Vancian magic and the veil of Time

One of our new Castalia House bloggers has really been raising the standard there. What Jeff describes as a review of The Dying Earth by Jack Vance is really an intelligent, respectful contemplation of the true depths of Vance’s magical system, pale shadows of which provided the structure of the D&D and many subsequent magical systems:

Of similar significance is the commonly overlooked fact that mathematics is the key to discerning the nature “real” Vancian magic. In many games, the designers come up with some sort generic “magicky” type skill or else have it powered by an arbitrary “mana” force. Other people, hankering for a sense of authenticity, work out systems based on pacts with demons and so forth. In contrast, Jack Vance is explicit about his magic’s being susceptible to discoverable laws: 

Within this instrument resides the Universe. Passive in itself and not of sorcery, it elucidates every problem, each phase of existence, all the secrets of time and space. Your spells and runes are built upon its power and codified according to a great underlying mosaic of magic. The design of this mosaic we cannot surmise; our knowledge is didactic, empirical, arbitrary. Phandaal glimpsed the pattern and so was able to formulate many of the spells that bear his name.

But in the Dying Earth setting, a general knowledge of how mathematics applies to magic is almost completely lost. The consequences of a scenario that culminates into a science fantasy analog to Lord of the Flies go far deeper than what a casual reading would indicate: 

In all my youth this ache has driven me, and I have journeyed from the old manse at Sfere to learn from the Curator… I am dissatisfied with the mindless accomplishments of the magicians, who have all their lore by rote

 The wizards, then, are nearly all charlatans. They’re like jazz musicians that can only learn a set number of songs, can’t improvise on a set of chord changes, and forget what little they do know at the end of a set. They’re like engineers that can only solve a few well known problems and who can only actually tackle a fraction of what was previously solvable. They are like the most typical math student of today who has knowledge of only a handful of tricks, is barely able to recognize when to apply them, and who is essentially innumerate when separated from his calculator. Despite their trappings of learning and lore, these wizards amount to little more than barbarian looters of a fallen empire.

Simply great stuff. And speaking of fallen empires, here is a reminder of why you simply must read John C. Wright’s newest book, CITY BEYOND TIME: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, if you are a science fiction aficionado.

A double row of oaks lined the drive leading to the main doors of Ophion House. Lelantos gently pushed Catherine into hiding behind a tree, and pressed close behind her, his arms to either side of her, supporting her. She was nearly fainting, and stood grasping the tree for support, staring at the house.

She saw that his Roadster stood idling in the circle before the doors, festooned with ribbons and flowers, with long strands tied to the rear bumper trailing shoes and cans. On the stairs of the portico, a noisy, cheerful crowd stood facing the doors, men dressed in handsome black tuxedos, women garbed in silks and satins, with flowers woven in their hair.

“It is now a year later,” he breathed in her ear. “I wanted you to see our wedding day.”

A great cheer went up from the house, and the women threw rice into the air as the bride and groom appeared at the door.

Catherine clutched the bark to the oak, and her breath caught in her throat. “That’s me!”

“That’s you. Run forward now, and you might catch the bouquet.”

But Catherine did not move. “Oh,” she sighed, “Oh my… I look so happy. Look at how I’m laughing! Look at my dress! It’s gorgeous! I want a dress just like that for my wedding!”

Her face flushed with joy, standing on tip-toes, the bride smiled and waved toward the oak trees as if she knew they were there, as a lacey white veil, sheer as smoke, floated around her flower-crowned head. The bridegroom winked in their direction. Then the crowd swirled in around the newly-married pair, shouting with good cheer.

The couple fled the pelting rice, laughing, and leapt into the waiting Roadster. With a humming roar, the machine whirled down the lane between the trees, a cloud of dust speeding away behind it.

The noise of the crowd faded away like the sound of an old newsreel. Lelantos walked toward the house, drawing an amazed Catherine drifting, eyes wide, behind him. By the time they reached the lowest step, it was dusk, and the crowd had vanished. When they reached the door, the stars were gleaming cold in the dark above, and the hall clock was whirring and ringing midnight.

“How can this be possible?” Catherine breathed softly.

“All men can reach with their minds into the past and future, with memory and imagination. My family was forced to learn how to bring ourselves along as well.”


“We come from a future of fire. The smoke of the burning has blotted out the sun, moon, and stars. It is a time of darkness; the streams and seas are turned to blood. Earthquakes swallow islands into the ocean and throw down mountains. Mankind has died in plague and poison, or burnt, or choked, or starved, or drowned or been buried alive. The first father and mother of my family, Lif and Lifrasir, the last of all mankind, escaped death by fleeing down the corridors of Time. We don’t know why. Perhaps the moment when there was no future left at all allowed the past to open up her gates. The pair fled to the farthest future, after time itself had ceased, exhausted, and discovered the empty towers of Metachronopolis, the golden City Beyond Time. New names were given them, Chronos and Rhea, when they mounted the diamond thrones and donned the robes of pallid mist. They opened the mirrored gates of splendor into the creation reborn.”

She looked around at the summer night, at the rustling trees and the silent statues in the moonlight. “I thought things would blur and flicker when we time-traveled.”

The story is first-rate. The scene is magical. And for me, that last line is what demonstrates the difference between John C. Wright and everyone else writing science fiction today. It is almost Woodhousean in its light-hearted, but pitch-perfect portrayal of the two characters involved in the dialogue.