Since I cannot accept magic without redefining the laws of the universe around it, I use "sufficiently advanced technology" as a substitute. I have given much thought to Sanderson's laws and Clarke's laws. Where Sanderson's laws and Clarke's third law intersect is where problems arise.

Technology trumps magic in every one of Sanderson's laws.

  • First law: We understand how technology works and can use it to solve every problem like we already do.
  • Second law: Technological limitations are much easier to manage than any arbitrary magical limitations.
  • Third law: Extrapolation leads to settings like Alpha Centauri, Eclipse Phase, and Transhuman Space.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Mercer's Corollary to Clarke's Third: "Any technology indistinguishable from magic is insufficiently documented." From this, your Rule 3 should say "extrapolation into future implies commensurately smart tech writers and teachers." $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jan 24, 2017 at 15:32
  • $\begingroup$ Based on your question, I'm not sure how technology turns into a deus ex machina, based on those laws. Can you clarify what sort of problem you see arising, based on these laws? $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Jan 24, 2017 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is with the first law. It's the classic "Who are you calling WE?". A large part of the human race DOESN'T understand technology: they just know how to use appropriate "spells" - e.g. click on the button - to get their magic device to do something. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 24, 2017 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ Any sufficiently advanced technology becomes magic, but any sufficiently explained magic becomes, essentially, technology. Sanderson and Clarke are working the same problem from opposite ends. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2017 at 3:21
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Benford's Corollary is much better. "Any technology distinguishable from magic isn't sufficiently advanced." $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jan 25, 2017 at 11:48

2 Answers 2


We actually don't understand technology as well as we think we do. Well, as a society we might, but the average reader actually just barely grasps the tiniest bit of it. Extrapolate further into the future to approach Clarke's "Sufficiently advanced technology," and it gets even harder. What we actually have, as a society, is great faith in technology. We're willing to just trust that technology does what the scientists and engineers say it does. This can be effective for simpler things, but as you approach Clarke's sufficiently advanced technology, it helps less and less.

Take, for example, the iPhone. I can guarantee you that you don't truly understand how it works. Nobody does. Too many people were involved in that project. Some understand some small parts of it. Many understand a higher level view of it, but nobody really understands it as a whole.

Let's go smaller. On a single chip in the iPhone, there are millions of transistors. Transistors are basically 2 diodes smooshed together (handwaving a ton!). Diodes permit current to travel one direction, and not the other. Great, I just explained enough technology to use diodes in a story. What if I put too much "reverse" voltage on it? In electrical engineering, we call the resulting behavior "avalanche breakdown." It's an otherwise unexpected and very sudden increase in current going through the diode the wrong way (the direction current shouldn't be able to go). You can accept this on faith, as most do. Or we can go into why a diode works, and cover the quantum mechanical reasons for avalanche breakdown. They're really fascinating topics, but unless you have some background in the topic, you really just have to trust me when I say they work that way. And if your technological story ever resolves a crisis by 'reversing the polarity,' this is the kind of real life effects you would have to consider!

Let's go even simpler: solder traces. Solder is a low-melting point metal which is used to connect chips to circuit boards. In my story, the villain had amassed an unstoppable arsenal of doomsday weapons. At the darkest hour, the villain hits the button, but nothing happens. Deep inside each weapon, the hero had catalyzed metallic crystals to form, creating short circuits. Sound fantastical? In 2003 it would have sounded like a movie plot.

Then the EU passed RoHS, an act of legislation preventing the use of hazardous materials such as lead in electrical components. Solder was partially made of lead in those days, so they had to change its composition. Unfortunately, the new composition tended to cause tin to crystallized out into "tin whiskers," which reached across chips and shorted them out. It caused all sorts of failures, including a false alarm at a nuclear power plant!

The point of that example is that the definition of what technology we will take "on faith" is constantly changing. Ten years ago, the idea of crystals shorting out our electronic circuits would have been one of those "oh yeah, I'll trust you. You're the author, it's your story" type of plot devices. Five years ago, it was considered to be science fact. If the amount of faith we are willing to give technology changes that fast, you can see why technology starts to receive a magical treatment 100 or 1000 years from now in stories.

As for your second and third arguments, I agree that technological limitations are interesting. Just take a look at Apollo 13, which was a fascinating exercise in what could be done within limitations. However, I'm not convinced they're easier to work with than magical limitations. Technological limitations have a tendency to be very pass/fail. Either the whole idea works perfectly, or it fails catastrophically. Neither of these make for all that interesting of stories. The interesting stuff appears when the idea works just enough that the characters in the story feel some desire to expend effort to make it work all the way. It turns out that sitting in that narrow band between pass and fail is hard. It's much easier to do with magic because you can have looser definitions. And do remember that every one of those limitations must be understood (see the first rule).

As an example, consider AGIs: Artifical General Intelligences. They seem like a natural extrapolation of our current AIs. However, it can be tricky. Many of the mathematical tools you use to extrapolate from AI to AGI break down in funny places. I have a long history on this forum of abusing Godel's Incompleteness Theorem to poke at issues that arise when you naively extrapolate in this way. However, explaining this theorem is not easy. In fact Douglas Hofstadter spent an entire book on the topic, Godel Escher Bach. The limits put in place by the incompleteness theorems are not trivial to understand, so may call for "on faith" arguments which are bad if you're applying Sanderson's Law.

