Behind the “Magic” of Recluce
When I initially decided to write The Magic of Recluce in the late 1980s, I’d been writing science fiction exclusively. There was scarcely a single word of fantasy in any of my published stories and novels. My educational background included some basic hard science, a stint as a Naval aviator, which, for some reason, also included courses in atomic weapons and power, and both academic preparation and occupational necessity as an industrial economist, followed by a number of years as a political staffer in Washington, D.C. Then, in roughly 1987, as I recall, I attended a large and well-known eastern regional science fiction convention, which shall remain nameless, where I was on a panel dealing with economics and politics in fantasy and science fiction. The comments of both the other authors—all fantasy writers—and the audience were truly a revelation, because it struck me that economics, politics, and hard science were foreign subjects to many of them. As an aside, I will admit that the situation has improved greatly since then. Because it was my first convention, and because I was caught somewhat unaware, I was less than politically and socially astute. In fact, I conveyed a certain dismay about the lack of concern about economic, political, and technological infrastructures in various fantasies then being written and published in the field.
The clear but muted reaction of those others on the panel to my comments was to suggest that I, as a science fiction writer, had a lot to learn about writing fantasy. In fact, some comments even intimated that it would be a rather chill day in the theological nether regions before I ever published a fantasy novel. Being primarily Irish in ethnic heritage, while still retaining the arrogance and impetuousness of youth well past that chronological age, I resolved that I would and could write a fantasy novel. That was the emotional motivation for undertaking the writing of The Magic of Recluce.
Still, I faced the very real problem of creating a magic system that was logical, rational, and workable within a practical economic, political, and technological structure that was neither particularly exotic nor borrowed lock, stock, and barrel from western European history … or anywhere else. Most fantasy epics have magic systems. Unfortunately, many of them, particularly those designed by beginning authors, aren’t well thought out, or they’re lifted whole from either traditional folklore or gaming systems and may not exactly apply to what the author has in mind.
While I had a fairly solid grounding in poetry, and actually had had a number of short poems published in small literary magazines, and despite my obvious love of word and rhyme, I had great difficulty in accepting the idea that mere chanted spells would accomplish much of anything in any world, particularly in any world about which I wanted to write. As a result, I began by thinking about some of the features and tropes of traditional fantasy. One aspect of both legend and folklore that stuck out was the use of “cold iron” to break faerie magic, even to burn the creatures of faerie, or to stand against sorcery. Why iron? Why not gold or silver or copper? Not surprisingly, I didn’t find any answers in traditional folklore or even contemporary fantasy. Oh, there were more than a few examples, but no real explanations except the traditional ones along the lines of “that’s just the way it works.”
For some reason, my mind went back to astronomy and astrophysics and the role that nuclear fusion has in creating a nova. In a stellar population I star—one initially composed of hydrogen—the nuclear fusion at the heart of the star begins with the fusion of hydrogen atoms to form helium. Once a sufficient quantity of helium is created, after many millions of years, the fusion process begins to fuse helium into a form of beryllium, then lithium. Each of these fusion reactions creates a heavier element and releases energy, what physicists call an exothermic reaction. While my description is a vast oversimplification, this proton-proton reaction continues in the center of the star until the fusion process begins to create iron in large quantities. According to more recent studies I’ve read, the reaction process only proceeds to the level of producing iron in the most massive of stars, because of the high temperatures and pressures required.
The proton-proton reaction that produces iron, however, is different, because it is an endothermic reaction, that is, it does not produce excess energy, but requires additional energy to complete the fusion. In the larger and more massive stars where this occurs, the buildup of iron in the stellar core results in a shrinkage and a cooling of the core, until the point when the outer layer collapses upon the relatively cooler core, and then explodes outward, creating a nova, or a supernova, according to some astrophysicists.
At the same time, the fact that metals such as copper or silver conducted heat and electrical energy suggested that they were certainly less than ideal for containing electrical energy. Gold and lead, while far heavier than iron, do not have iron’s strength, and other metals are too rare and too hard to work, particularly in a low-tech society.
At this point, I had a starting point for my magic system. I couldn’t say exactly what spurred this revelation, but to me it certainly made sense. Iron can absorb a great amount of heat. If you don’t think so, stand on an iron plate barefoot in the blazing sun or in the chill of winter. Heat is a form of energy. In fantasy, magic is a form of energy. Therefore, iron can absorb magic and, by doing so, bind it.
But how would such a magic system actually work?
At that point, I began to think about “order” and “chaos.” As I saw it, order is the structure of the universe, and chaos is the “power source.” Energy is often created, for example, when a structure is destroyed, as in the case of a fire burning a log. In a simplistic sense, what is left afterwards is heat and less structured matter. Even in the case of nuclear fusion, there is destruction on which a higher-level order is imposed, and that higher-level order incorporates even more energy.
So why wouldn’t this also be true of magic?
Then, I thought about string theory, and the idea that the universe is created of tiny infinitesimal “strings” which comprise fermions and bosons, which include quarks, leptons, and hadrons, which in turn form the components of atoms, which in turn make up the ordinary matter of our world. To me, it seems logical that, in a “magical” world, those “strings” would be either order strings or chaos strings.
