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Imagine a typical fantasy world, where wizards need to perform rituals, or specific hand movements, and utter specific phrases with correct pronunciation to trigger well-defined magic spells. The reader later finds out that long ago, there was a highly advanced technological civilization which created magic by building advanced AIs and a network of nanomachines, which actually listen to specific keywords and hand movements then implement the spells themselves. They then either collapsed or went into hiding.

Where does this idea originate from, which was the earliest work of sci-fi built around this idea? There are some examples, like some Harry Potter fan fiction, or the Ra series, but they are relatively recent.

Just having very advanced technology, which is misinterpreted by less advanced people as magic does not count. Most (or all) magic practitioners have to "study" magic by experimenting with different hand motions and pronunciations, without knowing anything about the underlying causes.

  • So you're looking for the first example or a relatively primitive people using magic that, unbeknownst to them, is based on advanced technology? Something like angels of the Samaria series by Sharon Shinn, although I doubt that is the first example. – Xantec Aug 16 '18 at 19:51
  • @Xantec : it's not enough to use technological devices which they think is magic. It has to work like magic, the stereotypical kind, where wizards perform magic by waving their hands or wands and/or speaking incantations. – vsz Aug 16 '18 at 22:46
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It's been considered as a law by Arthur C. Clarke in the essay Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination, first published in Profiles of the Future in 1962

He formulated three adages that are known as Clarke's three laws, of which the third law is the best known and most widely cited:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right.
  2. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

It echoes a statement in a 1942 story by Leigh Brackett: "Witchcraft to the ignorant, … simple science to the learned". Earlier examples of this sentiment may be found in Wild Talents (1932) by Charles Fort: "...a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known that it is what I mean by magic," and in the short story The Hound of Death (1933) by Agatha Christie: "The supernatural is only the natural of which the laws are not yet understood."

Clarke gave an example of the third law when he said that while he "would have believed anyone who told him back in 1962 that there would one day exist a book-sized object capable of holding the content of an entire library, he would never have accepted that the same device could find a page or word in a second and then convert it into any typeface and size from Albertus Extra Bold to Zurich Calligraphic", referring to his memory of "seeing and hearing Linotype machines which slowly converted ‘molten lead into front pages that required two men to lift them’"

Note that despite this, I didn't find any concrete use of this principle in a fiction of those eras

(most of this answer is taken from this Wikipedia article : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke%27s_three_laws )

  • If transported through time, I wonder how he would react to a modern smart phone. – Xantec Aug 16 '18 at 22:03
  • Damn, I just saw the link in your question .... Hum ! But the 3rd law doesn't imply systematicly misinterpretation from primitive people to the technology-advanced one. You could totally aply it in the other way, the magic is not considered as impossible in the sentence – Professeur Dronte Aug 16 '18 at 23:02
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It is probably not the first instance of this trope being used, but the 1981 (pre-Discworld) novel Strata by Terry Pratchett has a flat alternate Earth where magic works this way. In the story, the characters do not encounter any human wizards, but there are a variety of other creatures who believe they are doing magic, when they are actually utilizing the super-advanced technology of the disc. (There is a particularly memorable demon, who explains his point of view on the matter.) As the book proceeds, the readers and the main characters learn more about what is going that makes the apparent magic possible.

  • 2
    And in a Discwold novel, Ponder Stibbons states that "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." Clearly, Sir Pratchett knew about Clarke's three laws and liked to insert nods to them in his works ;) – Professeur Dronte Aug 16 '18 at 22:15
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It's hard to point to a single source. The Magic From Technology page on TVTropes lists a number of sources under "Literature" but very few of them date from before the late '80s when the concept of a "magical" interface to advanced technology was already fairly widespread, certainly in the alt.cyberpunk newsgroup I was following at the time. (For example: Using Fantasy Lore to Model Virtual Reality) This idea seems to have been floating "in the ether" for a while; I can recall a painting in a contemporaneous art show depicting a sorcerer in a pentacle commanding a robot. Gestural interfaces become somatic spell components, hand controllers become wands... The Shadowrun RPG from the same era explicitly blended magic and technology, and it wasn't necessarily clear which was which.

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I thought of another one, although it is not a close a match, since there are no spells, per se. Fred Saberhagen's "Sign of the Wolf" from 1965 (online here, with some cheesy 1980s digital illustrations) takes place on a world where humans have lost their once advanced technology, but the ancient machinery, including planetary defenses, still exist underground. Only priests are normally permitted to enter caves to supplicate the gods, but the protagonist Duncan finds a previously forgotten cavern, where the planetary defense computer is intoning, "Order one requested," which he recognizes as a sign that the earth god is prepared to grant his wish. So he gives it an order, which satisfies both the needs of the planetary inhabitants and his own personal needs.

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The earliest example I can think of is Poe's thousand and second tale of Scheherazade in 1845. This is 100% Clark's third law, and I know you said that that doesn't count, but I think it's important because what you're really looking for is Poe's horror successor- H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft did this constantly in his work, using doctors/scientists/archaeologists to experiment and explore things that eventually led them to the unknowable. As he writes in the opening to Call of Cthulu (1928):

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Another example is Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House (1932) and might be the closest example of the actual discovery for the reader. In this one Walter Gilman studies too much math, which is then used for dimensional travel.

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