In all, the true complexity of technology is oft stranger than fiction, and its limiting cases can be positively bizare. Consider the sound barrier. As you pass through the sound barrier, you pass across an asymptotic in the velocity/pressure curve. Once on the other side, pressure actually has the opposite effect intended. This causes control surfaces to behave backwards once you cross the sound barrier. Modern supersonic aircraft handle this in their fly-by wire system, but pioneers such as Chuck Yeager had to address it manually! (Just one more example of why Chuck Yeager was such a bad ass!)

Well, almost. I'll have to be straight with you: all of that stuff about the sound barrier was made up. It was actually a movie plot for a movie released in the era of Chuck Yeager's famous flight, as recounted in his autobiography (EDIT: according to a4android, the film was The Sound Barrier. Thanks!). When asked about whether this effect occurred, he simply stated that, had it actually happened that way, he'd have been dead. If I managed to fool you with the previous paragraph, it goes to show just how far our faith in science and technology goes. (Don't worry, all of the other examples I chose in this answer are indeed real life examples. That was the only fake one)

The actual effect Yeager faced was that, as he crossed the sound barrier, he lost all elevator control. He could not control his pitch up and down. This actually stalled efforts to break the sound barrier for a bit while they tried to figure out what happened. The actual cause was the shockwave from the tip of his nose passed across a hinge on the elevator and created enough pressure to prevent it from moving properly. Once he punched through the barrier, the shockwave moved to a different place, and he regained control.

Oh, and control reversal is a real phenomena, but it occurs for completely different reasons. The Supermarine Spitfire had an issue with this due to insufficient torsional stiffness in the wing. In some of its extreme dives, the air forces on the wings were sufficient that the ailerons stopped functioning properly. If you commanded the ailerons to go one way, they'd actually end up twisting the wing the other way and the net effect was that the plane would roll in the opposite direction from what the pilot intended! So maybe the truth really is stranger than fiction.

  • $\begingroup$ Another interesting argument which I couldn't find a clean way to add to the answer without going off on a tangent is the effect of vacuums on metals. Storyline: some enterprising mechanic on a space ship grabs a cordless screwdriver and a space suit and proceeds to open up part of the hull of the ship to fix an issue. Fact: if that screwdriver wasn't designed to operate in the vacuum of space, you can expect it to cold weld itself in place after a few uses. If you didn't already know that the vacuum of space stops oxidization, you wouldn't even think about cold welding issues. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 24, 2017 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ This is why most mass media sci-fi CAN'T describe everything. You gotta hand-wave things and just focus on a few bits of tech. Otherwise you will drown the audience in details they can't understand, don't really need to understand, and probably doesn't advance the story anyway. The cold welded screwdriver only needs to be mentioned if it prevents the hero from saving the ship. Same with the effect of the sound barrier on a plane or how diodes work. Unless you are happy with hundreds of footnotes in your story :) $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Jan 24, 2017 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ One definition of Murphy's Law, courtesy of Analog Devices applications engineer James Bryant, is "The Laws of Physics always work, even when you’re not paying attention." $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jan 25, 2017 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ The film mentioned in your paragraph ten of your answer was The Sound Barrier (1952), script by Terrence Rattigan, and directed by David Lean. I call it a film instead of a movie, because that's what the Brits call their cinematic works. It's a good flick too. In glorious black & white. Ends with the promise of going on out into space in the future. Stirring stuff. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jan 25, 2017 at 12:00
  • $\begingroup$ I think a perfect example of what you write about, where sufficiently advanced technology combined with insufficiently advanced public understanding of it leads toward a society with "magic," is the culture of Asgard in the MCU. Even their top scientists (?) don't understand much of how their tech works, and just treat it as magic (eg "This is not a quantum field generator, it's a soul forge") $\endgroup$
    – Shokhet
    Jan 30, 2017 at 17:55

Off hand, I would say that using sufficiently advanced technology doesn't bypass Sanderson's First Law at all.

We actually don't know how this advanced technology would work. It would operate under some scientific principle we don't know... unless the writer explains it.

Even if you are just using better versions of existing tech, the idea would then be that the reader should know what technology the character's have access to. That's the entire point of Sanderson's First Law; making sure the options characters have at hand to solve problems are known before they are needed.

If you say your character has a teleport belt that can teleport them anywhere they can see or a super-smart-phone that can shoot lasers, that's fine; we don't exactly need to know why it works. But, if you declare they have it right when they need it, then you've got a deus ex machina; you failed to explain the characters options beforehand.

  • $\begingroup$ Was about to answer/comment something like this. You Tech-magic becomes a deus ex machina only when you decide it to be one. Also, if your "magic" has drawbacks it will make it much easier to avoid such a scenario. Even the most advanced of techs needs to bow before the laws of physics. Not many things are absolute or last forever, sooner or later you'll, for example, run out of energy to power your tech-magic. $\endgroup$
    – r41n
    Jan 24, 2017 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ but if you declare it any earlier then you end up with Chekhov's laser smartphone. The trick is in not inventing get out of jail free cards on the fly. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 25, 2017 at 14:55

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