If technology exists along the same lines as magic, then it surely must follow, then, that magic, too, must be constrained by limitations and laws just as science is. Our wonder comes from not sufficiently understanding the laws by which it must abide.

In stories as old as time, the hapless humans who suffer the whims and fancies of gods and monsters vastly more powerful than they are still manage to triumph because, as powerful as they are, all creatures are bound by laws in some way. Whether it’s the wicked faerie who cursed Sleeping Beauty, or the kindly faerie who mitigated the curse, both these powerful creatures were bound by their rules. A curse once placed cannot be removed, but it can be altered. And with the outlawing of spindles and distaffs throughout the entire country, it stands to reason that the laws of story dictate that the single spindle in existence will be found by none other than the one for whom it’s a terrible curse.

Even gods are bound by laws. Mighty Zeus might have strayed farther than an exoplanet, but he remained bound by the laws of matrimony to his wife Hera. Most of the world’s religions attempt to codify, on some level, the rules by which the gods reward, punish, and acknowledge followers through concepts such as piety, purity, nobility, wisdom, or bravery.

We love reading stories that illustrate the truths that say, “even great power has great responsibility” (and not just in a Spiderman context). Beings of even immense power can be outsmarted, tricked, or at the very least, petitioned for respect by fragile and fallible humanity.

The truth is, we need the rules and laws of technology and magic, even in fantastical stories of faraway times and places. I’ll borrow a quote taken from a (very excellent) course taught by fantasy writer Holly Lisle: “If everything is possible, then nothing matters.” The quote is attributed to the late publisher Jim Baen (of Baen Books). By defining boundaries governing even the most powerful of beings in our stories as authors, we show what matters–the underlying truths about humanity–in our stories. By seeking to understand those rules as readers of stories, we can then recognize the differences between our fragile selves and powerful beings–but more importantly, the similarities. And perhaps see the powerful beings lurking in ourselves.

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