World Building

So, after a rough patch involving medication in October, I'm back to working on the background for that novel idea I mentioned.

I've got a timeline about what the initial disaster will be like when magic first comes back, but now I'm trying to imagine the steady state once people get used to the idea. The way I have it set up currently is that the average optimal age to attempt to gain magic is about age 50 for men and 55 for women. Remember, the idea is that if you undergo the ritual to gain magic and you are young and fit, you have a 50% chance of dying in agony and a 50% chance of succeeding in agony. Your chance of success worsens as you get older and sicker, until it falls to essentially zero at age 85.

The ages of 50 and 55 are derived by me staring at mortality rates. They're roughly the ages that mortality rates start to get noticeably worse.

Also remember that one of the biggest prizes of gaining magic is that you can use it to maintain and regain youth. A magician (mage, magus, wizard) who doesn't do something stupid to off himself can live for a very long time.

So, this knowledge has been around long enough that it has entered popular lore. Rational people who want to become magicians can plan their lives around these facts. They get married young and have their children young so that the kids are all finished being reared by the time the would-be magicians are fiftyish.

On the one side is a chance at a greatly extended healthy life with the ability to be a wizard. At age fifty the chance is about fifty percent, but the true long-term chance is closer to twenty-five percent. It's also part of received lore that about half of new magicians do something to kill themselves or cause others to kill them within a short time of gaining magic. Of course, because of the Dunning–Kruger effect, everyone assumes they aren't going to be in the idiotic half.

On the other side is the rest of your life. If you are on the losing side of the bet, you don't get to watch your grandchildren grow up. You don't get to enjoy your retirement. You are dead, dead, dead.

I'm having trouble guesstimating what percentage of rational fifty-year-olds would take the gamble to gain magic. As an expected value equation, it's a slam dunk for magic, but years of life aren't anything like dollars and cents. Do you have any feel for what percent would take the gamble?

Comments

  • This idea still intrigues me.

    I'd guess I'd see it as about the same as the number of people willing to attempt climbing Everest, or go skydiving at a geriatric age. Of course I'm not too sure what those numbers are either so that may not be helpful.

    But thinking about it further, I think a lot would have to do with quality of life, quality of healthcare, and how technology along those means has changed (or stagnated) since magic became possible. Plus, would someone in the family that had magic be able to extend others lives in any way?

    Then, could it vary by socioeconomic status? Nationality? Would someone of a lower status or in a poorer country be more willing to risk death in order to get a potential key up into a higher social status? Could countries run by military juntas or cruel dictators force their followers to attempt it at a younger age? Also, what would magic be received by the major religions?

  • Assuming a society not dissimilar to ours, I would guess the percentage to be very low (people in their 50s are much less often risk takers, as compared to their younger selves). Those that do are either idiots or desperate.

    If you're society and socio-economic conditions differ, then it's impossible to say, without more information. Clme makes some good points about, "quality of life, quality of healthcare..."

  • edited November 15

    Since I'm writing fantasy fiction, I suppose what I'm going for is plausibility rather than truth. I need to come up with a guess that's plausible enough not to break the reader's trance. As an aging, single man who would love to be a wizard, I'm sure my guess, unadjusted, would be too high for most people. As for the rest of your questions, I've already worked a lot of them out to my satisfaction.

    But thinking about it further, I think a lot would have to do with quality of life, quality of healthcare, and how technology along those means has changed (or stagnated) since magic became possible.

    When knowledge of magic's return to Earth first became common, it was a disaster akin to the Great Depression, World Wars One and Two, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and several Third-World famines all taking place simultaneously. The initial shock, called the Mage Wars and the Mage Depression, lasted eight years before things began to recover. Earth's population was reduced by about half, most of the losses taking place in the Third World and China.

    One of the things that kept the disaster from being total is that the Great Powers never exchanged nukes. A big reason why not is that in Fortress Israel's maneuvering against and manipulations of the Twin Caliphates, tactical nukes worked at first but then quit going off. The Great Powers were not at all sure their arsenals would work, and they didn't want to prove they didn't work by launching a first strike that fizzled out.

    Once things calmed down, though, quality of life in the First World, the portions of the former Communist Bloc close to the First World – China, Eastern Europe, and North Vietnam – and the rest of North American – Mexico and Central America – became very good. Think the 1950s economic recovery on steroids.

