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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Magic and Homeopathy

I've just finished reading a novel called The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas. A friend recommended it to me, with the caveat that I should "just ignore the homeopathy"... which didn't exactly make me rush to read it. But once I started reading, I was swept along in the story, and the fact that homeopathy was standing in for more 'normal' kinds of fantasy magic didn't really register until (getting towards the end) I remembered my friend's warning.

For me, it was just another area to suspend my disbelief. But for her, the real-world associations of homeopathy detracted from a story she otherwise enjoyed.

A lot of fantasy takes ideas from the "real world" but makes them work, in a real and practical sense that we don't see in our daily lives. Spells are cast, causing immediate and visible effects. Prayers are answered - or violently rejected - by Gods who listen and decide and act quickly. Or magic potions make people fall head over heels in love. None of these ideas lacks believers in the real world, but in the real world we are patient with our magics and superstitions, able to wait for years and look out for confirmation to sustain our belief. In fantasy, magic usually works instantly and dramatically, so 'belief' isn't a necessary element.

The End of Mr Y takes a similar approach to homeopathy. It borrows the principles of real-world homeopathy (dilute and keep diluting), but makes the result something so far beyond belief that I'm sure any homeopath would find it just as unbelievable as the average skeptic. But then, this is fantasy fiction. You're not supposed to believe it.

So why does the fact that "it's homeopathy" touch a nerve? We discussed this on Twitter, and there seem to be a few factors that make people uncomfortable with such a storyline, but the main one is money: homeopaths charge (quite a lot) for sugar pills. Of course, the placebo effect shows that sugar pills can help, but that's not what the average homeopath believes they're prescribing.

I thought it might be fun to open up the debate to a wider audience. Have you read the book? Would you read it, or would you be put off? What do you think about using real-world beliefs and turning them into the cornerstone of a functional fantasy magic system?

On a side note, another interesting feature of the discussion was the widespread assumption, in the Twitter chat, that the reason for the conversation was that I was planning to use homeopathy-as-magic in one of my novels. I'm not - but I'm entertained by the fact that people seem to percieve me as a writer more than as a reader. After all, I can read fifty books in a year, and struggle to produce one of my own...


Stephanie V said...

I'm not so sure that today's culture does suspend disbelief. Almost everything that we are exposed to is theater: from politics to video games to religion to war. It is 'real' life and many of us don't (or can't) draw a line between the magic and reality.

Steven J Pemberton said...

I haven't read the book. (It's on my list of "read the free sample, and if I get to the end of that without wanting to throw my Kindle across the room, buy it and read the rest.")

Knowing that the magic system is based on homoeopathy might put me off reading the book, but I'll try to give it a fair hearing. It's not so much that homoeopathy is demonstrably false (performing no better than a placebo in a double-blind trial). It's that a worrying number of people, practitioners and patients alike, believe that it works, and will use it even when they ought to be using real medicine. I wouldn't want to give the appearance of legitimacy to quackery, even though it should be obvious that the magic system in the book is made up, and bears no resemblance to reality. Someone who's willing to try homoeopathic remedies clearly isn't that great at distinguishing fantasy from reality to begin with...

Kazzy said...

I am on the fence about my feelings toward homeopathy, but I am not sure it would have necessarily been a motivator for me to read the book.

Rachel said...

Fantasy - all fiction - is often just as revealing of the author's interests and prejudices as non-fiction, and readers need to bear that in mind!

Charlotte said...

Rachel, my dear... You are a writer. Never sell yourself--or your dreams--short, my dear :)

Also, this sounds like an interesting read. I've always been intrigued by homeopathic medicines and my mom has used several over the years and swears by them. So I don't know what to believe... but conventional western medicines don't cure everything either and often lead to other side effects, so who knows. BUT I would def check this book out. Thanks for the recommendation!

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