Literature / Fine Structure
There was a war in Heaven and the debris fell to Earth.
1. Every year, a randomly chosen person on Earth is struck by lightning and gains superpowers.
2. Each new superhuman is twice as powerful as the previous one.
3. This has been going on for ten years.
A Web Serial Novel
science fiction short stories by Sam Hughes, kept on his website
, Things Of Interest
, and on Everything2
. For the best experience, read it all without reading this page, or any of the comments on the stories themselves. Then go back and read it AGAIN, this time reading the comments along the way. And don't forget to read the extras and appendices
It's difficult to describe the story without spoiling it, since the story was revealed in brief episodes, in Anachronic Order
, and with a Retcon
for good measure. Hence, the examples will provide UNMARKED SPOILERS
. However, here is a brief "dust jacket summary" of the three main plotlines without major spoilers.20 Minutes into the Future
, scientists have discovered a set of technologies that break the laws of physics as we know them, such as teleportation or other dimensions, as well as a list of the real
laws of physics. Worryingly, the scientists studying these technologies are dying in mysterious "accidents". More worryingly, the laws of physics appear to be changing
over time, in such a way that each newly discovered technology can only be used once.
Once a year, a random person gets struck by lightning and gains Flying Brick
superpowers. They are creatively known as "Powers". Each is twice as powerful as the last, and when a Power is Born
, they go berserk for 15.8 seconds (in their Caffeine Bullet Time
, that's a lot). This means that there's a good chance every year of someone leveling a city.
Finally, there's Mitchell Calrus, the "Four-Dimensional Man"
at the center of the story, and thus Spoilered Rotten
. He has a mysterious backstory, inexplicable (even by the story's standards) powers, and he's very good at long-range planning.
The main characters, a ragtag band of scientists (mad and otherwise) and superheroes (cape-wearing and otherwise) must untangle these plotlines to decipher the laws of the universe, keep the Powers under control, and figure out why all of physics is going haywire.The Structure of the universe is Fine and delicate... handle with care.
This series provides examples of:
- After the End: Crushed Underground takes place in the last known refuge of humanity after the Hot Wars. Eventually Mitch and Anne restore the environment enough that people can survive in it again.
- Alien Geometries: The universes with more dimensions than ours are described like this when they are described from a human being's point of view, in Sundown.
- Oul himself is described as this at one point in terms of biology. The analogy given is that Zykov is only the first floor of a skyscraper of an organism, and a massive eye watches anyone who finds this out.
- All There in the Manual: Once the story was over, Sam released a few excised chapters, as well as laying out the cosmology of the Fine Structure universe in full.
- The most notable examples of this are an explanation for what Anne is (She earthed a fraction of the Imprisoning God in herself in an independent experiment) and an inversion Ascended Fanon with Klick's destruction of Berlin being reverted from an Esoteric Happy Ending with everyone in Berlin ascending to higher dimensions to a Kill 'em All ending due to the Fridge Logic of the Imprisoning God.
- Alternate Universe: First seen in Last Ergs.
- Anachronic Order: The order in which the stories are presented is more-or-less chronological at first, but increasingly skips forward and back decades, centuries, and millenia.
- And I Must Scream: Anne Poole, who cannot die, is sealed inside a coal seam for eighteen months. Her mind is completely destroyed by the sensory deprivation.
- Anyone Can Die: Especially after 'Verse Chorus.
- Apocalypse How: Humanity nearly causes a Class 3 in the "Hot Wars". The heroes deliberately induce Class 2, repeatedly, in order to prevent humanity from causing another Hot War while they save it from Oul. The Final Battle features a Class X (wherein humanity is rescued en masse by the universe next door, which happened to have specialized equipment for rescuing interdimensional travelers because they were next-door to Earth's dimensional anomaly).
- Apocalyptic Log: Failure Mode is interspersed with one.
- Area 51: Not the Area 51, but the base where the Power experiments are carried out is certainly the next best thing, a fact of which Ching is quite aware.
A desolate air base smack in the North American heartland, surrounded by a sixty-kilometre ribbon of electric fence and razor wire hung with intimidating red, yellow and white signs warding off photographers, trespassers and enemies of the state respectively, plus incomprehensibly secret experiments going on within? It's a little greener, vegetation-wise, but Kuang Ching-Yu thinks you might as well call it Area 51 and save yourself five pages of description.