    In those places, health care is excellent. Not only is conventional medicine available, but so is magical healing. The best physicians are also magicians. Furthermore, our current medical cartel has been shot like a rabid dog. It's illegal for magical healers who aren't physicians to practice medicine, but those laws are routinely ignored or evaded through loopholes. (If your pastor happens to be a magician, prayer works.)

    Technology hasn't stagnated; it has accelerated faster than our real-world technology. It had an eight-year hiatus that we didn't experience, but their science has ways of probing and testing reality that we just can't do. I haven't worked it out completely yet, but I'm leaning towards having their technology be a bit ahead of ours. In their 2019, they already have self-driving cars, embryo selection, and quantum computing. In other words, stuff we expect over the next decade or so, they already have, at least in the First World.

    Other parts of the world are a different story. South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania outside the control of Australia and New Zealand, most of South America except the Southern Cone, and the Great Steppe that stretches between Europa and East Asia are now all under the control of wizard warlords and shamans. During the Mage Crises, they suffered tremendous population losses through famine and a whole bunch of simultaneous wars. (An alliance between the United States and Canada flatly conquered Mexico and Central America in self-defense.)

    Plus, would someone in the family that had magic be able to extend others lives in any way?

    Yes, certainly. This is one of the motivations for gaining magic. It doesn't work as well as becoming a magician oneself, but mages definitely can and do keep others alive longer and healthier. Non-magician centenarians are becoming common. I'm still working out the numbers, which is why I need plausible estimates for fifty-somethings, but the world I'm building may very well end up being a gerontocracy, which will have implications for possible storylines.

    Then, could it vary by socioeconomic status?

    It definitely varies with socioeconomic status. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to take the chance. That is why, during the initial crises, the poorer parts of the world and the poorer parts of the richer world collapsed so badly. Warring warlords became common almost immediately.

    As things have settled into a post-crises steady(ish) state, it is definitely a custom at certain inflection points in life, in these parts of the world especially, for people to seriously consider becoming magicians. Early adulthood (say 16 to 20), in an attempt to gain social status, and then again at the start of late middle age (fiftyish), for both the mathematical-biological reason already stated and the desire to become a protector of one's family, would be the two most prominent of those points.

    I suspect that beginning of old age (65ish) would be another. It prevents one from becoming a burden, one way or another.

    Of course, in these areas dominated by warlords, the death rate for beginning magicians will be considerably higher than the fifty-percent I mentioned, which is mostly caused by stupidity, carelessness, and hubris rather than enemy action.

    Nationality?

    I suspect nationality wouldn't have as powerful as an effect as socioeconomic status would have, but it should have some effects. Macho cultures would encourage young men to go for it. Cultures that encourage strong ties between the elderly their families might have effects either way. Those who feel loved would be less inclined to risk their lives, but those who love their descendants might be more inclined to risk the few years they have left in an attempt to give their families a leg up. Do you have a guess?

    Would someone of a lower status or in a poorer country be more willing to risk death in order to get a potential key up into a higher social status?

    Yes.

    Could countries run by military juntas or cruel dictators force their followers to attempt it at a younger age?

    No, mostly. This is built into the rules I've created. In order for the ritual to work, you must really want the ritual to work. This is true for all of the magic in my setting. Spells are relatively easy, but you must actually want them to work. Second thoughts will destroy their effectiveness.

    Spells attempted under duress aren't going to work unless the person applying the duress is clever/good enough to force their victim to want the spell to work despite the duress. I can envision scenarios involving the torture of loved ones that might be effective.

    Of course, the person applying the pressure now has a supremely angry magician who really, really wants to hurt him on his hands.

    Also, what would magic be received by the major religions?

    This is going to be one of my favorite plot points. You see, when mass word that magic actually works gets out and sets off a series of worldwide crises, there will be a religious reaction. Attempts at suppressing magic get made, but there won't be any witch hunts, because these witches can fight back.

    It eventually turns out that prayer in this new world actually works, but only when at least some of the congregation are magicians who have undergone the initiation ritual. Prayer, of course, is a type of magic ritual. Through prayer, non-magicians can help true magicians be more effective. This is true of any type or ceremonial magic. Non-magicians can help somewhat when they are guided by true magicians.

