In today’s guest column, space opera author Luke T. Barnett joins us to talk magic systems in science fiction and fantasy, illustrating the difference between hard and soft magic systems with examples from popular SF books and films.
Every science fiction and fantasy franchise has its magic system. We’ve all seen the films: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek. Whether it’s advanced technology, natural species’ abilities, or literal magic, each story handles it differently.
But what’s the difference between hard and soft magic systems, and where do the most popular franchises fall on the spectrum?
Below, I’ve taken some examples of popular SF and examined their magic systems to determine what type they are, and perhaps, help you find out what type you prefer in your reading and viewing.
Star Wars: “Use the Force, Luke!”
In Star Wars, the Force is the main magic system, a telekinetic power some people in a galaxy far, far away seem to possess. In later films, it is said to be caused by an organism called midi-chlorians, but let’s focus on the original trilogy for now.
The Force enables one to move objects with their mind, allows one to see visions of the future and past, or even visions of possible futures as in the case with Luke in the cave on Dagobah.
The Force also allows one to see immediately into the future to anticipate another’s movements. It allows one to sense another’s thoughts and call out to them, though this seems only to work if the bond between the two individuals is familial or particularly strong, as Vader could sense certain things about Luke, while the Emperor could not. Likewise, the Emperor could not sense any good or betrayal in Vader, when Luke could. Thus, Vader was able to turn on his master, and save his son.
Yoda points out that there is no limit to the size of movable objects one can manipulate with the Force. The only barrier is belief, and the giving of oneself over to the Force, allowing it to flow freely.
Though much has been added to the Star Wars universe since the original films, and the ability of force users has expanded and developed in ways that are…hotly debated among fans. If you take only the original trilogy, you could have argued they used a hard magic system where the rules have been cleverly obscured, heightening the intrigue and appeal. How the franchise has developed over the years, however, makes it squishier than it once was.
Lord of the Rings: “You! Shall not! Pass!”
In Tolkien’s classic work, as well as the movies they inspired, magic is very subtle. The greatest displays are used by the wizards, Gandalf and Sauruman. But even these are muted with just odd things happening with very little flash or fanfare. When it does have such effects, it seems to be a massive spell not often used. Sometimes, incantations are used to activate the magic, but not always. Oftentimes, Gandalf will light his staff, or throw Sauruman across the room, or slam his staff into a bridge without a word of incantation.
Other forms of magic are those inherent within famous weapons. The sword that cut the ring from Sauron’s hand was “the sword of the king” wielded by the rightful king, Aragorn. In the movies, it was able to strike that which was otherwise ethereal. Or take the sword wielded by both Bilbo and Frodo, Sting. It was made by the elves and contained elven magic which allowed it to glow when orcs or goblins were near.
Speaking of elf magic, Sam exclaimed he wanted no more of it after looking in Galadriel’s mirror, to which Galadriel responded that they never considered their ways to be magical. These natural abilities of the Elves were impossible for mortals such as Hobbits and Men.
Back to Gandalf and the Wizards. They were of a special race called Maiar. Gandalf supposedly lived three-hundred lives of men. Their ability to cast spells and use magic was also inherent in their race.
How about the Ring of Power itself? Nine other magic rings were given out, but those rings corrupted people wholly. Perhaps because man had no ability to properly wield magic, so Sauron was able to take them over. Aragorn states boldly that no one can wield the One Ring. He might be able to for a time if he bent all his will towards it as he is of the race of the Numenor, rather than man. But even he would be corrupted eventually.
It would seem that there are levels of magic and power within magical items, able to be wielded by certain individuals based on their own inherent magical ability.
All that is to say, the lack of defined rules and boundaries are a clear indication that Lord of the Rings relies on a soft magic system.
Star Trek: “Beam me up, Scotty.”
Star Trek is a different breed of sci-fi from Star Wars.
Star Trek uses technology and does its best to apply technical terms, making it seem more believable. This is evidenced by the technical manuals that can be found on the Enterprise and the various technologies found in the Star Trek universe, like phasers or transporters. To be sure, Star Wars has advanced technology, too, but whereas Star Wars glosses over the technical details, Star Trek embraces them.
Not only that, but Star Trek is generally consistent in their application (though not perfect). They encounter problems because of the limitations in their technology. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), a phaser can’t be fired on board at maximum setting as an alarm will sound. In another instance, a pair of uniforms with Klingon blood must be hidden somewhere aboard as they could not be easily disposed of due to them being in space and isolated from any other ship or station.
