The Metaphors of Magic


The concept of magic has been around since the dawn of mankind.  Modern people associate the belief in magic with superstition, so the belief in real magic is waning.  However, the belief in fantasy magic is growing.  People love stories where magic is real.  Fictional magic can take many forms because the rules and intent of magic within a story has literary purpose.

A Great and Terrible Beauty coverI am listening to A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, and beautifully read by Josephine Bailey.  It is the first book of a trilogy about four girls in Victorian England that get seduced by the power of magic.  One metaphor for magic used in this book is addiction.   The girls have hangovers after using magic.  They are drawn to magic because of their unhappy lives and magic makes them feel good.  They are warned about the dangers of magic, but they become addicted, knowing that magic killed the two girls that are their spiritual guides.  In A Great and Terrible Beauty magic is seen as a kind of high, or escape of from the real world.

The metaphor for magic in the Harry Potter books is different.  J. K. Rowling treats magic as if it was a science, to be studied in school, with textbooks,  journals, and learned societies.   Magic has rules and limitations, and mastery of it takes work, skill and talent.  This is probably the most popular metaphor for magic.  Readers love everyday stories of practical magic.

Older books, especial from medieval times and earlier, see magic as a metaphor for good and evil, directly related to God and Satan, or gods and goddesses.  There is white magic and black magic, and human users get their magical power through association.  As humans self importance grew, and the power of the gods declined, the nature of magic was moved into hidden aspects of reality.  It was the secret knowledge of adepts.  Stories like The Lord of the Rings comes out of this heritage.

Nowadays magic doesn’t have to have a philosophical justification.  Every writer who creates a new series of books about vampires decides the rules for how they live in their literary creation.   Magic is a tool that shapes fictional form, which can go from sexual magic (True Blood) to comedy magic (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to satire magic (Saturday Night Live) to alternate history science fiction magic (“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang).

The sad thing is sometimes people really do want to believe in magic.  They want their fictional fun to be reality.  All religions believe in magic of some sorts.  Miracles are the metaphor for religious magic.  But people also want to believe in concepts like luck, Karma and voodoo too.  Thus magic is a metaphor for altering reality.  That’s where it gets really dangerous.  New Age believers are convinced in the power of mind over matter.  That’s an especially dangerous belief.

That’s why you must ask yourself:  Do I believe in real magic or just fictional magic?  Fictional magic is just a plot device to create fun stories, and sometimes its also used as a moral metaphor, like in A Great and Terrible Beauty.  But if you think anything other than the laws of science rule reality then you have something to worry about.  And I don’t mean worrying about being delusional, which you probably are.  No I mean, you have to worry about knowing the rules of your magic. 

For example, if you believe in angels, you have to also believe in devils.  If you believe magic can help you then you also have to believe it can hurt you.  If you can hex someone, they can hex you.  If you believe in ghosts, then you are never alone.  It gets creepier and creepier.  That’s why I love the magic metaphor in Ted Chiang’s gorgeous story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” where he uses a fantasy time machine to teach the lessons of the Koran.  All magic has laws, even if magic might be real.  All magic has philosophy, even if its untrue.  The best magic is fiction that teaches us lessons about living in the world of reality.

So, whenever you encounter magic ask yourself:  What does this magic imply.

JWH – 11/14/10  

Clarion West 2002

Eight years ago around this time of year I attended the Clarion West writer’s workshop in Seattle.  Seventeen of us all shared the same ambition to become science fiction writers, but so far I’ve failed to succeed.  A few of my classmates haven’t.  We were told only a handful of us would get ahead with our dreams, and it would take years, and it would not always be as planned.  And that’s come true.

Strangely enough, my Clarion West 2002 group had three guys who were 50 that year, seeking new ambitions for the second half of their lives.  Most of the class were in their twenties, with a couple in their thirties.  At 50, I decided to do something new with my life by going back and pursuing one of my teen ambitions, to write science fiction.  In the eight years since I’ve written damn little fiction, but I’ve written a lot about science fiction on this blog and at Classics of Science Fiction.

Dario Ciriello has taken a different tack and started Panverse Publishing, and editing anthologies of original stories, with an emphasis on the novella.  With two titles in print and another due in September, Dario has hit the ground running with a promising new career as an editor.  The books have been getting good reviews and they have stunning covers.




You can get Panverse One and Eight Against Reality now at Amazon, or order direct from the Panverse site.  Panverse One is even available as a Kindle book.  Panverse Two will come out in September.  If you are a patron of writers and small presses, you can get copies of the books and make donations at Wonder. Story.  They’re Back! where Dario talks in a short film about his small press and publishing new writers.

