Theodred — 2343
On the one hand, this wasn’t really a comfortable garden, with a view of a beautiful valley and several apple trees. It was a simulation, running on servers hurtling through deep space on an unstoppable course to who knows where. But on the other hand, it was plainly obvious this was a garden: there was a valley, those were apple trees, this was his home, it was a lovely day, and he had work to do. It mattered how you decided to look at it.
Theodred, Adjunct Professor of Post-Physical Philosophy, comfortably presenting as a wolf for more than a century after an ill-advised month as what he had thought to be an ‘idealized’ version of his former human appearance, started with his sim: only a ordinary scholar’s private dwelling, but it was still important to get the setting right. Dim the lights—the sun raced across the sky till it ripened through gold and red and hovered just above the horizon. Turn down the temperature, not too much—a gentle but constant breeze freshened through the grainfields on the valley floor below. Put away anything he wasn’t going to be using—the contents of the modest home behind him, mostly bookshelves, disappeared, followed by the roof and walls. Though after a moment he changed his mind and called back the brutalist-gothic concrete arches as if his home had become ruins centuries ago, because if you’re going to design a home that looks good in ruins then it should get to be them now and again. Get out the things he would be using—a cast iron fire pit emerged from the clover and dandelions his garden had become, a stack of firewood lit itself within it, three chairs—well, two stools and a comfortable armchair—around it, a fully stocked drinks cabinet to one side. He hesitated, then decided against a whiteboard. If it ended up being needful it could always be brought out.
He did pull out a sturdy college-ruled notebook and a mechanical pencil. Yes, he could just let his sensorium take notes for him, he could store every word said in perfect photographic memory. But that would be a distraction, would turn his attention to himself, to the process, not the answers he hoped for. Better to do things the most instinctive way he knew: by hand, in a notebook balanced on his knee, as it had been in lectures billions of kilometers away and what should have been lifetimes ago.
It was hard to be both methodically careful and relaxed at the same time, but he several times resisted the urge to manually—well not manually, but the word was close enough—turn down his frustration. He wanted his mind in as neutral a state, as untampered with even by himself, as possible for what had to be done. Not for the first time he wondered whose decision it had been, back in the days when he’d uploaded, that one of the parts of his mind copied and transcribed into the everlasting him he was now would be distractible-type attention deficit disorder.
But he didn’t doubt that it was a structural part of the architecture of his mind and personality. Not any more, not since the last time he’d done this procedure.
Or performed this ritual.
Whichever he was going to decide was the correct way to describe it.
Once he’d made some final adjustments—turn off the ocean smell in the wind, it would only make him maudlin and nostalgic, shoo all the simulated sounds of cicadas further into the distance so nobody need shout over them, dial forward the season a bit till the apples on the trees were ripe and the leaves yellowing—he sat back to work on the next step. Suppose this. Assume that. Such-and-such premises. Such-and-such prejudices. All A is B, Some C is A, therefore some C is B etc. Almost convince himself to deny the answer to his question—as close to it as he could come, at least; if he could have gotten all the way there’d be no need for all this fuss.
Once he actually forked, it’d be too late for adjustments. If he wanted an instance that believed certain things, would argue a certain way, he had to become himself that way first. If only just long enough to…
The instance appeared to Theo’s left, and began individuating immediately. It was him, after all, and had the same intentions. He knew the plan, and what his part in it was. Theo paid no attention. He was already focusing on realigning his mind and emotions in the opposite direction. He gave himself permission to believe all the things he didn’t have grounds for, to jump to conclusions if that’s what it took to reach them. He let himself get lost in pareidolia. To be honest, it felt amazing, and he found himself hoping this side won. Which was good, he could use that, give it that hope too…
The second instance appeared to his right. He settled back in the chair, a little bit spent. But his work in this was done. It was up to them now.
The left hand instance resolved first. Hardly surprising. He looked very much as Theo remembered himself on the physical world—he still refused to say ‘phys-side,’ which amused all his students to no end—tall, stocky, very precisely trimmed beard. Human, to all appearances, which Theo hadn’t expected, he’d have to add the implications of that to his notes. The only concession to the professor’s present self-presentation was a tastefully small enamel lapel pin of a running wolf. Pinstripe vest. Tie of stained-glass shades of merlot, lapis lazuli, and fir tree—dressed very much as he would to tackle a seminar on Kripke’s ‘Naming and Necessity,’ Chesterton’s ‘Manalive,’ or May Then My Name Die With Me’s ‘Expanded Mythology.’