In the TNG episode, “The Best of Both Worlds”, the crew of the Enterprise can reconfigure the deflector array to shoot a massive blast of energy at a Borg ship. But, because of the captured and assimilated Captain Picard’s prior knowledge of this plan, the Borg were able to adapt, thus negating the effects of the attack.
Star Trek is definitely not hard science fiction, a genre known for sticking to established scientific theories. However, it edges much closer to the genre than regular sci-fi or science fantasy like Star Wars. Star Trek, therefore, although it’s by no means perfect, utilizes a hard “magic” system with rules and limitations.
Brandon Sanderson: “There’s always another secret.”
One of the most popular fantasy and sci-fi writers working today is also one of the proliferators of the most well-thought-out and intricate magic systems in modern fiction.
Sanderson has created countless magic systems for his novels. He very much sticks to the hard magic system idea, building rules and limitations into his magic, but also thinking through these systems so thoroughly that the magic can be used and displayed in truly inventive ways.
In the Mistborn series, different metals can be ingested and used in one’s body to create different effects. Metals can also be inserted into one’s body and used that way. How these powers are accessed is more of a soft rule, but the rest of the system is very rigid. One can pull and push against metals, use combinations of metals to move faster, even fly using a series of metal objects to push against.
In Warbreaker, people have “breaths” that they can accumulate and spend. One can use the breaths and in combination with the color of objects, do just about anything they want, provided they use the proper command phrase preceding a transfer of breath from one’s self to an object. Telling a rope to grab hold of something when one tells it to doesn’t work, but telling it to grab hold when thrown does. It holds a specific system of actionable A then B commands. More vague commands cannot be used.
In The Stormlight Archive, some individuals can draw upon magical power released in Highstorms to give them abilities to climb walls, move at enhanced speeds, even deflect attacks and heal from damage. Kaladin, one of the main characters, finds he has this ability and regularly draws upon it, at first unwittingly, then deliberately and with increasing skill.
Soulcasting is another ability in this series used to change the molecular structure of an object. One may change a boulder to smoke, or jelly to a sour mixture, or even remove poison from bread. There are other abilities within The Stormlight Archive’s magic system that expand and elaborate the system, but they always follow consistent rules, and Sanderson does well to weave them into a compelling narrative.
Sanderson is definitely one of the heavy hitters in the hard magic system crowd.
Galactic Core: “Me? You’re the one that just defied the vacuum of space with one hand.”
In my own series, Galactic Core, I use a combination of hard and soft magic systems. I have blended the soft magic of various sci-fi and anime films with the harder magic systems of things like Star Trek and Brandon Sanderson novels.
My goal is to have the wonder of the soft magic systems, while making those strange objects or events explainable in a way that makes at least some logical sense.
Loni carries a singularity gun that can create different outcomes, such as self-collapsing black holes, molecular scattering, EMP blasts, and other strange effects depending on the shell used. The gun is powered by her own inherited power, which was given to her family line by an alien race who had so integrated their technology with their biology that the two were indistinguishable.
In my universe, ships travel using hyperspace. Unlike Star Wars where this is a different dimension of space, Hyperspace in Galactic Core is a condition of matter set into a quantum state where the time dilation effects of FTL don’t occur.
Blaster bolts are visible and hold different colors. But the colors have meaning, red being incendiary, blue being stun, and so on. They also lose their effectiveness beyond a certain range due to them losing heat the further they travel, stun bolts being the least heat-producing and thus having the shortest range.
Some races, like the Ikati, have inherent natural abilities that allow them to do “magical” things such as heal from fatal wounds within hours, or create temporary gravitational blocks on which to stand, or even manipulate their own gravitational fields to prevent themselves from being sucked out into space.
What’s your favorite flavor of magic system?
Whatever your flavor of magic system, you can find a franchise that fits it. Whether it’s hard like Star Trek, soft like Lord of the Rings, or somewhere in between like Galactic Core, there’s a style out there to fit your tastes. Perhaps now you have a better grasp on what you like.
What other popular sci-fi/fantasy franchises have magic systems worth mentioning? Leave a comment to share your thoughts!
Luke T. Barnett grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi and fantasy fostering a deep love for each as well as feeling out a good story without the use of the Force or a tri-corder. He’s been writing since childhood as well and since defying Gandalf and passing into adulthood, has published one epic fantasy novel, a fantasy short story series, and space opera series, all of which he is still writing. He lives on the shores of lake Erie (sometimes mistaken for the heights of the Misty Mountains in the winter) with his story dissecting writer wife, his two story junkie boys and dragon-slaying, princess-daughter.