A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for July 2007

[URBAN NOTE] People-less Toronto

In the Sunday Star, Allen Chung has picked up the theme of Weisman’s The World Without Us and imagined what an unattended Toronto might look like in centuries hence (“What would Toronto look like without people?”).

The corner of what was once Avenue Rd. and Bloor St. is a rushing creek surrounded by a dense and vast forest, a blanket of riverbank grape and wavering reeds, and watched over carefully by a lone eastern cougar, perched majestically atop a crumbling north wall of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Humans disappeared 500 years ago. No one knows why. It wasn’t an apocalypse. The rest of the world went on. Only the people vanished.

Today, there are few hints that they once reigned over these parts. Before Toronto was tamed, dozens of creeks snaked through the land like crooked witches’ fingers, creeping toward the lake. They were filled in, the water flow redirected to sewers.

When the maintenance stopped, it took less than 20 years for the water found to find its way outside the margins, and roads became the logical path.

Chung’s picture of a Toronto that, after centuries of neglect in a highly variable climate, reverts to nature is believeable. The return of the suppressed waterways of the Greater Toronto Area is especially believeable for me, since not only since there have been enough instances of flooding elsewhere in the city to illustrate the point that the water has to go somewhere, but because I saw at least two streams trickling down the side of the ravine of the Rosedale Valley Road onto the roadbed. Not too far away from me, at the corner of Ossington and Dupont, is a memorial to lost Garrison Creek, rechannelled–as John Sewell described in eye weekly back in 2003–into a network of sewer tunnels. One minor irony: The memorial to Garrison Creek is an inscription on a plaque made out of what looks to be bronze, the same metal that Weisman predicted would long outlast homo sapiens sapiens by millions of years.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 30, 2007 at 11:18 pm

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with , ,

[LINK] “Latveria and the EU”

nhw‘s perspectives on Latveria’s hopes for European and transatlantic integration are interesting. The apparently close links with NATO–Latveria was at least as much of an obstacle to Soviet geopolitical hegemony in southeastern Europe as Yugoslavia, if not more so–are unsurprising. I do remember how, in my reading of Hackett’s The Third World War, I was impressed by the desperation with which both NATO and the Warsaw Pact sought, if not outright alliance with Latveria, at least Latverian neutrality. Is a formal NATO-Latverian association completely out of the question, though? NATO did encompass Salazar’s Portugal and, of course, Kemalist Turkey, after all, and while the times have changed in the event of yet another global crisis I can imagine the admission criteria being bent somewhat.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 28, 2007 at 2:50 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Latveria’s future

After I made yesterday’s post on the future of Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia, I remembered that amidst all of the peoples I mentioned–the Finns, the Estonians, the Udmurts, the Hungarians, the Komi, and others–I’d forgotten one very important Finno-Ugric people. The Finns might have Nokia; the Hungarians might have brought down the wall; the Estonians may have given us KaZaA and Skype; but the Latverians, of all of the Finno-Ugric peoples, have come closest to world domination.

The country of Latveria has defied so many odds, starting with its foundation nearly fifteen centuries ago on the largely exposed Danubian plain, in the west of the Banat region of central Europe adjacent to Symkaria. Latveria has a population of a mere half-million people, The Latverians are the titular nation of the country, a people of Hungarian stock who–like the Székely of Romanian Transylvania–have retained their own distinctive dialect fo Magyar (in the Latverians’ case a heavily Germanized one) and their own autonomous identity, rooted in the proud warrior identity that has allowed them to retain control over their principality even though they form a minority. Other ethnic populations in Latveria include the Germans associated with the Banat and Danube Swabians, the last substantial pocket of Germans left in that part of Europe, Hungarian settlers, and Romani attracted from neighbouring countries by Latveria’s decidedly pragmatic tolerance.

