The laws of physics are forever confounding perfectly reasonable schemes. Whether riding gracefully on the running board of a racing car, adroitly handling semi-molten glass, or gliding lightly down from a roof to the embrace of the sidewalk whilst borne up by what intuition said was a sufficiently large bath towel, the laws of physics are forever barging in to insist that, no, things do not work that way.
What if the laws of physics were altered? Surely then matters would work out to our satisfaction. Right? Right??? Or perhaps not, as these five stories reveal…
Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen (1979)
Everyone wants to incinerate their enemies with nuclear fire but nobody wants to be on the receiving end. The United States prudently deployed ARDNEH (Automatic Restoration Director—National Executive Headquarters). On the day that nuclear-armed missiles were launched at America, ARDNEH slightly altered the laws of physics, rendering nuclear weapons impotent. American’s brain trust did not foresee that the enemy would have its own, cruder version of ARDNEH. Complications ensue.
Thousands of years later, technology is weak and magic rules the demon-haunted world. John Ominor’s Empire of the East dominates, and despite the efforts of freedom-loving rebels, the Empire appears secure in its power. However, ARDNEH is both intelligent and cunning. There is a path to humanity’s freedom, albeit one with a tremendous cost for ARDNEH.
Ariel by Steven Boyett (1983)
One afternoon, mundane technologies like bicycles, electricity, and firearms stop working and a new age of magic dawns. The immediate effect is complete, violent societal collapse. Pete is one of the lucky few who survive.
Despite the circumstances in which he lives, Pete is kindhearted enough to save an ailing unicorn and virginal enough to survive the encounter. The two become friends.
Too bad that unicorn’s horn is valuable treasure. When a bounty is set on Ariel’s horn, Ariel’s companion Pete is caught in the crosshairs.
A Certain Scientific Railgun by Kazuma Kamachi and Motoi Fuyukawa (2007 onward)
Academy City is home to millions of students, the vast majority of whom are Espers. Each Esper has a unique AIM Diffusion Field surrounding them, a field that transforms physics in the immediate vicinity of the Esper. Consequently, Espers have what amount to superpowers, which can range in power from being able to keep handheld objects at a steady temperature to having total control over the vectors of moving objects.
What Academy City is not home to is anything resembling a board of ethics governing research projects. The most powerful Espers (a mere few) are ranked level five. Determined to reach beyond level five, a secretive cabal orchestrates a deadly program. The level five known only as Accelerator is their chosen candidate to become the city’s very first level six. The cost of the additional power? Murdering cloned schoolgirls…twenty thousand of them.
What will happen if Accelerator develops a conscience?
A Wizard’s Henchman by Matthew Hughes (2016)
Troubleshooter Erm Kaslo specializes in solving the problems of the rich and powerful. There are enough of those, spread across the Spray’s ten thousand worlds, to keep Kaslo busy and affluent. All he asks of his clients is that they pay his fees promptly. If their demands are immoral or insane? No problem.
One of his rich clients believes that the world is about to transition from an era of technology and enlightenment to one of magic and chaos. Kaslo is willing to do as the client asks, even while he believes that the client is nuts. It’s a surprise when the client turns out to be right.
But a change in the basis of power, from technology and commerce to dark magical arts, means that there will still be powerful folks with problems. Problems Kaslo is happy to handle. The universe may have been upended, but Kaslo will prevail.
Cradle and Grave by Anya Ow (2020)
Faced with inexorable climate change and the chaos, famine, and war that would no doubt follow, the technologists of certain governments worked miracles. Life forms were reshaped and when that proved insufficient, the great minds did…something…spectacular. Something terrible that left Change-swept wastelands in its wake.
Dar Lien guides expeditions into the wastelands. Two strangers offer her a fortune to guide them into the heart of the Scab; she would turn them down, but she needs medical treatment and they will pay well. Too bad that what she finds in the wastelands will make imminent death a minor matter.
Of course, many authors have dabbled their feet in this particular pool. It would not take a brain wave to name several sterling examples, proved one did not zone out mid-sentence. Feel free to mention your favourites in the comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.