Brandon Sanderson and magic systems

I don’t mean to harp on Brandon Sanderson, but while writing my previous post on Rosalynde Welch’s critique of thematic-focused Mormon criticism, the following thought occurred to me:

How do you explain Sanderson’s interest in the robust, rules-based magic systems that have become his raison d’être ? Is a Mormon explanation warranted? Is it sufficient?

I can see at least four explanations — all of them likely valid in varying amounts:

Mormonism as doctrine: in Mormon doctrine spirit is matter more refined and miracles are simply higher order physics. Magic that has rules as physics does and even some cases use physical materials ties very well in to Mormon doctrine.

Mormonism as community: Sanderson has been influenced by the work of Orson Scott Card (the Alvin books, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, etc.) and David Farland (Runelords) and their penchant for rigorous magic systems.

Trends in literature: Sanderson came of age at the tail end of the fuzzy, soft magics found in the derivative post-Tolkien fantasy (Eddings, Brooks) and so, he, like other writers of his generation is both acutely aware of the flaws in soft magic and has the need to differentiate his work from his predecessors (this is oversimplifying the whole magic in fantasy debate/history, but it’s roughly enough true to serve my purpose here).

Trends in pop culture: Sanderson is a known player of role-playing games, including the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons. He’s also an inveterate collector of Magic: The Gathering cards. Clearly, someone who grows up with the precise rules and game mechanics and character stats of RPGs is going to be attracted to hard magic systems.

This is a straightforward example, but I think it illustrates well how neither an overemphasis on Mormon themes nor an elision of Mormon themes are likely to be useful in literary criticism of work by Mormon authors. Mormon literary criticism is a hybrid form — just like Mormon literature. Try as we might, when it comes to artistic or creative expression, we are in the world and of the world and yet not quite. We should rightly focus on the not quite — but not at the expense of all the rest.

14 thoughts on “Brandon Sanderson and magic systems”

  1. You’re missing one: exploration of science fiction rules in fantasy. He writes fantasy as if it were science fiction and the magic system was the science of the world. Which might connect to trends in literature, but the one I lean most toward.

  2. Stacy:

    That explains what he is doing. And I very much agree with the explanation. Does it also explain why he is doing it? I think it’s certainly possible, and if so, then yes that would be an additional Trend in Literature data point.

    But that also could point to the legitimacy of Mormonism as doctrine — magic as the science of the world aptly describes how (some? many?) Mormons view priesthood power. It’s simply higher order physics.

  3. I see Stacy’s explanation as being linked (in this case) with William’s “Mormonism as Community” and “Trends in Literature” explanations.

    There’s a school of thought within modern fantasy that says a clear, well-articulated magic system is a good way (some would phrase this as “the only way”) to (a) incorporate rigor into one’s world, (b) generate reader interest, and (c) adhere to a necessary sense of limits. Card and Sanderson have been articulate proponents of that viewpoint; Farland is a practitioner, but I don’t remember if I’ve seen him talking about it so much.

    Within sf&f as a whole, I see this trend as very much influenced by science fiction writers going on to write fantasy, and (more recently) by the existence of gaming systems. In the community of Mormon sf&f writers, it’s a product of that, plus mutual influence, plus a long-held and articulated belief within the LDS sf&f community that anytime power is exercised, there must be a price that is paid — something I remember people talking about in Xenobia writing group sessions back in the mid-1980s. Thinking about it, I can’t come up with any distinctively Mormon source for the necessity of a price to be paid, but my recollection is that it *felt* like a very Mormon idea to all of us.

    If you want a likely tie-in to Mormon thinking, I’d look at the “There is a law…” scripture in the D&C and the general notion of God as working according to natural law. Which is probably just another take on William’s “Mormonism as doctrine” explanation.

    On a side-note, I’ve since come to believe that although the notion of a rigorously defined magic system can be one way of incorporating rigor into a story, it’s (a) somewhat artificial, and (b) not really necessary. You can have both a price and definite limits without clear rules. I take Tolkien as a prime example of this, though I remember Sanderson trying to argue once (at a Worldcon panel) that Tolkien does in fact have a well-defined magic system. Which is simply, flatly untrue, at least for any definition of “well-defined” that has any practical meaning.

  4. in Mormon doctrine spirit is matter more refined and miracles are simply higher order physics. Magic that has rules as physics does and even some cases use physical materials ties very well in to Mormon doctrine.

    I don’t read scifi/fantasy and have not read Sanderson.

    But.

    As you know, Wm., I did this very this in my submission for M&M.

    It’s possibly an ingrained system of logic. Notice we don’t really involve ourselves in the creation versus evolution debate because…who cares? Though we believe in a creator deity (or many of them), we allow that he/they had a gazillion different options of how to go about ORGANIZING our world.

