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Literature / The Magic Goes Away

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"When the mana runs out, I'll go like a blown candle flame, and civilization will follow. No more magic, no more magic-based industries. Then the whole world will be barbarian until men learn a new way to coerce nature, and the swordsmen, the damned stupid swordsmen, will win after all."

Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away stories tell of an ancient civilization based on Functional Magic powered by "Mana", but there's only a finite amount present on Earth. That nobody seems to be aware of or acknowledge this fact causes the magi, magical creatures and gods that use mana to eventually "go mythical" (a very obvious allegory of the 1973 oil crisis, aimed at modern civilization's reliance on fixed resources).

The device that first proves this effect, and later becomes the most dangerous weapon in the world, is the "Warlock's Wheel", a simple copper disk with two spells on it: one that makes it spin ever faster without limit, and a second that makes the disc indestructible so long as there is mana available. This rapidly uses up all of the mana in the area. Small versions of the device can be used to block scrying by making a wall of magic-free areas around a fortification, but a sufficiently large one could ruin an entire nation. In later books, the Warlock's Wheel becomes a sort of Memetic Badass, as a mage refuses to even draw a picture of one because even a drawing of one would suck all the magic out of him.

The short stories and novels include:

  • Not Long Before the End (1969) — the short story that started it all.
  • Unfinished Story #1 (1970)
  • What Good Is a Glass Dagger? (1972)
  • The Magic Goes Away (1976, expanded into a novela in 1978).
  • Talisman (1981) with Dan Girard
  • The Lion in His Attic (1982)
  • The Wishing Game (1989)
  • The Portrait of Daryanree the King (1989)
  • The Burning City (2000) with Jerry Pournelle
  • Chicxulub (2004)
  • Boomerang (2004)
  • Rhinemaidens (2005)
  • Burning Tower (2005) with Jerry Pournelle

Also 2 collections of stories by other authors were published in the early 1980s:

This series is either the Trope Namer or Trope Codifier for the following tropes:

This series provides examples of:

