THE THORNE CHRONICLES started out on a hot strip of the 405 in traffic, where heat-induced frustration made me blurt out, “I want to write a feminist Sleeping Beauty story with a mohawked punk 13th fairy! In a spiked leather jacket! And what if she gives the princess a bullshit detector?”
It’s fair to observe that I was already planning to break a few genre conventions. There are punk fairies in a pre-industrial, pseudo-European medieval setting. Also, there is…okay, no, there is a lot of bullshit in that setting, and in fairytales in general, but that made me think about Princess Leia’s no-bullshit attitude in, well, all the films. Which pretty much settled me on the setting. Fiction set in space (space opera, SF, however one decides to parse out the definitions) deals with tech that looks like magic to most people anyway (FTL, wormholes, jump-gates, laser-beams, sentient machines, cybernetics). Also, aliens! Which at their heart, is what fairies are.
As my fairies became xenos, and once upon a time started on a distant planet, I soon realized the difficulty would be to preserve the feel of the fairy tale. I needed magic (even if no one says oh, this is magic), and a belief in impossible things, but I also needed scholarship and intellectual rigor to be real and valued. Magic and science had to coexist. That meant I needed a worldview that was more mythic, natural philosophy-ish, rather than scientific-materialist.
I see that look. Let me explain. (I’m a university lecturer, this is what I do). . .
A Brief and Incomplete History of Magic and Science
Like all literature, fairy tales reflect the world from which they are drawn, though the degree of that reflection’s distortion may vary. Fairy tales typically use a mythic age setting, which really means a time before the so-called scientific revolution, when the scientific-materialist paradigm became the default worldview, and belief in magic was demoted to superstition, or for children (we imagine), because it’s simpler.
Except magic isn’t simple.
There are rules. Neil Gaiman’s poem, “Instructions,” describes a list of things one is supposed to do: Feed a hungry creature. Don’t eat anything. If you wrong a being, it will seek revenge. If you do a kindness, it will be rewarded. If you ask a favor, it might cost you. If you make a promise, keep it. If you break a promise, terrible things will happen. The underlying logic may not be articulated–who knows why a fairy gets mad if you take a flower from her meadow? She just does, so don’t–but it’s assumed. Fairies operate on a value system alien to our own. They are inherently magical and inhuman, dangerous, or benevolent depending on whim and circumstance. Not a surprise that one finds them in wild nature, near lakes and pools and rivers, in forests and caves and hills. In the mythic world, humanity huddles in its villages, its towns, its castles, where walls keep nature and magic out and civilization and safety in.
The magic user, however, is a human who does know the rules. Witches, wizards–they’re the ones who can, while still being human, partake in and manipulate those scary, otherwise uncontrollable forces. Many of our popular fairy tales point to wicked witches, most often women past child-bearing age (though sometimes also young and sexy and dangerous to men because of that). But there are male magicians, too, like Merlin, who side with human civilization against the natural (fairy-populated) world. Sometimes the magic-user is a priest (or priestess)–because what is a god in the mythic world except another unknowable, powerful force to be negotiated with? People who wield magic are scary, to the average observer. Dangerous, even. They know things we don’t.
The point is: in a fairy tale, magic is a way people interact with the world, and a frame for understanding it. But since fairy tales are for children, interacting with the world using magic is taken to be indicative of a less. . . mature perspective.
Science, on the other hand, styles itself as a system of knowing the whys of things. There are rules, but they are knowable rules reliant on universal principles. (Also, science is real, and magic is not, yes, I hear you. But reality is a slippery thing. Hang on.) Science, however, is not fixed knowledge, any more than magic is. Paradigms shift, as a theory runs into phenomena it cannot explain. One of the more famous paradigm shifts is the one from geocentrism to heliocentrism, and though we like to roll our eyes dramatically at the idea of the former–fact is, Ptolemy’s celestial models kinda worked, and they worked for a long time. But after those moments of paradigmatic upheaval, old paradigms are not retired quietly. They are dismissed and sneered at as proof of our mistakes and our superstition. They are relegated to quaint historical nonsense we used to believe when we were less intellectually mature.
