Behind the Saga of Recluce

Behind the Saga of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

When I initially decided to write The Magic of Recluce in the late 1980s, I’d been writing science fiction exclusively.  There was scarcely a single word of fantasy in any of my published stories and novels. Then, in roughly 1987, as I recall, I attended a large and well-known eastern regional science fiction convention where I was on a panel dealing with economics and politics in fantasy and science fiction.  The comments of both the other authors – all fantasy writers – and those of the audience were truly a revelation, because it struck me that economics, politics, and hard science were foreign subjects to many of them.  As an aside, I will admit that the situation has improved greatly since then.  Because it was my first convention, and because I was caught somewhat unaware, I was less than politically and socially astute.  In fact, I conveyed a certain dismay about the lack of concern about economic, political, and technological infrastructures in various fantasies then being written and published in the field.

The clear but muted reaction of those others on the panel was to suggest that I, as a science fiction writer, had a lot to learn about writing fantasy.  In fact, some comments even intimated that it would be a rather chill day in the theological nether regions before I ever published a fantasy novel.  Being primarily Irish in ethnic heritage, while still retaining the arrogance and impetuousness of youth well past youth, I resolved that I would and could write a fantasy novel.  That was the emotional motivation for undertaking the writing of The Magic of Recluce.  

Still, I faced the very real problem of creating a magic system that was logical, rational, and workable within a practical economic, political, and technological structure that was neither particularly exotic nor borrowed lock, stock, and barrel from western European history.  Unfortunately many of the magic systems in fantasy at that time, particularly those designed by beginning authors, weren’t well thought out, or were lifted whole from either traditional folklore..

While I had a fairly solid grounding in poetry, and had had a number of short poems published in small literary magazines, despite my obvious love of word and rhyme I had great difficulty accepting the idea that mere chanted spells would accomplish much of anything in any world, particularly any world about which I wanted to write.  As a result, I began by thinking about some of the features and tropes of traditional fantasy.  One aspect of both legend and folklore that stuck out was the use of “cold iron” to break faerie magic, even to burn the creatures of faerie, or to stand against sorcery.  Why iron?  Why not gold or silver or copper?  Not surprisingly, I didn’t find any answers in traditional folklore or even contemporary fantasy.  Oh, there were more than a few examples, but no real explanations except the traditional ones along the lines of “that’s just the way it works.”

For some reason my mind went back to astronomy and astrophysics and the role that nuclear fusion has in creating a nova.  In a stellar population I star – one initially composed of hydrogen– the nuclear fusion at the heart of the star begins by combining hydrogen atoms into helium.  After a sufficient quantity of helium is created, and many millions of years, the process begins to fuse helium into a form of beryllium, then lithium.  Each of these reactions creates a heavier element and releases energy, what physicists call an exothermic reaction.  While my description is a vast oversimplification, this proton-proton reaction continues in the center of the star until the fusion process begins to create iron in large quantities. According to more recent studies I’ve read, the reaction process only proceeds to this point in the most massive of stars, those with a mass eight times in excess of our sun.

The proton-proton reaction that produces iron, however, is different, because it is an endothermic reaction, that is, it does not produce excess energy, but requires energy.  In the larger and more massive stars where this occurs, the build-up of iron in the stellar core results in a shrinkage and a cooling of the core, until the point when the outer layer collapses upon the relatively cooler core, and then explodes outward, creating a nova, or a supernova, according to some astrophysicists.

At the same time, the fact that metals such as copper or silver conduct heat and electrical energy suggested that they were certainly less than ideal for containing electrical energy.  Gold and lead, while far heavier than iron, do not have iron’s strength, and other metals are too rare and too hard to work, particularly in a low-tech society.

At this point, I had a starting point for my magic system.  I couldn’t say exactly what spurred this revelation, but to me it certainly made sense.  Iron can absorb a great amount of heat.  If you don’t think so, stand on an iron plate barefoot in the blazing sun or in the chill of winter.  Heat is a form of energy.  In fantasy, magic is a form of energy.  Therefore, iron can absorb magic, and by doing so, bind it.

But how would such a magic system actually work?

At that point, I began to think about “order” and “chaos.”   As I saw it, order is the structure of the universe, and chaos is the “power source.”  Energy is often created, for example, when a structure is destroyed, as in the case of a fire burning a log.  In a simplistic sense, what is left afterwards is heat and less structured matter.  Even in the case of nuclear fusion, there is destruction on which a higher-level order is imposed, and that higher-level order incorporates even more energy.

