I wonder, every so often, about what fantasy and crossover writers think when they use magic in a story, and whether they think of it as a substitute for science, or as a rival for it. Recently I suddenly remembered a line from Pilgrimage, a collection of linked science fiction stories by Zenna Henderson. In the story “Gilead,” a human character says to his alien wife, “We turned to science. You turned to the Power.” That same character says, “Homesick, honey? So am I. For what this world could have been. Or maybe—God willing—what it may become.”
Henderson’s stories depict the remnants of an advanced civilization that fled its home planet after it was destroyed (by natural causes, not by their own acts). Two groups of the refugees land in the American West and settle there. These aliens, known to themselves (in anthropologically sound fashion) as “The People,” possess an advanced society and powers unknown to us Earthlings (except for a handful of especially evolved persons who pop up, here and there). They have telepathy and telekinesis, can modify the weather, and have various other skills. They also find great personal meaning in our Earth Bible and reference it in telling their own stories. And they do not use Earth technology.
The People have the following: personal shields that keep them dry and comfortable in any weather; clothes that can be repaired, lengthened, and shortened without sewing or cutting; the ability to fly, and thus to travel without automobiles; the ability to heal any injury; the ability to make other things fly, and thus to transport objects without beasts of burden or any type of engine, as well as to travel between planets; the ability to remotely sense intruders into their valley; and the ability to forecast the destruction of their own planet before it occurs. (Regarding the beasts of burden, it occurs to me that I don’t remember the People owning any livestock, or even any pets. Nor do they appear to farm.) And although the spaceships clearly are a kind of technology that requires skill and a dedicated pilot, albeit without a mechanical engine or external fuel, they have all this without “turn[ing] to science.” The power of the mind, in other words, is not part of the natural world, and so no means of harnessing it amounts to “science.” Their understanding of the power of the mind derives, for them, from their understanding of “the Power,” or God, and so every individual use of the mind’s power, for them, is explainable as deriving from faith in God. This makes a certain kind of logic, and explains a certain kind of feeling about what magic is. But—besides being wrong—whatever powers the mind has derive from biology, and no one has ever shown otherwise, nor is it possible to imagine a demonstration that it could be otherwise—it isn’t extremely plausible that cloth that can be lengthened with the tailor’s mind, alone, isn’t a technology, merely because the power to weave the cloth came from God without a physical intermediary.
These are people who no longer are subject to the vicissitudes of weather and climate, who don’t have to worry about ripping their clothes or breaking their bones, because they’ve developed skills to fix such problems with basically no cost and no effort. That’s why they’re described as an advanced civilization. The future the books propose is one in which we, too, by learning to use the power of our minds, will soon enough live in the utopia promised by the science fiction writers of the past two hundred or so years. It combines the idea of humanity’s evolving into a more advanced state, in which it’s developed new powers, with the idea of society’s someday having solved many of our current problems; and it describes them both as the outcome of an actual devolution from our current state—as if we would have all these great things, if only Galileo hadn’t won.
At no point are these skills and tools described as magic, however. They’re depicted as the product of some sort of evolution. The evolution in question, though, is moral, as well as mental, and it’s suggested that to turn away from science would be a moral advance. That’s not totally atypical of the science fiction of the time—neither Dune nor Stranger in a Strange Land was much interested in science—but it isn’t the norm, either. In the fantasy genre, those skills would be considered magic, and the tools would be considered magical artifacts. However, the relationship between that magic and the natural world wouldn’t be specified so exactly. Also, in that case, the existence and acceptability of magical abilities would violate the norm for societies with Bible-compatible religions, and would have to be explained.