aka: Magic-Powered Pseudoscience
Phlebotinum thought by its creators to work on scientific principles, at least according to their Techno Babble. Actually, it's powered by some supernatural or magical ability of the creator and cannot be duplicated. Also, if the creator dies, it stops working or malfunctions. Often, these gizmos can only be created by someone who possess The Spark of Genius. Becoming an increasingly popular way to explain science-fiction style super-gizmos in Speculative Fiction settings. It's a good way to justify why Reed Richards Is Useless and there's No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup. These wondrous inventions cannot be mass-produced to improve mankind or make their creator a profit because they're not actual inventions so much as temporary manifestations of their subconscious superhuman abilities. Thus, application of them will usually boil down to either fighting crime or committing it. The setting maintains the status quo of the real-world's level of technology and the Gadgeteer Genius gets to keep all of their Phlebotinum to themselves and not risk becoming less unique because the Jones family can purchase his powers from Walmart. A subtrope of Doing In the Scientist. Related to Clap Your Hands If You Believe, Magitek and Placebotinum Effect. Related to and sometimes overlaps Magic Feather. The person who creates these devices possesses The Spark of Genius. Contrast with Clarke's Third Law, Magic from Technology and Doing In the Wizard.
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
- In Ah! My Goddess, most, if not all, of Skuld's inventions work because she subconsciously infused her goddess magic into them while building them.
- Academy City, the setpiece for the A Certain Magical Index series, boasts a training curriculum that gives its students Psychic Powers through super-science ahead of its time. The dirty secret, however, is that the curriculum is actually an exercise in applied Thelemic magic, and that the General Superintendent who designed the curriculum (and who still runs the place) is none other than archmagus and Thelema founder Aleister Crowley. In a world where Academy City's "science" is constantly at odds with actual magicians, the implications of this secret are immense.
- The Silver Samurai of Marvel Comics was introduced with a sword that can cut anything. Turns out he's a Mutant and that's his power; even a toy sword would work just as well for him.
- Something similar was done at Marvel for the Molecule Man, who could originally control and rearrange molecules only with his wand. It was retconned that he is using his own power and just thought he was using the wand.
- In Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool, it is eventually suggested that the "technalchemy" that the tool runs on is actually a form of magic.
- Steampunk Milton Keynes in Survival Geeks is initially portrayed as running on steam power. While steam is a significant part of the grid, Clive realises it's not enough to power the entire city, and observes that most of the pipes are just for show. He's right - the city is actually powered by Cthulhu.
Films - Live Action
- Done in Daybreakers, though not to limit the effects or reproducibility of the Applied Phlebotinum. Everyone in the vampire world of the future refers to vampirism as a "virus" in their research papers and news reports. What kind of virus could possibly give people all the traditional supernatural vampire traits of undead immortality, needing human blood to survive, extreme vulnerability to sunlight, glowing eyes, no reflection in a mirror, and exploding in fiery chunks when staked but not when beheaded? None, really, but since their condition spreads like a virus and the remaining normal humans and their sympathizers are seeking a cure for it like a virus, a "virus" it is by their working definition.
- The various futuristic technology and weaponry in The Reckoners Trilogy falls into this. Around the time Epics began showing up, humanity made incredible advances with technology, a lot of which should be near-impossible to make. David, not knowing much better, assumes that the technology is made through research into the processes through which Epics violate and ignore the laws of physics. It's later revealed that the "technology" just motivates dead cells from Epics to stimulate a similar effect to their powers. That's right, all but probably three or four bits of futuristic technology the heroes used were powered by dead people.They were probably dicks, though.
- The "matrix technology" of the Darkover series. While matrix devices are not technically limited to one user, they nonetheless only work for telepaths (and often specially-trained ones at that), which prevents their widespread adoption by society overall. This might be a good thing, as the science has the capability to violate the normal laws of physics.
- In Wild Cards, Jetman and several other Aces can invent wondrous machines that only work for them, because they're just an expression of their superhuman abilities. It's mentioned in one book that when researchers cracked open the choice device of a "tech Ace," they found only schematics and apple cores.
- Aaron Allston's Galatea in 2-D has artists that are able to magically pull items out of their paintings into the real world, but they find that they're no more able to reverse-engineer a science fictional raygun than they are a fantastical magic wand. One artist mentions that trying to go a step removed doesn't work either - painting a super-genius to invent a real-world cure for cancer would result in him producing magical elixiers that were merely dressed up in the trappings of science.
- C. S. Lewis warned against this kind of thing in some of his writings.
- Cranston in the Temps shared universe. Responsible for cloning the Marcias; an experiment that was later found to be completely impossible from the word go:
That was the trouble with Cranston, you see. He could get anything to work, but only from the pseudo-science end of things, his grasp of scientific reality was shaky to say the least. But what he did worked.
Rarely — very rarely — his results were reproducable by the researchers who came after him. Mostly they just threw up their hands and asked to be transfered to another department.
He died in an unfortunate accident — he was trying to split an atom. With a chisel. Terrible mess...
- In Lisanne Norman's Sholan Alliance, it turns out that Vartra was using his own telepathic abilities (unwittingly) to mutate DNA, which was why only his experiments resulted in more powerful telepaths.
- An unusually in-depth example in A.L. Phillip's The Quest of the Unaligned. The fire-magic of aeshes can be used not only to power devices designed to run on electricity but also to give devices far more power then mundane physics would provide, or even to do things that are physically impossible, like flying cars. Interestingly, it also cuts the other way, in that Magic Items can sometimes run on electricity.
- There was one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where a scientist comes on the Enterprise to test an upgrade on its engines. It looks like the upgrades are working but actually they are (almost) useless. It turns out the scientist's assistant is actually a super-powerful being who was making the engines work better with his mind.
