Building a magic system on memories – Gerrard Cowan

Memories can play tricks on us, fading and twisting over time and sometimes even changing altogether. How, then, can they form the basis of a magic system?

That was the question I faced in developing The Machinery Trilogy. Without giving too much away, memories sit at the heart of the magic in the novels: they live forever, and are imbued with the power of an ancient god.

Memories hold a number of interesting possibilities for a magic system. For a start, they are fascinating in their trickiness. I am often surprised to find that something I was sure occurred in one place actually took place in another, or in a different year than I expected, for example. Sometimes it seems that two or more memories have somehow mixed together, like paints on a palette.

This presents interesting possibilities for a magic system, where each memory holds its own power, and can be combined with the power of another memory – in just the same way that real memories become tangled up over time.

There is also the question of potency. It is undoubtedly true that certain memories hold a power over us, for whatever reason, good or bad. This provides a solid basis for a magic system, with some memories being particularly prized for their power.

Memories are one of the major themes of the series, beyond their function in the magic system. I also wanted to consider the characters’ relationships with their own narratives of the past, and the question of how reliable these narratives are. As memories live forever in this world, it is possible for characters to walk through them again. But if we could revisit a memory as it actually occurred, would it look the same to us as it does in our mind’s eye? Would we be surprised by how it appears – would we trust what we see?

The existence of an endless pool of memories raises a number of other questions. The society we are presented with is roughly Early Modern in its development. However, there are signs that other, older civilisations were more advanced than the current version. If we could access the memories of the people who lived in these older times, would it not also be possible to learn their secrets?

The role of more ‘ordinary’, non-magic memories is also a major theme of the trilogy. The books are centred on a 10,000-year-old state whose leaders are chosen by a machine. However, throughout this long history, and despite the success the Machinery has brought them, the people are haunted by an ancient prophecy, which states that in the 10,000th year, the Machinery will break, selecting a ruler who will bring a terrible ruin to the world. There has been a long struggle throughout history between those who question the effectiveness of the Machinery – called ‘Doubters’ – and the forces of the state.

In this way, an ancient memory is ever-present in the lives of the people: the historical memory of a dreaded prophecy, which has only gained potency as the years have gone by. The longevity of the nation creates its own questions surrounding memory – how can we be sure that the early events occurred as laid out in history? Who controls the memories of the past?

There is something chaotic about memories: they seem to morph endlessly. A magic system based on memories, therefore, cannot be much of a ‘system’ at all. While I wanted to keep a degree of consistency around the way in which the power is tapped, it could not operate as a strictly rules-based architecture: there had to be a kind of manic element to it, a sense of constantly steering one’s way through a chaotic haze. A challenge in writing the Machinery books is striking a balance between portraying this confusion, while maintaining narrative coherence. I hope I have got it right!

The Strategist by Gerrard Cowan is available in eBook format now.

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