- The Atoner: Arika, after Jason's death. At that point she's killed or caused the death of 223 people since she got her powers. A few years later, when she loses her powers, she's in the middle of saving her 223rd life.
- Big Bad: Oul, a mindlessly destructive Eldritch Abomination.
- Justified, as he is in fact a weapon and was programmed to do exactly this.
- Ching at least points out quite rightfully that from the beginning, Xio's only motivation was his own self-interest and he brainwashed scientists just as much as Oul.
- Big Good: Alternate Character Interpretation aside, Mitch Calrus/Xio is this. Ching is also this in that he represents humanity's interests and ultimately defeats Oul.
- Big "NO!": The Imprisoning God's first line of dialogue, when Xio tells it that Oul is dead, is written in much larger font.
- Little "No": The Imprisoning God also gets the final lines of the series as Ching defeats Oul in a Heroic Sacrifice by exploiting the God's abilities.
- Black and Gray Morality: Mitch is, at best, a flawed and selfish opportunist who doesn't care about anything or anyonenote except getting out of this Flatland prison and back to civilization. The only reason he's considered the good guy is (1) the other guy's an Omnicidal Maniac and (2) ...
- Body Surf: Mitch/Xio is distinctly not immortal, but he needs to still be around in 20,000 years or so to fight the Final Battle. So he has his mind copied a countless number of times and installed into new bodies as required.
- Bolt of Divine Retribution: Anyone who uses a forbidden technology will find themselves subject to this, either on a personal or regional level. Ching abuses this to destroy Oul.
- Brain Uploading: Mitch, to avoid death. Also, Alternate Universe humanity uses this to save anyone whom they come across with seconds or less to live, such as everyone on Earth 0.
- Bullet Catch: Arika catches the bullets from the Shooting Superman example below. She could have dodged, but she was making a point.
- Cape Busters: The first artificial Powers from the Department for Special Flight Research, later known as the United States Special Air Corps are this, putting them somewhere between Cape Busters and Mutant Draft Board.
- Capital Letters Are Magic: The Powers, the Script, the Structure, The Line, Born/the Birth
- City in a Bottle: Crushed Underground takes place in one that is totally justified by the uninhabitable surface outside. Later the Solar System becomes a bottle basically.
- Chekhov's Gun: In The Four-Dimensional Man, Seph notes to herself that Mitch could kill someone instantly by materializing his hand inside their head. In There Was No Leak, he's prepared to do just that to Twelve before she's Born. In this is not over and I am not dead, he kills Hugh Davies that way. In a separate but related Chekhov's Gun, it's strongly implied that Mitch is also a telepath and therefore he could have read that idea from her mind at the time she thought it!
- Chekhov's Gunman: Ching, both in-verse and out; he disappears for the bulk of the the final third of the novel before suddenly appearing at the end, and in-story he disappeared for 20,000 years by outrunning the Imprisoning God via time travel (his original plan, which failed, was to drag Mitch/Xio with him).
- Clarke's Third Law: "Indistinguishable from magic", in which Mitch makes his first appearance, is named for this.
- Comes Great Responsibility: Mitch invokes this in his first appearance.
I seem to have acquired a set of powers which— which are open to abuse, but I've read the odd comic book. Great responsibility et cetera.
- Then he proceeds to rob a bank. He returns the money when Seph catches him easily and gives him a scolding.
- Depower: Every Flying Brick is depowered by the cloistering of the solar system from the rest of The Multiverse.
- The resulting retaliation against the US after their Powers, which had basically made them control the entire world, afterwards is implied to be one of the primary reasons for the Hot Wars.
- Disposable Superhero Maker: Strongly averted.
- Dystopia: Crushed Underground is an example of one that is totally necessary to the survival of humanity. At least a few others rise and fall as the world develops technology and has it taken away from them by Anne Poole and the Imprisoning God.
- Before the Hot Wars, humanity slowly becomes this. The US controls the world with powers, applied physics experiments cause extreme disasters on a regular basis, Eka speakers with Klick devices obliterate several major cities, and behind it all Zykov and Mitch are manipulating physicists to escape and destroy one another.