So why wouldn’t this also be true of magic?

Then I thought about string theory, and the idea that the universe is created of tiny infinitesimal “strings” which comprise quarks, leptons, and hadrons, which form the components of atoms, which in turn make up the ordinary matter of our world.  To me, it seemed logical that, in a “magical” world, those “strings” would either be order strings or chaos strings.

If there were more order strings in this magical universe, they would eventually choke out the chaos strings, and if there were more chaos strings, they would eventually destroy the order strings and leave formless low-grade energy – exactly what some physicists have predicted will be the eventual fate of our universe.  Thus, to have an on-going working magical universe, there has to be a fundamental overall parity between order and chaos, as well as a means for containing them both so that they do not destroy each other in the way that occurs when matter and anti-matter collide.  This led to the concept of the Balance, a magical version of the law of conservation of energy and matter.

One of the next realizations was something that I’d always understood and even verbalized, but I hadn’t applied it to the idea of magic in a fantasy universe. Mankind is a tool-making and tool-using creature.  We improve tools that work and discard those that don’t or those that work less well in favor of those that work better.  Yet seldom had I seen that concept applied in fantasy at that time.  In too many books, there were inept wizards, or wizards who could not tell when or if their magic would work.  And then there were powerful evil wizards who often found themselves defeated by those with inferior sorcery or no magic at all, but with a “good heart.”  I realize that I’m generalizing, but these generalizations do in fact have a basis in fact.  After all, logically, there is no way that Frodo should have triumphed, uplifting story that Lord of the Rings is. And the economic systems Tolkien used wouldn’t have worked either, but that wasn’t the point of his trilogy.

I also couldn’t see any rational general or marshal entrusting his army, or even a part of his forces, to a half-baked wizard or warlock whose magic might work – or might not. Real professional soldiers, as opposed to warriors, tend to be more than a little skeptical of untested or erratic weapons and forces.  Yet, again, in those days, there were more than a few “wish-fulfillment” fantasy novels where the kingdom was saved by exactly that –– the untested mage, the good-hearted youth, etc.  I’d already seen, often directly and personally, what had happened in the Vietnam War era, when ill-modified and not fully tested equipment was used, and when equipment and weapons designed for one combat environment were employed in another – and the results were anything but good.  Yet, often individual soldiers and units would adapt and modify such equipment until it worked, often at a lower level, reliably.  But reliability was the key. 

In practice, this would mean that human cultures in a world based on magic would employ it as a tool and incorporate it into their social structure, most likely in very different ways, based on their requirements.  Those who could more easily master chaos would appear to have the edge in matters of military power, because they could focus destruction upon their enemies.  This was the origin of the concept of the white wizards.  BUT – pure chaos is unfocused and uncontrolled, and even a chaos wizard must be able to employ some level of order to handle it.

By the same token, an ordermage has a greater ability to confine and resist chaos, but without the underlying power of chaos, which is in effect also the lifeforce of all biological beings, he or she can do nothing.

Implicit in this construct is the understanding that neither order nor chaos is “good” or “bad.”  Also implicit is the fact that people have trouble dealing with this ambiguity.  As in our world, in Recluce cultures find different ways to socialize and control such forces.   The Council of Recluce effectively bans all use of “free” chaos, and for much of Recluce’s history chaos use is stigmatized.  This results in a society that is often too hidebound for its own good.  Social and technological advancement rest on those who are willing and able to “stretch” the rules, such as Dorrin, and often those who could offer more, such as Lerris or Rahl, are exiled because people are comfortable with what they know, and they resist change.

On the other side, the chaos mages of Fairhaven view the restrictions of Recluce as unworkable and artificial, and they develop a society which institutionalizes what they believe is the controlled and practical use of chaos, but that structure, as in the case of many societal structures, effectively rests on power.  The High Wizard is almost always the most powerful of the white wizards, and might truly makes right, and, in turn, leads to a far more corruptible society.

Cyador, on the other hand, attempts to deal with the order-chaos dichotomy by controlling and directing the power of chaos mechanistically through the “chaos towers” and splitting power between three social groups – the mages, the merchants, and the armed forces.  This works for a time, but the reliance on mechanical means for amplifying chaos powers creates not only strength but also a longer-term vulnerability.    