The other Clarion West student that was 50 like me back in 2002 is Doug Sharp.  Doug has spent years living out in the wilderness finishing up his wild science fiction novel and is now looking for an agent.  The epic adventure turned out so long after many revisions that it will be two novels, Channel Zilch and Hel’s Bet!  Doug’s blog Walden 3.0 is fascinating account of a modern Thoreau living in a cabin in the Minnesota woods with his dogs while writing science fiction.  Doug takes beautiful photos of the wilderness and wildlife and should write a book his real life, something I envy.

I on the other hand, have written practically no fiction since 2002.  I found a writing outlet with blogging and my website The Classics of Science Fiction.  But the longing to write fiction never stops gnawing at me, and every summer around this time, I remember fondly my weeks at Clarion West and my ambition to write short stories and novels.  Each year I reevaluate the question:  Can an old dog learn new tricks.

I’ve taken off this week to work on a short story as a mental return to Clarion West.  I agonize over my lack of discipline, but the reality of me not writing fiction is probably not about discipline but talent.  Hard work and talent does pay off.  T. L. Morganfield, one of my younger Clarion West classmates has had great success with publishing a string of short stories based on Aztec mythology.  Recent publications include one in the July issue of Realms of Fantasy and another story in Dario’s anthology Eight Against Reality.  What I admire about Traci is her constant work at achieving her goal.  I wish I could be more like her.

Ysabeau S. Wilce, another younger Clarion West 2002 alum, won the 2008 Andre Norton Award for young adults, for her novel Flora’s Dare.  I haven’t heard much about my other classmates except for notices about a story published here and there, and other kinds of artistic success.  I especially wish the young classmates all the luck in the world.  They have the time to make their dreams come true and I hope they succeed.

I hope by next summer when I think of my time at Clarion West that I will have finished the short story I’m working on now, and maybe a few more.  I want to prove that an old dog can learn new tricks.

JWH – 7/6/10

Unique Perspectives

We love people who can think outside of the box.  We love people who can see the world from a unique perspective.  We love people who can spot the trends before anyone else.  Well two of my friends have turned me onto a couple of people that have left me stunned with admiration, so I thought I’d pass them on to you.

The first is from Professor Jesse Schell and his take on where Facebook is leading us.  It’s in three parts:


If you watch these videos and don’t have a clue to what he’s talking about, well then I think you need to worry about being out of touch with pop culture, or else accept that the future has rushed past you.  Farmville has over 80 million users worldwide, and if you can’t understand what a weird fraking fact that is, then you might want to study these videos.  I’m not sure rock and roll in its heyday had those kinds of numbers.  Evidently it’s more addictive than meth, crack and heroin combined.  I know from experience since I’m a Farmville widower.

Next up is Christian Lander and his Stuff White People Like, a blog of brilliant social commentary with over 63 million hits.  The way to start reading this site is to visit the Full List of Stuff White People Like and pick a topic dear to your heart and get ready to be undressed.  Even more fun is to get together with a bunch of other white people and read these posts aloud.  Even when Lander isn’t skewering me, I’m learning so much about the people around me that is both hilarious and incredibly insightful.  Damn, I wish I had his people watching skills.

JWH – 3/2/10

What I Want To Be When I Get Old

I’ve picked twelve areas of knowledge to pursue in the last third of life.  It’s a conscious effort to organize my thoughts and actions.  Twelve specialties sounds like too many, but I’ve selected them like building blocks to work together as a whole.  Essentially what I have done is analyze what I’ve been doing for years unconsciously and state them here publicly to make them clear to me.  The pains of aging remind me of my limited time left on Earth and inspire me to change.  What I’m really doing is deciding what I want to be when I get old.  

Areas of knowledge might sound too lofty.  I could say I have twelve self-improvement topics I want to study, or even call them twelve goals for going the distance.  We do not have the language to express ideas of self-programming.  I’ve always loved John Lily’s book title Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, but sadly the book is about a great scientist going off the deep end with hallucinatory drugs and sensory deprivation.  But I digress.  Self-improvement is a vast topic for the publishing industry but has a poor connotation, but that phrase might come closest to my task.

I am a fat, lazy, late middle-aged man who has tumbled through life like big rolling weed acquiring random knowledge and wisdom through undisciplined osmosis.  Since I’m a programmer and work with computers, I think with cyber concepts, so picture an old PC that’s been running Windows XP for years.  This dusty old machine takes forever to boot up, and runs  slower and slower each day.  It’s time for a tune-up!  I want to delete all the clutter and crapware, cleanse the registry, run malware utilities, uninstall all the programs I don’t use, and decide on which programs are the most productive to keep.  I’m realistic.  I don’t expect to suddenly become a new Intel i7 machine running Windows 7, but I can make the old hardware run much more efficiently.