On the other hand, the rightward instance was settling into something much more fanciful. Wolf, fur perhaps more ornately groomed than Theo’s. When he first resolved all there was to see was a hooded cloak, but when he swept it off he wore an abundance of talismanic jewelry over a bare chest dyed with arcane symbols, the color of a thundercloud lit with internal sheet lightning. Intricately embossed leather belt and loincloth over breeches. Sword scabbarded at his waist. Small velvet pouch of who-knew-what hanging from his belt. Most striking was the mask, a facsimile of their own face over eyes and upper jaw.
‘Why wear a mask of the same thing as is beneath the mask?’ Theo committed to the notebook, then spoke. “Gentlemen.” They both looked at him, probably expecting this. “You know what we’re here to discuss. For the sake of the notes, however, what names will you be using?”
“Theodulfr,” said the one on the right. There was just a hint of Shakespearean ceremony to his voice.
“Really?” the left hand instance said.
“Our root instance named himself after a Tolkien character.” It was surprisingly difficult to read Theodulfr’s tone with only the lower half of his muzzle to go on. “You can endure a little indulgence.”
“And you can take this seriously!”
“We can save the disparaging remarks,” Theo hadn’t expected to need to play moderator so soon, “for the actual debate, surely.” He turned to the left instance as they quieted. “Your name, please?”
“Theosophia.” The two canine heads tilted at the sole human one. “I’m well aware of the ironies.”
“Anything to drink?” Theo pointed with the butt of his pencil at the cabinet. When Theosophia opened it, it proved to contain a bottled water and a gin and tonic with blackcurrant syrup for him, and a flagon of mead for Theodulfr.
At which point there was nothing else to do but begin.
“I say it would be wrong,” began Theodulfr, “to refer to what we do, the way we live, all this, using the term ‘magic.’ "
“And I ask,” Theosophia replied smoothly, “what better word could there be?”
Theo froze. When he’d decided to do this again, to let two opposite instances of himself debate the question on which he’d spent months of fruitless frustration, he’d planned they’d each take the other side than they now apparently were.
“When people say magic, what, in all the history of the term, have they used it to mean?” Theosophia was already presenting his case, so Theo hurried to catch up with his notes. “Formulas of power over the universe. The ability to make one’s environment, in every element and detail of it, conform to one’s will. Well, we have that, don’t we? If you went to any madji in ancient Persia, any post-scholastic alchemist in medieval Europe, any ritual master in imperial China, and explained to them the everyday circumstances of our lives, what would they call it, other than magic?”
Theodulfr raised an impatient hand. By reflex, Theo made a checkmark on the edge of his page of notes, to keep the queue, before he reminded himself there were only two in this discussion anyway.
“What were the ultimate goals of magic, in any practice or fantasy story?” Theosophia continued. “For what was the philosopher’s stone sought? Immortality and wealth. Well, we no longer age, we no longer die. And we no longer have any scarcity of anything, so wealth is a long-ago-solved problem. The philosopher’s stone is real: we live in it. We all know that we all know the saying: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
“Failure to distinguish between two things,” Theodulfr said, “does not imply that those things are the same.”
Apparently it was his turn now.
“Magic must, by definition, be an overriding of the material universe by some supernatural force. Whatever else magic is,” Theodulfr gestured much more than Theosophia, when he talked, “it has to do the impossible. Snapping your fingers to produce a flame is magic, using a lighter is not. Levitating into the air is magic, boarding an airplane is not. Living forever and being able to shape the world around you to your will is magic, having your mind scanned and uploaded into a computer simulation whose controls you can access is not. There’s a qualitative difference: magic is numinous, awe-inspiring, wondrous. The mere fact we’re even discussing the question of whether the mundane minutiae of our life counts as magic is proof that they don’t. Magic is, by definition, mutually exclusive with mundane minutiae.”
“That’s how a thing is done, how it works,” Theo recognized the rhetorical turn Theosophia was about to use, had used it himself often enough, “not what it is.”
“And next you’re going to say: Just because the sky is blue by different means than a blueberry is blue,” Theodulfr snorted the way Theo had learned to use a wolf’s snout to snort, “or indeed the way some blue object in the system is blue, does not mean the sky is therefore not blue. That’s a question of how blue works, not what blue is. We all know that one.”
Theosophia changed lines of attack. “Very well, then instead I’ll say: you say magic has to do the impossible. What does impossible mean, here? If none of what we’re doing is magic, then magic doesn’t exist, cannot exist, because there is no ‘the impossible’ left for it to do!”