  5. Yep.

    Now some Mormons do involve themselves in the debate. And some would suggest that there may not be quite that many options. But that’s neither here nor there. What really matters is that your story and Brandon’s work and other fiction out there is proof that it would make total sense for a Mormon to be attracted to rules-based magic or magic as higher order physics.

    Really, though, the point of this post is not the influences in and of themselves, but rather to show that if you only deal with the Mormon stuff or if you ignore the Mormon stuff, you’re not going to be getting the full picture.

  6. …if you only deal with the Mormon stuff or if you ignore the Mormon stuff, you’re not going to be getting the full picture.

    Well, nobody writes in a vacuum. See: Sheri Tepper.

  7. and (more recently) by the existence of gaming systems. err, gaming systems go way back. Heck, my published RPG game credits go back to 1974.

    Tepper insisted on precision (until the end of the true game series, when she didn’t; now she writes revenge p-rn).

    Jack Vance and his fantasy was intended to involve precision.

    If you see Tolkien as unstructured or undefined you are missing huge blocks of what he has says he intended.

    Anyway, I think the game systems go back before “more recently” (which appears to be operationally defined as sometime in the 80s or later), as do structures.

  8. Responding to Stephen: Yes, gaming systems go back several decades, but I think it’s only been since the late 1980s or so that role-playing games started to influence written fantasy (as opposed to vice versa).

    I’m not saying that Tolkien lacks structure. What I’m saying is that he (and many other classical fantasy authors) don’t/doesn’t use a rule-based magic system: that is, one where you can articulate rules for who can do what, under which circumstances, at what cost. It’s nothing like the kind of system that (for example) underlies Card’s magic system in Hart’s Hope or in the Alvin Maker series, or that underlies Dave Farland’s Runelords series. In fact, my point is precisely that you don’t have to have a systematic magic system in order for there to be an underlying logic and sense of limits to a fantasy world.

  9. There’s a school of thought within modern fantasy that says a clear, well-articulated magic system is a good way (some would phrase this as “the only way”) to (a) incorporate rigor into one’s world, (b) generate reader interest, and (c) adhere to a necessary sense of limits. Card and Sanderson have been articulate proponents of that viewpoint.

    Brandon Sanderson may prefer writing and reading this type of fantasy, himself, but Sanderson’s First Law is actually pretty narrow in scope: “Your ability to solve conflicts with your magic is directly proportional to how well your reader understands your magic system.”

    Really that just seems like a good rule of thumb for avoiding a magical Deus Ex Machina.

    . . . I remember Sanderson trying to argue once (at a Worldcon panel) that Tolkien does in fact have a well-defined magic system.

    When was this? (In a 2008 Writing Excuses podcast, he cited Tolkien as someone who doesn’t have a well-defined magic system, so he changed his mind either before then or since.)

  10. 2006 Worldcon. It’s also possible, though, that I misunderstood what he was trying to say (or vice versa) and that we simply lacked the time and opportunity to clarify the misunderstanding. Anyway, it’s good to know that’s *not* what he meant.

    I mostly agree with Sanderson’s Law as stated, except that a lot of times, I don’t think the reader has to understand the magic system in order to accept its outcomes, so long as it feels organic and limited. Tolkien, again, is a prime example. It’s true, though, that the “magic” that most directly impacts the plotline — the power of the Ring — is also the magic that’s most fully explained within the context of the book, at least as regards its crucial limits.

  11. Its the increasing meld between SF and Fantasy, I think. Also too much pulp fantasy that uses magic as a deus ex machina to no particular end (Sanderson’s Rule looks like a reaction to that). But me, I don’t like rationalized magic systems much, and Sanderson’s rules are something that has put me off his works (though I still like them). A system of magical rules is a sterile creation, for one, of only slight interest. For another, fantasy ought to be literature about the premodern and a ‘scientific’ set of rules for magic is an anachronistic infection in it. Running into a physics of magic in a fantasy is like running into Wizard X who is leading the campaign for Magic Users Equality and Full Voting Rights. It works only if the story is supposed to make you laugh.

    To my mind, the proper rules for magic are the kind of rules that could be used as copybook headings:
    Every Power Has Its Price.
    Be Careful What You Wish For.
    Walk Wide of the Jealous Gods.
    To Everything There Is a Season.

    Rules like that. Folk rules, not scientific rules.

  12. Adam: I like your thought here. I’d stretch your set of examples to include things like: “Knowing a thing’s name gives you power over the thing” — when that’s a broad principle (as in Le Guin’s Earthsea series) rather than a starting-point for a set of precise rules.

  13. Had a thought this morning:

    Sanderson’s First Law is actually an adapted rule for science fiction. Star Trek stinks for not following the rule while Niven succeeds with it. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find SF where Sanderson’s law didn’t apply. So obviously it works for SF-like fantasy like what Sanderson does.

    But contrast with the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan’s death breaks the witch’s power and allows him to come back to life due to a ‘deeper magic’ that had never been explained before and didn’t follow from anything else we’d been told already. But it worked, because it followed fairy tale logic.

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