When we are young we have great ambitions about growing up.  We want to be somebody special and find the perfect mate.  During our middle years we expand our ambitions, seeking security, wealth and success.  But for the last third of life our goal is retirement, where we reduce our workloads and seek simple pleasures.  I say bullshit to that.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t find the success I wanted in youth and middle age that I hold out hope for an ambitious last third of life.

I’m not worried about the outward appearance of aging, the wrinkles, baldness, age spots or hobbled gait, what I’ve discovered that’s hard to see as a young person, is getting old is a state of mind that deals with wearing out mentally.  Avoiding pain, illness and injury becomes a relentless occupation.  My daily pains are minor compared to what I’ve seen in others, but the decline in health I’ve experience so far is wonderfully educational.  So for my first study goal is pretty obvious, and probably universal.

1. Maximize Health

I don’t need to become an authority or expert on this subject, but I do require major studying and practice.  Hell, I know the basics, eat right and exercise. Where I need to specialize is in the discipline of of mind over matter, or more precisely, mind over body.  I could greatly improve both the quality and quantity of my sunset years if I could lose weight.  I’ve been slowly gaining weight since my late twenties, and the only time I was actually able to lose poundage was due to illness, not a practical long term solution.  Of course, the secret to weight loss is knowledge many have sought and few have found.  I need to study books about the mind, and maybe even woo-woo subjects like yoga, meditation and will power.  This is one subject I wished I had mastered in childhood and practiced lifelong.

2. Enlightened Citizenship

I wanted to become an expert in green living, but I’ve decided that focus is too narrow.  I am deeply disturbed by partisan politics and our lack of will to make tough decisions about all our problems.  I believe in social democracy; we vote daily on countless issues with our every decision.  I am reading The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong and I’m reminded of her description of how the ancient Chinese practiced their religion.  Instead of being concerned with invisible gods and abstract concepts of the sacred, these people sought perfection by improving the simple acts of everyday life.  In other words, how you clean your house is more spiritual than religious rituals you embrace. 

3. XHTML/CSS/PHP/JavaScript/JQuery/CodeIgniter

After thirteen years of programming in classic ASP  I need to learn a whole new suite of programming languages and tools.  This is putting me way out of my comfort zone, but it’s my chance to prove that an old dog can learn new tricks.

4. Internet Living

I’ve been living on the net since the mid-80s with BBSes, Genie, CompuServe and Prodigy.  I’ve embraced digital life.  I’m fascinated by it’s potential.  I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet, so I want to explore all the emerging possibilities and even write about what will happen in the future.

5.  Clear Writing

I want to be a much better writer.  I love blogging, but I want to go beyond dumping out my thoughts.  I’m a wordy bastard that can’t structure an essay, much less a book.  I need to remove the clutter from my sentences and learn to assemble  paragraphs into larger structures that build coherent ideas.  I’m best at 500-1,000 words, but I want to write larger essays and even a book.

6.  Techniques of Fiction

I’ve been trying to write fiction since a high school creative writing class.  Like my failure at dieting, I can’t break through the writing discipline barrier either.  I’ve taken many writing courses and workshops.  At best, I can crank out words, but except for one time in endless tries, I can’t reach the critical mass of fictional fusion.   I need to master the language of fiction in the same way I write a computer program, so the story works without major bugs.

7.  Robot Novel

I’m struggling to write the great American robot novel.  After space travel, time travel, and alien encounters, robots are about the most over-written topic in science fiction.  Yet, I believe I have a fresh idea if I can crank out 100,000 readable words of fiction.  Notice how specializations 5-10 relate?  I’m not going off in twelve different directions, but hope I’m pursuing twelve skills I can integrated into a synergy of effort.

8.  Evolution of Mind

To say anything fictional about robots will require understanding artificial intelligence, and AI has always depended on studies of the mind.  I find my library is full of books on robots, AI, mind and evolution.  I bought all those books because they were individually interesting, but now I’m going to read them as fuel for my novel.  If we are the pinnacle of intelligent life on Earth now, what will occupy that position in a million years?  Or a billion?

9.  Sense of Wonder

I’ve been a reader and scholar of science fiction my whole life.  People who adore science fiction claim its because it generates sense of wonder.  Sense of wonder has been around far longer than science fiction so it can’t claim exclusive rights, but I do believe that science provides a special kind of sense of wonder.  For too long now science fiction has been living off past glories.  It’s time to find new concepts that push our sense of wonder button.

10.  Cosmological Perspective

Our perceived position in the universe has always been very philosophical.  It is very hard to grasp our location in relationship to the rest of reality.  Even the shape of the universe is impossible to fathom.  If we are God’s supreme creation, why are we so small?  And can any religion or philosophy be valid that doesn’t fully incorporate our knowledge of cosmology?

