Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” From a science fiction writer’s point of view, that’s a fantastic law. It allows me to create stories around futuristic ideas that no one here, today, can debate because, dude, to you it’s all magic—you’re not technologically advanced enough to understand it. So I can’t be wrong. Right?
Ahh. Well. Within reason, perhaps.
Recently, however, I’ve come to appreciate that with a small change, the law applies to far more than just technology and to the here and now. I think we should create a extension to Clarke’s law, with one minor change to the original
“Any sufficiently advanced ability is indistinguishable from magic.”
Let me explain.
Last weekend, my wife and I watched the movie Chasing Mavericks, which is based on the life of Jay Moriarity, a teenage surfing prodigy who sets his sights on surfing some of the roughest waves in the world—the mythological break at Maverick’s, near Half Moon Bay, California. The waves at Maverick’s are huge. They’re cold and they’re nasty. They scare every surfer who has ever seen them. The story behind the movie is pretty good, and the movie itself was fine… though a tad reminiscent of a surfing version of The Karate Kid.
But it was while watching this movie that I realized that surfing is one of those advanced abilities that, to me, seems like magic.
Now I know the physics behind surfing. Pressure, surface tension, gravity, speed, friction. I get all that (though I wouldn’t want to try to write the equation for it). I also know that vast schools of surfers paddle out into the surf every day, and ride the waves, all around the world. To them, the act of surfing is not magic—though the experience may be.
But for me, watching someone surf will always be magical. Balance is something I’ve never had much of. I have trouble enough maintaining my balance on solid ground.This is attributed, mainly, to my lifelong battle with Charcot Marie Tooth disease (CMT). Being able to stand up on a surfboard while the swell hurtles me toward jagged rocks, and the wave-front tosses my surfboard board this way and that, is just something that I’ll never be able to do, even on small waves. I appreciate that riding small waves is possible. But watching surfers ride those giants at places like Mavericks… that’s magic.
There are lots of other things that require a good sense of balance that also seem like magic to me: skateboarders working a half-pipe without cracking their skulls every time; construction workers walking the high steel of a skyscraper; rock climbers pulling themselves up a vertical face. I cannot even imagine doing those things. To me, those acts are no different than making a city bus disappear by saying “Abracadbra”.
It’s not that these activities just seem hard, or that I’m not willing to put in the work to learn how to do them. I’ve taken on lots of hard things that took immense commitments to train for, or to learn how to do them. I’ve ridden a bike 100 miles in a day. I’ve written 6 novels. I’ve raised amazing twins (though I was little more than an assistant in that bit of magic). But to surf requires more than just will and training. It requires a magical conglomeration of balance and anticipation and strength—things I will never have.
There are a few other things that will always remain magic to me. Acting for instance. I have zero acting skill. Zip. Zilch. Notta. When I watch good actors, it seems like what they are doing is magical. Their acting has the ability to transport the me into a whole different world of belief. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
On the more practical side, even some of what I do every day requires magic I don’t possess. I’ve been a computer programmer since I was 8 years old. I’ve learned a dozen programming languages, and written hundreds of thousands of lines of code. But when I see new video games with all the amazing artwork and graphics, I can’t help but think that those developers aren’t wizards from another realm. Beyond the technology involved, the artistic skill needed to develop those images is something I will never possess. When I’m working on a website these days, I insist on involving a good designer, to raise my application functionality to a new and impossible level. I’ve seen horrible sites become great with just a little pixie dust from a talented designer.
Not everything I’ve ever thought was magic remains a spell possessed only by a secret society. I used to think that speaking in public was one of those things I’d never be able to do. I’ve watched the speakers at conferences like TED and PNWA and PDC, and thought “I’ll never be able to do that.” I’ve never been good at memorization, and public speaking used to scare the crap out of me. But I started going to Toastmasters, and practicing my speeches. Now speaking in public doesn’t bother me anymore. Perhaps magic can be learned. Or maybe that was just one of the spells that can be cast with just hard work.
Clarke wasn’t wrong in his statement. But I think by substituting “ability” for “technology” we can recognize that magic comes in many forms. Hard work and determination almost always pay off. But when will and talent come together, they create a sense of wonder that can be truly stunning, and beyond belief.
I appreciate the magicians among us. They might not think what they are doing is so awe inspiring, but I do. So thank you, surfers, construction workers, artists and actors of the world. Thank you for sharing your magic with the rest of us. We are all better for it.
I recall a Cracked writer’s article on going to a Parkour gym: “Hey man, how do you do a backflip?” “You just do a backflip.” “If your explanation on how to do a backflip is ‘just do one’, then you and I are on such widely divergent levels that there’s nothing useful I can gain from you.” was how the conversation supposedly went. Paraphrased, obviously.
Bringing this around to magic itself, in my short story “A Jalt’s Tooth” (up on my site), a Mage says to the protagonist: “If you understood what I was doing, you wouldn’t call it magic.”