Even though Latveria is a very small country, its geographical position and the fierceness of its warriors allowed the country to remain independent for the whole of its history. Frim time immemorial, the Kingdom of Hungary actively supported Latverian independence, especially after the Latverians began to loan their warriors to their larger neighbour in recognition of this support. The Latverian warrior–fierce, innovative, deadly–became a figure of general fear among Latverian neighbours. As a result, the Ottomans’ armies took care to avoid any contact with Latveria’s frontiers; Austria-Hungary did likewise; during the Second World War, the Hungarian Iron Cross explicitly renounced the territory while Nazi Germany dispatched only study missions, to research the principality’s history; Tito was indebted to Latveria for deterring any invasion attempt Stalin might make from occupied Hungary; Ceaucescu seems to have been afraid of the Latverians.

It goes without saying that modern Latveria is an anomaly in Europe. Ethnicity has nothing to do with it: There are plenty of Finno-Ugrian peoples, after all, and the proliferation of nation-states in southeastern Europe is less a trend than an established fact. What is unique in the European context, especially after the fall of such nominally charismatic leaders as Hoxha and Ceaucescu, is Latveria’s leadership by Dr. Doom. Drawing from the traditions of a highly autocratic elective monarchy that, while lacking any sort of parliamentary apparatus at all, derived support from the warrior caste and the general population through the charisma of the monarch, Dr. Doom has managed despite various vicissitudes to retain total control of Latveria for a generation. Certainly Latveria has been kept from reaching its full potential by its surprisingly enduring totalitarian rule, but especially in the context of a southeastern Europe that–until recently–was run erratically by ideologically-flawed leaders lacking both the willingness and the ability to employ high technology to the full it has been competitive enough. The Latverian franc has long been a hard currency, Latveria’s economy is probably capitalistic, Latverian factories have since 1989 produce a surprisingly large share of European electronic consumer goods, Eurostat’s figures suggest that GDP per capita is in the range of Hungary or Estonia–not that good, but still at the lower end of the typical range of First World countries.

Latveria’s problem, most recently, has been the repercussions of the end of the Cold War. At one point in the 1980s, Latveria was surrounded by unthreatening countries. Ceaucescu’s Romania, still licking its wounds after the Timisoara Incident of 1981, lacked any friends or even great-power patrons interested in challenging Dr. Doom; post-Tito Yugoslavia was too concerned with its economic chaos and rising nationalisms to bother with foreign policy; the Hungarians were too concerned with trying to make their country’s newly mixed economy work; Symkaria, the other Magyar marcher state, was structurally incapable of posing a threat. In the regional milieu, a relatively wealthy high-technology Latveria with little inhibition against using force against anyone perceived to be a threat could punch above its own weight. (The same goes for Latveria on a global scale, of course.) After all, no one bothered about the annexation of Slokovia.

Since 1989, if irregularly, Latveria’s advantage has faded. While Latveria’s neighbours still lack the military heft necessary to threaten the country, steady economic growth and membership in transatlantic and European alliance structures has made Latveria’s advantage over Hungary and Romania gradually disappear. Only the dissolution of the SFRY gave Latveria breathing space, but the highly pragmatic alliances made by Dr. Doom first with then against Serbia in the Yugoslav wars–alliances made, it should be noted, with the intent of wearing down each of the contenders for control of Yugoslav geopolitical space–have ended by ruining Latveria’s reputation internationally and making the former Yugoslavia enduringly hostile, especially after the recent unfortunate events in Vojvodina. Unsurprisingly in these circumstances, Latveria’s traditional reluctance to strike alliances with great powers has started to fade. The country was even visited by President Bush in May 2005, if by accident.

HAASENSTADT, LATVERIA (IFOC) – Due to a mixup with planning and navigation charts, Air Force One arrived at the capital airport in Latveria today in an unscheduled trip to the isolationist kingdom.

“I thank the people of Riga for their warm hospitality,” said President Bush from a prepared speech as Dr. Doom’s robots surrounded the plane. “We stand by you in your efforts to build your post-Soviet democracy and information-based economy here in Latvia.”

