Revisiting the Need to Change the World

A few years ago, off the back of reading N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, I wrote about whether stories that involve magic that are set in the “real world” need to have a meaningful impact on that world.

I had started thinking about that issue thanks to an observation by a legal blogger (of all people!) about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in which he concluded that:

it therefore strains credulity to believe that powerful sorcerers have been around for centuries, yet have never revealed themselves to normal humans, seized political power, or had any impact on history.

As I said in my post, I’ve wrestled with this in developing (or not) some of my own ideas. If the story is set in our world, but with magic, shouldn’t magic change things?

I was set to thinking about this again after reading R.F. Kuang’s Babel, which is up for a Hugo.

Babel is set in an alternate history version of England (for the most part) of the early Victorian era, just on the verge of the First Opium War in China. The main characters are training as “translators” at Oxford who practice a form of magic whereby they engrave pairs of words on silver bars that are then used to do particular things. Some of them are completely magical – there’s one that explodes someone’s heart, for example, and another that can heal the sick. Most of them, however, merely make things that already work do so more smoothly and efficiently – carriages travel more smoothly, gardens are more pleasurable, factories require fewer employees, etc.

For our purposes, what all this means is that the British Empire is precisely the same thing that it was in our real history – a globe-spanning colossus that exploited its colonial territories and other weaker, developing nations for fun and profit. There’s nothing about the world of Babel, in broad strokes, that is different from our world. Does that matter? Is it a flaw in Kuang’s world building?

At one time I would have said it was, or at least leaned that way, and you can certainly find reviewers on Goodreads who find that to be a major flaw. But I think what Kuang has done is use the fantasy element to crystalize the themes she wanted to talk about that are very real in our world and our history, namely colonialism and its legacy. In Babel the raw silver needed to fuel the magic works almost like spice does in Dune, a purely extractive industry conducted in a faraway place for the benefit of entrenched, moneyed interests back home. Sure, the actual silver trade did that, too, but the magical gloss heightens the inequity of it.

Could Babel have told the same story without the magic? A few specifics would have to change, but in general, sure it could have. It’s a book about a character who at first thinks he’s been plucked from a dead-end life to live a life of learning and privilege who slowly learns what that privilege is based upon and rebels against it. Magic isn’t required for that, but it doesn’t hurt, either. There’s also the possibility, of course, that what Kuang is saying is that whatever resource we’re talking about, including magic, was going to fall into the service of the most wealthy and powerful anyway, which is not wrong.

In my conclusion back in 2020 I suggested that writers are leaving some interesting ideas on the table by not playing out the impacts of their world’s fantastical things on the world as we know it. I still think that’s true, largely, but I’ve come to accept a caveat – that, sometimes, what you’re after isn’t a big world building “what if?” exercise and trying to do so would just take away from the story you’re trying to tell. As usual, the focus should be on what best serves the character and the story, not anybody else’s idea of how world building should be done.


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