Not long ago I was flipping channels and happened to find Back to the Future playing at the same time as Lord of the Rings. Seeing Doc Brown and Gandalf in such close temporal proximity inspired me to tweet “Mad scientists are to science fiction what wizards are to fantasy. They’re the ones who usually make the story happen.”
One of my Twitter buddies, @pipenta, called me on this and I completely agree that it requires more explanation. After all, what could be more contradictory than science and magic? The two, by definition, cannot co-exist. Or, if they do, it’s purely a matter of perception: as Arthur C. Clark put it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
I should have specified that I was thinking in terms of archetypes and narrative roles. This is difficult to express in a 140 character message (“Archetype” is 9 characters all by itself) so I’m grateful to have a chance to do it here.
Wizards’ narrative roles
First, let’s examine what a wizard does. In the past few decades, wizards have emerged as protagonists, such as in televisions Merlin and, of course, Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But traditionally, wizards are supporting characters who are mysterious, mystical, and often live outside of normal society. They might be good, bad, or misguided, but they appear in a story to warn of, teach about, or create fantastical elements such as dragons, invisibility spells, or unholy armies.
Merlin points Arthur towards his special destiny and his holy quests. Gandalf initiates Bilbo’s adventure when he comes to his door with a key and a map (not to mention 13 rowdy dwarves), and then a generation later he returns to urge Frodo out on his own journey. In that same story, Sauron and Saruman both utilize their horrible creations in bids for world domination, and I defy you to name a “dark lord” in any fantasy novel who is not a sorcerer or at least involved with sorcery.
Scientists’ narrative roles
If you picked up on the phrase “bids for world domination,” you probably already see where I’m going with this comparison. Like wizards, scientists can be benevolent (like Doc Brown), or evil (like James Bond’s classic villain Blofeld), or just misguided (like Doctor Frankenstein, whose monster runs amok). All of them, however, exist outside of society (in secluded laboratories instead of wizards’ towers), and they serve as powerful allies or antagonists through whom the super-normal (if not super-natural) can find its way into the story.
Scientists (mad or otherwise) are the ones who provide the fantastical elements to science fiction—whether it be time machines, doomsday devices, or atomic monsters, these serve the same roles as mystic quests, unholy powers, and legendary monsters.
The first true science fiction story, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, was about a man seeking to defy the laws of nature. Shelly clothed this story in scientific trappings because these principals were just beginning to pique the public interest. Had she written the story a few years earlier, Frankenstein might have reanimated the corpse through a demonic pact rather than electrical current. Same story, same character, different flavor.
Maybe I’m barking up the wrong lightning rod, or maybe I’m in danger of wrecking the things that make the distinct genres fun. Either way, I’m grateful to @pipenta for questioning this because it raises an interesting topic.
What do you think: have I gone wand-over-test-tube or do you see a connection, too? Can anyone out there think of some other wizard/scientist parallels or counter examples? I’d love to hear your comments.