Despite the outwardly menacing appearance of the robot-troops, Latveria’s self-proclaimed monarch and despot Dr. Doom was actually pleased at Bush’s arrival, offering his castle’s hospitality and giving him a chance to throw a banquet to show his admiration for the American president.

“That whole ‘War On Terror’ thing is pretty impressive,” said Doom in his finest cloak and powered-armor suit. “And not lumping Latveria in with those other ‘Axis Of Evil’ nations off-hand without coming here and talking to me was a nice gesture on his part. Despite the sabre-ratting by some pundits blaming me for 9/11, I try to keep the civilian casualties in my malicious schemes to an absolute minimum when possible.”

It is expected that Bush will invite Latveria into NATO sometime in mid-2008, and despite a horrific human rights record it may join the European Union in 2010 before Turkey.

Bush is scheduled to head to Moscow, Russia next.

But still, Latveria remains a fundamentally isolationist country. Elsewhere, as an example, Dr. Doom has contradicted suggestions that Latveria might seek European Union membership.

The European Union is essentially superfluous to the national goals of Latveria. Our country prides itself on being economically, politically and socially self-contained, and would under no circumstances welcome the degree of outside meddling mandated by ratification of the numerous treaties which compose the legal backbone of the Union. The national prerogatives of Latveria differ from the supposed “mainstream” of European thought on matters of political expression and individual liberty to such a degree that no level of cooperation in matters of pan-European destiny could be considered desirable if it came at the cost of Latverian self-determination.

Later in the interview, Dr. Doom condemns globalization as inherently exploitative and predict the imminent conquest of the planet by Latverians equipped a mastery of with supertechnology after having read The Aeneid from early childhood. Dr. Doom’s idiosyncratic style of government worked well in southeastern Europe during the Cold War, when Latveria was surrounded by autonomous-minded and relatively incompetent countries, but it won’t work well in a Europe unified behind a highly pragmatic and democratic capitalism. The United States remains fundamentally hostile towards Dr. Doom, especially after the failure of Latveria’s brief democratic government earlier in the decade, Russia under Putin remembers the Soviet Union’s occasional unfortunate experiences, and a brief flirtation with China in the late 1990s ended abruptly after the unfortunate recent events in Vojvodina damaged Chinese investments in that formerly Serbian province. Rumours of alliances struck with offworld powers are likely just that, given Dr. Doom’s decided bias towards homo sapiens sapiens in most of its various forms. Already, some of the news services suggest, poorer Latverian citizens have been quietly leaving the country for Germany and Hungary, attracted by the promise of near-automatic citizenship in those wealthier and infinitely freer countries. Can Dr. Doom really count on Romani immigration to sustain Latveria’s population and avoid depopulation? I have my doubts.

At this point in the essay, I have to admit defeat. I just don’t know what to make of Latveria. Does Dr. Doom really think he has a chance of outlasting the slowly expanding European Union and Latveria’s increasingly dynamic neighbours, or might he be trying to arrange for some kind of organized succession, a managed regime change as it were? Events in the former Republic of Serbia and in Symkaria will probably be key, as those regions move slowly towards some kind of accomodation with the European Union, but I lack the in-depth knowledge to know what to make of this. nhw, talktooloose, thebitterguy?

UPDATE (10:00 AM) : Crossposted over at soc.history.what-if, because the historical possibilities of Latverian deserve their own discussion.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 27, 2007 at 9:42 am

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with ,

[DM] “Why it’s not a good idea to scare away the creative class”

In a new post over at Demography Matters, I speculate that the recent surge of Polish emigrants to points in western Europe has been precipitated perhaps as much by the discontent of Poland’s young generation with the populist conservatism of the Kaczynski government as by the gap between Polish and western Europe living standards. If your country (or region, or city) is competing for valuable workers, it’s a very good idea indeed not to scare them away.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 27, 2007 at 12:19 am

