Note: this essay was originally published at BookTrib
There is a close and very special relationship between language and magic. Words are semi-magical things in themselves—intangible, weightless, and yet capable of real and drastic effect. Words have the power to wound, to uplift, to alter opinions and perceptions, and, when spoken by the right people under the right circumstances, change the world. Phrases like “I now pronounce you husband and wife” (or, if we’re being grim, “I hereby sentence you to death”) alter the state of reality simply by their utterance. It’s like—well, magic. And so it should come as no surprise that, with a little extra effort, language can be made to perform magic of the true, supernatural variety. The simplest example is probably the magic word (perhaps accompanied by the flick of a wand), the traditional “abracadabra” or “alakazam” (or, if you prefer, “expelliarmus!”), but the possibilities are almost as varied as the magicians that employ them—especially in fiction, which I’m sorry to say is where most of my experience with magic lies. (Though I do hope any real wizards, witches, and sundry practitioners reading this will contribute their opinions in the comment section below.) Sometimes the language of magic is merely a point of focus for the will and energy used to bring a spell about, as exemplified by the inimitable Harry Dresden of The Dresden Filesfame. In other cases, language is magic’s very essence, the means to command nature by its true name, as in A Wizard of Earthseaand its sequels. In my novel, Ninth City Burning, language and magic are closely connected as well, tied together by logic and illogic, and the interplay between the two.
A little background first. Ninth City Burningis set on a version of Earth that starts out very much like our own—that is to say, no magic (at least that we know of). And then Earth is attacked. We don’t know who the invaders are, or where they come from—they simply appear, as if from nowhere, and begin laying waste to the planet. We’re helpless to fight back, because the weaponry they use isn’t just advanced—it’s unintelligible, a power that lets them rewrite, even break, the laws of physics. A force that looks, and acts, like magic. All seems lost, until we discover something incredible: once this strange power has been brought to Earth, we can use it, too. It takes a little getting used to, of course—centuries of rationalism and enlightenment and industrialization have taught us never to accept “it’s magic” as an explanation for anything. Our solution: we don’t treat this force like magic. We deploy our all-powerful scientific method to study it. We experiment on it. We name it “thelemity”, because everyone knows there’s no such thing as magic. And it turns out this force doeshave laws, of a sort. They aren’t practical, dependable laws, like the ones that govern gravity or electromagnetism, but they’re a start. Ninth City Burningbegins roughly five centuries after that first invasion, and by then we’ve got a pretty good handle on this whole thelemity thing. We’ve devised a system to make it work for us, to build weapons and tools and vehicles—everything we need to defend ourselves, because even after five hundred years, the invaders haven’t given up on conquering Earth.
In Ninth City Burning, the study and use of magic—ahem, thelemity—is referred to as “irrational mechanics”. It’s a diverse field scholars have divided into a variety of smaller disciplines, in the same way we might distinguish between math, physics, and biology—or, if you’re studying something reallyinteresting (say at a hidden castle somewhere in Scotland), charms, potions, and transfiguration. Some uses of thelemity don’t require words at all, relying instead on a kind of metaphysical muscle (in our academic metaphor, this would be PE). The really powerful stuff, however, the techniques that will let you alter the weather, or build a suit of armor that makes you supernaturally fast and strong, or give your reflection in a mirror the ability to think and reason on its own—that gets a little more complicated. The basis for all that is a method called “infusion”, which involves writing out long strings of very specific instructions. The process isn’t all that different from composing a computer program, except instead of defining the parameters of some series of electronic functions, you’re rewriting the rules of reality. And as with computer programming, it’s all about using the right language. The techniques for writing infusions have been refined by centuries of study and theory—and also trial and error. It’s a delicate process, and the consequences are often disastrous. Crashing a computer is bad enough, but imagine what would happen if you accidentally caused the atmosphere to malfunction, or changed the behavior of light. On top of that, infusions don’t always follow the strict logic of computer languages. At times, they’re more about art than science—like composing a poem, or a novel. It’s a connection that made a lot of sense to me: as far as I’m concerned, writing a novel is about as magical as it gets.