“It could do all the things we do in here,” Theodulf parried and riposted, “in the physical world.”
Apparently, Theo noted, his forks shared his refusal to say ‘phys-side.’ He doubted it would prove relevant.
“I would submit,” Theosophia seemed not to be giving any ground though, “that we are doing all the things we do here in the physical world. All this is happening on physical servers, hurtling through the interstellar medium, in physical space!”
“That’s not the same as really happening.” Theodulfr took a half step forward toward the campfire, as if to get a closer look at a gap in his rival’s defenses. “You wouldn’t say having a dream about a miracle was magic. Or telling a story about a spell was the same thing as casting it. Both of those can happen in the physical world too!”
Theosophia looked thoughtful. “What if I did?”
“What?” said Theodulfr.
Theosophia bit his lower lip. It was a nervous habit Theo had found he’d abandoned once he’d begun to wear a wolf’s face. The shape of the muzzle made the gesture more difficult, feel wrong when accomplished. But he remembered what it meant: the need for quiet, for just a moment, to be able to hear himself in his head, over anyone else talking, to put some thoughts together.
So he cleared his throat. “Calling a few minutes recess,” he clipped his plastic pencil to the notebook’s black and white mottled cover. “I need a drink myself.”
“I suppose you’re going to let him go first, when we start up again.” Theodulfr had crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back on one of the gnarled apple trees. It made the cloak hang from his shoulders like a tall narrow tent canopy. He held Theodred’s stare a while, then sighed, “Fine, only fair, I went first before.”
“I’ll let him go first, if you want,” Theo finished a gulp of the much-needed cider the cabinet had given him, “but I’m not sure he’ll care. Look.”
They both glanced across the fire, no longer flames, now burned down to incandescent coals. It hadn’t occurred to Theo to set the fire to not run out of fuel. Beyond, the human had his head tilted, eyes lidded, hands raised. Every second or so his fingers would move, in syllable-like rhythms, sketching iambs and dactyls and spondees on the air in front of him even though he spoke not a word.
“You must remember,” Theo mused as if to himself, which in a sense it was, “when we used to look like that. What it meant to look like that. How it felt.”
Theodulfr scoffed. “You think he’s putting together some grand epiphany?”
“If he is,” Theo took another gulp of cider, “then it’s exactly what I hoped the two of you would do.”
Soon enough, Theo took his seat again and looked expectantly at Theosophia.
The human raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“He’s letting you go first.” Theodulfr rolled his eyes, “You were clearly preparing something. We may as well hear it.”
“Oh, no that’s alright,” Theosophia shrugged. “It can wait until we all feel all the loose ends from the previous debate are tied up.”
“Implying you think we finished the debate?” Theodulfr growled. When he got no response, the fantastic wolf sighed, “I was going to say that the saying about sufficiently advanced technology and magic needs to be understood relative to the perspective from which the technology is seen. It being ‘indistinguishable’ means there’s someone who is unable to distinguish, implicitly someone whose technology is insufficiently advanced. The saying is about encountering a more advanced technology than you understand. Once you do understand it, once you do use it, once it’s yours, it can’t be sufficiently advanced anymore. Does that do anything to the big point you’re about to make?”
“Not really,” Theosophia shook his head. “So. You said what we’re doing, the way we’re living—whether or not it’s magic—is analogous to telling a story?”
“Yyyyes…” Theodulfr allowed, cautiously.
“Then let’s actually talk about what those ancient physical world cultures believed about telling stories. How they understood storytelling. In ancient Greece,” like most philosophy professors his mind went first to ancient Greece, “they believed composition of fiction was a form of possession by a divinity. The peoples of the pacific northwest practiced something like a form of copyright, where only specific families had the right to tell certain stories, and stories could be sold, traded, and inherited because telling a story was a sacred act and therefore precious. The Akan and Ashanti god of stories, Anansi, so important that he was the only African myth most of our ancestors had even heard of! Ancient germanic peoples believed in a form of magic that involved going into the spirit world and leaving a story there, and if the students call the other world, the world we left to get here,” Theosophia grimaced but plowed ahead, " ‘phys-side’ then doesn’t that imply ‘going into the spirit world and telling a story there’ is exactly what we’ve done? Even in English, the language we’ll presumably keep speaking forever, the word “spell” used to also mean “story.”
“What’s your point?” Theodulfr asked, without hostility. “That… stories were considered important?”