    Anyway, I'm trying to come up with a base number for 50-year-old Americans living a decent life. Their kids are grown. They feel good and have plenty of toys. They can attempt to live out some golden years, which should be reasonably healthy, or they can try to become Merlin. The chance is still fifty-fifty, near enough, if they act right now, but the odds are only going to get worse from here on in. How many take the chance?

    If I can come up with a reasonable base number, I can make decent guesses at the number in other situations.

  • Looking back at what I've written, I see that I need to address something else. The way gaining magic works, fiftyish is your last chance of gaining magic with a survival rate of 50%. At age 85 the survival rate drops to zero. But what happens to those chances when the person is being maintained by someone else's magic? Couldn't those years be stretched out a bit beyond 50 and 85?

    Right now, I have those set up as hard limits, mostly to force any future characters to make hard choices. I could be convinced that I'm going to have to loosen them to be more "realistic."

  • @Rufus said:
    Assuming a society not dissimilar to ours, I would guess the percentage to be very low (people in their 50s are much less often risk takers, as compared to their younger selves). Those that do are either idiots or desperate.

    If you're society and socio-economic conditions differ, then it's impossible to say, without more information. Clme makes some good points about, "quality of life, quality of healthcare..."

    Don't forget that some of these 50-somethings are going to be people who have planned on becoming magicians all of there lives. Staring at real-world mortality rates has led me to conclude that around fifty is the best age for a rational person, in my scenario, to make the attempt. They've had a chance at fifty years of life. They've raised a family, if they so desire.

    At fifty, they are risking the least number of years at best odds of becoming a wizard. Here on out, the odds get worse.

  • I've been thinking about the problem and staring at relevant numbers (example) on and off all day. My current guess is that in First World countries, once the initial shock of magic working wears off, the steady state will be that roughly five percent of the 50ish and under population will eventually try the magic initiation ritual.

    A higher percentage of the over 50 population will eventually try the ritual as they increasingly have less to lose, but their success rate goes down with age.

    The upshot is that about 2.5% of First World residents become magic users at some time in their lives. This 2.5% is roughly effectively cut in half, because a high percentage of beginner magicians either kill themselves or do something so obnoxious that someone kills them as a public service.

    Does this seem plausible? If you were reading a fantasy novel and a character said that a bit more than one percent of those born eventually becomes a wizard, would it break your reader's trance? Your willing suspension of disbelief?

  • To be honest this sounds more like a logic puzzle than a story. Shouldn't it all depend on what's meant to happen - i.e. who the characters are and what they're up against? If the story to be told needs a number to be ~1%, then just say that, and have people act the way they'd act if that was the case.

    To me, stories are never particularly broken by the author saying the world is this way or that. What breaks stories is when the people don't behave like people, given that world. E.g. if you say that people mostly wait until age 70 and don't explain further, the reader will likely take that at face value (unless events in the story make it implausible). But if you say people wait until 70 because it's rational, you make the people of your world into weirdos who probably spent their 21st birthday opening a tax deferred retirement account. If you say instead that waiting until age 70 is a fad inspired by a charismatic celebrity, or it's self-identity for a political party, or it's because scientists recommend 60 but nobody trusts them, it starts sounding like a world with people.

    Example of this in action: "Altered Carbon" (basically a story about a dude waking up in a new body after 200 years asleep). The "magical" part of the world building is the body swapping and whatnot, but that stuff never breaks immersion - it's just the world where the story takes place. What does break immersion is this dude waking up after 200 years on ice, and nobody finds his slang outdated and everyone he meets is still wrapped up in the political events that led to him getting frozen. That stuff is what breaks the world, IMO.

  • @fenomas said:
    ... "Altered Carbon"...

    Criticisms aside; awesome show... I look forward to a second season.

  • edited November 15

    About the age of attempting wizardry, I figure there will be lore that gets out about the optimal way to do things, in story. Out story, you can be sure that some SOB will spot it if the story becomes popular. "But why wouldn't they wait to age 50 to try, if they're smart about it?"

    One the things that kept Harry Potter from being more than a mild amusement for me was J. K. Rowling's total ineptitude with arithmetic -- quidditch scoring, the inconsistency of House sizes, etc. -- aside from them being totally derivative.