If there were more order strings in this magical universe, they would eventually choke out the chaos strings, and if there were more chaos strings, they would eventually destroy the order strings and leave formless low-grade energy—exactly what some physicists have predicted will be the eventual fate of our universe. Thus, to have an ongoing working magical universe, there has to be a fundamental overall parity between order and chaos, as well as a means for containing them both so that they do not destroy each other in the way that occurs when matter and antimatter collide. This led to the concept of the Balance, based on the indestructibility of the basic order and chaos strings, a magical version of the law of conservation of energy and matter.
One of the next realizations was something that I’d always understood and even verbalized, but I hadn’t applied it to the idea of magic in a fantasy universe. Mankind is a tool-making and tool-using creature. As a species, we improve tools that work and discard those that don’t or those that work less well in favor of those that work better. Yet seldom had I seen that concept applied in fantasy at that time. In too many books, there were inept wizards, or wizards who could not tell when or if their magic would work. And then there were powerful evil wizards who often found themselves defeated by those with inferior sorcery or no magic at all, but with a “good heart.” I realize that I’m generalizing, but these generalizations do in fact have a basis in fact. After all, logically, there is no way that Frodo should have triumphed, uplifting story that Lord of the Rings is. And the economic systems Tolkien used wouldn’t have worked, either, but that wasn’t the point of the trilogy.
I also couldn’t see any rational general or marshal entrusting his army, or even a part of his forces, to a half-baked wizard or warlock whose magic might work—or might not. Real professional soldiers, as opposed to warriors, tend to be more than a little skeptical of untested or erratic weapons and forces. Yet, again, in those days, there were more than a few “wish-fulfillment” fantasy novels where the kingdom was saved by exactly that—the untested mage, the good-hearted youth, etc. I’d already seen, often directly and personally, what had happened in the Vietnam War era, when ill-modified and not fully tested equipment was used, and when equipment and weapons designed for one combat environment were employed in another—and the results were anything but good. Yet, often individual soldiers and units would adapt and modify such equipment until it worked, often at a lower level, reliably. But reliability was the key.
In practice, this would mean that human cultures in a world based on magic would employ it as a tool and incorporate it into their social structure, most likely in very different ways, based on their requirements of the culture at hand. Those who could more easily master chaos would appear to have the edge in matters of military power, because they could focus destruction upon their enemies. This was the origin of the concept of the white wizards. BUT—pure chaos is unfocused and uncontrolled, and even a chaos wizard must be able to employ some level of order to handle chaos.
By the same token, an ordermage has a greater ability to confine and resist chaos, but without the underlying power of chaos, which is in effect also the life force of all biological beings, he or she can do nothing.
Implicit in this construct is the understanding that neither order nor chaos is “good” or “bad.” Also implicit is the fact that people have trouble dealing with this ambiguity. As in our world, in the world of Recluce cultures find different ways to socialize and control such forces. The Council of Recluce effectively bans all use of “free” chaos, and for much of the history of Recluce, chaos use is stigmatized as “bad.” This outlook results in a society that is often too hidebound for its own good. Social and technological advancements rest on those who are willing and able to “stretch” the rules, such as Dorrin, and often those who could offer more, such as Lerris or Rahl, are exiled because people are comfortable with what they know and resist change.
On the other side, the chaos mages of Fairhaven view the restrictions of Recluce as unworkable and artificial, and they develop a society which institutionalizes what they believe is the controlled and practical use of chaos, but that structure, as in the case of many societal structures, effectively rests on power. The High Wizard is almost always the most powerful of the white wizards, and might truly makes right, and, in turn, leads to a far more corruptible society.
Cyador, on the other hand, attempts to deal with the order-chaos dichotomy by controlling and directing the power of chaos mechanistically through the “chaos towers” and splitting power between three social groups—the mages, the merchants, and the armed forces. This works for a time, but the reliance on mechanical means for amplifying chaos powers creates not only strength but also a longer-term vulnerability.
The druids of Naclos deal with the potential order-chaos conflict in another fashion, by creating a social structure in which each individual with the ability to handle order and chaos must face an individual trial which tests the individual’s ability to balance, practically and ethically, order and chaos. Failure to pass the test usually results in death. Needless to say, the druids have great power individually—but there are far, far fewer of them because the costs of failure are so high.
The matriarchal society of Westwind uses geographical isolation and a brutally effective compulsory military tradition to protect itself and effectively exiles all those who would use either order or chaos as a weapon, but as the world becomes more technological, geography also becomes less effective in protecting Westwind.
All of these cultures, as well as others which develop later, address the order-chaos structure in different ways, but each of these structures seems effective, acceptable, and workable to those who live in each—and that was the goal, because I saw and see that anything as basic and powerful as “magic” has to be a rationalized and structured part of a fantasy culture.
And that is the story of the magic behind The Magic of Recluce.
Copyright © 2016 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.