  • Absurd Cutting Power: Glirendree the demon sword.
  • And I Must Scream: Wavyhill made the mistake of casting a spell to keep himself alive. Even when his body is destroyed. He spends a few decades as a skull before Warlock gives him the ability to talk again (Though he's still just a skull).
  • The Anticipator: In "What Good Is a Glass Dagger?", an intruder sneaks up on the Warlock using an Anti-Magic device to block his foresight. However, the Warlock was waiting for him anyway, having foreseen the appearance of a magic-free dead zone. The ploy wasn't a complete failure, though; the Warlock got only a generic "somebody's coming" without any of the details he normally could have seen.
  • Anti-Magic:
    • The Warlock's Wheel. It's a simple copper wheel with two spells on it; one to make it spin faster, accelerating without limit, and one to keep it from destroying itself. This wheel rapidly eats all the mana in the area, turning it into a dead zone where magic no longer functions at all.
    • The rest of the world is slowly becoming like this, as mana is a local, finite resource. Using magic will slowly deplete an area, until it becomes a dead zone.
    • Glirendree stops hostile magic from reaching its wielder, which is part of what makes it so effective. That is, until it kills you.
  • Artifact of Doom:
    • Glirendree the demon sword. Using it is a bad idea. On one hand, you're nigh-unstoppable and mostly immune to magic. On the other hand, it'll consume your life force and leave you dead of old age in a year or two, and you can't let go of it. Warlock reverts it to its demon form and feeds it to the Wheel.
    • The Warlock's Wheel: using one will drain all of the magic within an area, potentially an area large enough to cover a city. Anything magical within that radius will either stop working, die, or become something less than what it was. Even gods "die", going mythical.
  • Author Tract: It'd be less blunt for Niven to elbow you in the ribs and scream "OIL! OIL, YOU GET IT?"
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Grand old-style magical feats, like flying dream-castles made of clouds, are considered both tacky and terrifyingly wasteful compared to modern spellcasting, which emphasizes efficiency.
    • And once it's found that mana is finite, they're considered too dangerous to keep using for most anyone who has two brain cells to rub together, since the instant the magic runs out, you're dead.
    • Wavyhill got his common name from finding a way to make even this practical. He would raise the land around his residences into the form of a cresting wave, and then bring it down on top of them (burying his secrets) when he had to relocate.
  • Background Magic Field: The Trope Codifier in literature. The series treats magic as a non-renewable resource that drives civilizational advance, then causes collapse when it is consumed, as an anvilicious allegory for modern civilization's reliance on fixed resources. Later, less Malthusian stories in the series have humans smoothly making the transition from mystical resources to biological and technological resources.
  • Black Magic: "There's mana in murder." Black Magic used to be too dangerous to use at all, until mana began dropping. Wavyhill the Necromancer develops a system for using murder-mana "safely", inventing necromancy. By which we mean he murders boatloads of people.
  • Book Ends: The first story in the 'verse, "Not Long Before the End," starts by mentioning that swordsmen and wizards often fight, and usually the wizards smear the swordsmen across the map, thusly improving the human race by removing an idiot. (Rarely, the wizard loses, and that's a net improvement too - a wizard that can't beat a swordsman is a poor wizard.) The story ends with the page quote, a sad reflection that the swordsmen will be the ultimate winners, being unconstrained by the loss of magic.
  • Boring, but Practical: Warlock versus a barbarian with a demon-sword results in the Superweapon Surprise, but Warlock is left in a withered body several hundred years old and without magic, while the barbarian merely lost his hand and the sword. The barbarian tries to finish him, and Warlock pulls an entirely nonmagical dagger and kills the barbarian.
    Warlock: A knife always works.
  • Brought Down to Normal: On a worldwide basis. Without mana, wizards have no powers.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: In "Not Long Before the End", the barbarian warrior Hap is rightly proud of his magical sword, Glirendree, and the fact that he cannot put it down or let it go doesn't really bother him... until the Warlock informs him that Glirendree is actually a demon forced into sword-form, and the reason he cannot put it down (or even transfer it from his right hand to his left) is that the demon has already sunk its fangs into his hand. The demon ends up taking its true form for just long enough for Hap to see this is so before biting his hand off.
  • Colony Drop: During "The Magic Goes Away" novel, the heroes are hoping to revive a god and have him drop the Moon on the Earth to provide a new source of magic. The heroes have no idea how large the Moon actually is, and freak out when they realize that doing it will utterly destroy the world and leave the god as the only survivor. The god has absolutely no problem with this, and thinks it's a wonderful idea. They're forced to kill said god and stop the drop.
  • Compensating for Something: This is the only reason a magician carries a sword (Having far better options for actually killing things). Because of their phallic implications, wearing a sword is a cure for impotence... but you have to wear it in bed. Wavyhill wears a sword all the time, which Warlock finds riotously funny. It turns out the sword is enchanted to fight independently of the user, and he keeps it around to surprise Warlock. He knows Warlock will overlook it.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Wavyhill ends up having his flesh bitten away one bite at a time by a werewolf.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: This is the reason why the plan to restore magic fails: Warlock and Wavyhill were counting on being able to control the mana without the interference of a sleeping god. Once the god starts trying to pursue his own agenda of taking over the world, they have to defeat him at the cost of abandoning their original goal.
