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Types of Magic – Part 3

man in forcefield

Right about now you’re probably thinking, “What’s this nutcase talking about ‘Types of Magic in Science Fiction’? Doesn’t he know there is no magic in science fiction? Someone needs to straighten him out with some good old-fashioned waterboarding.”

You did think that, right? I can’t be the only person who jumps to waterboarding to change someone’s mind, right? … … … Right?

If you were, you can put away your tools because there absolutely is magic in Science Fiction. At least, there is if you consider my definition of magic. Just in case you haven’t undergone aquatic initiation yet, you can read all about it in my post on What Is a Magic System. But here it is in a nice tidy quote for you.

Magic is anything enabling actions beyond our current capability or understanding.

C. R. Rowenson in What Is a Magic System

With this definition, magic can include bio-engineered aliens, faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity generators, cloning tanks, and so much more. Today we will look at how the different types of magic systems often appear in science fiction stories. Let’s start by looking at the primary archetypes or forms of magic in science fiction.

Magic Archetypes in Science Fiction

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but here are a few to make sure we’re in the same solar system.

science fiction setting

Advanced Technology

This is one of the more common archetypes you see in fiction. Whether it comes in the form of strange weapons and tools wielded by an alien race or the everyday tools used by future humans, this is still magic.

The phasers from Star Trek, a cortical stack from Altered Carbon, and the Epstein Drive from The Expanse are all examples of advanced technology.

Lost/Ancient Technology

Another common archetype that involves the discovery or use of devices created by a previous race or civilization.

The Stargate from Stargate SG-1, the Mass Effect Drive from the Mass Effect series, or the Halo worlds from Halo are all outstanding examples. It isn’t necessary to name your series after the technology, but it certainly seems to be popular.

Alien Races & Abilities

This is a near-perfect reflection of what we see in Fantasy. Out in the vast reaches of space, we encounter various races with strange and wondrous powers. 

The incredible power and fluidity of amorphs from Schlock Mercenary, the life-sucking abilities of the Wraiths in Stargate Atlantis, or even the Na’vi in Avatar are all perfect examples of this archetype.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? When laid bare, it’s clear that these are magic systems hiding in plain sight. But what kinds of systems are they? I’m so glad you asked, though I guess I should put away my waterboarding kit… Oh well.

The Types of Magic in Science Fiction.

Hard-Rational Magic

If you’re familiar with the types of magic, you guessed that most of the magic in science fiction falls in the hard-rational quadrant, you’d be right. Providing that structure and predictability is essential for creating that “scientific” feeling we know and love. 

It doesn’t take much for this to happen. In fact, even the smallest leap from understanding into speculation is enough to turn technology into magic. When you’re reading a “Hard Science Fiction” story, you’re just reading about an extremely hard and rational magic system. The sheer weight of truth and logic behind it is what makes this such a powerful and popular type of magic in science fiction stories.

Soft-Rational Magic

While not as common as a hard-rational magic system, I promise that you have seen this type of magic in science fiction before. 

This type of magic frequently masquerades as lost/ancient tech.  Its behaviors are consistent and repeatable allowing characters to use or abuse it in creative but predictable ways. While hard-rational magic goes to great lengths to make sure the audience understands how and why it works, soft-rational magic makes no such attempt. 

Because the system doesn’t need much explanation, the creator often has more room to display a wider range of incredible abilities. The less time spent explaining why it works, the more time a storyteller can spend showing the cool parts of the system.

Hard-Nebulous and Soft-Nebulous Magic

It is rare to find these types of magic in science fiction, at least in my experience. Sometimes you need a nebulous magic system and sometimes you don’t.

The ability to theorize and predict is an enormous part of making a system feel scientific. Nebulous systems are, by definition, difficult to predict or recreate, making them an unpopular choice for most storytellers in this genre.

These systems are fantastic for creating a sense of wonder and/or fear which is why most examples you find will sit in the Space Horror sub-genre where science fiction and horror overlap. Aside from that, nebulous systems often manifest in science fiction as some form of faster-than-light travel or as an ability possessed by the big, bad guy of the story.

art created by Cmy Cai at

That’s All for now

To sum up, you can find all kinds of magic systems in science fiction stories, though soft-nebulous and hard-nebulous systems are far less common.

I hope this has convinced you that magic is more than just spells and incantations. You can twist it into a thousand unique forms and place it into any story imaginable. That means you can use the same process of building magic systems to create cool and logical technology for your science fiction story.

If you’re looking for guidance specifically centered on building technology for your story, you should check out Mythcreants. They have dozens of posts on the topic and I always find something useful in their articles. One of my personal favorites is Seven Common Problems with Spec Fic Technology.

Check them out and be sure to share their articles if you enjoyed their content. And share some of my content while you’re at it. Every link and social media post helps more than you know. Until next time, stay healthy, stay sane, and stay awesome. Rowenson out.

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