[BRIEF NOTE] “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Alan Weisman’s impressive new book did The World Without Us, as Salon said it would, restore my sense of awe at the sheer durability of the natural world. Beginning from the intruiging starting point of the sudden disappearance of the world’s human population, Weisman systematically examines the different artifacts of human civilization and concludes that while certain remnants of technological civilization would survive–certain industrial chemicals and plastics aren’t likely to decompose for hundreds of thousands of years, well-suited introduced species will adapt to their new environment, garbage dumps will contain large numbers of durable artifacts for some time, and, of course the ongoing human-caused mass extinction will continue a bit longer as radioisotopes decay, urban/industrial areas burn, and climates change–material civilization would start disappearing quickly. Curiously enough, intact bronze sculptures may outlast everything else, enduring for tens of millions of year owing to the protection provided by their oxidated patina.

Crooked Timber’s Kieran Healy wondered whether products of genetic engineering might last, perhaps to be discovered by Intelligent Design advocates in humanity’s successor species. The odds seem to be against that. Organisms produced by modern genetic engineering are just as vulnerable to the winnowing pressures of natural selection as organisms produced by traditional breeding, since the traits selected for by humans are traits which don’t appear in nature for a reason–organisms genetically engineered to spend valuable energy to produce insulin or silk are going to be at a disadvantage in the wild compared to organisms which don’t produce human-used goods. Even human-created gene sequences, as a comment left by one Ben M. suggests, won’t be very visible.

IDers claim to see protein structures that simply look funny. They look at the flagellum and say, “whoa, there are, like, twenty pieces”; they look at the centrosome and say, “whoa, it looks sort of like a jet engine”. Humans may be designing our own organisms, but we are absolutely not designing custom proteins with irreducible mechanical arrangements. GMO proteins look and behave just like natural proteins — they’re the same blobby enzyme-y things with pokey active sites and inscrutable folds. For the most part, they’re developed, not by a Designer sitting around fitting parts together, but by mutation and selection–artificial, forced, or targeted mutation (sometimes!) and selection in a petri dish (usually!). I’m willing to bet that the “Round-Up Ready” gene produces some surface protein whose structure and modus operandi were not known until after it was found to cause Round-Up resistance. A future scientist looking at the structure of this protein would conclude, at best, “This gene evolved in a species which was exposed to thus-and-such a toxin; it evolved very rapidly, so must have been under intense selection.” He will not be able to say, “This thing has a totally different design principle than any other protein.”

The only artificial, engineering-like step is where the scientists decide to move the genes from one organism to another. If that’s detectable or not, I dunno–“This enzyme seems to be a trivial modification of an Icelandic hot-spring bacterium’s gene, including all of the translation-invariant choices. What the hell is it doing in wild North American cabbage?”. If there is any evidence of Behe seeing, or even looking for, such a thing, I’d love to hear about it.

Horizontal gene transfer might be invoked to explain one or two such oddities. If I were a a future crustacean version of Michael Behe, I might notice a systematic pattern of: lots of “apparent” horizontal-transfer events; all apparently under rapid selection, with sources (apparently) randomly scattered over the world but with targets concentrated in plains and pasture species; all occurring at about the same time (“Just before the late Holocene mass extinction”) as the peak of an ill-understood material culture. Weird.

All said, I find nature’s ease in recycling humanity’s relics a bit depressing. Yes, it’s very nice to know that complex life will handily outlast us, at least for another 1.1 billion years, after which point a heating sun is 10% brighter than it is today will make the Earth’s oceans start to evaporate into water vapour. Still, the idea that millions of years hence nothing identifiable will be left of my species but piles of civilization’s waste and fossil records of a sadly depleted biosphere is depressing. Is a net positive legacy really too much to hope for?

Written by Randy McDonald

July 26, 2007 at 7:42 pm

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with ,

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Russia’s Finno-Ugric peoples

Russia Profile’s Nadezhda Sorokina recently reported news of the very recent Finno-Ugric summit held in Saransk, capital of the Russian autonomous republic of Mordovia.