The druids of Naclos deal with the potential order-chaos conflict in another fashion, by creating a social structure in which each individual with the ability to handle order and chaos must face an individual trial which tests the individual’s ability to balance, practically and ethically, order and chaos.  Failure to pass the test usually results in death.  Needless to say, the druids have great power individually – but there are far, far fewer of them because the costs of failure are so high.

The matriarchal society of Westwind uses geographical isolation and a brutally effective compulsory military tradition to protect itself and effectively exiles all those who would use either order or chaos as a weapon, but as the world becomes more technological, geography also becomes less effective in protecting Westwind.

All of these cultures, as well as others which develop later, address the order-chaos structure in different ways, but each of these structures seem effective, acceptable, and workable to those who live in each – and that was the goal, because I saw and see that anything as basic and powerful as “magic” has to be a rationalized and structured part of a fantasy culture. 

Now, if you look at the twenty-one Recluce novels, plus Recluce Tales – with more coming – the initial reaction of many readers might be that they don’t want to tackle a series that long.  But there’s a secret those who haven’t read my fantasy often don’t know. Only one character in the Recluce novels has more than two books (and he only has three). The novels and stories take place over 2,000 years on five separate continents.  And you don’t have to read the books in either publication or chronological order for each book to make sense on its own, although I would suggest reading the first book about a given character before reading the second.  For most readers, I feel the best starting place is The Magic of Recluce, but for those who prefer a strict chronological reading, the first book in the internal timeline of the saga is Magi’i of Cyador.  

The events in those books take place in more than twenty countries, involving political systems that include patriarchal despotism, empire, wizardly council overlords, commercial oligarchy, duchies, matriarchal despotism, and matrilineal monarchy, not to mention tribal herders and sylvan druids, and the rise and fall of empires. The twenty-one novels don’t include Recluce Tales, a volume of twenty stories and novellas, seventeen of which are new and have never been published elsewhere. 

There’s also the question of why I call it a saga, rather than a series. Why isn’t the saga really a series?  According to A Handbook to Literature, a series is “a group of works centering on a single character or set in a single place or time.”  

A single character in the Recluce Saga?  Hardly.  No character in the Recluce novels has more than three books, and some only have one.  

Second, because of the sweep of the saga, there isn’t a continuous thread following one protagonist, or even one family or one country, or even one “type” of protagonist.  While some readers have the impression that I write only about “young heroes,” almost half the books deal with older protagonists, some even with families. And, over two thousand years, scarcely the same time or place, readers can see the rise and fall of countries and empires around the world of Recluce. They can even see a war from the viewpoint of “heroes” on each side.  They can also see a ruler wrestling with how much he should and can tax his people in order to maintain the forces to keep them free – one of the few times in fiction showing sympathetically the other side of the trope of “evil over-taxation.”

Third, the stylistic presentation of the viewpoint character can differ from book to book.  The Magic of Recluce presents the story of Lerris from the first person past tense, because, given Lerris’s cluelessness, telling his story in the third person past tense would portray young Lerris as self-centered and spoiled, and he’s neither – but bright and clueless, with perhaps a touch of what we’d call Asperger Syndrome. The second book – The Towers of the Sunset – sets out the story of a young male in a matriarchal society about to be married off  while his younger sister is being groomed to rule, and it’s told in the third person present tense, which conveys a greater sense of immediacy.  Not until the third book, The Magic Engineer, is a story told in the conventional third person past tense.  I didn’t do it that way as an exercise, but because the narrative tense and viewpoint, I believe, has to give the most depth and reality to the story and to fit the protagonist.

But then, the Recluce books aren’t really a saga, either, because sagas are supposed to be tales of heroism following one individual or family.  And that’s why I tend to think of the Recluce books as the history of a fantasy world, but, of course, that doesn’t have much marketing appeal, and “saga” comes closer than “series” and is a lot more marketable than “events and adventures in the fantasy world of Recluce.”

In short, the Saga of Recluce doesn’t fit any easy definition, and even when I wrote the first book – The Magic of Recluce – more than twenty-five years ago, it represented a different approach to fantasy from almost the first pages because, among many other things, the color of the ostensibly “good” guys is black, rather than white, but then as the saga proceeds, it becomes obvious that it’s never that simple, like life.   And the Recluce books, like life, don’t fit a simple description, whether that description is “heroic fantasy,” “series,” “saga,” or anything else, but that might also be why readers continue to enjoy and appreciate them.

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