The most delightful thing about Arthur C. Clarke’s famous comment that “any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic” is how obvious the point is once you read it. But because the point is so retrospectively obvious the phrase tends to get deployed unimaginatively. It’s actually more subtle, and perhaps consequential, than it appears to be.
Here’s another way to put Clarke’s point: Many or most human beings have in our intellectual toolbox a category – one that we that may for convenience’ sake call “magic” – that we deploy in situations in which we perceive certain ends achieved but cannot perceive the means by which the achievement was accomplished. There’s a large metal box in my kitchen that is filled with cold air, this I know, but how it makes the air cold may not only be unknown to me but effectively unimaginable. Or: A tall black monolith has appeared in the midst of my small band of early-hominid hunter-gatherers, this we know, but how it got there and what it is we cannot guess.
If you read much of Clarke’s writings you know that Clarke doesn’t believe in magic – that is, in forces outside the laws of physics as we know them that produce effects in the physical world – but it’s worth noting that his point stands whether you believe in magic or not. Even if magic can be done, it remains true that any smoothly functioning technology etc. etc. That is to say, Clarke’s statement is not a metaphysical claim but a phenomenological one – it is about “appearance,” about what presents itself to us, about what we perceive. Whether we are perceiving accurately, and how what we perceive might be explained – these are epistemological questions. In this case, epistemology (theory of knowledge) is brought in to help us understand the gap (or, in some cases, fit) between what we perceive and what is.
In these respects, Clarke’s statement resembles Max Weber’s famous description of “the disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung, unmagicking). Weber is not saying that once the world was filled with disembodied spirits subject only to metaphysical rather than physical description, spirits that have now departed. He’s saying that that’s what the world feels like – it reads to us like a place where transmissions from the far invisible have ceased. In such a phenomenological environment, what do we do when things happen that we don’t know how to account for – when we see the ends but cannot imagine the means?
And this can happen to us when we read fiction as well, an experience I can perhaps describe in this way: Any imaginatively conceived and coherently presented work of science fiction reads like a work of fantasy.
In Adam Roberts’s new novel The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate these very themes are pursued, these questions are posed, in a provocative and delightful way. What do you do if you are a rational man, a man of science, and begin to see things that science (as you understand it) cannot explain? What do you do if you’re reading a novel and can’t tell if it’s fantasy or science fiction?
If these questions interest you, you’ll very much enjoy (as I did) The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate.