Academic journal article Mythlore

Bobby the Robot: The Science Fiction in Harry Potter

Academic journal article Mythlore

Bobby the Robot: The Science Fiction in Harry Potter

Article excerpt

In the twenty years since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, fans, scholars, "aca-fans," (1) Potter pundits and the like have speculated with great passion about the literary material which informs the Harry Potter books. From Ovid to Shakespeare, from Nesbitt to Nabokov, from Austen to Monty Python, many diverse works make up what author J.K. Rowling has called the "compost" in her head, formed and fired by everything she's read. This paper explores an unlikely layer of Harry Potte/s compost heap: science fiction. Specifically, it considers how the classic science fiction trope of the robot or created servant informs one of the wizarding world's most beloved and yet controversial creations: house-elves.

Suggesting science fiction may inform Harry Potter is not such a radical idea. Arthur C. Clarke, in his 1973 revised essay "Hazards of Prophecy," states his now-famous "three laws," the third and most widely-cited of which is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (36). This law points to the sometimes porous line between science fiction and fantasy, an ambiguity which fantasy author Brandon Sanderson attributes to the type of magic depicted in fantasy works. In essays on his website, Sanderson builds on the ideas of Orson Scott Card, identifying a spectrum of "hard" and "soft" magic, and arguing that at the softer end of the spectrum, magic in fantasy exists primarily to invoke wonder. Early fantasy, like Tolkien, often features soft magic, which lends ambience and awe to the story world without weakening plot or characterization by making problems too easy to solve. Soft magic may in fact create problems, spurring characters to prove their mettle in solving them without magic. But, argues Sanderson, fantasy has changed and developed from its early days. Perhaps this evolution owes something to the influence of science fiction, which renowned editor John Campbell said relies on one rule: "Set up a basic proposition-then develop its consistent, logical consequences" (qtd. in Sanderson). Indeed, rules, parameters, and consequences for magic feature heavily in some fantasy works, and Sanderson classifies these as hard magic (or falling at the harder end of the magic spectrum). In these works, Sanderson says, "magic itself is a character, and by showing off its laws and rules, the author is able to provide twists, worldbuilding, and characterization."

At this harder end of the magic spectrum, science fiction and fantasy are more difficult to tell apart, and again, this may be a function of the twentieth-century influence of rule-oriented science fiction upon awe-and-wonder-oriented fantasy. There is no established consensus on where Potter falls on Sanderson's hard/soft fantasy spectrum, but several features seem to locate it more toward hard than soft, and these features of Potter can be cited as preliminary, general evidence of the influence of science fiction on Rowling's Hogwarts saga.

First, magic in Harry Potter requires precision, as Hermione demonstrates memorably in an early Charms class ("'It's Wing-gar-dium Levio-sa, make the 'gar' nice and long'" [Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (Stone) 171]) and in year five Transfiguration, when Ron's attempts at the Silencio charm fail ("'It's the way you're moving your wand,' said Hermione, watching Ron critically. 'You don't want to wave it, it's more a sharp jab'" [Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Order) 375]). Ron hates to admit it, but Hermione is quite right to be precise, and her spells comes off correctly as evidence. The simple fact that magical children like Harry, Ron, and Hermione are required to complete seven years of formal, intensive training at a dedicated educational facility like Hogwarts illustrates the precision required by Rowling's brand of invented magic.

Further, magic in Potter has sharp parameters to its effects, from its inability to reawaken the dead (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [Goblet] 697) to its more mundane limitations:

"My mother," said Ron one night, as they sat in a tent on a riverbank in Wales, "can make good food appear out of thin air. …

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