“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke’s Third Law above can’t help but draw the mind towards the understanding that magic–whether it’s the world of an English boy wizard, a fellow in a top hat and satin-lined cape, or an ancient system of causality and belief in a world we’ve never heard of–is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
Magic takes our perception of the gulf between what is probable and what is possible and takes a leap of “what if” faith. We don’t know why a magic wand works when a special young man whispers a command, but a hundred years ago, we might have considered the same thing about another wand with a light at the end, that we call a “flashlight” nowadays.
Without understanding the principles of lift and drag, a large aluminum tube with stubby wings would be impossible to get off the ground.
All it takes is the need for understanding to spark a desire to decode a small slice of the universe. In the fiction writer’s case, it’s not only a need for understanding, but a need for practical use as well. Ray guns, flying broomsticks, or spacefaring airships are all driven by the characters’ practical need.
In fiction writing, we ask, “Why?” a lot. We also ask, “Why not?” These two questions are also found quite frequently in academia and science, with different standards for acceptable responses. But they both require imagination to answer. Stretching the boundaries of our belief in what is possible will inevitably drag the boundaries of what is probable along with it. And more than one scientist has cited the science fiction of his or her youth as being partly responsible for stretching those boundaries.