Thor Pays Tribute to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rule About Magic and Technology

By Kyle Munkittrick | May 9, 2011 2:55 pm

If you haven’t seen it yet, Thor is a ridiculous and entertaining superhero spectacle. All the leads did a great job, particularly Hopkins as Odin. If you can take a man seriously when he’s standing on a rainbow bridge wearing a gold-plate eyepatch, he’s doing something right. Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Asgard was visually overwhelming, but weirdly believable.

The reason? Branagh leans heavily on the magi-tech rule of Arthur C. Clarke, which Natalie Portman’s character quotes in the film, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So what is the difference between really-really advanced technology and actual magic? Sean Carroll, who did some science advising for the film, clears the idea up a bit:

Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not ourworld, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long.

In short, the Marvel universe is internally consistent, which makes me all the more excited for the Avengers film. Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters. It seems like anytime some preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or a deus ex machina, that damn quotation from Clarke gets trotted out as the defense. So does Thor live up to Carroll’s hopes or abuse Clarke’s rule?

To answer the question, we need to investigate Clarke’s rule a bit further. There is a corollary to Clarke’s rule: “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.” By that measure, just how advanced are Asgardians? More than sufficiently. I knew Branagh wanted to explicitly avoid making Thor an actual magical god of thunder. And, because of that, I had so many damn questions about pretty much everything in the film. Why is Thor the only one who can lift Mjölnir? What is Odinsleep? Are Frost Giants aliens? How is Odin able to “take” Thor’s powers?

Needless to say, I was frustrated. And then I remembered the spirit of the rule. If I’m able to tell the difference, then it isn’t advanced enough technology. But that doesn’t mean we’ll always perceive the Asgardian’s abilities as magical.

The best example of a good use of the tech-as-magic scenario is the Stargate series. In the Stargate Universe, the Gou’ald are an advanced alien species that use their highly advanced technology to overwhelm and subject less-advanced alien races. To the late 20th century humans who discover the stargate and utilize it, the equipment of the Gou’ald is advanced, but not magical. Yet to the Egyptians who were originally exposed to the Gou’ald, the tech was magical. As a result, the Gou’ald were worshiped as gods by the Egyptians and merely treated as advanced aliens by late 20th century Americans. That difference is critical to understanding why Thor isn’t just using Clarke’s law as a caveat. The parallel with Stargate (super-advanced race mistaken for gods leading to a mythologizing of their existence) allows us to understand just where the Asgardians sit in the Marvel universe.

In essence, the technological gap between early 21st century human technology and the Asgardians is at least as large as the gap between the Egyptians and the Gou’ald. We’ve got a long way to go.

Thor, thankfully, does not as a film attempt to justify the science behind Asgard. Only two remotely scientific elements are relevant to the plot. The first is that Bifrost, the rainbow bridge (pictured), is a controlled “Einstein-Rosen Bridge” aka wormhole. A huge piece of machinery enables the cosmic transportation device to work. Asgardians get into the transporter, it spools up and then beams them to another realm. Second, Thor’s hammer Mjölnir (which Kat Denning’s mispronunciation thereof is comedy gold) was “forged in the heart of a dying sun.” How that happened and why it makes the hammer so magical is never explained. Those are the only two references in the film that, from what I could tell, even pretended to acknowledge science. No effort is made to disguise the rest of the overtly magical and mythical elements of the Asgard. And that’s a good thing.

Thor does not pull a George Lucas and attempt to over-science the magical elements. Thor is not superhuman because he has some Norse equivalent of midichlorians. He is superhuman because he is magical. Sure, that magic is allegedly based in technology, but technology so incredibly advanced, we can’t distinguish it from magic. That lack of distinguishability is the indicator of just how advanced the Asgardians actually are. It’s also what let’s us enjoy the movie for what it is. Don’t try to understand how the Bifrost’s gate works or why a wormhole needs a sword to activate it – just enjoy watching a hunky bearded man heroically smashes things with his magical hammer and while wooing a gorgeous theoretical physicist. It’s magical!

Follow Kyle on his personal blog and on facebook and twitter.

Promotional Images for Thor via Paramount


Comments (12)

  1. It is disappointing that you do not mention how people of the Foundation (Isaac Asimov) use technology-as-magic to shock-awe-subdue other civilizations. I think that is one of the most significant occurrences of this trope. 😉

  2. Kyle Munkittrick

    There is more than you could possibly want to know about Foundation over at io9 as we speak.

  3. Robert S-R

    You’ve made me more excited than I ever normally would have been to see this movie.

  4. Chris Winter

    It’s certainly a minor example, but this technology-as-magic trope appeared even as long ago as the old Flash Gordon TV series — back when TV was black-and-white.

    It seems there was a planet where the king was coming under the sway of his court magician (who of course wanted the throne himself.) So Flash and Dr. Zarkoff dropped in posing as a minstrel and another magician respectively, while Dale waited in the space ship. (She wasn’t sitting and knitting; she had a role to play too.)

    Flash had a lute with a recorder built in, and Dr. Zarkoff’s wand was actually a transporter-type device. Came the inevitable duel. The magician did some tricks, then Zarkoff pointed his wand and sent him off to the ship. He arrived in a chair, where Dale, waiting, tied him up with rope.

    Of course the king promised to make Zarkoff his new magician. But Zarkoff explained that anyone could wield the powers he’d demonstrated: “It’s not magic, your majesty, but modern science.”

    Now these episodes didn’t have the greatest production values. It was the 1950s, after all. But I remember this one fondly because of its contrasting magic and science, and because of the impressive feat Zarkoff’s transporter performed. The magician was beamed in standing up, and came out in a seated position, perfectly matched to the chair. Now that’s some science! 😉

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  8. UnclGhost

    So, why did the Norse have legends about Loki and Thor if they were just kids or not even born yet at the time of the battles with the ice giants? That’s what I didn’t get while watching the movie.

  9. s johnson

    The Asgardians have kings. They ride horses on their superadvanced Rainbow Bridge. They have incredible technology but fight with swords and spears on a regular basis. And whatever do they fight about? I don’t think Clarke’s Law is well served.

  10. The Asgardians do indeed have kings, and horses and etc.

    But I think we should separate technology of a civilization from its culture. The warrior ideal clearly plays a great part in Asgardian culture (as it did for the Norse), and we don’t know much about their politics (beyond the fact that they have a king *figure* – he might not be a king in the same political sense that kings were in Earth’s history – after all, the UK for example still has a monarchy). It’s plausible to me that a highly advanced civilization might want to hold onto some aspects of its early identity, and maintain a certain physicality to its technology. It’s either that, or a likely retreat into virtual reality and complete cultural and physical introversion (a danger humanity will also face some day).

    Also, when your technology is so much more advanced that that of any of your competitors, you get wiggle room to allow aesthetics, not just pure practicality, to influence your design.

  11. Gamerthulhu

    Since we know virtually nothing about Asgardian society, as presented in the film, I think we’re forced to assume that the Asgardians use the things they use either 1. for reasons more complicated than us lesser tech folks could possibly understand or 2. because they want to. They’re Asgardians. Who’s going to tell them no?

    As for how old Thor and Loki are when the Norse encounter the Asgardians, it’s presumably possible that the battle between Odin and the Frost Giants took place early enough that Loki and Thor could grow up and establish their own viking legends before the collapse of the Viking Age circa the 1066ish.

    Finally, my pet theory is that Mjolnir, as seen in the film, is actually a super-dense, self-propelled, semi-sentient supercomputer. That controls the weather, somehow. I dunno, it looks like magic to me!

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