A few years ago, when talking about my first fantasy novel (Updraft), my friend Max said, “You know, there’s no magic in this book, it’s all engineering.”
(Spoiler: there’s supposed to be magic in fantasy books. It’s a rule.)
So I responded that yes, there was magic in Updraft, and it was all engineering.
There’s magic in my first middle grade novel, a portal fantasy called Riverland, too… lots of different kinds: real magic, made-up magic, and glass magic.
Wait, hold up, you say. Glass isn’t magic.
It kind of is. But it’s the science kind of magic.
I’m not talking about witch balls -- which are found in the book -- the fishing floats that some people think can help trap angry spirits.
I’m talking about real glass, which has transitional properties through the magic of thermodynamics.
I loved writing about this for Riverland. Some of my favorite moments in the book are passages where my main character Eleanor’s science project research on glass crosses over to work in the magic dream world.
But glass has another kind of magic too -- it’s a solid boundary that people can see through, so they think they understand what’s happening on the opposite side -- whether that’s a screen or a window. And glass can distort as well, and what people think they know about glass isn’t always correct.
For instance…. Well, I’ll let Eleanor and Mike tell you.
“Let me tell you a story…” Eleanor says. “Look: Once upon a time, people thought glass was a liquid.They thought that windows were thicker on the bottom because they were melting.”
“That’s not really a story.”
“It’s a fragment of one. Like dreams are fragments.Want me to keep going?”
“But no one could agree on what glass was. The local glass-blowers talked about glass like it was part water, part canvas, and part brush. And the scientists on the computer drew molecules that didn’t look a bit like glass. They used big words like amorphous and thermodynamics.”
“Those aren’t really big words. Just sort of.”
“So people argued back and forth about what glass is, and they still do. But I think it’s kind of like magic. A little bit of one thing and a little bit of another.”
“I like how it bends light and traps it.”
When I was researching glass, I went to the glassblowing studio at The Crefeld School. I made myself a very fine paperweight. But I also learned about lampwork, which holds its form after it’s heated and bent (useful for showing glass properties in a classroom, without a large fire nearby!) and I learned that glass has memory -- the more you fold and work with it, the more angles it sometimes tilts the light to, because it really does remember where it’s been. Even if you heat it up.
That’s so cool.
But... I was talking about thermodynamics. And amorphous solids. And about glass being an incredible insulator. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, glass was used to top telegraph poles across the country (a friend just sent me a Hemingray 42 antique glass insulator and it’s heavy and beautiful and so very cool) so that the electrical charges carried on the wires don’t leak down the poles, making communication impossible.
The insulators, much like the fishing floats that became witch balls, have their own mythologies now, but their first uses were utilitarian in nature.
They’re good insulators because they don’t have any free electrons that can jump from molecule to molecule.
Even cooler, they’re amorphous solids, with a disordered molecular structure that is rigidly bound, unlike most solids that have a crystalline structure, and liquids that have disordered structures, not rigidly bound. Glass (when it’s cool) doesn’t really flow (so window panes with wider bottoms are likely that way because of how the glass was blown originally) but it’s still very cool (sorry that was a bad play on words) in different temperatures because it can act like a liquid sometimes and a solid others.
That’s where the word amorphous comes in. It means without a clearly defined shape or form. It’s not that the word is cool in and of itself, it’s that when combined with the word solid -- amorphous solid -- you get the juxtaposition of meaning that is glass.
We can see through it, but not pass through it.
We can melt and bend and break it.
And it can contain anything: liquid, solid, electricity -- often when other materials can’t.
That’s the magic.
About Fran Wilde: A former programmer, poet, teacher, and engineering/science writer, Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been finalists for three Nebula awards, two Hugo Awards, and a World Fantasy Award. They include her Andre Norton- and Compton Crook-winning debut novel, Updraft; its sequels, Cloudbound and Horizon and her debut middle-grade novel Riverland (forthcoming from Abrams in April 2019). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, and Nature Magazine. Her nonfiction appears at The Washington Post, iO9, Paste, and GeekMom.com.
She lives in Philadelphia with her family and one very LOUD bird.