Or at least Clarke’s 3rd Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
I have a physics degree from McGill University in Montreal, where several well-meaning humans — with the exception of a Thermodynamics professor who intentionally posted incorrect office hours — attempted to instill in me an appreciation for the order of the universe. The problem is, of course, when you learn to speak the mathematical language of physics, the “order” gets pretty damn weird. Or, as my Quantum Physics professor said on the day we ground out the math for quantum tunneling: “This is the bit where people’s brains begin to crackle.”
It’s hard to understand, as we wander around with cell phones in our pockets, the disruptive effect quantum mechanics — the physics of the unknowable, or at the very least the physics of the best-guessable — had on the scientific world in the beginning of the 20th century. Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice with the universe!” quote comes out of this era. To put it bluntly, the smartest people on earth were, on a daily basis, losing their shit.
ARCANUM is born out of two impulses. First, blending body horror with fantasy, much as Charles Stross found the inherent harmonies between Chtulhoid Horror and Cold War sensibilities in the Laundry Series. We’ll discuss that later.
But it also comes out of my love of science fiction, specifically my amusement at how the most important, disruptive moment in most alien invasion movies is tossed over the movie’s shoulder. The aliens have come from beyond the stars, they have come for our …
… wait, what? No, they don’t want our seawater, they don’t want our brains, whatever you — THEY CAME FROM BEYOND THE STARS?! Assuming that’s not a generation ship or some self-replicating/self-perpetuating nanobot swarm, those aliens just BROKE PHYSICS.
Except, of course, in the (mainstream) alien invasion story, they didn’t break physics. In every (mainstream) alien invasion story they’re here. We can shoot them, and talk to them, and be dissected by them, they’re wandering around in our physical universe and so are beholden to the same physics, Newtonian or Quantum, that we are. So that fictional universe has rules, the aliens just … apparently … know some better ones than we do?
But faster-then-light travel mucks with such fundamental boundaries of our physical universe that if they can circumvent that, they can damn well circumvent any of the boring rules which would allow us to interact, or perhaps even perceive them. There’s an inherent paradox — if the aliens are interstellar, they are certainly not walking our streets in hacked-together HALO armor gunning down humans. Unless that’s, like, a thing they get off on. Which would be double-plus ungood now that I think about it.
For chrissake, in the 21st Century one country is untouchably pounding the hell out of terrorists and unfortunately placed Afghani weddings with remote-piloted drones operated by kids from half a planet away. And we don’t even leave our local gravity well except for special occasions.
Those aliens would not be fight-able. They would be unknowable. They would incomprehensible. They would be soul-shatteringly terrifying. They would be terrifying sky gods who rain down destruction on a helpless human populace as if by … magic.
So why not jump straight to magic?
This is tied to one of my pet peeves in the Harry Potter universe (stay with me). I am always a little disappointed that Hermione Granger (the hero of the series) at no point says “You know, I rather like science. Has anyone noticed that none of what we do obeys the laws of physics, and yet we co-exist with the world of Muggles where the laws of physics hold sway? I mean, shouldn’t we talk to some clever Cambridge blokes about the fact that we gesture and point with a stick and manufacture objects out of thin air –”
— THEY MANUFACTURE OBJECTS OUT OF THIN AIR?! Assuming that’s not a self-replicating/self-perpetuating nanobot swarm, those tweens just BROKE PHYSICS.
You see what I did there. (After all, the Harry Potter Universe is Secretly Terrifying).
The structure of Arcanum is derived from my instinctive love of that paradox. There are multiple alien invasion styles to choose from, of course. To emphasize the horror aspects, I’m patterning our magic invasion on the slow-burn secret invasions of UFO or The Invaders or the criminally short-lived Threshold. If anything even vaguely resembling alien tech were discovered, you’d see the US government immediately put two programs in play: 1.) a Manhattan project to unravel the broken physics of said tech and 2.) a secret military/intelligence agency to keep tabs on it. Just substitute “magic” into those sentences and you have Arcanum.
Next time: immortality is so, so creepy. In the meantime:
Read Mark Waid’s Insufferable, his awesome super-hero meta-story — what if you were a dark detective of the night, and your teen sidekick grew up to be a douchebag? — starting at the beginning here. The latest arc, Season Two, starts here.
Read our gritty, true-life crime thriller The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood here.
And sample all our comics, from our continuing series to one -shot experiments to shorter (8-10 week) series, from the THRILLBENT HOME PAGE.