- Johnathen Gilbert was a crazy inventor trying to build devices to let the town destroy the vampires in their midst. None of them worked, until the vampires' pet witch enchanted them to work as intended, assuming they were put together properly.
- A fan theory, which was also suggested in the RPG, is that in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Warren's inventions (androids, mind control devices, etc.) only work because of the Hellmouth's power.
- In an episode of Eureka, a germophobic and anxiety ridden scientist causes an accident during a cellular regeneration experiment and is fired for it. He attempts to commit suicide but ends up regenerating, making him believe he finally succeeded. However, it turns out he didn't get the powers from his compound but the explosion from the accident breached the chamber containing an artifact pre-dating the Big Bang that gave him these powers.
- Dungeons & Dragons settings that bothers to include any Magitek tend to play with this, one way or another.
Like most products from gnome ideas, they include a large number of bells and whistles and very little substance. Those that do work usually have a minor helm contained within, always hidden away so as to appear innocuous and unessential.
- In the Hollow World, the Blacklore elves believe their technology is for real, but it's actually magic and will stop working if removed from their native valley. The Immortals, who preserved the Blacklore culture from extinction, set it up this way so the elves couldn't export their technology to any other preserved culture.
- In Ravenloft, mad scientists believe the golems that they craft are a product of science, but it's actually the Dark Powers that grant animation to these obsessives' creations. Likewise, while Victor Mordenheim is convinced he single-handedly created Adam, it's alleged that the gods of his native world are the ones who'd imbued the creature with true animation to spank Mordenheim for his hubris.
- Gnomish helms in Spelljammer.
- Warhammer 40,000
- The Orks, though this may be an example of Clap Your Hands If You Believe.
- Rather disturbingly, any long-range communication is this. Mostly they downplay the pseudoscience in that area, and make it perfectly plain that any technology involved in interstellar communications is at most an Amplifier Artifact for the Astropath working it.
- Due to the way the backstory is set up, all of the Technology in the Old World of Darkness works like this.
- The Wonders in Genius The Transgression. They explicitly don't work on actual science, and the moment a Genius starts thinking they do, his slide into the deeper end of the Karma Meter begins.
- Much of the Technocracy's Magitek in Mage: The Ascension. And even moreso the Sons of Ether, a Steampunk tradition that rebelled against the Technocracy.
- All hypertechnological devices in traditional roleplaying game Godlike are really focuses for the Talent powers and are useless without those.
- John M. Ford's Paranoia adventure "Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues". R&D scientist Willis-G-EEP-4's inventions work well on the test bench, but fail when used in the field when he isn't around. That's because their success depends on his mutant powers of Minor Telekinesis and Luck. Of course, the fact that they work at all makes them significantly more reliable than most of the equipment Troubleshooters end up with.
- The Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG rules that the 'superscience' found in the show (such as the Buffybot, the Trio's invisibility ray, Adam, Ted and so on) works like this and that people like Warren are essentially unwitting magical savants.
- Dr. Stratos' Weather-Control Machine in Mutants & Masterminds. When he finds this out, he jumps from Magic Feather to A God Am I.
- Many of the devices built by the Mega-Intelligent Novas of Aberrant operate at least partly on the inventor's subconscious manipulation of Quantum. Many can be reproduced and continue to operate without attention from their creators, but they all eventually fail spectacularly.
- Deadlands Mad Scientists run this in a complete Steampunk trifecta with Science-Related Memetic Disorder and The Spark of Genius: it's implied repeatedly that at least some of their gizmos wouldn't work it at all were it not for manitou contributing supernatural energy to power them. Two hundred years later junkers weaponize this, and simply force the manitous to generate energy After the End.
- City of Heroes / City of Villains
- The clockwork creations of archvillain "The Clockwork King" are actually powered and controlled by the King's unconscious psychic abilities.
- Also, the "electric power plant" providing cheap and plentiful energy to one of the villainous cities is actually getting all its power from a bound demon.
- Mecha-Hisui in Melty Blood is a Heavily-Armed Robot Maid in Melty Blood. She was created by Kohaku, under the influence of the Tatari. Regardless, it is extremely unlikely this is the traditional robotics. Should one play as Mecha-Hisui against a certain mage end-boss, she refers to her as a "Magic Doll".
- This is the most likely explanation for the Collapse in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, the sequel to The Longest Journey. After the end of the first game, most advanced technology, such as anti-gravity and FTL travel, failed in Stark, forcing people to go back to older, more reliable, technology. Since this is when the new Guardian took control of the Balance that directs the flows of magic and science, it can be assumed that this advanced technology was, in fact, unknowingly powered by magic. The unusually high number of crashes involving anti-gravity in The Longest Journey also seems to confirm this possibility, as magic is inherently chaotic. When the magic disappeared from Stark, technology now had to deal with pure science.
- The Eternal Alchemy of the asura in Guild Wars 2 is somewhere between this and more conventional Magitek. Some of their fantastical devices can be and are reproduced on a large scale, but others call into question where the science ends and the magic begins. Then again, knowing the asura, they'd ask why they have to be mutually exclusive.
- In the Whateley Universe, mutants with this as their power are known as devisors. Depending on the skill of the devisor, their creations (called 'devises') tend to be rather unreliable when used by people other than the creator.
- Claimed by one of Bill O'Neil's backers with the SPIRICOM to , justify why it only worked for him.
- The field of parapsychology known as Psychotronics is based around developing electronic devices that help psychics and espers use their powers more effectively. Early on, it was discovered that if you left out the electronics and just included a picture of the circuit board, the devices worked just as well! (In retrospect, that should have been a tip-off.)