I am looking for a book/movie that tries to explain magic in a scientific way. I know this seems like a paradox, but I would really like to experience a story where the author makes an attempt to give some reason for magic other than just attributing it to some type of magic crystal or divine spirit. Star Wars tried to do this in Episode I by attributing the force to midichloria, but that wasn’t a sufficient explanation (not to mention it was ridiculous and a rip off of Parasite Eve’s mitochondria magic).
I’m not looking for a story that proves that magic is real, but one that creates an argument that is convincing and satisfying.
You might check out Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away stories. In these stories magic is a physical force that can be reliably manipulated by well-understood techniques. Magic is powered by a limited resource that, during the time when the stories are set, is running out (yes, Niven started writing these stories during the 1970s oil shortage). New, more efficient magic techniques are developed, and new sources of mana are discovered, but eventually it is used up and society collapses, at least until the rise of engineering.
A bit dated, but nowhere near as heavy-handed as it sounds.
Let’s see; there’s examples of magic treated as a science, and there are stories that treat magic as something non-magical that just looks magic.
The old Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett is an example of the former; it’s set in an alternate universe where the laws of physics are still poorly understood but magic is a mathematically describable scientific discipline. Another example would be Rick Cook’s Wiz Zumwalt series, whose main character is a hacker transported to a world where magic works, and eventually figures out how to treat magic like a computer program; instead of massive complex spells that he can’t use he figures out how to link together the tiny spells he can use into a system that works like a program.
For the latter Jack Chalker did a fair amount of that. In his Well World series the universe in mostly an artificial construct, created and maintained by the Well World computer; “magic” is due to certain individuals or species having privileged access to the system or knowing how to hack the system. His Flux and Anchor series has a similar premise for magic. His Four Lords of the Diamonds series has “magic” that is actually the manipulation of microorganisms that permeate everything on the four planets involved (and was written before Parasite Eve as far as I recall)
China Mieville’s New Crobuzon series (starting with Perdido Street Station) does this: the first book’s protagonist is a grad student equivalent who’s working on a grand unified theory of magic. It’s very weird stuff, and people tend to feel strongly about it one way or the other: you either love Mieville or you hate him. I think when he’s on, he’s freakin’ amazing.
Now if you’re looking for some deep stuff, check out Charles Stross’ Bob Howard books: The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue, and The Fuller Memorandum. They’re a combination of John le Carre and H.P. Lovecraft.
The Discworld series does this sometimes. There are passages that describe how certain laws of physics change in magical fields, like light slowing down. In one book (I forget which) it also describes a mineral that is normally explosively unstable except when in an intense magical field.