This year’s festival of national cultures of the Finnish-Ugric peoples promises to be one of the largest in the event’s history. For the first time in the history of this annual event organized by the Finno-Ugric world the Russian President Vladimir Putin will be taking part. At previous events he sent representatives who read words of greeting from the head of the Russian state.

Now, however, Putin intends not only to hold a three-way Russian-Hungarian-Finnish meeting with the participation of Finnish president Tarja Halonen and the Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. He also intends to attend one of the cultural exhibitions being held in Saransk as part of the event.

Putin’s interest in the festival in Mordovia is no coincidence. Over half the Finno-Ugric peoples live in Russia, with a total world population of this ethnic group of around 20 million. The group includes Hungarians, Veps, Votes, Izhorians, Karelians, Kvens, Komi, Komi-Permyaks, Livonians, Mansi, Mari, Moksha, Nenets, Sammi, Selkups, Udmurts, Finns, Finno-Ingermanlands, Khanty, Erzyas and Estonians.

In Russia, the Finno-Ugrics are the third major component of the Russian people, along with ethnic Russians and Tartars. According to some estimates, half of the Russians are related to Finno-Ugrics. Members of this ethnic group reside in 12 regions in Russia and are the native inhabitants of the Volga and the Urals, Karelia and the Kola Peninsula.

The Finno-Ugric languages that have served as the basis for this reunion are associated with a group of a couple dozen peoples dispersed across northeastern Europe, from the Danubian plain and the Baltic Sea to the Urals and beyond.

Uploaded by rfmcdpei, copied from Wikipedia

The Hungarians of the Danubian basin and the distantly related Khanty and Mansi of northwestern Siberia, speakers of Ugric languages all, are associated with a branch of the Finno-Ugric language family separate from the geographically and culturally more diverse community of Finnic language-speakers. The relationship of the Ugric languages with the Finnic languages might be more distant still, as The Economist‘s 2006 article, “The dying fish swims in water” suggests. (The article itself takes its name from what an Estonian linguist thought was the only sentence intelligible in both Finnish and Hungarian, but turns out to be actually unintelligible after all.) Over the 20th century, Finland and Estonia have turned out to be the countries most involved with the Finno-Ugric movement, using it to connect with the vast and diverse assortment of distant ethnic kin described by the Estonia-based Information Centre of Finno-Ugric Peoples.

Regarding the type of culture, Estonians, Finns and Hungarians are typical Europeans, while the culture of Volga-Finnic, Permian and minor Balto-Finnic peoples is agrarian, since due to several historic, political and cultural reasons they have had no opportunity to create their own urban culture. Throughout the centuries the culture of the Khants, Mansis and Samoyeds, which has based on hunting, fishing and reindeer raising, has adapted itself to the life under extreme Siberian conditions, nevertheless, it is most vulnerable to the European industrial culture.

As to their religion, Estonians, Finns and Western Lapps are Lutheran, whereas Hungarians are mostly Catholic (Calvinists and Lutherans can also be found). Finno-Ugrians living in the European part of Russia are mostly Orthodox, but the Udmurt and Mari people have preserved the ancient nature religion (i.e. animism). The Finno-Ugrians in Siberia as well as the Samoyeds are shamanists.

The Uralic peoples differ in their political fate and status. Hungarians have a thousand-year-long independent state. Finland with its own Parliament and currency was autonomous in the czarist Russia already. Estonians gained their independence only in 1918. After World War II, Estonians and Hungarians were part of the so-called socialist sphere, whereas Finland succeeded in maintaining its market economy and democracy.

