Borders and Liminal Zones: The Magic Goes Away as Sword-and-Sorcery.

Labels are useful as more than just a tool for the marketing department. Labels also help the consumer determine if the product before him is the sort of thing he wants to purchase or not. Still, labels can be limiting, deterring someone from acquiring something worthwhile merely because it doesn’t precisely fit within a genre box.

Those of us who are aficionados of Sword-and-Sorcery fiction expend significant time debating what is or is not S&S. That’s as it should be: If your goal is to consume, enjoy, and discuss X, you want to avoid slipping in discussion of Y as beyond the scope. But S&S is a protean subgenre, a slippery subject that is, at the same time, gregarious and outgoing, liking to socialize with all the neighbors in the bookstore. So you can’t always be sure if the book next to that copy of Swords and Ice Magic is S&S or instead Sword-and-Planet, High Fantasy, Grimdark, or something else entirely. And whether or not it matters is completely subjective.

Which brings me to Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away. I liked it. A clever, wry, interesting story set in an S&S style pre-history complete with suggestive historical/cultural cognates and pseudo-anachronisms. Magic, or mana — derived, it seems, from meteors — is running out due to over-consumption by magicians. A group of wizards has a plan to secure a new source of mana. They are assisted by a mundane swordsman, distraught and guilt-ridden over his role in the destruction of Atlantis. There are great set-pieces, truly imaginative works of magic, evocative scenes, humor, romance, and the fate of the world in balance.

The question is, of course, is it S&S?

Looking only at that Boris cover, the answer would have to be yes. That’s quintessential S&S artwork right there. No doubt. But, we all know to be wary of judging a book by its cover. So, let’s move on.

We’ve got sorcery. Plenty of magic and magicians as characters in this one. The warrior shows up with a sword he’d broken in a fit of grief. He gets a replacement later on and employs it in battles against pseudo-vikings and against monsters. If the definition of S&S were that simplistic, then case closed.

In an earlier post I tried my hand at enumerating the elements of a Sword-and-Sorcery yarn. Let me see if I can apply the test to The Magic Goes Away. Our protagonists are hardly paladins. So, check the less-than-heroic-lead box. Small stakes? Well, there we have a problem. This isn’t a treasure hunt, skirmish, or monster-slaying expedition. The initial quest itself is high-stakes. And during the culmination of the book, as I mentioned, the fate of the world is in balance. Supernatural element? In spades. Big check mark. And the last item: Violence. Yes indeed. Niven squeezes in a couple of good fight scenes. 

Three out of four. Close, but no cigar. What do we do with that? Is it S&S adjacent? Does it float freely in some liminal zone between fantasy and S&S? There are other works that strike me as being in a similar position, that don’t meet all the criteria but seem functionally S&S. Take King of the Wood. The supernatural elements area absent, replaced by a substitute that consists of drug reactions or self-induced credulity. And yet it feels like S&S. I suppose it is technically an alternate history. Alternate history is in itself an interesting case. Is it SF or fantasy? If you include some reason for the branching off from our reality — a time traveler jaunts back to a pre-Leif Erikson period and convinces an enterprising viking to keep heading west, then is King of the Wood all of a sudden SF? Is that the distinction between SF and fantasy for Alternate History — an instigating event? (And if so, then are all SF stories that are set pre-current year suddenly Alternate History fantasies? Okay, I’ve derailed this. Back on track.)

What about King Solomon’s Mines? Glory Road? Gentlemen of the Road? I’m personally comfortable with the gray areas. Perhaps it is a personal failing, but I’m okay with “close enough.” Horse shoes, hand grenades, and heroic fiction, right?

Niven himself might not like the idea that his book is S&S. He doesn’t seem to care for the genre. (I recommend the essay at the back of The Magic Goes Away for those interested in a deep-dive into this book and Niven’s story telling philosophy.) And yet the book can be read that way — or at least it can be read as bordering on S&S. And isn’t that sufficient? I suppose that’s an inherently subjective determination.

You probably know my answer by now: Borders, enclaves, juxtapositions, and liminal zones are all good enough for me. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing as how I’ve written an entire series of S&S adjacent books, the Semi-Autos and Sorcery series, attempting to employ the tropes and aesthetics of S&S in a contemporary setting. Did I succeed? You be the judge.