Faustusnotes has an interesting post today on, essentially, why "fantasy writers don’t take advantage of the cosmology of their worlds to examine how social, political and economic relations would change in a magically-imbued world" - that is, why is it that in a D&D-esque campaign setting where clerics and wizards can cure any illness, and literally change reality, do you still end up with a "filthy, primitive, ignorant feudal world, where life is hard, racism and sexism is rife, and injustice is the order of the day"?
To be fair to fantasy authors, I think in actual fact that D&D-style magic is extremely rare in fantasy fiction. In the "core" texts of modern fantasy - Vance, Howard, Harrison, Moorcock, le Guin, and especially Tolkien - you just don't get magic that can cure diseases, shape stone, and create food and water willy-nilly. Arguably, the fact that magic can't make peoples' lives materially better is kind of the point; and usually it is depicted as a destructive force that probably makes peoples' lives worse - certainly more corrupt.
But it's a nicely done post and true, I think, when it comes to D&D itself. Technology has, over thousands of years, made life many, many orders of magnitude better for us than our ancestors living in neolithic times. Why wouldn't the same be true of D&D magic, except many, many orders of magnitude faster?
The obvious answer is just that "it isn't fantasy that way". And, let's face it, it isn't. The fantasy genre, expecially D&D (which is a genre unto itself) has a set of tropes that make it what it is, and to expect it to be different is to expect romantic fiction without the square-jawed Mr. Darcy-lite, or space opera without the space ships. Complaining that D&D magic doesn't result in the kind of society that Faustusnotes thinks it might do is a bit like complaining that in a Stephen King book we're expected to believe in supernatural entities even if we don't personally believe they exist. Well, yeah, but where's the fun in that? You suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying the work as an example of its genre.
But I also think there's an interesting point to be made in relation to this: D&D magic is really, really banal. Over the editions the "magicalness" of it - the specialness, the rarity, the wonder - was sucked out of it and it became increasingly about utililty due, let's face it, to the demands of the game and the players. Spells like "create water" and "cure light wounds" exist not because they are cool and wondrous but because they solve in-game problems like "my character needs to drink to stay alive" or "my character lost too many hit points".
There's nothing wrong with this, per se - it is a game, after all - but there's no point in pretending it's all very exciting. It isn't very exciting. D&D magic is as bland as anything - just look at the names of the spells. Cure light wounds. Purify food and drink. Sleep. Magic missile. I know, I can hardly stand the sense of awe and wonder either.
It's for these reasons that I'm all in favour of two things: the non-magical campaign (where magic is the preserve of NPCs, thus implying great rarity) and the spell-forge generated spell name campaign, in which mage characters are told they start off with spells called things like Sage Eyes, Earth Mountain, Underground Child or Vicarious Weaver, and they have to negotiate with the DM about what the hell they do.
This has the added advantage of stopping the logical-minded of us worrying that we have priests and magic-users running around everywhere, while society remains mired in leprosy and filth.We get to keep both.