The Finnic minority peoples in what is now Russia seemed on the verge of independence after the collapse of the First World War, when Ingrians constituted their own state in the hinterlands of St. Petersburg, Karelians associated themselves with Finland, and the Mari, Udmurts, and Mordovians in the middle Volga area federated with Turkic populations like the Tatars under the banner of Idel-Ural regionalism. The reunification of Russia under the Soviet Union abruptly ended this period, the subsequent seventy-odd years seeing the constitution of autonomous republics with their own state institutions for many of these nationalities, policies of Sovietization through industrialization-driven immigration and Russian-medium immigration which tended to Russify local populations as in the Komi Republic, and Stalinist state terror that targeted the cultural leaderships of many populations as potentially disloyal. The Finno-Ugric movement took off again after the Cold War, following Hungary’s transition to democracy, Estonia’s return to independence, and the emergence of federalism in the Russian Federation, but the Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia lack the strong identities–and, it should be noted, the supportive state apparatuses, most visibly in Mari-El–that have driven the successful nationalism of Tatarstan. By and large, the Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia are assimilating into the general population of the Russian Federation, through intermarriage, language shift, and the depopulation of the rural areas of Russia where so many of these peoples are concentrated.

The Finno-Ugric movement isn’t going to disappear. Putin supports the idea of a relatively harmless gathering of distant ethnic kin, even attending the summit in Saransk, promoting it as a way to attract investment and encourage trade in Russia. Sorokina claims that for Finland, “a country with a population that is growing old at a brisk pace and is also enduring the twin onslaughts of European integration and American culture, the related peoples of the Volga and Urals have a romantic connotation and represent an opportunity to rejuvenate its population.” Estonia may come to the same perspective in time, for the moment seeing these smaller populations as ethnic kin who (unlike the Estonians) are still being repressed by a Russian empire, as the existence of the Estonia-hosted The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire hints. Perhaps these two countries might even try to promote immigration from these populations, under somewhat the same principle that promoted Ingrian immigration to Finland after the end of the Soviet Union–half of the students recruited from these populations to Estonia under a scholarship program in 1999, The Economist reported, ended up staying in Estonia. Anything more substantive–say, the redefinition of these small peoples, as Udmurt Konstantin Zamyatin suggested in 2004, as “Eastern Finns” so as to ensure foreign support–is exceedingly unlikely in the face of Finnish disinterest, Russian hostility, and the separate histories of these peoples. Given another century, I wonder whether any of these populations will survive as culturally separate populations, as anything more than annotations and other obscure references in geography textbooks and people scattered over the Eurasian landmass who say (when prompted) things like “My grandmother was …”.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 26, 2007 at 3:07 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Toronto, second now in Facebook

From The Globe and Mail:

It may be the largest city in Canada and the centre of the universe to some, but when it comes to Facebook.com, Toronto is now just second best.

Some time last week, London leapfrogged the Big Smoke to steal the crown of the biggest Facebook geographic network.

According to statistics yesterday from the popular social networking destination, just under 810,000 Londoners have signed onto Facebook, while Toronto lags behind with 705,000 users. To put that into perspective, the population of London is about 7.5 million, compared with Toronto’s estimated 2.6 million.

Facebook spokesman Matt Hicks said that the regional network numbers reflect only users who have decided to affiliate with that network.

“There are other users who might live in Toronto or London who decide not to join the local regional network. In some areas, users are more likely to join a work or school network or even no network at all,” Mr. Hicks said.

But, also:

Although Torontonians may not be the darling of Facebook any more, they are a large part of the nationwide contingent that visits the site in droves. Canadians account for the largest user base outside of the United States, about 10 per cent of Facebook’s 32 million active users. According to the Web measurement firm ComScore, 11.4 million Canadians logged onto Facebook last month, compared with only 343,000 in the same period last year.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 25, 2007 at 11:11 pm

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with ,

[MEME] My LiveJournal Map

Via several people on my friends list.

Explanation and other locations

Written by Randy McDonald

July 25, 2007 at 4:44 am

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with ,

[LINK] Two critical Harry Potter links

First, imomus‘s “Dickens, the humanity!”, excerpted below.