  • Evil Weapon: The magic sword Glirendree in "Not Long Before the End". The sword gave great power to its wielder, who would inevitably die within a year. The Warlock tells the current owner (who hadn't been aware of this) that Glirendree is a demon, correcting him when he asks "There's a demon in the blade?" that there is no blade. It's a demon in the shape of a blade.
  • Exploited Immunity: In "The Lion in His Attic", a sorceress infiltrates a partially submerged castle by using magic to make the water withdraw. A man breaks her concentration and causes her spell to lapse, resulting in the water flooding back in and drowning her. The man doesn't care because he's a were-sea lion — he just changes to sea lion form and swims back to the surface.
  • Functional Magic: Magic has specific rules, but the rules seem to run partially off belief. The Moon is magical because "everyone knows that". Strong emotional reactions can generate mana, but this is largely limited to mana being generated by murder (but not war, which is different). There's rules for making spells and whatnot, but they're not heavily explained.
  • Glass Weapon: In "What Good Is a Glass Dagger?", it turns out that such a weapon has one significant advantage: it can be hidden in water.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Athens' conquest of Atlantis. Athens had been jealous of the far more advanced Atlantis' wealth, and launch an invasion which kills the dynasty of sorcerer-kings that had been secretly keeping the island tectonically stable via magic. After several days of happy looting and pillaging, the Athenians (and Atlantean survivors) are rudely surprised by Atlantis sinking and killing everyone.
  • Here There Were Dragons: Lack of mana mutates mythical creatures offspring, if they're lucky. Dragons turn to stone or mutate into various things, unicorns are born without horns, giant slimes get smaller and smaller until they're microscopic amoebae, werewolves cease to be "were", and generally turn to "mundane" creatures. UNLUCKY mythical monsters simply keel over, going extinct. Merpeople, centaurs, and many others simply die off in mass extinctions. (Although the short story "The Lion in His Attic" suggests that merpeople entering low mana areas sometimes turn into "bottlenosed mammals".)
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The answer to the question posed by the title of "What Good Is a Glass Dagger?".
  • I Know Your True Name: Knowing an entity's true name gives you a massive amount of control, even with weak spells. Wavyhill the Necromancer is revived as nothing but a skull thanks to knowing his true name (and an ill-advised spell he used to keep himself alive). Warlock's name-parent was smart and named him something that can't be pronounced by humans.
    • Wavyhill is annoyed when Orolandes manages to forget his real name despite being told twice, when a wizard would have given their left eye to know the true name of the first Necromancer.
  • Jackass Genie: Attempted, but subverted. Clubfoot knows full well the djinn will try to screw him over and takes it into account. The djinn's "twists" end up being what Clubfoot wanted, or at least close enough that he doesn't mind.
  • Literal Genie: The above djinn tries this too, and it has the same result.
  • Love Potion: There are love spells and loyalty spells, but they have the unfortunate side effect of robbing the victim's intelligence. Warlock hates them, saying that there's not a lot of point being surrounded by friendly idiots.
  • Ludd Was Right: Played with. Advanced, magic-based society will collapse utterly because of the vanishing mana, and the plots are largely about how people are dealing with it. "Primitive" methods of doing things begin to work better, like constructing stout buildings to hold up their own weight instead of using enchantments to keep them up. Or using swords to kill things instead of death-spells ("Those damn stupid swordsmen may win in the end after all"). Nothing is implied to have been wrong with magic-based civilization; no moral decay or anything. It's just that it was unsustainable in the end.
  • The Magic Goes Away: The major novel of the 'verse is the Trope Namer.
  • Mana: A mostly-finite resource in these stories. When all the mana in an area is used up, no more magic can occur there. There are lesser-used ways to find more mana, but they're blackly dangerous and generally bad ideas.
  • Meaningful Appearance: The witch Mirandee's hair has one, which is a sign her youth spell is failing from lack of mana. It gets bigger and smaller depending on the mana in the area. In mana-rich areas, it's small or not there at all. In dead zones, her hair goes completely white. Orolandes is warned to keep a close watch on its waxing and waning.
  • Meaningful Name: Since most mages are smart enough to keep their real name secret, they uses meaningful handles. Clubfoot is a Native American with, well, a club foot. Warlock is an inversion; his name is just a nickname, but because he's so famous it eventually becomes a term for magic users in general after he's dead.
    • Originally Warlock took his name because he forced a region into peaceful co-existence by joining whatever side was not the aggressor, and was potent enough to tip the scales toward whoever he joined; as long as he was around, no country wanted to start the next war for fear of him. He called himself War-Lock, as in he "locked" the option of "war". By the time he's famous, the original reason for the name is all but forgotten by everyone but him.
  • Mundane Solution: "Not Long Before the End" features a duel between the Warlock and a barbarian armed with a magic sword. The Warlock manages to destroy the magic sword, at the cost of draining all the magic out of the immediate area, leaving him apparently defenseless. But he has a knife — not a magic knife, as it turns out, just an ordinary very sharp knife that doesn't need any magic to work.
  • Necromancy: A necromancer features in "What Good Is a Glass Dagger?".
  • No Immortal Inertia: In "Not Long Before the End", the Warlock deliberately consumes the mana in the area to defeat a demon; it works but as a result he also loses the benefit of said magic and ages rapidly. At one point he spits out a complete set of now-blackened teeth.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Exploited in "What Good Is a Glass Dagger?". The castles of the magician Wavyhill all collapse when he no longer keeps them functioning because he built them on hills shaped like waves, so that when the magic failed the hill would fall over and bury the castle, hiding any evidence he left behind.
