Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction holds that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The magical space-age design of Asgard in the new Thor movie seems to have taken its cue from this idea in a major way. Here are ten other stories where machinery seems to have merged with sorcery.
Art by Jim Burns
1. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,by Mark Twain
Mark Twain tells the story of an engineer who is transported back in time to King Arthur’s court, and how he fools them into believing he is a sorcerer. Hank Morgan uses his knowledge of technology and history to impress the people of medieval England. He predicts an eclipse, sets of fireworks, and destroys Merlin’s tower with lightning and demolition charges.
2. Dune, by Frank Herbert
The premise of the first novel in Herbert’s famous cycle of stories about humanity’s distant, galaxy-spanning future is that humans have abandoned technology after a horrific apocalypse involving AI. In its place, they have medieval-style “guilds” of witches, pilots, and other groups who have been genetically altered by the spice melange to do jobs that computers once did. The humans in the books have a very spiritual relationship to both the spice and the ways they are transformed by it. Though they are clearly operating in a technological world of spaceships and intelligence explosions, most characters view themselves as part of a mystical system.
3. The Steel Remains series, by Richard K. Morgan
This series, set on a ringed planet on the cusp of an industrial revolution, begins with groups of magical creatures battling each other in shadow realms. The main character is a legendary swordsman who fought bravely in a war against monsters, who later becomes the lover of an elf-like creature who takes him to a magical world. But as the story develops, especially in the second novel, we realise that the “magic” is actually alien technology that the planet’s leaders are using to keep the populace enthralled by religion. And the monsters? Those are aliens. The oracles? AI. This is a case of a low-tech society mistaking technology for magic.
4. Assassin’s Creed
The video game series Assassin’s Creed has a complex mythology behind it, including a number of technologies that could be viewed as magic. Most notable are the Pieces of Eden, including the Apple of Eden, and the First Civilisation (also known as Those Who Came Before). The First Civilisation were an advanced race that created humanity and acted as their gods, until Adam and Eve stole the Apple of Eden, beginning the human rebellion. The technology that remains from that time serves as the macguffin in the games. As you play through the games you track down Pieces of Eden and slowly put together the origin of humanity, learning that it isn’t magic or religion, but science that formed the world as we know it.
5. Futurama, “Leela and the Genestalk”
This Futurama episode plays on the old story of Jack and the Beanstalk. After Leela begins turning into a squid, Fry trades the ship for a handful of magic beans that the trader claims will cure any ailment. Resigned to her fate, Leela tells Fry that this is “one of those rare problems with no magic solution.” Later, she finds the fully grown beanstalk and decides to take a chance on magic, only to discover that the beanstalk was never magic, it was genetically engineered by Mum.
6. The Lord of Light, by Robert Zelazny
Robert Zelazny’s novel is set in the far future where humans have begun using technology to practice the Hindu religion. Instead of dying, they use technology to transfer the consciousness to a new human or animal host. One class of people have additional technological advances and the rest of society worships them as gods.
The book’s opening lines sum up the theme of the book:
His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.
7. The Flying Sorcerers, by David Gerrold and Larry Niven
David Gerrold and Larry Niven’s novel deals explicitly with the idea of using science as magic. Purple, an astronaut/geologist/anthropologist, crash lands on a primitive world. Much like characters in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Purple uses his knowledge of advanced technology to trick the people into believing he is a magician. The book is written, rather humorously, from the perspective of Lant, one of the leaders of the native society. We see firsthand how Lant and the other natives view Purple’s technology as magic.
8. The Prestige
In The Prestige, two stage magicians compete for audiences by using science as magic. All of their stage acts are based on technology, they are illusions to fool the audience. The audience in the film believes wholeheartedly that the magicians can perform real acts of magic, especially after after seeing Alfred Borden perform a convincing teleportation trick called The Transported Man. Even his competition, Robert Angier, can’t figure out how the trick could have been done. In order to win back the crowd, Angier enlists the help of everyone’s favourite overused historical figure Nikola Tesla. Tesla creates a teleportation machine for Angier to use in his act.
9. Star Wars
We don’t want re-awaken your Post-Midichlorian Stress Disorder (PMSD), but what’s canon is canon. In the original three Star Wars movies (episodes 4-6), the Force was a mystical power, kind of like the Hindu notion of the “Brahman,” a world essence that some groups teach can be found only through self-knowledge. In the second Star Wars trilogy (episodes 1-3), the Force is very clearly a scientific phenomenon, channeled by some genetic handwavery called Midichlorians. Lucas basically retconned a magical force into something scientific. This is actually incredibly typical of these sorts of stories, from Richard K. Morgan’s work, to the Genestalk from Futurama. So you may have PMSD, but this plot swerve puts Star Wars neatly into the tradition described by Clarke’s third law.
It’s fitting that we end this post with one of Clarke’s most memorable novels, about a mysterious, cylindrical object that passes through our solar system, leaving confusion in its wake. Though none of the characters in the book believe that the vessel is magic, its technology is so incredibly advanced that they are unable to figure any of it out. It might as well be sorcery. We follow our characters as they explore the ship, meeting life forms that could be livestock, aliens, or computers — who knows? Clarke does an incredible job evoking a civilisation that is clearly scientific, but whose rules are so opaque that humans simply cannot figure any of them out.
Bonus Round: Green Lantern
The Green Lantern and other Corps’ power rings appear to be magic, but are actually advanced technology. They require recharging, and are seen as a way of harnessing power. In various stories the rings have been hacked, reprogrammed, and used as communication devices. Unlike Thor, the other obviously magical/technological comic book character, Green Lantern is not ripped from the pages of mythology. So he’s a pure example of a character with advanced tech who seems to have magical powers.