“When you said what we’re doing is more like living inside a story than doing actual magic, you were right!” Theosophia was getting an excited head of steam behind him now. He was going to start pacing as he talked any moment. “But we didn’t define our terms when we started, we just assumed because we’d just forked that all three of us would automatically mean the same thing by the word ‘magic,’ But we didn’t, not clearly! That’s why you,” he pointed at Theo in the chair, which was the last straw on his composure, and he went on, pacing, “couldn’t make up your mind between us in the first place! You didn’t know whether to call our existence magic because you weren’t sure what you meant by magic! Probably why we started arguing the opposite positions you intended, if I had to guess. But! But those ancient humans had to define their terms too, they were the ones inventing terms in the first place, so of course they defined ‘magic.’ And very consistently they used the same method to define it.”
Theodred leaned forward in his chair, very slowly.
“Who decides, in a story, whether or not something is magic?” Theosophia was repeating some of the hand and finger gestures from his earlier reverie. “Who decides how the magic works?”
“…the person telling the story.” Theodulfr’s voice was only a whisper but his face was too lit up for the mask to hide it.
“Who set the scene for the debate we’re having right now?”
“I did.” Theo said.
“And what are the two kinds of people who can decide things like ‘this conversation should happen at sunset, and the weather should be such-and-such, and a campfire and a cabinet of drinks and stools nobody’s going to end up sitting on should all just Be There?’ "
“A magician…” Theo began.
“…or a storyteller,” Theodulfr finished.
“And, and… and further,” Theosophia was clearly beginning to get ahead of his own words, “if you heard about people who went and lived inside a story they were all telling together, wouldn’t that sound like magic?”
“Who coined the saying about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic?!” Theodulfr’s rhetorical question was filled with contagious excitement. His defenses were breached. His surrender was underway.
“A storyteller!” Theosophia crowed, driven higher by the feedback loop of excitement, “you could say the real point was: any sufficiently advanced storytelling can make whatever it likes indistinguishable from magic!”
He finally wound down. All the words, the orgasmically unstoppable epiphany of it, subsided and left him.
He looked up, winded, to find the other two staring at him. “What? Did I get too excited?”
“No,” said Theo, and quietly activated his hallway mirror back into the sim, “but look at yourself.”
The human was gone. A wolf, still dressed in tie and vest, same rough dusky fur as his other two selves, looked back at Theosophia, who reached up to feel his ears as if that would prove anything about their reality. “When did that happen?”
“While you were shouting about sufficiently advanced storytelling.” Theodred said.
“You told yourself a story,” Theodulfr ventured. “You got swept up in it, and this is the result, I guess.”
“I suppose.” Theosophia loosened his tie and undid the top buttons of his shirt. “As root instance you’re previous evidence there’s a part of our personality that wants to present like this, it doesn’t mean it was the story or magic that made me–”
“It was,” Theo said, “if we decide it was.”
The three of him looked at each other over the remains of the fire. The sun was set. The ritual was concluded.
“Guess I won the debate, huh?” Theosophia said, and quit.
“Keep the memory of his whole epiphany,” Theodulfr said, “I want to know if it felt as amazing as it looked like it did.”
“I was curious about one thing, before you go,” Theo said, “why the mask?”
Theodulfr chuckled, took it off. His face, underneath, looked exactly the same as the mask, as Theo’s, as Theosophia’s by the end. He handed it to Theo. “You’ll figure it out,” he said, and quit as well.
Theo sat back in the chair to process the merge and let his house reappear around him. It had, indeed, felt amazing to have that epiphany. And really, the mask he was holding was just another way of expressing it: of looking the way one looked not because one looked like that, but because one chose to look like that. Of telling the story, and making yourself the story you were telling, which was just another way of describing individuation.
It meant something if you decided it meant something.
Was that the same as saying it was magic if you believed in magic?
Theodred, Adjunct Professor of Post-Physical Philosophy, comfortable as a wolf, and—he now supposed—magician, decided to sleep on that question. He was tired. Anyway, should it prove insoluble, he knew a pretty simple ritual to conjure up an answer to questions like that.
He lay waiting for sleep, and wondered what his students would think when he showed up to lecture tomorrow wearing a little lapel pin of a running wolf and a mask of his own face.
Outside, the story he and all the others with magical powers like his had woven into the fabric of a spirit world, written in secret languages known only to learned adepts, with letters made of lightning on pages made of glass and rare metals, in a library hung amidst all the stars of the firmament, continued to tell itself, as it had for centuries, as it would for centuries more.
It mattered how you decided to look at it.