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The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Debunking Clarke’s law once and for all

Science fiction writers are supposed to be intelligent, aren’t they? So why are they still writing novels based on Clarke’s third law?

I thought this issue had been laid to rest. Not by me, of course — by common sense. And yet only yesterday I read a review of a new SF novel that ‘explored’ Clarke’s law. Honestly, that’s a bit like writing a book that ‘explores’ phrenology. Shouldn’t we have moved on by now?

There were actually three Clarke’s laws, but the first two were bunkum used to pad out the third, presumably as a way of trying to compete with Isaac Asimov. And yet the one that lasted is also bunkum. It’s not a law, and Clarke didn’t invent it. Even the two words used to describe it are false.

I’m sure you could find predecessors all through written history. Clarke didn’t formulate his version until 1973. The Wikipedia page on the law cites Leigh Brackett’s “Witchcraft to the ignorant, simple science to the learned” from 1942 and Charles Fort’s “A performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known that it is what I mean by magic” from 1932. (It also gives a 1886 statement from H. Rider Haggard’s She, but that is invalid for reasons I will explain below.)

However, Clarke’s obvious model isn’t listed. It’s S. Fowler Wright’s novel The Amphibians (aka The World Below), first published in England in 1926.

Back then there weren’t that many science fiction novels, and so the nine year old Arthur C. Clarke would have devoured it. He would certainly know it very well by the time he came to dream up his law 57 years later.

The Amphibians is an appealingly strange book. It involves a professor’s assistant who skips forward in time 5,000 years to find himself in a superbly drawn surrealistic landscape populated by intelligent newts.

It’s basically fantasy, but in 1926 the lines between science fiction and fantasy were blurred — almost as blurred as they are today, when even superhero comics are folded into the SF universe. At least Fowler Wright had the excuse of knowing less, and having wider scientific horizons to dream of.

Could Clarke have missed Fowler Wright’s use of the law? Unlikely, since it’s right there as the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first chapter of the novel, ‘Of Place And Time’. In fact, it is the totality of that first paragraph, and here it is:

“Applied science,” said the Professor, “is always incredible to the vulgar mind.”

What the Professor is actually doing in this remarkable opening line is a piece of science fiction sleight of hand. Whatever its other meanings, the sentence is Fowler Wright refusing to pull the curtain aside so you can see Frank Morgan behind it. It’s an early example of scientific arrogance in SF. “I’m not going to explain the principles of my time machine to you,” the Professor (ie Fowler Wright) is saying to his audience (ie us), “because you wouldn’t understand them even if I did.”

SF writers use that trick all the time. My favorite is Brian Aldiss in The Dark Light Years, a savagely humorous screed against experiments on dolphins. Rather than explain the Transponential Drive that his novel claims has allowed man to explore the galaxy, Aldiss resolutely hauls the curtain shut: “This is not the place for an explanation of TP formulae,” he sniggers. “The printer, in any case, refuses to set three pages of math symbols.” So there.

If you can’t be bothered to rationalize your SF hardware, just claim that the reader won’t understand it and move on. It might as well be magic, but then again magic is always indistinguishable from science if you don’t bother to show how the trick is done.

Step back from this, and Fowler Wright’s law actually makes sense, in as much as he’s actually claiming for it. Applied science is always incredible to the vulgar mind. A caveman would think a camera magical, let alone a smartphone.

He’d be astonished by a phosphorus match, and that’s a cliché as old as the little match girl herself. The match is a striking example (sorry) of applied science, and still quite magical even though it was invented by the Chinese more than 700 years ago.

I don’t have a problem with Fowler Wright’s law, except that’s not what we call it, and that’s not what Clarke’s law says. Clarke’s law omits the four most vital words of the phrase: “to the vulgar mind.” By chopping out those words, Clarke’s version makes no sense whatsoever.

When was the last time you believed that a piece of modern technology was — truly, madly, deeply — magical? Understand what is meant by magic before you answer. Magic is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.”

So in order to believe in magic you have to believe in supernatural powers. And which seems more likely to you, in the age of the supercomputer and space probe: supernatural powers or applied science?

I don’t know about you, but the moment I see something I can’t explain I don’t fall on my knees to worship it. I don’t suddenly throw away my scientific training and my rational mind in order to embrace mystical forces and spiritualist mumbo jumbo. I look for the trick, for the science.

It’s going to take a lot to make this fearless pragmatist believe in ghosts. And even then, if you’re a ghost you’d damn well better rationalize yourself to me before I believe in you. How do ghosts walk through walls, anyway? You atoms or not?

I chucked out miracles with the bathwater. I drowned god in certainties and the euphoria of scientific uncertainties. If there’s a second coming, he’s going to have to do a lot more than just walk on water to make me haul on the sackcloth. And I long since stopped believing (not, incidentally, that I ever did) that David Copperfield is in touch with higher powers, or that Yuri Geller has something in his brain that makes him special. Whatever it is, it doesn’t make him special.

Show me magic. Show me real magic. I dare you. And this doesn’t make me a skeptic since, going back to Merriam-Webster again, a skeptic is a person “who questions or doubts something.” I don’t need to question or doubt magic. I know it’s bullshit. I’m not prancing around a fire with a skull on a stick for nobody.

And that’s your burden of proof, not mine. The point is that even those of us who do subscribe to a religious belief are no longer quite as gullible as we were when we were vulgar minds. Those of us in industrial countries ceased, largely, to be vulgar minds a long time ago, and those of us in developing countries are heading that way. What belief in magic remains will wither and die, and more quickly than you might imagine.

So let’s debunk Clarke’s law once and for all. Read the S. Fowler Wright statement again: “Applied science is always incredible to the vulgar mind.” Now read the Leigh Brackett and Charles Fort quotes given above. In both cases they also use equivalents of the key phrase “to the vulgar mind”: “to the ignorant” and “in these primitive times” respectively.

Clarke does not. Here’s Clarke’s third law in its entirety: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And yes, it echoes the Rider Haggard quote from She which I said was invalidated, since Rider Haggard also omits the key phrase: “Fear not, my Holly, I shall use no magic. Have I not told thee that there is no such thing as magic, though there is such a thing as understanding and applying the forces which are in Nature?”

Then again, Rider Haggard does include it, but only by insinuation. The narrator is obviously talking down to some ignorant waif of a girl too hampered by her sex to know any better.

Clarke was wrong at the time he wrote his law. He is more wrong today. He will be even more wrong in the future.

And so, as I said before, it’s not his, and it’s not a law. Let’s consider it as thoroughly rubbished as, oh, let’s say, A Fall Of Moondust (which suggests the sensible thing to do is to slap poor ignorant women) and be done with it.


Robert Maas’s fiercely anti-magical novel Residuum is available to buy at Amazon.


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