Thursday, August 8, 2019

Alternatives to Hereditary Magic Systems
If you at all participate in the the Star Wars fandom, then you're probably aware of the controversy that erupted last year. "Which controversy," you ask? "There were so many!" Well, in particular, I'm talking about the one that arose in response to Star Wars: The Last Jedi's seeming attempt at subverting the force-sensitive "legacies" that had existed in the canon for decades.

It's been well established, basically since Star Wars's inception, that force sensitivity--the ability interact with and manipulate the "Force"--was an inherited trait, one that could be passed down from parent to child, generation after generation. Arguably, this established an aristocratic system--power by inheritance rather than merit (which, possibly, was one of the issues the Jedi were trying to mitigate with their marriage prohibition). The Skywalkers were the prime example--Anakin, Luke and Leia, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo... and Rey, too, perhaps?

That was the imperative, over-arching question everyone was eager for this movie to answer. Who were Rey's parents?! What was her legacy?! ...But then this scene happened:
Kylo: It's time to let old things die. Snoke. Skywalker. The Sith. The Jedi. The Rebels. Let it all die... You're still holding on! Let it go. Do you want to know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known? You've just hidden it away. You know the truth. Say it. Say it.
Rey: They were nobody.
Kylo: They were filthy junk traders, who sold you out for drinking money.They're dead in a pauper's grave in the Jakku desert. You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You're nothing.

And just like that, Star Wars's force-sensitive legacies went down in flames... or did they?

I'm not here to argue whether Kylo is gaslighting Rey, manipulating her sympathies to work in his favor; or whether Rian Johnson truly meant to subvert aristocratic themes in the Star Wars canon (or if Abrams is going to subvert Johnson's subversions in The Rise of Skywalker); or give you my thoughts and feelings on this issue as a loooong-time Star Wars fan. I'm here to tell you this scene sparked an idea that became one of the cornerstones of my current Work-in-Progress.

The idea was this: Could I write a story with a magic system where legacy does not
Harry Potter:The Blue Blood Prince
exist? Where inherited abilities do not factor in? Also, could I make magic inherently egalitarian? Take the social hierarchies in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and throw them right out the window! (Sorry, not sorry, Harry Potter fans). What does that leave you? A hell of a lot of possibilities on a wide and complex spectrum. And let me tell you, disposing of those old-guard magic structures is hard. Even if I did away with genetics, I've found it's extremely difficult to abolish magical hierarchies. Universal magical egalitarianism might be impossible--either that or I'm simply not clever enough to figure out how to build that kind of world and make it compelling or believable.

Here are some ideas that I've thought of (and obviously a lot of other people have thought of too) for Alternatives to Hereditary Magic, as well as some of the questions they present:

1. Magic is a readily available resource, rather like air or sunshine, and anyone can access it regardless of race, nationality, gender, religion, physical ability, or class.
  • Does everyone inherently know how to use the magic, or does it require some training and education for effective application?
  • Are certain people born with a superior aptitude that gives them an advantage? Fore example: everyone with a voice can sing, but only some of us can be truly good at it.
  • Who has access to the training and education? Everyone (like a magic public school system) or only those with the ability/privilege to seek and/or hire a tutor or teacher?
  • What do those who can't afford or access that education do? (One possibility is underground layman training schools. What happens in Magic Fight Club stays in Magic Fight Club!  Lev Grossman addressed this issue in a fascinating way through his Julia character in his Magicians trilogy.)
  • Is there regulation of magic, and if so, who wields this regulatory authority? Who abuses it?
2. Magic is readily available but access to it requires a certain special "sensitivity" or ability (i.e., the Jedi and the Force). That ability, however, is a random trait not limited to or by any social, physiological, or biological factor including genetics (Pretty much the opposite of the Skywalker scenario).
  • The same questions I had above apply to this situation as well.
  • It's inherently not egalitarian for those who don't have the ability or sensitivity to access magic.
  • Maybe family aristocracies don't exist, but what if some magic users work together to increase their power through cooperative efforts--the many against the one, the oligarchy against the lone practitioner?
3. Magic is contained in objects rather than people or the environment. Anyone who possesses the object can wield its magic.
  • This is a lot like any limited resource. Those who are already rich and powerful are the ones most likely to control the objects. (Oh, but how cool would it be to do a story about a gang of magical thieves who steal and trade these on a magical black market? I'm sure that story already exists, right? But still...*stashes idea in mental filing folder for later*).
  • The haves inherently oppress the have-nots, whether they mean to or not.
  • Where the heck does the magic in these objects come from in the first place? Maybe they are gifts from a divine entity and are therefore limited. Or could an ambitious person find the magic source and make *more* magical objects, thereby leveling the magic "playing field".
4. Magic bestowed by an environmental factor: i.e., the radioactive spider-bite. AKA the Superhero Scenario. This is a slight variation on #2, above.
  • While it avoids the legacy/inheritance factor, it's still inherently not egalitarian because only those who encounter the environmental factor (and survive it!) benefit from the "magic".
  • Could the environmental factor be reproduced so that more than one person could benefit from it?
5. Magic bestowed by a divine being.
  • Sort of like the super-hero scenario, but instead of a radio-active spider, or gamma rays, or military experimentation, power is bestowed by another being of power. (see Shazam/Captain Marvel as an example)
  • Inherently not egalitarian for those who aren't "chosen" to receive this blessing.
See Also: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

6. Magic places.
  • Magic is confined to a certain area but is available to anyone who can reach that place. Ex: the standing stones in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series (In those books, the ability to use the stone circles' magic, however, was an inherited trait ((although, in some cases, the application of sorcery or "spells" overcame genetic limitations)).
  • Limits magic use to only those who can physically access these places.
If you're curious to know, my Work-In-Progress is utilizing the scenario in example number two above. Alternatives to aristocracy was a theme I really wanted to explore--not so much in the dialogue or narrative but more in the worldbuilding--a magical world fundamentally lacking a hierarchy and the ways people (particularly the antagonists) try to overcome that limitation. The way I'm attempting to address that issue is with complete randomness--those with the ability to manipulate magic are extremely rare, and the trait appears arbitrarily with no known genetic factor that can be replicated or bred. It's not a perfect system and some inequality inevitably exists--without social conflict or a break in the status quo, the characters have little impetus to act. The villains hunger for more power and the heroes fight to keep that from happening--not a new idea but hopefully, at least, a fresh interpretation. In a few more months I expect to have a finished product to show you, and hopefully a real title for it too.

1 comment:

Mary Fan said...

Awesome post!! Hereditary magic always rubbed me the wrong way, even as a kid... took me a while to understand why (I hate hate hate the idea that people born without magic are simply screwed in these worlds -- doomed to be boring background characters who never get the adventure... maybe that's why the first fantasy book I completed was about a world in which magic elitism is used to form a dystopian government, and the heroes are the kids born without magic lol). Anyway, these are some awesome alternatives!!

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