  • Otherworldly and Sexually Ambiguous: Roze-Kattee, the God of Love and Madness, is a hermaphrodite with a hideous appearance: a humanoid covered with shaggy, coarse hair, blazing yellow-white eyes brighter than daylight and pointed ears.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: "The Lion in His Attic" features a werewhale, a weresealion, and a discussion of what happens to weres when the magic goes away — "true" werebeasts are animals who take human form, and simply revert. Their Half-Human Hybrid children retain human form but go feral.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: "What Good Is A Glass Dagger?" is told from the POV of an idealistic Atlantean werewolf. The surprise bit comes when he discovers that werewolves aren't people who become wolves, but rather wolves who turn into humans.
  • Overly Long Name: "Not Long Before the End" features a barbarian warrior named Belhap Sattlestone Wirldess ag Miracloat roo Cononson (his friends, who tend to only be temporarily so, call him "Hap").
  • Phallic Weapon: Wavyhill's sword, which as The Warlock points out, is completely unnecessary as defense - after all, Wavyhill is a powerful wizard - but well suited as a symbolic treatment for erectile dysfunction.
  • Phlebotinum Muncher: Dragons, unicorns, and other mythical creatures require mana to sustain their metabolisms. Gods require truly ludicrous amounts, and mana deprivation renders them mostly mythical even during the ages of high magic.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The characters keep disagreeing because of old grudges, and it's clear that clinging to the old magical ways in their day and age is a lifestyle that no well-adjusted person would choose.
  • Selkies and Wereseals: In "The Lion in His Attic", the main character is suspected of being a werelion, until it's noticed he never eats red meat, preferring fish. Because he's a were-sealion.
  • Shout-Out: in The Magic Goes Away one of the Nordik barbarians is calld Poul Cloudscraper, a reference to author Poul Anderson and the round-robin story "The Covenant" in which he participated.
  • Soulless Shell: In "What Good Is a Glass Dagger?", it is revealed that in the world of fading mana, Necromantic magic cannot actually bring a person back to life; all it can do is produce empty shells.
  • Superweapon Surprise: The Warlock Wheel was first intended to test a hypothesis the Warlock had about why his power seemed to fade over time, unless he moved to a new place. The wheel was considered a simple toy that revealed a terrible secret, but nothing more than that. Until later, when it was used to defeat an otherwise unstoppable demon, and then after that, a god.
    • The device is terribly simple: A simple copper disc with a pair of enchantments on it. One protects the disc from damage caused by wind resistance and centripetal force. The other makes the disc spin increasingly fast, with no upper limit. The disc spins non-stop, constantly accelerating beyond the point that it would ordinarily melt away or explode, until all the magic in the area is used up.
      • Wavyhill finds ways to improve it: He makes it directional, and of very precise scope. He uses this to create a dead zone around each of his homes, with a zig-zag path of non-dead zone through it. This makes his homes unscryable, as scrying only works in straight lines and doesn't work through a dead zone, but you can still go safely through it even if your life depends on magic, provided you can find the path, which is harder than it sounds.
    • It's dangerous in a relatively mundane sense too, during the short time it's in operation. When the barbarian wielding Glirendree (or vice versa) tries to strike it, the demon-sword stops the swing, as by that point the rim of the disc is moving fast enough to tear his arm off if he made contact.
  • Sympathetic Magic: In the short story "What Good is a Glass Dagger?", The Warlock laughs out loud on hearing that the wizard Wavyhill was known for carrying a sword. When asked what was so funny, he explained that no competent wizard would ever need a sword as a weapon - the only reason he would have one is as Sympathetic Magic to enhance his ahem 'sword'. Of course, it does mean that he has to bring the sword into bed with him when he wants to perform...
  • The Time of Myths: Most of the stories happen at the end of an Age of Magic, some thousands of years ago. Thousands of years before that, Gods roamed the earth.
  • Weapon of Mass Destruction: The Warlock Wheel is treated as this. Warlock kept the Wheel secret for years because he was horrified at how destructive and easy to make it was. Every time it's used, the area goes magically dead, forever.
  • What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?: Terrifyingly inverted. Roze-Kattee is a God of Love and Madness, and the heroes assume he'll be relatively safe to deal with because those things are hard to leverage against them. But instead of doing the obvious and causing people to go nuts or fall for each other, he does the opposite; he can remove your love or irrationality. People affected find themselves sitting around, having lost their love of living or willingness to fight an obviously unstoppable god on the off-chance getting lucky. Also, he's still a world-warping godmonster, especially since he was revived by the death of the World Worm and has mana to spare.
  • When All You Have Is a Hammer…: Orolandes the Athenean soldier, fighting Roze-Kattee, God of Love and Madness. Roze-Kattee stretches upward, tall enough to grab the moon and attempts to stop it in its orbit so it will slam into the Earth. Orolandes, having nothing more helpful to do, stabs Roze-Kattee in the foot. This actually works out pretty well.
  • When Things Spin, Science Happens: The Warlock Wheel. Its unbounded, ever-accelerating spinning is the crux of the spell.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Barbarian warrior Belhap Sattlestone Wirldess ag Miracloat roo Cononson thinks he's a noble hero freeing a woman from being an evil wizard's captive. Actually the wizard is not evil; the woman is with him willingly, as his apprentice; and he is a brute who casually murdered another woman in her sleep to get a magic sword. Which isn't actually a sword at all, and the Warlock speculates it might have inflamed the sorceress' libido specifically so that she'd end up taking a lover who'd be ignorant enough to pick it up.

Alternative Title(s): Not Long Before The End, What Good Is A Glass Dagger, The Lion In His Attic, The Wishing Game