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[Today a Month Ago] Sense of Wonder

December 9, 2014

Once again, writing this brings much the same feelings as living it. In this case, it’s, “What, it’s the last day of the con already? How did this happen? I’m not ready to say goodbye yet!”

This will be another day I will have to reconstruct mostly from memory and pictures, because I didn’t write in my journal for several days (and then I picked up with current events).

I know we went to one panel in the morning:

Magic as Mystery

Carolyn Ives Gilman (moderator), Phyllis Eisenstein, L. Jagi Lamplighter, L.E. Modesitt

early fantasy: magic out of view – where does one learn it? We don’t know.

Why magic at all?
Lee (L.E.): fundamental aspect of human nature: humans use everything as a tool
→ we like to understand the rules

Phyllis: wrote SF, so she enjoys magic with rules she can understand
the reader doesn’t need to know all the rules (she reveals them slowly) but she as author nees to

What we think of as magic depends on what we read when we were young

“in life, there is a lot of wonder”

“in stories, we portray this as magic”

gives us the same feeling

Carolyn: “I write about magic because it’s part of reality” → “there is no Hogwarts”
→ leakage from the unknown

there is a scale from the inexplicable, uncontrollable magic to the logical, predictable, learnable magic

Phyllis: “Hogwarts: too organised”, instead: apprenticeships
innate ability vs. something taught

3 categories:
1. magic that is like technology
2. magic that is like art → learning techniques but also inspiration → innate
3. The Golden Bough (?): all the superstitious beliefs in the world put together
sympathy + contagion

Lee: talent and aptitude
→ there would be differences
but you also have to apply yourself to learning

Lee: natural athletes rarely become coaches
people who had to work hard know how to learn+teach

talented ballet dancers rarely make it to the very top, because they never needed the discipline

Carolyn: “is magic really a metaphor for writing?”

Lee: “No.”
Metaphor for life
you don’t do things in a vaccuum, there are always consequences
(story about a weather mage who makes it rain and messes up the whole climate)

L. Jagi: “magic poisoning” is what her husband calls it
magic like pollution
you don’t have to stop using it, but you need ways to fix it

Phyllis: it can be learned, but it can’t be learned by everyone

Phyllis: small-scale magic
→ but what can it do in the world?
→ “it was frightening”

Lee: even if all writers start with the same rules, they’ll do different things with them

older fantasy: origin of magic out of view – why?

L. Jagi: the moment you put magic on stage, it loses some of its magic/wonder

Lee: if it’s obvious that you don’t have these abilities, it makes it harder to identify with the character
if you can think, “maybe I can do that too” it’s easier
Harry Potter has just enough mystery

Phyllis: the earlier writers didn’t have to work so hard
now we want more, more, more, of everything, because we already know all the old stuff

Macbeth vs. The Tempest
3 witches vs lots of magic

so now you have whole magical worlds

Lee: also, science can explain so much now, you can’t just handwave any more

Is magic real?
L Jagi: “It’s real in the psychological way”
“it’s real in the way ideas are real”

Lee: “What is real?”

Phyllis: “I believe in the ability of all humans to read each other” → looks like psychic abilities

Lee: sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
14th century person in Bill Gates’ house

L Jagi: cameras “like magic”

but → anyone can use them

it’s an everyday thing
→ so we don’t think of it as magic

Lee: “we know how electricity works, but we don’t know why

Phyllis: radioactive substance dropped in the jungle somewhere
natives, when warned about it, put up signs saying, “evil spell, stay away”

L Jagi: if it can be traced back to a law of nature, it’s technology
if it’s political, if you get it from a god or fairies, it’s magic

“if you put a name on everything, it loses its magic” (Geoff Hart, from the audience) → if you can name it, you can control it
→ plant names (this might have had something to do with just enjoying their beauty vs. thinking about them in a scientific way)
→ but on the other hand, if you know it, you can know how to use it → another sort of magic

“the reader needs to understand what can be done (but not necessarily how) so they can understand the climax”

Does magic rob the story of suspense, if you can just use magic to fix things?

Lee: no, guns don’t do that either

(I so wanted to quote Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince there, “The trouble is, the other side can do magic too”)

you need to set things up ahead of time
no deus ex machina

Phyllis: the reader needs to know what is and isn’t possible

I remember sitting there thinking about how nice it was to listen to people having an intelligent conversation about magic, and how that should be part of my life much more often, and it made me so sad about the end of the con.

And I also thought about the sentences, “in life, there is a lot of wonder” and “in stories, we portray this as magic”, because it reminded me a lot of a conversation we had with Tad (Williams, obviously – for most people who are going to read this, anyway. But who knows, there might be a few non-Smarchers reading, too) in Stuttgart this June (which I never posted about, shame on me.)

In any case, one of the things we spoke about then was that what fantasy should do is give a sense of wonder. Which wasn’t something I’d managed to put into words before, but it feels so true to me. That sense of wonder is what I look for in books, also in life.

Usually, outside of books, it’s the beauty of nature that gives me this feeling, but there was also a lot during this trip that made me feel this way.

Like the fact that a chance decision I made almost eight years ago had such a profound effect on my life, the fact that people who live so far from me, people I met so rarely (or had met, in Firsfron’s and Marian’s case, for the first time) had become so important and dear to me.


We had decided not to go to the banquet, so instead we got on the Metro and went to have dim sum for lunch – thanks to Firsfron for finding a place that served it, and to Cyan for her expert ordering and tea-pouring. I can’t think about this too much now, or I will get hungry again!

On the way back, we stopped at the Arlington Cemetery.



Of course I took more pictures of random trees than of anything else:




We stayed there just a bit too long, so we ended up missing the awards ceremony. But we spent a bit more time sitting in the bar, enjoying our last bit of time with Marian, and chatting some more with L.E. Modesitt and Michael Whelan. Another thing that gives me this sense of wonder, that these are things I get to do, people I get to talk to.

And we took a picture with the Travelling DoOF Cover, shared property of all Smarchers.


DoOF = Dragons of Ordinary Farm

All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to Marian (I still miss her!), return to our hotel to pick up our luggage (we’d checked out earlier) and get into a cab to move to our next hotel.

And here we come back to the sense of wonder, because we were staying at the Willard, two blocks from the White House. I have to admit, I never felt quite comfortable there, I always had this nagging feeling of, “I’ll touch something the wrong way and it will cost me hundreds of dollars” – but at the same time, it was absolutely amazing. And oh so lovely to spend more time with my wonderful Smarch-friends.



The White House is somewhere behind that building… but I don’t even care about that so much. It was just so awesome to be able to open a window and let in some fresh air instead of the A/C.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2014 23:18

    The Willard was amazing. All hail Cyan the Great, and her amazing friend Mark! So glad that the Dim Sum was acceptable. I loved it, but I’ve never had bad Dim Sum yet…

    • December 9, 2014 23:37

      Don’t talk about the dim sum – it makes me hungry, and I have to go to bed now!

      • December 10, 2014 19:55

        Okay, I’ll just talk about how amazing the Willard was… Such a great hotel! And so odd, thinking about sleeping so close to the White House, with all those strange downstairs meeting rooms on level “N”, and the basement, and the sub-basement, and the sub-sub-basement…

        That was freaky!

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