are Anthea, Dorothy, and Frederica, but it doesn’t matter because Mor can’t tell them apart. They insist that Mor be sent to Arlinghurst, and they take her shopping to purchase the school uniform. They seem to derive a great part of their sense of self from their time at the school and get excited about news of Scott, their school house, winning the cup.

And yet, there is this point when all of this shifts. Whatever the aunts represent in terms of banality and British culture changes when they give Mor a set of earrings and insist that she get her ears pierced. Such generosity seems to extend the aunts’ effort to make Mor conform. In this case, pierced ears are a gender norm and the earrings are a family heirloom: “The pearls were our mother’s,” one aunt informs Mor. “All teenage girls have it done now,” another says. “It’s the fashion,” the third adds (173-4).

This is so normal. Isn’t this what young women do?  Ear piercing is one of the oldest forms of body modification, and it is practiced by both men and women in different cultures, but in England circa 1980, wearing earrings was a gender norm, and a girl getting her ear pierced performed that gender norm–as did aunts who gave gifts.

But Mor sees it in terms of magic: “I opened the box carefully, and inside were three pairs of earrings, which I could tell even without touching them were absolutely bursting with magic” (173). She declines their gift because, she explains, she doesn’t have nor want pierced ears, but mainly it’s because she realizes that the gift is an attempt stop her from doing magic: “I had never thought about it before, but as soon as I did, it was quite obvious to me that having your ears pierced would stop you being able to do magic. The holes, the things in the holes, there they’d be, and it wouldn’t be possible to reach out” (174).

If Mor loses her ability to do magic, she will fall under the aunts’ control: “Now they wanted to control me entirely, which is what the earrings would have done” (174). Thus magic is both a way to control others—how the aunts control Mor’s father, Daniel—and the means to maintain individual autonomy. The control of other people pervades relationships, families, communities, and institutions. Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation is a vivid illustration of such control and how individuals become complicit in their own subjection. Mor’s exchange with the aunts brings ideology to bear on the much older practice of magic and thus pushes magic into the centre of the social arena.

Mor recognizes that her three aunts are witches:

They are witches, they must be, and they’ve been very clever up to now and I have been very stupid, because I hadn’t guessed at all. I should have been suspicious because there are three of them, and I should have been suspicious because they wouldn’t let me cook, and most of all at the way they all live here and do nothing and control Daniel. I totally missed it because they’re bland and English.  (174)

Instead of something exotic and unfamiliar, magic possibly defines the norm and enacts the very basis of social identity. In one of my favourite moments in the novel, Mor protests the “appointment” to get her ears pierced: “They sounded so bloody reasonable and adult and sane, and I knew I sounded unreasonable and childish and crazy” (175). Personally, I find this brilliant because suddenly what seems banal or normal is understood to be magic. It blurs the line between magic and non-magic, drawing on social and cultural practices that enact gender norms to rethink the nature of magic.

The aunts’ attempt to get Mor to pierce her ears is an exact blurring of the line between sociality and magic. It is a point when whatever magic is in the novel is indistinguishable from sociality. Magic may not be the right word for how society and culture constrain or liberate individuals, but this blurring–or pushing the boundary–displaces the idea of magic into social norms. Seeing it in terms of magic emphasizes how inexplicable what happens in the social dimension can be. These British witches suggest that magic may be part of the everyday—we just don’t recognize it in these terms. Mor comes full circle when she reflects, “I thought those earrings were to control me, but maybe they were to make me more like everyone else” (178).

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Critical Inversions: Rationality and the Reenchantment of the World

“An inversion is produced”  (de Certeau, 1984,  179)

My use of the word “inversions” derives from the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, whose 1998 science fiction novel Inversions followed what was ostensibly the last in his “Culture” series, Excession (1996). (I’ll discuss later Culture novels another time.)

