Thursday, October 20, 2011

So Sick of Sad, Special Sorcerers

I'm pretty sure there's something wrong with me. No normal person should like alliteration this much.

In the world of things that I'm getting kind of sick of, I'm starting to develop a mad-on for, as the title says, sad, special, and oppressed magic users. They're a common - and, I will admit, sometimes incredibly well-written - trope. The most recent stand-out example is Sharon Shinn's Twelve Houses series, but the subgenre is full of a wealth of excellent and not-so excellent works.

Before I continue, let me explain exactly what I'm talking about.

A lot of modern fantasy takes an approach to magic that mirrors the X-Men. Magic is (usually) an inborn trait, something that either can't  be repressed forever or can't be repressed without serious consequences for the mage. Mages are not a ruling class - rather, they are a hated minority. Their magical powers are only enough to help them survive, sometimes, with effort and great sacrifice.

I have a problem with this scenario. If you have a world where people periodically arise with special powers, I can't think of any reason that they would not ascend to roles of leadership. I mean, a lot of people hate fat-cat bankers born with silver spoons in their mouth, but these folks have been unseated in precious few parts of the world. Power (and talent, skill, and luck) may attract envy and animosity, but it also tends to attract more power. The best stories (The Twelve Houses again, is a good example of this) provide a good explanation: magic has limitations that its enemies know how to exploit, magicians have nemeses with their own, less objectionable power, ancient magician-kings were overthrown (which explains why they are so hated and no one will work for them), or whatever. A lot of the rank-and-file of this trope, however, never bothers with a justification.

Beyond that problem, though, I'm getting a little sick of it.

Perhaps it's over-exposure. This trope seems to have become very popular in fantasy since I was first exposed to it. Perhaps, though, it's something else. I wonder if I haven't grown out of it. As an adolescent, I was very caught up in being special. I worried that I wasn't special enough. I wanted to be assured of my uniqueness and value. I felt that the people who didn't recognize how wonderful I was were either right - which would have been terrible - or wrong, in which case they were oppressing me.

As an adult, I've realized that I don't really care about being special anymore. I'm content to be pretty average in a lot of ways. I have a purpose in life - several, in fact - and I'm happy to be used by them. I don't need to stand out in the eyes of any but the people who know me and appreciate what I bring to them and the world. Perhaps that's why the shine has worn off the story of the magic few.

Finally - and this is probably also part of my growing up - I think that there's something distressing elitist about the myth of the magic few. Let's look at this critically. Imagine that you actually lived in this world: there are a class of people, chosen at random, with magic powers. They can burn you alive with a gesture, invade your memories by looking at you hard, or bend your mind with a glance. There's nothing you can do to stop these people from taking what you own, coercing your obedience, engineering your humiliation, or ending your life. Remember that these people weren't chosen by a higher power with your best interests at heart. They aren't the best, the kindest, or the wisest. Some of them are great people and some of them are jerks. Their power is inherent, so there's nothing you can do to join them, ever.

You can't stop them, you can't compare to them, you can't join them, they don't deserve what they have, and they could be anyone.

Scary? Depressing? Both? Remind you too much of the real world?

Yeah, me too.

I feel that the story of the oppressed sorcerer is founded in the assumption that you are one of the special ones. But special has to equal rare, or it wouldn't be special anymore. Assume that you're a farmer caught in arcane crossfire, watching her home burn; assume that you're a merchant who just gave away goods worth a year of overhead thanks to a magician's charm; assume that you're a twelve year old girl who just caught a magician's eye - the equation changes. You start to think that maybe there needs to be some way to control these people. Maybe you even think that if the best solution you can think of is to put them in the ground, then maybe it's ok. Maybe it's the least of all available evils.

Now, all of this isn't to say that I don't ever want to read this kind of story again. What I'm looking for is a story that takes a more nuanced approach. I want the story to have a is well-built setting, of course, one that answers all the questions I raised above, but I also want it to provide multiple points of view on the problem of magic. Let's have the usual rag-tag band of heroic magicians and their hangers-on, but let's also have mage-hunters with legitimate grievances, people who have suffered at the hands of the "special few." Let's have a resolution that amounts to more than "the magic people should be free to do whatever they want, but don't worry - all the magic people who have been main characters are great."

When you find it, let me know.


kindli said...

If "everyone is a special unique snowflake!" with dangerous superpowers, then logically they MUST ALL BE OPPRESSED b/c face it, EVERYONE is a danger to society (on some level, yes, even the peasant farmer).

I like this logic.

My suggestion: check out the Sonja Blue trilogy by Nancy Collins. Yes, it deals w/vampires, but they're not sparkly, hip, or teens. It also deals w/some of the complexities when mortals get involved with more "magical" creatures (not just vampires).

Mark said...

I'll definitely check that series out. I think I remember hearing about it somewhere.

Scattercat said...

I've always enjoyed Barbara Hambly's Windrose Chronicles for an interesting investigation into this very question. ("The Silent Tower," "The Silicon Mage," and "Dog Wizard," with "Stranger at the Wedding" as a bit of an oddball outlier.) There, mages do, indeed, have weaknesses (working magic is fiddly and complicated, common anti-magic doodads exist, the opposition has fanatic mages of their own), and much of the series revolves around the idea of when and how power can be used. In order to learn magic, all mages have to functionally swear to never use it on anyone else, ever, with violations punishable by swift and violent death. Given that the inborn drive for magic is apparently somewhere between an artist's need to create and sex, almost all mages end up taking that bargain. It's an interesting concept.

Mark said...

I remember that series - you're the one who turned me on to it. It's quite good, and I agree that Hambly managed to establish many complications and limitations to magic - not to mention acknowledging that the anti-magic folks had a point - so I didn't mind her work as much as some of what I've read since then.