Like magic. Like fairy tales.
I think the most pernicious story we tell ourselves is that there was Belief In Magic (false! but fun!) before we as a species grew up and embraced Reality With Science. All magic became make-believe. Thing is, through that so-called mythic era, the middle ages and before, science already existed. Magic and science were sides of the same let’s figure this world out coin. Go all the way back to Pythagoras, he of that famous theorem. Aristotle credits him with being the first philosopher interested in mathematical principles, but he was also a vegetarian mystic who thought beans were little human seeds. Aristotle himself was a philosopher, a natural scientist, and like everyone else, an astronomer. His writing influenced thought and scientific progress in both Christian and Islamic scholars in the middle ages. Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar in the 13th century, focused on the study of nature through empiricism, like Aristotle, but he included magic and alchemy among his interests. And he wasn’t alone, or unique. During the Renaissance, Dr. John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer and adviser, as well as an alchemist and an occultist. We called that version of science “natural philosophy,” and it was an attempt to derive principles from observation. All nature. All disciplines. They were entwined, rather than separate.
Then along comes the scientific revolution and the Age of Reason, which posited the natural world was knowable through systemic inquiry based on empirical observation. Except it wasn’t a new approach. Dee, Bacon–they’d been doing observational science. They’d just been doing alchemy and divination and astrology, too. They believed in magic.
When I wrote THE THORNE CHRONICLES, I was aiming at space fantasy–magic in space–but I didn’t want a dominant mysticism of a Dune or a Star Wars. I wanted a scholar-magician, science without materialism. There had to be room for the unexplained, and the unknowable: a formula for announcing the birth of a princess might summon up actual fairy-xenos; a mother’s fierce wish for a daughter could make one happen despite the testimony of medical scans. Then, a nod to those ancient scholars, I threw in a defunct paradigm or two, made alchemy work, and embraced (and revised) a little Pythagoras (and a number of half-remembered conversations with my friend Matt the mathematician). Arithmancy was born. Numbers are the language of the multiverse, which different species speak with greater or lesser facility, and with varied, culturally influenced vocabularies. This enables the k’bal and the vakari to be appallingly skilled at arithmancy (theirs is a biological advantage–brain structure), while the alwar speak magic with more of an alchemical accent.
But underneath, it’s all arithmancy. Which means it’s all magic. Because without magic, a fairy tale loses its soul, no matter how many spaceships it has.
The Thorne Chronicles #2
Rory Thorne must use the fairy blessings gifted to her to change the multiverse in the second book in this space opera duology.
After avoiding an arranged marriage, thwarting a coup, and inadvertently kick-starting a revolution, Rory Thorne is no longer a princess, but a space pirate.
Her new life is interrupted when Rory and her crew–former royal bodyguards, Thorsdottir and Zhang, and co-conspirator Jaed–encounter an abandoned ship registered under a false name, seemingly fallen victim to attack. As they investigate, they find evidence of vicious technology and arithmancy, alien and far beyond known capabilities.
The only answer to all the destruction is the mysterious, and unexpected, cargo: a rose plant. One that reveals themself to be sentient–and designed as a massive biological weapon. Rose seeks to escape their intended fate, and Rory and her friends must act fast when the attackers return with their superior weaponry.
As the situation gains the attention of an increasing number of alien races, Rory finds herself acting as negotiator and diplomat, in order to save Rose and her friends–and avert an unprecedented war.
Science Fiction Space Opera [DAW, On Sale: October 27, 2020, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780756415310 / eISBN: 9780756415327]
About K. Eason
K. Eason started telling tales in her early childhood. After earning two degrees in English literature, she decided to stop writing about everyone else’s stories and get back to writing her own. Now she teaches first-year college students about the zombie apocalypse, Aristotelian ethics, and Beowulf (not all at once). She lives in Southern California with her husband and two black cats, and she powers everything with coffee. Her short fiction has appeared in Cabinet-des-Fees, Postcards from Hell: The First Thirteen, Jabberwocky 4, Crossed Genres, and Kaleidotrope. Enemy and Outlaw