Butcher & Grossman Explore Magic & Technology in Modern Fantasy

Lev Grossman and Jim Butcher explored how magic and technology intersect and affect one another in more modern fictional settings during the “Modern Magic” panel (Sun 10AM, Hyatt Embassy). At this overflowing panel, the moderator and the fans asked a number of intriguing questions about both authors’ systems of and approaches to magic in their respective series’ worlds. Many of the answers focused on ethics, responsibility, mental health, and other heavy topics.

In describing their individual ideas of how magic and technology interrelate, Grossman said, “Magic is a kind of response to technology, a way of thinking about what technology has done to us, what it promises to do then doesn’t deliver. Magic and technology are integrally related.” Butcher added, “We wish the power technology bestows was held by people who are worthy of it; we wish it had more justice to it. We curse technology when our WoW server goes down during our only night off; in a world with magic, that would not happen. Magic is the tech we wish we had.”

Butcher relayed how he wound up writing modern fantasy. He was initially quite focused on writing “swords and horses” fantasy, but he had a writing teacher who repeatedly encouraged him to try his hand at another subgenre. She felt he could do well at a Buffy or Anita Blake type story, both of which were popular at the time. He was sure she was wrong and was determined to prove it to her, so one term, he decided to do everything exactly as she suggested, with the expectation that the end result would be so awful she’d never make that recommendation again. The audience laughed when he finished the story with, “That project wound up being the first of the Dresden books.”

Grossman described how writing about magic gave him an outlet for all his emotions and became surprisingly cathartic. He went on, “Yes, one of the most irritating aspects of being alive is all these emotions roiling inside of me, and the universe is indifferent to that. No one cares. In a world where magic is possible, notice that all those feelings and anger can sort of get out of you and can change the world around you.”

Later in the panel, Grossman candidly discussed his own journey through depression. When he started the Magicians series, he was struggling with depression, untreated. He was really attracted to the idea that depressed people could internally draw on their “broken bits” for power or magic. He continued, “The strange thing was, as I wrote the Magicians books, I got happier and happier. I went to therapy and took drugs, all kinds, and I got interested in the idea that you could be powerful and mentally well. And I began experimenting with the idea that happy people can do magic. I came around to the idea that they probably can.”

Butcher described how in the Dresden Files books, “Magic is fueled by emotions and will, and as a result, you can’t do anything with magic that you don’t really believe in.” Thus, the use of magic is often controlled by one’s ethical beliefs. When asked what distinguishes a good magic user from a bad, Grossman said simply, “Why waste a spell?” He went on to remind the audience that a good magic system posits that energy is required to cast spells.

Butcher agreed that there is always a price, but not just in terms of energy or in relation to using magic. He made an analogy to martial arts and described that moment when a martial artist suddenly realizes that he or she possesses the knowledge and skill to kill someone. He said it’s sobering to realize that the deadly weapon in your possession is in fact yourself. Sometimes the consequences are just too bad. Most people “are just not willing to pay the price to do horrible things,” he said. He finished with, “There’s always somebody out there that makes the hard choice that feels there’s a reason to justify doing bad things to others, and that’s usually who Dresden has to deal with.”

One fan asked Butcher, “You’ve stated in your books that tampering with a mundane’s free will… is the worst thing you can do. Of all the things you could to a muggle, why is that the worst thing you can do?” Butcher answered by explaining what it would mean to tamper with another’s free will: that by doing so, one makes evident their belief that one can and should do so. He continued, “If you believe that you can jump into another’s head and make them do what you want—that’s kind of monstrous, and should be huge. Once you start doing that, how do you stop? Where do you draw the line?”

One fan pointed out that magic is often portrayed as static and stagnant, sometimes even as deteriorating over time, while technology continues to evolve and improve. He asked, “In modern fantasy, does magic need to evolve similar to technology?”

Grossman answered that in some ways that idea is “pitted against the myth of human progress.” In other words, people in ancient times often believed that as time went on, things got increasingly worse, until an apocalypse happened and reset things. Today, the general belief is the opposite. He said, “People need to believe things are getting better, so everyone wants the iPhone 19. Fantasy pushes back against that idea. Magic works inversely for a reason, because it’s swinging against this ideological current.”

Another fan asked about the reciprocal effects of magic and technology on one another. He noted that usually it seems like “magic ruins technology,” but authors don’t often seem to write about the inverse, “Wouldn’t technology have an impact on people’s ability to channel the forces of magic?” Butcher had a sudden epiphany in the room with all of this as the answer to this question formed in his brain. He said:

“Technology has a dampening force on magic, because it encourages people’s disbelief in magic. Science explains everything. You flip the switch on the wall and the light comes on—that’s not magic. When you run into something that exists outside of that ‘real’ framework, it tells your brain that this couldn’t possibly be real. A psychological trick. It’s depressing how much real is around us all the time. It’s why we’re all here [at DragonCon].”

Author of the article

Inara de Luna is a writer, editor, desktop publisher, and SF/F fan. She has been published in a variety of genres and venues and has edited dozens of books, articles, and essays. She is currently a monthly contributor to LGBTRelationshipNetwork.org. Inara is also a Relationship Coach and Sexuality Educator who works with people around the country via phone and video. As a Sex, Gender,  & Relationship Diversity Specialist, Inara specializes in offering her services to those who identify as poly, queer, trans, and/or kinky. Inara can be found online at The Sex Positive Coach (https://www.sex-positive-coach), on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/inaradeluna and on Twitter as @inaradeluna. And yes, her chosen name was inspired by the beautiful courtesan on Firefly.  :)

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