1 April 2016
I don’t often do book reviews on here (Callan is your go-to guy for that), but I recently finished a novel by one of my favorite authors and I really wanted to write about it. Diane Duane, if you’re not familiar with her, is the author of a long-running series about wizards. But not just any wizards – in her version of the universe, which is very similar to our own, wizardry is a science in and of itself, and a wizard can specialize in anything from whale performance art to solar dynamics to linguistics to geoscience.
The premise of the Young Wizards books is that there’s a universal language that everything understands and responds to, and it can be used to ‘persuade’ the universe to behave in certain ways – hence, a spell that has a result. But the spells aren’t just magic words, they’re complex descriptions of natural forces, interwoven with physics and mathematics and every other scientific way of describing the world you can imagine. A practitioner in the Young Wizards universe who wants to transport themselves to the Moon, for example, has to know how to calculate the escape velocity of their life-support enclosure, know how much air to bring for a three-hour trip, know how to shield themselves from solar radiation and keep the enclosure warm, and know what to do about all that Moon dust they’re going to kick up when they materialize in the middle of Daedelus Crater. (A discreet wizard doesn’t suddenly appear where imaging satellites might see them, of course.) Every spell is meticulously diagrammed and has to balance out in terms of energy, and there’s always a cost for enacting one, in keeping with our thermodynamic understanding of the way the universe operates.
That’s what I love about the series – that the author goes to the trouble not only to think of those sorts of things, but incorporate them into good wizardly practice the same way scientists do when they’re developing experiments or doing field work. Even if some of it is “technobabble”, it’s extremely good technobabble and it’s very grounded in good science. And in many cases she takes advantage of natural occurrences that scientists haven’t yet figured out how to explain and attributes them to below-the-radar work by wizards in her stories, who generally try to keep a low profile. (This is a really clever and funny way to give scientists a bit of a break, and a nice nod to the classic Arthur Clarke’s third law about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.)
Which brings me to my main reason for this post, which was that in her latest book, Games Wizards Play, Duane has given a good bit of attention to several characters who practice “geomancy”. Like geoscientists in the non-literary world, these characters can have specialties: one girl’s spells involve mitigation of large earthquakes on transform faults, another boy is working to reduce the occurrence and impacts of pyroclastic flows. The majority of the action in Games Wizards Play takes place at a competition that’s a combination of an AGU conference and the World Cup, where practitioners are competing to show off their most promising new spells. (They even have presentation titles like a professional conference: “Magma management and redirection technique for volcanoes located near urban centers, intended to prevent pyroclastic flow and similar dangerous phenomena” and “Energy cancellation and displacement protocol for management of slipstrike and similar earthquake faults” sound like they’d fit right in at Fall Meeting!)
Geoscience specialties are scattered throughout the other books in the series. There are mentions of other wizards who are “hydromages” (one implemented a famous spell that increased the exchange of seawater between the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean to help alleviate pollution problems), and one of the more interesting spells that comes up regularly is the Mason’s Word, which allows a wizard to directly manipulate stone. Taking that idea even further is another character who pops up in the series, the “Planetary” supervisory wizard for Earth, who she works directly with the Earth’s “kernel” (a kind of magical core operating code that describes all the materials and processes that make up the planet itself).
It strikes me as really interesting (and timely) that these geoscience-oriented characters are appearing in this series, because there are some very serious discussions going on in the scientific community right now about “geoengineering” – triggering or enhancing natural processes to do things like bring rain to drought-stricken areas, or to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or to cool the planet by creating artificial ‘volcanoes’. And in many respects, what Duane’s wizards do is geoengineering – but the cool part is that she also gets into the ethical debates around whether it’s a good or a bad thing to be implementing these fixes. (If you dig through the Young Wizards Wiki, there’s a good deal of text devoted to discussing the ethical implications of wizardry, and every spell that the characters do has to include ethical arguments, just as many medical or psychological studies have to when they apply for funding.)
The ethics of geoengineering in the non-literary world are heavily debated, especially where they concern counteracting anthropogenic climate change; the fixes that appear to work in the short term or on small scales could have grave consequences at larger and longer scales. That’s directly reflected in the ‘Troptic Stipulation’ that Duane’s wizards take as part of their practitioners’ oath: not to change any object or creature unless its existence is threatened, and even then, after very careful consideration. Some of the geoengineering solutions to environmental problems are themselves problematic because enacting them could cause harm to some communities or places even as they help others. That’s something that we’ll have to struggle with, particularly when we’re trying to decide how to mitigate the effects of climate change and other natural hazards.
However, if you’re looking for a book (and a series) that ties together science with some really neat, well-thought-out worldbuilding (and a whole lot of magic), you should definitely give the series a try. I’m personally excited by the geomancers that showed up in the latest book, and I really want to know more about the one who was trying to mitigate volcanic hazards. (I feel like if I were going to be a character in the series, I would be very on top of that…)