    As for how many will try, I find if an author simply declares something about the way human beings will do something, and it contrasts sharply with the way I think human beings will do something, the story becomes pretty much irretrievable. The Bond villain speech and elaborate death rituals were two of the things that made the Bond movies unwatchable for me. I've never been able to sit through one in its entirety,

    If I say, "I think the average overfed citizen of the First World had about a 5% chance of taking an even bet, his life vs. being Merlin (or Harry Dresden, or Harry Potter)," and the average fantasy reader says, "No way, I'd take that bet right now!" I think I've lost him.

    Maybe not. I'm old and jaded in terms of genre fiction. My reader's trance is broken a lot more easily than it used to be.

  • @Bill said:
    I find if an author simply declares something about the way human beings will do something, and it contrasts sharply with the way I think human beings will do something, the story becomes pretty much irretrievable.

    That's literally what I just said! But when the author describes the world, that description stands as long as events don't contradict it.

    That is, if you describe a dystopia where wizard-oligarchs do as they please and everyone else wallows in misery, and then say everyone waits until age 85 to do the thing, you break immersion because why wait so long in misery? But if you say everyone waits until 85 and then tell a story whose events don't give the reader any strong expectation about whether waiting until 85 makes sense or not, then immersion isn't broken. Of course you can have all kinds of reasons in your head why 85 is the number, but they should only be described to the reader insofar as it helps the story, not just to convince people that your world-building is internally consistent.

  • I don't think we're disagreeing, really.

    There are things that I need know, which I might never even mention in the story, so that I can keep things consistent. For example, I'm putting together character sheets for the most important characters. I might never mention all of what is on the sheets, but I need to know it so that I can make sure they don't act out of character.

    I have four, single-spaced pages, so far, on how magic has come to the world. Human beings, in our case, are symbionts of the species that bestows magic. The Bestowers are sentient and sapient. They live one per planet, except mothers with their unitary offspring. The sapient species of the Bestower-colonized planet act much like our gut bacteria, but more so. Mages help Bestowers digest their food.

    The Bestowers are symbionts of yet another species, the Dragons. The Dragons treat the Bestowers a bit like semi-livestock. They are the ones who set the rules about the acquisition of magic between the Bestowers and the Bestower's symbionts. In short, if there are too many mages using too much magic, they might consume their Bestower. If there are too few mages, the Bestower will starve to death.

    Magic isn't so much the violation of the laws of physics as it is the exploitation of laws of physics that human beings are incapable of discerning, much less understanding.

    I have no idea how much of this stuff will make it into the story.

  • edited November 16

    The age fifty thing is just a consequence of me making up a rule and seeing where it went. I thought it might be interesting to explore the idea of magic being easy to get. You aren't a born wizard like Harry Potter. You aren't an angel (more or less) like Gandalf. You don't have to win some kind of lottery. You just have to want it.

    This implies that there has to be some kind of price, or you are no longer writing about wizards; you are writing about some alien species the members of which can do things that appear to us to be magic.

    So, you could do something like requiring years of study. That has been done a lot.

    You can do something like requiring the sacrifice of one's humanity, giving up one's soul or the like. That has been done a lot. Not only that, the story of a person spiraling into ruin just because he has access to power has been done so often that it bores me. I don't need to be told over and over again that human beings are irredeemably shitty and can only be saved by surrendering to the will of God. If that really is the case, I'm afraid we are doomed.

    Tell me, instead, how human beings might gain access to immense power but still somehow manage to steer between the shoals and turn it, mostly, to everyone's benefit. That is the world we are increasingly living in, and that is the story that interests me.

    Don't make it a utopia. Utopias are boring as hell, and I'm no sage to tell people how things ought to be.

    So, make it so the average schmuck and get a large amount of power. Take a guess about what would really happen if a lot of them did. Kick around ideas about ways not only to survive such a thing, but benefit from it.

    So, the limiting factor is a coin flip. Heads, you're a wizard. Tails, you die. You don't want people waiting until their deathbeds to take the chance. That isn't very interesting, and the choice becomes a no brainer.

    I chose the idea that your chances go down as your health gets worth. Looking at mortality tables in the real world, death rates appear to take a jump when people reach their fifties. The age 50 thing is a consequence of my rules.

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