18 July, 2015

Guest Post - Max Gladstone on "The Laws of Magic"

The Craft Sequence, starting with Three Parts Dead, is one of those that's been on my radar for quite some time, but with my schedule, I haven't had the time to get to it. At the same time, I've only heard great things about it, so I took the opportunity to host an article by Max Gladstone on "The Laws of Magic."

Being a lawyer myself, this article really hit home for me and Three Parts Dead has risen tremendously on my radar. Thanks go to Max and look for his latest from Tor, Last First Snow, book 4 in the Craft Sequence, which just came out July 14.


The Laws of Magic
By Max Gladstone

Modern fantasies tend to discuss magic as if it’s an alternate form of physics, or even computer code—but really, we expect magic to work much more like the practice of law.

In law, as in magic, the world functions according to certain rules and definitions.  In law, as in magic, masters of those rules and definitions can, in certain ritual circumstances, manipulate symbols to change aspects of their world.  Law, like magic, rests on pillars of dead languages and forbidden (or at least forbidding) tomes—I don’t know any other modern profession that involves quite so many thick tomes of onionskin paper set in small type and bound in red leather.

And law, like magic, depends on the personal skill and charisma of the advocate.  In computer programming, and in physics, you can’t just want something to happen hard enough, while time and again in fantasy we encounter moments where heroes triumph through sheer force of will.  Programming and physics are both profoundly impersonal.  Ted Chiang once suggested, when trying to define magic as something apart from science, that magic cares who’s practicing it, while science, ideally, works the same for everyone.  Well, law does care.

That’s where it started for me—that, coupled with the joking observation that law school classes tend to sound more like Hogwarts classes than do graduate level classes in other disciplines.  No “Advanced Topics in Biokinetics” or whatever—nope, you’ve got Remedies and Contracts and Corpse.  (Okay, fine, Corps.)  I think Potions is a 2L elective at most accredited US law schools.

They don’t teach you Defense against the Dark Arts, though.  That would make firm interviews more complicated.

Once I started pulling on this thread, the whole sweater unraveled—only to re-ravel itself into a different, weirder sweater.  I’ve written elsewhere about the connection between necromancy and bankruptcy law—surround a corpse with ritual wards and protections, remove the bits that don’t work, replace them with new bits built to your own design, and raise the corpse to shamble forth and do your bidding—but the implications go further. 

Law mediates relationships between people, and between people and these enormous immaterial entities that people naturally create, which have their own behaviors, histories, attitudes, psychologies, operations, and goals—we call them governments sometimes, and corporations other times, but at all times we use legal tools to develop them, maintain them, and, when necessary, destroy them.

Lawyers are one of the few groups in the modern world with the tools and power to engage these entities, and to help human beings relate to, and sometimes resist, them.  The enormous challenges we face in this new millennium, as those entities become more interconnected, intelligent, responsive, and invasive, are in that sense legal challenges—or at least, they’re challenges lawyers cannot ignore.

But law has as much potential to be an instrument of oppression as liberation; it’s much easier to pay off your student loans when you’re working for the power. To what extent can we work for good within the system?  How does reform happen?  What better options exist?  How do we resist regulatory capture?  These are enormous questions—too big, almost, to address in mimetic fiction.  Ever since the first proto-humans grunted stories to one another around the campfire, we’ve approached our society's biggest questions in the language of myth; that’s what I’m trying to do in the Craft Sequence.

Also, this approach lets me fill fantasy novels with jokes about Dead Hands, mediation practice, document review, and the Rule against Perpetuities—and goofy law jokes really are their own reward.

From Patrick Rothfuss's 5-Star Goodreads review of Three Parts Dead:" Twenty-ish years ago, I read Neverwhere and it kinda blew the top off of my head. It was a mix of things I didn't know could be mixed. It was magic and myth and London and faerie all brought together in a clever, cunning, subtle melange. 

That's how I feel about these books. They mix magic and science and culture and finance in a way I never considered possible before."