139: “Not Instead of a Thing” (Diana Wynne Jones)

                “A spell is not instead of a thing. It is only to help that thing.”
                                -Diana Wynne Jones, The Magicians of Caprona

                “We already live in a world of flying robots killing people. I don’t worry about how powerful the machines are, I worry about who the machines give power to.”
                                -Randall Munroe, xkcd.com/1968

                I tend to think of magic as a replacement for movement, or science, or effort: the mop figures go marching down to gather water, while the sorcerer’s apprentice sits back to conduct the music. A unicorn’s tears wash the wound away, as though it had never existed. But maybe magic–real magic–isn’t a replacement for work; maybe it’s the way that insight, creativity, study and experience can take our efforts and support them, carrying them further than we thought they could ever go.
                Monroe offers a similar thought, but in his world, it’s darker. We make movie after movie about the “rise of the machines,” about the steel faces who turn on us, but the real worry (he says) isn’t then. It’s now. We’re not making Skynet: we’re making poor decisions, day after day, year after year, to alienate others and pollute water and turn toward war as a solution. If we listen to Diana Wynne Jones, a spell wouldn’t wash away all fear or remove the technology that lets us make weapons. A spell would give us a little help as we struggle to deal with that fear, as we decide what to do with that technology.
                I read a good comic a few weeks ago. A mother and her son, teaching holding cell phones, are sitting on a bench in the park. Across from them is another bench, another mother and son, but these two are holding books. The first mother looks over and says, “I’m so jealous. How did you get him to read?”
                Children’s books tell children what we think, what we value, how we approach challenges. They don’t give us answers: they give us a way to look for answers. It’s nice to be a child gain, to listen to Diana Wynne Jones. It’s nice to grow up, and practice humming something that might be a spell. Perhaps this melody will help (a little bit) what what I’ll do today.

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