Excession bends the conceptual limits of genre sf by deploying the literary topoi of sublimity in a literal and scientific manner. Excession coverBanks’ use of the verb “to sublime” denotes a voluntary civilization-based choice by so called “elder” species to—simply put—up and vanish. The problem posed by sublimity is that those elder civilizations that do sublime don’t seem to pay attention to what continues to happen in the galaxy under their superlative lintels: for instance, they don’t interfere with apparent evil, such as genocide, and they don’t bother to communicate anything of their state post-sublimation (82). Banks’ emphatic reiteration of the problem of sublimity makes it an insistent preoccupation of the novel, marking the antithetical limit and other of the quasi-utopic “Culture,” which is the epitome of  secular and scientific progressive rationalism. The fact that sublimed species don’t even bother to communicate their discoveries from the great beyond is an anathema to the Culture’s insistent progressive science.

If the sublime marks the antithetical limit of progress represented by the Culture, the excession proper of the title marks the limit of science itself.  In the Culture series, Banks  reinvents space opera by pushing the plausibility of science fiction to its hyperbolic but sincere limits on pretty well every possible scientific front. The Culture builds orbitals, habitats on a planetary scale. Its plate class General Service Vehicles (GSV) are the size of small moons, housing millions of people, and moving between the stars through hyperspace at speeds approximating 100 000 times light. Artificial intelligence is ubiquitous, in ships, drones, suits, and even weapons, and the Minds of the ships are certainly godlike in scope. And the list of excesses runs on: the Culture represents almost total scientific and technical mastery.  Against this backdrop, the Excession intrudes exhibiting technology “outside all known parameters and precedents” (114) alongside impossible data, namely the ember of a trillion-year old star (65), literally marking an intrusion from another universe.

If the sublime and the Excession intimate the  limits of a scientific worldview, the novel’s extension of the Culture’s technological capacity achieves a sort of apotheosis of science in its realization of almost total control over the body. The extreme modification and control over the body is a staple of the Culture series: one merely focuses on one’s internal body image to set changes in motion, whether these be body-mass in relation to gravity or one’s sex. Alteration of face or any body part is routine. In Excession, one character has grown wings, while another alters her face to resemble another person.  Neural laces afford telepathic communication, not to mention assisted intelligence. Average lifespans routinely exceed four centuries. The key development in the novel involves what is called a mind-state abstract, a sort of record or print of a psyche that allows a person to be reconstituted virtually, say for the purpose of communicating with someone far away, or to be reborn, as in the case of accidental death.  Banks engages in a pervasive examination of mind-state abstracts that blurs the line between machine and human, self and other, and soul and simulacra.  For example, Genar-Hofoen’s uncle Tishlin’s mind-state abstract is used to create a holographic version of him that has a conversation with the nephew (61-73). Later Tishlin ponders the morality of disposing of mind-state abstracts and notes that he refused to have his reincorporated afterwards: “What if it had changed a lot while it was away?” (234). Genar-Hofoen is sent to “steal the soul of a dead woman” (54), meaning that her mind-state abstract has been stored long after her death and the destruction of her body. Yet another character is reborn into a new body (with the same genetic properties) after his violent death. The spiritual implications emerge most forcefully when the sentient module Scopell-Afranqui contemplates death before committing suicide: “There was a certain continued existence, of course. He had faith in that; the assurances of the priests that his soul was recorded in a great book, somewhere, capable of resurrection” (298). In the climactic scene of the novel, characters faced with imminent death are offered the opportunity to have their mind-state abstracts broadcast and their bodies reconstituted elsewhere so they can continue the conversation. By exploiting the conceptual limits of science and technology underlying the radically progressive galactic culture of the series, Banks plausibly erases dichotomies between natural and supernatural, science and magic. In a literal sense, he reinvents the soul and imagines a scientifically viable immortality. Upon reaching a certain old-age, many people choose to be stored and revived at a later point. Many choose to be revived when and if the Culture ever chooses to sublime.

Before turning to Inversions proper, I want to note that the tendency seen in Excession is one that occurs in a number of works of genre Veve of Papa Legbafiction between the 1980’s and the early 21st century. In general, I characterize this tendency as a genre inversion in which science fiction and fantasy reinvent themselves by reconstituting basic genre premises and effects. An early glimpse of this inversion can be seen in William Gibson’s flirtation with voodoo spirits in the matrix in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  A couple years after Inversions, China Mieville’s brilliant production of artifical intelligence based on steam technology in Perdido Street Station (2000) signals the reinvention of fantasy as a genre. And there is a pervasive tendency in genre sf, seen in Karl Schroeder’s Ventus (2001) and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002) and Broken Angels (2003).

