The Practice Effect
Reviewed date: 2004 Aug 16
The Practice Effect is published as science fiction, but actually it is fantasy done right. It is beneficial to compare David Brin's The Practice Effect to Changeling by Roger Zelazny. Both are fantasy tales of university-educated Earthmen stranded in magical lands. But while Zelazny's story is hack fiction with no rhyme or reason, Brin's is thoughtful and is logically consistent.
In Changeling, Dan Chain is transported away from Earth to a magical land where he discovers he is Pol Detson, son of a great sorceror. Immediately he begins practicing magic, cowing the natives with his powers. By following his intuition and instinctive knowledge of magic, he becomes the greatest sorceror in all the land, and he all but singlehandedly defeats the evil warlord Mark Marakson. Its a tall tale, and not very believable.
But in The Practice Effect, physicist Dennis Nuel finds himself alone and stranded on a strange planet. The laws of physics are subtly different, giving rise to a phenomenon known as the practice effect that can only be described as magic. Far from being an adept like Pol Detson in Changeling, Dennis struggles to make sense of the new world. He succeeds in getting captured and imprisoned by the locals. Then, by good old-fashioned hard work, ingenuity, and luck, he manages to scrape together an escape plan, mobilize the local resistance, and help to wage a small war. The practice effect is simply one tool that Dennis uses--and in fact he uses it poorly, and has to have help; Dennis's main contribution is some of his Earthly knowledge of science and technology. Contrast this with Pol Detson's sudden and complete command of magic in Changeling.
Now tell me, which is more realistic? Which is more fun to read about: a man who uses his innate powers of wizardry to win a battle singlehandedly, or a man who is handicapped by his incomplete understanding of the powers at work in his new world, but who manages by dint of hard work and by luck to overcome great odds, save his own life, and the lives of his new friends in the process? I'll take the story of hard work and ingenuity any day. Save the tales of natural-born aristocratic sorcerors for children.
The book is not without some flaws though. It's a one-trick pony: Brin takes one idea--the practice effect--and beats it to death. The other flaw is that he gets too caught up in the action, and fails to spend enough time examining and exploring the impact of the practice effect on the local culture. So on the one hand the entire book is based around one idea, but yet that idea is relegated to the status of a gimmick used to get the hero out of one tight spot after another. The book is still quite good, but it could be so much better.
The Practice Effect rates a three out of five. I recommend it.