Monday, May 4, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Magic Goes Away

The Magic Goes Away is a 1978 novella that expanded upon an earlier short story of the same name by Larry Niven. Niven is, of course, best known as a science fiction author and I daresay that he brings at least a little science fiction sensibility to this fantasy tale, which concerns a spellcaster of great power known only as the Warlock. The Warlock is hundreds of years old and possessed of great magical ability. Nevertheless, he notices that his powers wane if he works magic in one part of the world for too long.

Finding this puzzling, he invents a device to measure the presence and flow of mana -- the energy that powers magic -- and soon surmises that mana is in fact a non-renewable resource that is consumed through the casting of spells. This alarms the Warlock, since magic is vital to the functioning of the world. Not only do wizards and their ilk employ it, but so do various governments and organizations. Without magic to aid them, they cannot function as they have for so long. Inevitably, this leads the Warlock, along some companions, on a quest to find a new source of mana that might be tapped in order to stave off the collapse of civilization as they know it.

Given its publication date, it should be apparent that The Magic Goes Away draws heavily from the Energy Crisis for its inspiration. Despite that, I think the central concept of the novella is an intriguing one and Niven is always good at drawing out logical conclusions to problems, even in a magical world such as this one. I'll grant that some might find both the premise and its resolution unsatisfyingly "rationalist," but I enjoyed them. Part of that is that I've grown to appreciate different takes on magic and fantasy than I did even a few months ago. While I wouldn't use Niven's take in my own games, that's not a knock against it by any means. Indeed, I think I appreciate the story more precisely because it's so far to the side of anything I'd do myself.

The Magic Goes Away is a quick read and well worth your time if you can find a copy. Gygax did not include it in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, but it is included in the bibliography of the Moldvay Basic Rules, for what that's worth.

15 comments:

  1. Hehe! Peak Magic! I never read this one, though I've heard that title a few times. That cover looks like Boris Vallejo or Juli Bell work, and their art always puts me off somehow. I know, I know, judging a book by it's cover and all that.
    Isn't Greyhawk supposed to have a slow waning of magic as well?

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  2. A collection of the Magic Goes Away and related stores was published in 2005 and is still in print:

    http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Goes-Away-Collection-Return/dp/0743416937

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  3. A collection of the Magic Goes Away and related stores was published in 2005 and is still in print:

    http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Goes-Away-Collection-Return/dp/0743416937

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  4. At least some editions also boast splendid Esteban Maroto interior art.

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  5. More of a SciFi fan then a Fantasy one, this book was a favorite of mine and a major influence on my early D&D campaigns.

    While I did not use Niven's premise per se, I was influenced by it when trying to reason out why D&D/Vancian Magic worked the way it did. Since, as I've remarked in the past, D&D magic is more akin to applied science and technology then the mystery and wonder it is in fairy tale and folklore, I needed to rationalize why that would be.

    AD
    Barking Alien

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  6. Richard Garfield used Niven's conception of mana for Magic: The Gathering. In 1995 I wrote the article "Mana in the Real World" about the difference between Niven's mechanistic conception of mana and the Pacific island origins of the concept.

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  7. I read it back in the 70s and really liked it. As the first commenter said Peak magic. I will have to reread and see if it has the same effect on me.

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  8. It is interesting that this concept was actually employed in the D&D basic setting—in the 'Gazetteer' products (specifically GAZ 3: The Principalities of Glantri). It is suggested that a magical artifact buried deep beneath the Principalities is the source of magic for the world (or at least the Known world). The artifact, as it turns out, is actually a nuclear generator from an ancient crashed starship (I think it was a leftover from the Blackmoorian civilization which was destroyed several millenia ago—could be wrong on the details). The generator was subsequently modified by immortals to serve its current, magical function.

    In any case, by tapping directly into this power source (which is known as the 'Rad' by its cult of archmage users) energy from the device is slowly being drained. It is implied that this drain would eventually result in the disappearance of magic in the world. Not quite the same details, but it makes me wonder if the writers of the book got their idea here.

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  9. Err, I meant to say "if the writers of the Gazzetteer got their idea from the novel". Sorry.

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  10. "The Rad"?! Haha! That's a product of the 80s right there.

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  11. Yes, I seem to remember that the source of magic in Glantri was supposed to be related to the ancient realm of Blackmoor in that way. I found it very intriguing, personally.

    BTW, I seem to remember having read somewhere that Poul Anderson wrote this story in order to see if he could get away with a science fiction story in the guise of a fantasy one. I might be mixing that up with something else, though.

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  12. Regarding the cover: Yes, it is a Boris Vallejo. I remember buying a Mayfair RoleAid book with that cover many years ago. To bad I got rid of it.

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  13. I'll grant that some might find both the premise and its resolution unsatisfyingly "rationalist"...I'm curious as to what you mean by 'rationalist' here.

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  14. It treats magic as something that operates according to intelligible laws rather than being a purely mystical and unpredictable thing.

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  15. It treats magic as something that operates according to intelligible laws rather than being a purely mystical and unpredictable thing.I feel this is very much the approach D&D fosters (deliberately or otherwise) in all of its incarnations -- magic as a "science" of sorts, with rigid rules you can understand and master to perfection.

    The lack of a spell failure mechanic, in particular, is what I see as the biggest divergence between D&D and its source material. In pulp fantasy, magic can and all too often does go awry, because it's one of these Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.

    Just my 2cp.

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