11.  Learning in Old Age

What are the limits of acquiring new knowledge in an old brain?  Could I learn something in my last third years that I wasn’t able to learn in my first third years?  Could I go back and finish Calculus II, or learn to play the guitar?  There is a discipline barrier that I’ve never been able to crash through.  I find my wisdom grows as my body declines, but will I ever be wise enough to overcome the limitations of my body?

12.  Our Existential Relationship with Fiction

We can’t understand reality so we make up stories.  It is impossible to predict the future yet we constantly create fiction to envision what will come.  And I don’t mean science fiction.  These twelve areas of knowledge I am pursing are a fiction.  The odds are I’ll just get older, fatter, suffer more, watch even more television while waiting to die.  I invent fictions about how I will change myself and fight the inevitable.   But that’s my point about programming and metaprogramming in the human biocomputer.  Is life no more than meta-fiction?

* * *

These twelve topics of specialization are ambitious, but I don’t think impossible to achieve.  It will make me a Renaissance (old) man.  And success can be measured across a range of achievement levels.  No one gets out of here alive, so death can’t be considered a failure of life.  I am reminded of the many books I’ve read about Eastern religions where the last third of life is set aside for spiritual pursuits.  At the end of the rat race, wisdom is the only possession worth pursuing.  But I grew up with a Western world mindset.  Reality is a savage land meant to be conquered, not accepted like our friends, the Eastern gurus teach.

Christians love the concept of the eternal soul.  As an atheist I’m not sure souls exist, at least not in the past.  That doesn’t mean we don’t want to fashion our own souls.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t evolving towards creating souls.  Through discipline we program our identities.  Through metaprogramming we program our programming.

JWH – 2/27/10 

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a concept that I recently stumbled upon on the web that I wished I had learned during my K-12 imprisonment.  I have a wandering mind, with a poor memory, that finds it hard to hold the big picture on any subject, so it was exciting to come across this concept.  Because a video is worth a thousand words each 1/25th of a second, I think I’ll let one do the explaining for me:

Tony Buzan is a modern prophet for mind mapping and promotes the concept around the world.  In recent years mind mapping software tools have emerged hoping to become a new category of productivity software after the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package.  There’s definitely a lot of information on the web, and plenty of software to try for free, but I’ve yet to meet anyone personally that extols the virtue of mind mapping.  And there’s plenty of companies selling products in the $99-$349 range, all touting that their tools are used in thousands of businesses and schools around the world.  I wonder how I’ve missed this – maybe because I graduated from high school forty years ago.

I have a life-long desire to write fiction, but I have a devil of a time plotting and shaping a story, so I hope mind mapping might help me.  I figure the concept will also be good for my programming projects, and even working out blog ideas ahead of time.  Hell, it might lead to essays that don’t meander about so much.

For a software category that’s been invisible to me, there’s an amazing array of products to use, see the mind map of mind mapping software packages from Mind Mapping Software Blog.  And here’s a Mind Map Search site listing 200 websites devoted to mind mapping.  And if you want to regularly read about mind mapping, try Mind Mapping Blog.

Mind mapping is considered one of many techniques at Mind Tools for business users to expand their career skills, but mind maps are also great for students studying any subject, or for creative people wanting to brainstorm.  If I succeed with short story writing I’ll chronicle how mind mapping helped in a future blog.  There’s a fair learning curve to mind mapping, and it might be an art in itself.  I need to practice a bit before I judge the concept.

After installing a couple free programs, and looking at many commercial sales videos I’ve settled on trying Xmind, available for Windows, Mac or Linux users.  (FYI: if you’re using IE8 be sure to turn on compatibility mode while visiting their site.)  Most of the free cross-platform packages use Java, and I hate Java applications, but Xmind is much better looking than most Java applications I have used, so I picked it for that reason over Freemind.  Xmind was once a commercial product, but now there’s a free version and a Pro version.  The Pro version is a $49 a year subscription service with more professional output options. 

Most commercial mind mapping programs have 30-day trials, but I’ll wait to see how successful I become at mind mapping before considering them.  If you want to give the concept a spin without installing anything on your computer, visit or mindmeister for a web versions of mind mapping.

Another appealing feature of Xmind is their share site, which features uploaded mind maps from around the world to study.  Xmind also uses the concept of workbook with pages to create multi-dimensional mind maps.  I figure I’ll play with Xmind and research mind mapping for a few weeks or months, and then write a post that chronicles my effort.  For now, I’m just curious if anyone I know actually mind maps.

JWH – 8/26/9

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