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I'm looking for the source of a quote that is the inverse of the third of Clarke's Three Laws. It was in a book, article or short story from the late 1990's to early 2000's.

I remember that the quote says something like this:

  • "Any sufficiently organized form of magic is indistinguishable from technology."

I know about the Girl-Genius reference, and I feel certain that isn't the first time I heard or read the quote.

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    Not a short story, but the WizBiz series includes a number of variants and refactorings of Clarke's Third Law. May 1, 2021 at 3:32
  • I'm not 100% certain this really satisfies the inverse, but I've remembered it for over twenty years now, it seems.
    – clarkitect
    May 2, 2021 at 5:14
  • @clarkitext, your post didn't really give enough to be an answer in it's own right, but I'd didnt want it to be completely lost. Feel free to repost it if you can source each quote and give dates etc.
    – AncientSwordRage
    May 2, 2021 at 21:16
  • Battlefield - Dr Who, as a deleted scene and in the novelization by Ben Aaronovitch. May 3, 2021 at 1:52

4 Answers 4

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This was quoted in the Fall 1989 edition of the Keystone Folklore Archives. It also appears somewhat earlier in the 1984 edition of Keystone Folklore, identified as being on page 26 in "Volumes 2-4" whatever that means.

It's worthy of note that they've identified it not as their own quote, but rather something that button-makers had been putting onto pin and buttons sold at scifi fairs for several years prior.

“Reality is a Crutch for People Who Can’t Deal With Science Fiction:”

Fans intend for buttons of this land to invite comment. Comments can come in the form of talk, and often do, but since buttons can be obtained quickly at science fiction conventions, comments on buttons can also come in the form of alternative buttons. Some of these running button dialogues have been preserved and extended beyond their originators by their inclusion in button catalogs. For example, a statement by science fiction author, Arthur C. Clark, became a button: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This, in turn, inspired a series of fan-composed corollary slogans:

  • Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo.
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    Warning - that link is a rabbit hole. Seriously. Apr 29, 2021 at 15:26
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    I prefer the contrapositive formulation: "Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced." Apr 29, 2021 at 15:44
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    As a response to the saying "Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence." I've used "Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice". Apr 30, 2021 at 23:13
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    Any sufficiently rigged demo is magic.
    – user21820
    May 2, 2021 at 14:53
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    @RossPresser - Cheers. That's a lot earlier.
    – Valorum
    May 24, 2021 at 17:42
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The 1986 Infocom game Trinity by Dave Lebling has the line "Any sufficiently arcane magic is indistinguishable from technology."

From @pll in comments: The full game code is on Github here, and the quotes in question appear here, as 2 of 13 that can appear.

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    I didn't play a lot of these games back in the day.
    – SteveED
    Apr 30, 2021 at 0:13
  • Are you certain? I just did a run-through and that text never appeared. (I didn't find it in the manual either.)
    – DavidW
    Apr 30, 2021 at 2:23
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    Confirmed, it's in Trinity. I TXD'd the Z4 file and I see the two epigraphs, Clarke and Lebling. Pastebin excerpt: pastebin.com/u3N2HXqg Apr 30, 2021 at 3:07
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    @DavidW : The full game code is on Github here, and the quotes in question appear here, as 2 of 13 that can appear.
    – PLL
    Apr 30, 2021 at 9:44
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    @pll it's definitely worth you or the OP adding that to the answer with an edit.
    – AncientSwordRage
    May 1, 2021 at 12:55
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I only found a snippet in a Google books search, but "Indian Summa" by Arlan Andrews in Analog, January 1989 uses the quote:

Ross understood and laughed aloud. We shouted it out together: “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology!"

Combined with Valorum's quote above and the appearance (in print) of Gehm's Corollary ("Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.") in 1991, it would appear that these ideas were probably well-established in fandom by 1989 at the latest.

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  • What you refer to as "Gehm's Corollary" seems to be a late citation. I was using this in my teaching and corporate presentations starting in September of 1984 (my earliest hard-copy reference; it might have been as early as 1980), and still use it today. I would be surprised were I the first person to think of it, as the application to high-tech endeavours is fairly straightforward. I haven't found an earlier citation -- but given the large time gap from Clark's 3rd, I assume that there is one.
    – Prune
    May 2, 2021 at 19:17
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The quote has definitely been used by Terry Pratchett. The one case I'm pretty confident with is The Science Of Discworld from 1999. I would put good money on there being an earlier use by Pterry, given that the wizards (after the introduction of Ponder Stibbons) are explicitly carrying out this trope, but I can't immediately go looking for a source.

As other answers say, there are earlier uses of the phrase, but none of them are exactly bestsellers. This makes it more likely that Pratchett was where you first found it.

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  • hmm..I haven't actually read any of Discworld, but i have friends who loved it long ago. I'll look it up
    – SteveED
    Apr 30, 2021 at 0:16
  • The later Science of Discworld books definitely use this, but it's a long time since I read the first
    – Chris H
    Apr 30, 2021 at 8:05
  • I accidentally googled my way into a pirate copy. It quotes Clarke's law, attributes ‘Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced’ to Gregory Benford, and tweaks the original to refer to "physics", but doesn't contain this inverse (I was expecting the "inverse" to refer to Benford's version
    – Chris H
    Apr 30, 2021 at 8:14
  • The quote is also used in the web-comic "Girl Genius" at least once. But Science of Discworld came out most of a decade earlier. Apr 30, 2021 at 11:57

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