Nobody is telling us the new Harry Potter, or the last series of The Wire, or Bill Viola’s new triptych is great because it shares insight with Kafka or Beckett or T.S. Eliot. No, we make a big lacuna over everything artists told us in the 20th century — stuff rooted in Nietzsche and Freud and the Futurists and the Surrealists and all that nihilist dynamite.

Instead, they’re invoking Dickens. Now, I have nothing against Dickens — it’s amusing, if a little exhausting, to keep meeting a man with a funny name who proclaims “I’ll eat my head!”, or to weep over the death of Little Nell. But is rolling out the name of a 19th century writer really the best way to legitimize art being made now? Have we just decided to skip the 20th century entirely?

“Rowling understands that grief is part of what makes us wholly human, along with the ability to love and forgive and show remorse. And while magic is ultimately seen to have limits — Death has its dominion, even at Hogwarts — love does not.” That’s novelist Elizabeth Hand, writing about the new Harry Potter in the Washington Post.

I’m already disturbed, in that, by the idea that some humans are not “fully human”. You can already see, right there, how this brand of “humanism” might be employed in an inhumane way. We have to work to be human? Some of us aren’t?

The kind of big-canvas, 19th century humanism being touted here is secularized religion, and therefore teleological (does love really have no bounds? Does human life really only gain meaning from suffering, vicar?) and rhetorical, designed to sweep us along, sweep us away, make us cry. Hand tells us she wept at the end of the Potter book, which reminded her of Dickens.

Next, via Marginal Revolution, Megan McArdle’s “Harry Potter: the economics”.

There are two ways, I think, that one can present magic: as something that can be done, but only at a price; or as a mysterious force that is poorly understood. So in Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope, women who perform magic must pay the price in blood, their own or that of others.

Those prices provide the scarcity needed to drive the plot forward. In the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, magical power has no obvious cost. But we don’t need to understand the costs of magic, because the main characters can’t perform it. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a deus ex machina in a story; your average fiction writer does not need to explain the operation of the law of gravity, or provide a back story for running out of gas at an (in)convenient moment.

But there have to be generally accepted rules. Characters can’t get out of the predicament the author is sick of by having the car suddenly start running on sand. Similarly, if your characters will be using magic, they must do so by some generally believable system.

Yet in the Potter books, the costs and limits are too often arbitrary. A patronus charm, for example, is awfully difficult – until Rowling wants a stirring scene in which Harry pulls together an intrepid band of students to Fight the Power, whereupon it becomes simple enough to be taught by an inexperienced fifteen year old. Rowling can only do this because it’s thoroughly unclear how magic power is acquired. It seems hard to credit academic labour, when spells are one or two words; and anyway, if that were the determinant, Hermione Granger would be a better wizard than Harry. But if it’s something akin to athletic skill, why is it taught at rows of desks? And why aren’t students worn out after practicing spells?

The low opportunity cost attached to magic spills over into the thoroughly unbelievable wizard economy. Why are the Weasleys poor? Why would any wizard be? Anything they need, except scarce magical objects, can be obtained by ordering a house elf to do it, or casting a spell, or, in a pinch, making objects like dinner, or a house, assemble themselves. Yet the Weasleys are poor not just by wizard standards, but by ours: they lack things like new clothes and textbooks that should be easily obtainable with a few magic words. Why?

I disagree with the authors–the style of the popular novels of the 19th century has remained popular for a reason, and users of magic of the Potterverse are constrained in their abilities in certain predictable ways–but their essays do raise interesting points about, respectively, the structures of popular literature and fictional universes.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 23, 2007 at 11:44 pm

[REVIEW] Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Given my place of employment, it’s not too surprising that I was able to get hold of a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows soon after the release midnight on Friday. I’m still digesting it, but I have to say that the use of tantric magic is–

No, no spoilers, not even joke spoilers.

Here be spoilers. Seriously, don’t venture beneath the fold if you don’t want spoilers.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 22, 2007 at 11:58 pm

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with , ,