Monday, March 8, 2010

A Book of Tongues Interstitial: Magic, a Beginner's Guide

You may have already noticed I’m not much of a classic world-builder—resonance interests me far more than consistency, for which I rely on back-up from my RPG-designing husband Stephen J. Barringer (with whom I co-wrote the story “each thing I show you is a piece of my death”, first published in Clockwork Phoenix 2, from Norilana Books; it will be republished later this year in Best Horror of the Year #2, from Night Shade Books). But today I’m going to talk a bit about my theory of magic, specifically as it applies to the Hexslinger Series universe.

As Dr Joachim Asbury explains in Chapter Two of A Book of Tongues, what “everybody knows” in this alternative version of the 1860s-era Wild West is that there are people—magicians, commonly called hexes—who are born with the capacity to suddenly manifest reality-changing power. This manifestation’s methodology seems sex-linked, in that for (most) females it happens during the onset of their first period, while for (most) men it happens during a moment of extreme physical trauma. Since no one has hitherto been able to test people for hexacious potential, however, it always comes as a world-rocking surprise, transforming the person in question into something stuck forever halfway between a pariah-monster and a demigod.

How does magic work, exactly? In the hexes’ case, it seems to be a version of the “quantum magic” powers displayed by DC Comics characters like Arcanna Jones—they are able to choose one quantum possibility from a million-to-the-million undetermined outcomes, through sheer force of will. Because they’re still human, however, they do seem to need a structure to filter those choices through—most start out fetishistically clinging to things like Reverend Rook’s Bible Verses, or Lady Ixchel’s insistence on interpreting everything she does/encounters according to the Mayan-Aztec Blood Engine world-view she originally learned when she was still “alive”. Some graduate from that to a slightly more self-driven philosophy, but all retain the idea (perhaps an instinctual understanding of the law which states that energy cannot be destroyed or created, only transformed) that nothing can be made from nothing, and that everything must be paid for somehow.

No result without sacrifice: You get what you pay for, nothing more or less. And if you really want something to work, if not necessarily to last, you pay for it in blood.

As it turns out, hexation creates a magnetic field, which Dr Asbury has been able to detect and measure with his Manifold. He thinks this field may be something like “what the Chinese call ch’i”, the force which drives everything physical. And this makes a sort of sense, since its’ already been proven that there are sub-sets of “magic” which mere humans also appear to be able to wield—power which comes from working in concert with natural/universal forces (faith-based shamanism), or the types of power which come from inside a person’s mind (psi power). These capacities, like hexation itself, may be genetically linked, but it’s hard to say.

(In case you’re wondering, I like some mystery with my explanations, which is one reason I chose to root this narrative in a time-period where true science and junk science were all-but-indistinguishable. Also, outlaws!)

There aren’t a lot of hexes, thankfully; equally thankfully, they are unable to work together, because whenever you get two or more of them in close proximity, they’re driven to parasite upon each other, sucking out each other’s magical force. "Mages don't meddle," is the truism. Thus all friendships and love affairs end in betrayal at best, murder at worst, and there are no organized “schools” of magic, only apprenticeships which climax quickly and dirtily. Magicians are like tigers, wandering through the world alone, occasionally raising human-based cults and support-systems which will inevitably turn on them—drawn together by mutual hunger, they meet to fuss and screw, then crawl off to lick their wounds, afterwards. This is the mechanism which prevents them from taking over the world…

…or has, thus far.

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