Inversions coverIn Inversions, Banks draws on genre innovations found in steam punk (e.g., Gibson and Sterlings’ Difference Engine) and techno-slip fiction, which involves discordant or anachronistic technologies that occur simultaneously. In this novel, Banks appears to drop the Culture series and take up a post-medieval world, albeit the two stars and three moons subtly signal a world other than Earth. The novel consists of two interleaved stories about  a kingdom and a protectorate. The key characters in each story are foreigners: a woman doctor who practices unorthodox but remarkably effective medicine attends to the king in a society in which only males are doctors; and an obsessive bodyguard to a Protector, who dawdles over the Protector’s only son. The stories occur within the bounds of a nascent renaissance society: torture is still employed to force confessions, but crude firearms are changing rules of warfare, especially when calvary is involved, and so on. The key to the novel is the point-of-view of the narrators, who are both indigenous to the adopted societies of the foreign doctor and the bodyguard. As a result of the narration, inexplicable events and curious details remain unexplained, relying on a reader familiar with Banks’ Culture series to infer the identity and roles of the doctor and bodyguard.

The arranger of Inversions’  two stories (also as the narrator of the Prologue and Epilogue) is a more mature Oelph, the spy who tells the story of the Doctor. This is a time when belief in the old gods has given way to a more unifying understanding of Providence, which the younger Oelph tells the doctor is “the rule of laws” (126). The older arranger Oelph, speculating on “progress,” puts it somewhat differently: “Providence is the name of the mystical, divinely inhuman Court before which we wish our actions to be judged, and which we hope will agree with us in our estimation both of our own worth and the culpability or otherwise of our behaviour” (2). Oelph, appealing to the reader of  his “chronicle,” acknowledges that “the Reader” is “a sort of partial providence” (3). And as the second narrator emphasizes, such “partial providence” includes the granting or withholding of belief from the story: her motive, she tells us, is “to present the reader with a chance to choose whether  to believe or to disbelieve what I have to say about the events of that time” (22).

Oelph’s emphasis on judgement is juxtaposed by attention to belief by the narrator of the second story, “The Bodyguard.” This narrator, we find out much later, is Perrund, one of the Protector’s concubines, who eventually murders the Protector and tries to kill his son because the Protector raped and slaughtered her family when she was young.

What to believe eventually becomes a matter of genre as readerly belief is played against appearances constrained by limited narration. That is, it is by way of genre conventions developed through the Culture series that a reader invests the details of these stories with alternate accounts that are impossible from the cultural reference of the story tellers.

Readers of the Culture series identify the good doctor and the devoted bodyguard as sorts of alien Cultural (big C) anthropologists visiting this proto-renaissance world from the transgalactic Culture, and so read certain inexplicable events as underwritten by a superlative science and technology. In this way the novel inverts conventional representations of magic and miracles. But Banks goes beyond these showy demonstrations to touch on narrative and philosophy. The bodyguard tries his hand at telling what amount to fairly poor children’s stories about Lavishia, a country in the “land of make-believe” (107), a land where there are “wizards” and “enchanted swords,” where “everybody is able to fly” (145-147). We might ask whether a wizard is an appropriate name for a Culture Mind, but we probably would be forced to admit  that a knife missile, a sort of sentient nuclear capable short sword featured in The State of the Art, falls aptly into that fantasy category of enchanted swords. As to everybody flying, well, we know that is only possible in the quasi-socialist delusions of Banks’ utopian science fiction. The re-enchantment of the world comes by way of science and technology, or almost, but not quite, because re-enchantment or dis-enchantment occurs by perspective and investment of belief (or the lack thereof).

“The investment of belief passes from one myth to another, from one ideology to another, or from one statement to another. Thus belief withdraws from a myth and leaves it almost intact, but without any role, transformed into a document.”  (de Certeau, 1984,  181)

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012