You know that book I wrote (that I’m willing to admit)? One Stone? The story set in an alt-history British Empire at some mangled point in history where they have guns and trench warfare in the middle east, but also farmers unions are recruiting to mass-harvest food and oh yeah, there are dinosaurs. It’s an ahistorical setting that’s about how stories about fantasy kingdoms that are clearly England feel to me, as an author raised on those stories from the wing of the empire.
I mentioned, offhandedly, to someone recently that the magic system of One Stone is – and they interrupted, asking hang on, what magic system?
It’s really subtle – in the first book, it’s basically absent. There are only two references to the way magic works in One Stone, and they’re not called that. The first is the seer, who prophecies and sends Vince whirling down a set of haunted memories and what-if scenarios with his words. I agonised about that scene for a long time, because I knew, to keep true to the story that One Stone is based on (Julius Caesar), that the seer needed to be there, but the seer also needed to be someone who didn’t have the means to change things except by how he told people things. If he knew things legitimately, he had to have some reason he couldn’t act, if he didn’t know things, then what’s it matter what he says?
The dude is covered in weirdo tattoos, which are the magic. Over time, this old sailor started accumulating magical ink, and being covered in these interlocking circuits, and they started to leak into his consciousness and the result is becoming a seer. There wasn’t an intention to make himself a blind freak who scared sweet gay boys with tales of his own involvement in a dreadful war, but it just happened as a byproduct.
The other time magic shows up in the kettleweed – a simple weed that if you make tea out of it, prevents periods. Not prevents pregnancy, though I might have been too oblique there – Rafe cuts off the long-form explanation. In the story, there’s a trans woman, Gael, and she has, in the context of the story, done some form of medical transition. I don’t describe her body or anything beyond that she’s tall and has red hair, but she does mention having access to people who can help with major changes in someone’s life. What she’s describing is how, in the setting, there are ways to medically transition including HRT.
It’s ultimately Gael’s HRT that made me give up on an entirely ‘no-magic’ setting, by the way. The point of magic in a setting is to short-cut inconveniences and let you tell the kind of story you want to tell, and I’d like to not have Gael mindfully checking where she can get her next dose of fertile cow piss or whatever.
Instead, the solution is a solution. In One Stone, the magic, such as it can be done, is done by magical potions, unguents, lotions and salves. You probably can’t cast a ‘fly’ or ‘teleport’ spell anywhere, but you can probably make a goo that makes it easier to climb a wall, or cross a canyon. I don’t want people to look at strangers on the street and wonder ‘okay, who can be a wizard’ because that ties magic to an inherent quality of some people.
Instead, the thing I want to compare ‘magical abilities’ to to the web programmer. That is, there are a lot of people hanging around, with their small, private practices, that are often very intricate and involve a complicated process for making something that most people think they can interact with very freely. It’s about user-utilised magic, stuff where people can carry around spells on their own all the time, but between market needs and the expertise to make things, most of the time, you just don’t encounter anything too out of the ordinary.
There are some standardised pieces, as befits a type of magic that can be mass produced – for example, the lighting that shows up in the setting, which I did not delve into because who cares, works like an electric lighting arrangement where you can walk into a room and slap a switch on the wall and the room lights up, and all of the lighting is being handled by alchemical compounds. Goo. I even had a plan for an assassination that used the lights once and realised that the fact I had to explain the alchemy of how the lights work would be required for the setup and it wasn’t worth it. Plus, all the characters in the setting knew that stuff so why would they explore it?
Drugs are also covered by this – and drugs show up a lot in One Stone. Rafe grew up in an Obliteratum, a den for weed and other relaxants, and Wardell Cherish worked for a store that sold ‘Cherish patches,’ – which were reusable tea-bags that contained potent drugs. This is the basic way that you ‘do’ magical stuff in the world, to the point that people don’t think of it as ‘magic.’ It’s just alchemical stuff, it’s just stuff you can buy. There are people who buy disposable alchemical things, like potions in bottles, as a utility tool, but also, some of those things are dangerous. Fireball potions are great and do their job but how many of them can you carry at a time? Are you comfortable carrying grenades like that knowing that falling over in the wrong way could turn you into a punchline?
It makes these into specialised tools, and it also lets them scale in ways you don’t normally let mages do. A mage with a month to prepare is probably the same kind of thing as a mage with a week to prepare. An alchemist with a month to prepare can make dozens and dozens of potions and find ways to deploy them. Alchemists can also, with preparation time, even arm other people, and distribute their magic, but that distribution needs to work with people who can be trusted to use it.
Or not! An alchemist who wants to cause some havoc could distribute their potions and lie to people about what they do or how to use them.
Alchemists in the setting work in a way to me that mostly translates to my experience of web pages. Everyone in the world I know of, everyone in any reasonable proximity to my spaces, knows how to use a webpage, and probably interacts with one even if they don’t mean to. Ads in shopping centres are using webpages, the barber’s timing queue is using webpages, the mcdonalds kiosks are using webpages, and so, even if people think they’re not ‘using’ them, they are.
If you want a webpage, there are a bunch of standardised, market-available ways to do it. Even people who will step you through it. But if you want to do something difficult or interesting or good or with strange requirements, then suddenly you step off the edge of a shelf, and tumble down into the vast depths of complex opportunities. Because when you realise that the mass produced things, even the things you see every day, are made to a reliable standard for user consumption and are almost always quite bad at what they do, you’re suddenly realising that you could spend your whole life refining just one particular execution.
And that’s why alchemists are either mass-production type workers who care exactly enough about their work to make it do the thing they need to do so they can pump out the product they want to deal with in their jobs, thanks to the stressful demands of capital, or they’re galactic weirdoes who spend their time in tiny garretts refining exactly how many drops of saltpeter you need to make this potion the correct shade of green because they know it should be possible.
And this is the magic of One Stone and all the stories in its universe. It’s a world of goo. Magic is done, if you can link it back to the making of some kind of goo. It doesn’t need an egghead giganerd to work with it, it’s not reliant on things that only the most privileged have access to like powerful libraries, but those things can lead to useful expansions on your skillset. The artisan who tempers potions in foul gasoline in a dug-out ditch is just as much a mage as the fancy beardo with a bunch of glass flasks to maximise their surface areas, and any argument about the advantages of one form over the others is entirely a diegetic argument. There’s no ‘definitely better’ because the two skillsets are all arriving at the same end point through individualised, refined, extremely challenging to analyse routes.
And then, the only thing that remains is, hey, what can you do with goo? What of our everyday can you do with goo?
Things that people can do when they drink the goo.
Things that people can do when they apply the goo to things.
Things that goo can do when it’s combined with goo.
That’s a lot of things! And the magic gets to do its job, it gets to be magic, it gets to short-circuit impossible in the name of the story, but it doesn’t get to do it conveniently, or quickly, or by exalting a classical wands-and-wizards vision of ‘magic’ in a setting where pulling out a wand would get you immediately hit with a brick.