“You can’t learn magic.” That’s the first thing they tell you when you arrive at the Thaumatorium. Typically it provokes a host of “what the hell am I doing here?” type questions, angry faces, and sad, confused faces. It’s not the most promising start to arriving at a place of education. But, as they point out, none of us had applied for a placement, taken a test, or (mostly) even heard of the place. That’s not a huge surprise, I guess. Everyone knows magic exists, obviously. It’s as real as the sciences that enable us to construct buildings, drive cars around and launch junk into space. But the function of magic is a little harder to pin down. It fills the gaps in science, makes the leaps between concept and completion which science might one day learn to fill. Intuition then, sort of. At the Thaumatorium we were trained in intuitive jumps, hop-scotching logic that could take us not just from A to C, but from A to Three, skipping the established order and hopping into another mode of conceptualising entirely. That’s all understood by the public in much the same way as we “understand” how our televisions or computers work: once someone else has demonstrated the possibilities, we can make use of them too.
Not long after being told we wouldn’t be learning magic, we did learn something new. The gaps we’d be hopping over in our minds with intuitive hops weren’t so much gaps as they were gaping abysses in which something else most definitely waited. The usual chain of cognition follows a direct line, if one that can be twisty and unusual, but it’s continuous – a path through the forest, if you will. What’s not clear from that path is that the forest looms darkly around you, and hidden in its branches and just off the ground-down path of human reason lurk all the wolves, bears and all the serial killing clowns in Yogi Bear drag that you can imagine. Mostly we don’t see them because the path is there, compelling our mental feet along its worn path. Granted, that’s only a metaphor, but it immediately made me wonder what would happen if you wore the path out entirely… But that was a problem dismissed by our tutors – I was fixating on the metaphor, not the truths it represented. Unable to see the wood for the trees, if you like.
As someone who hadn’t been a huge fan of regular school, I was somewhat dismayed to discover that we’d actually have to learn a lot more about the subjects that we’d be using our intuition to find new paths through. Makes sense: how can you skip a step if you don’t at least know the starting point? Humanity has very rarely made a leap from nothing at all to a unified theory of the universe. It happens though. One of the first such discoveries was religion – extrapolating out of nowhere that there must be a godlike figure overseeing all. The result of such wild leaps is, of course, madness. A madness inflicted on humanity ever since. It’s useful though, to thaumaturgeons such as we’d one day become, because madness doesn’t care about the path through the forest. It just smashes through the underbrush and might one day come out the other side. And on that other side might be a gleaming valley filled with golden light and hope. Often it doesn’t though, and the madness leads straight into something awful. Those ones don’t come back. We’d be learning how to direct our intuition, veering around the edge of madness while we found a fresh track to follow between some trees. And while we were tracing out that new road we’d have to be alert and aware of the wolves lying in wait.
It wasn’t a good first year. I learnt an awful lot more about animal biology and forest metaphors than I’d ever hoped to. The second year was better, as I learned to make tiny changes in the DNA of the various animals we were given as test subjects – imagining is doing in the Thaumatorium. Some died, some did not. By the third year, I was unravelling the genetic history of my charges, beginning to make the intuitive leaps that revealed the inter-related purpose and function of its genome. Two years later, I’d made my axolotls functionally immortal. You could still kill them if you wanted to, but left to their own devices with sufficient food and so on, their cells and being would now renew endlessly.
Using that new and painstakingly documented knowledge to find the same path for humanity would be someone else’s problem. That’s what science is for. But I wasn’t ready to let it lie. Rubbing up against madness is quite intoxicating. I’d felt it all the way through my studies, the yawning holes around me as I dreamed, guessed and hopped my way through the evolutionary history of those axolotls. I was pretty sure I could do it to a human too. The challenge, because there’s always an extra challenge, is that I was working with live subjects and tweaking them. Remember that not all of my subjects had lived… and the axolotl was a likely test bed for this stuff anyway, their being weird and regenerative beasts to begin with. Humans’ arms are notoriously bad at growing back.
I should note that I’m here as an object lesson in sticking to the path, or at least the path of finding another path according to the Thaumatorium guidelines and instruction. There’s a reason that even when going “off-book” as we do here, we’re going offroad in a really rugged vehicle that can handle the terrain and maybe kill one of those wolves when you hit it, rather than the other way round. The metaphors that this place hits you with all the time, confusing and mixed as they are, they’re all to help keep your mind and body safe and intact, at least until you graduate and it becomes someone else’s problem. Well, I didn’t listen well enough – that ‘s why I’ve got no left arm, but I do have two right arms, and one of them will probably live forever. Listen to your teachers, kids.