On a Disdain for Vance

There was a time when I held a disdain for Vancian magic.

It was before I had read Vance.

On the surface, it doesn't make sense. How can you put one spell into your brain? How can you forget it after you cast it? Shouldn't magic be like a force or a tool? Once you know how to do something, how do you unknow it?

I work in a building built in 2008, state of the art. I've worked there since they opened in 2009.

It is very cold on my unit, always. 64 degrees (17c) at the floor, around 68 (20c) at chest level. They say "adjust the thermostat". Adjusting the thermostat does nothing. Room 200 is 74 (23c) degrees, pretty much constantly. Room 201 is 58 degrees (14c). Yes, they are across the hall from each other.

Did a diagram exist of the building at some point? The building was built so I assume it must. But there isn't a copy in the building. I know this, because before we were open, I had a large part in preparing for our opening. I had to count and mark the exit signs and sprinkler nozzles because there was no document containing their number.

The position of building manager has changed hands at least 4 times in the intervening years. Whatever knowledge one had, had to be relearned from another, from arcane texts, oral history, and inductive reasoning.

We continue to complain about the temperature. Why is it so cold? 
They go to reference their books, to seek out the answer. They return. 
It is because of the baffles in the building! says the balding man, with the shirt opened down to his belly, greying hair curling out from his chest. Some are open, he says, and others are closed. His cologne stinks of a different fallow age.
Well, I ask, can you fix them? 
No. He says. We don't know where they are or how to get to them. The baffles in our buildings are lost.
See, the only way for him to find the baffles to correct the problem is empirical and arbitrary. He has to literally poke around and attempt to find where they are and how to adjust them inside the buildings superstructure. He has no idea how many there are nor how they are controlled or adjusted. Any knowledge he acquires and passes on is didactic, oral secrets passed from one person to another.

This building was built less then 7 years ago, and already the knowledge of how it works is lost.

Soon, our power and control over our environment will become even greater. And our knowledge of how it works will be lost even faster.

I think Jack Vance is a visionary, because in a few short paragraphs, he managed to foresee that this is the way of power in the far future. Yes, if you know engineering, you could rig a vacuum to give an electric shock or alter its construction from pulling air to blowing air, but the most anyone will ever know is to turn it on or off. Those who use it frequently might find some setting switches. Many of those who experiment without knowing the principles will shock themselves or break the vacuum beyond all repair. This is the future, the way of all technology. didactic, empirical, arbitrary.

In Vance's own words:

"In this fashion did Turjan enter his apprenticeship with Pandelume. Day and far into the opalescent Embelyon night he worked under Pandelume's unseen tutelage. He learned the secret of of renewed youth, many spells of the ancients, and a strange abstract lore that Pandelume termed "Mathematics". 
"Within this instrument," said Pandelume, "resides the Universe. Passive in itself and not of sorcery, it elucidates every problem, each phase of existence, all the secrets of time and space. Your spells and runes are built upon its power and codified according to a great underlying mosaic of magic. The design of this mosaic we cannot surmise; our knowledge is didactic, empirical, arbitrary. Phandaal glimpsed the pattern and so was able to formulate many of the spells which bear his name. I have endeavored through the ages to break the clouded glass, but so far my research has failed. He who discovers the pattern will know all of sorcery and be a man powerful beyond comprehension." 
So Turjan applied himself to the study and learned many of the simpler routines. 
"I find herein a wonderful beauty," he told Pandelume. "This is no science, this is art, where equations fall away to elements like resolving chords, and where always prevails a symmetry either explicit or multiplex, but always of a crystalline serenity." - The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
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4 comments:

  1. I love the article. It's excellent. Don't change a word.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Man, I wish there was more Jack Vance.

    ReplyDelete
  3. As a building services engineer this makes me sad. I become more convinced with time that the operations manuals and as-built drawings I lovingly produce have the sole purpose of being rapidly lost by the building owner.

    ReplyDelete

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