- Earth Is the Center of the Universe: It's one of only two places in our universe where intelligent life developed, and Oul wiped out the other one already.
- Earth is also the center of the (3+1 dimensional at least, higher dimensional multiverses could care less) Multiverse; but only because the rest of the universe is dreadfully boring and also the Multiverse was created during one of Mitch's escape attempts, so civilizations center around interdimensional travel rather than exploring the rest of the universe.
- Earth-Shattering Kaboom: In the Final Battle.
- Eldritch Abomination: Several of them. Oul is one, and so is the Imprisoning God. Technically, so is Xio, but he spends most of his time in a mortal human body, with human motivations and goals.
- Eleventh Hour Superpower: Ching, already a Reality Warper, obtains the Solution to the Script and earths all of Xio's remaining power in himself, gaining indescribably immense power just before the Final Battle.
- Faster-Than-Light Travel: It takes Reality Warper powers to set it up. And the Imprisoning God shuts it down just as quickly.
- Fate Worse Than Death: Adrian really gets a rough ride of it.
- Mouka ends up as an Unperson, and only one person remembers him, and he can't do anything about it. It's quite likely he lived for some time after this
- Fighting a Shadow: Zykov/Oul represents a tiny fraction of Oul's power. In "this is not over and I am not dead", Zykov/Oul kills himself, evidently feeling he can do no further damage to humanity in that manifestation.
- Fight Scene: The Fight Scene subsection, natch. Arika vs. the Cape Busters. Ends with a Human Shield, followed by Shooting Superman.
- Final Battle: Oul vs Ching.
- First Contact Math: "Eka", AKA the Script, starts out from prime numbers and works its way up to describe the entire physics of the universe. It's also Functional Magic.
- God in Human Form: Mitch/Xio and Zykov/Oul are, for all intents and purposes, this.
- Heel-Face Mind Screw: It is implied that Mitch/Xio uses the same More Than Mind Control powers as Zykov/Oul does, especially on John Zhang, leading to Zhang's Heroic Sacrifice below.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Five examples.
- Jim Akker kills himself while Zykov/Oul is telepathically probing his mind, in an attempt to take him down too. He also sends a last-minute warning to Ching.
- Jason Chilton sacrifices himself to save millions of people and several named characters from the Unstoppable Rage of the Twelfth Power.
- John Zhang kills himself in an ostentatiously physics-breaking way, forcing the Imprisoning God to isolate our entire solar system from the rest of The Multiverse, which locks out Oul.
- Anne Poole jumps onto a black hole to undo the results of John Zhang's actions, allowing the Final Battle to go forward.
- And finally, Ching sacrifices himself in the Final Battle, taking Oul with him.
- Hero of Another Story: Whatever other sentient species existed in 3+1 dimensional space did something before being destroyed by Oul. It's specifically mentioned that several laws described in Eka no longer work because the other species used them and the Imprisoning God excised them from reality.
- High-Pressure Blood: The slaughter at the top-secret Soviet lab in halfway homes, catacombs, twilight zones features far too much blood for a normal gunfight. Justified by the fact that the scientists had just unleashed the Sealed Evil in a Can.
- Humans Are Special: Humans are (according to Word of God) only the second intelligent life to evolve in a universe at the far end of habitability (that is, 3+1 dimensional): extremophiles, like deep-sea vent dwelling archaeobacteria, and Oul killed the first already.
- Definitely in full force with Ching, who scares two functional gods and kills one of them.
- Hyperlink Story: After "On Digital Extremities", all the scientists go their separate ways and have seemingly unrelated superscience-related adventures, only reconvening back at the MPR in "The Story So Far", which is also a recap episode and roughly the midpoint of the series.
- It Only Works Once: Because the Imprisoning God breaks it once you use it (not after merely one use at first, but faster and faster over time.)
- Jumped at the Call: Arika tried to become a superhero. She mostly succeeded in making herself a target for muggers.
- Just Before the End: The appropriately named Endworld subsection has the main action take place as earth is about to come very close to the sun (frying everything in the process), while the last remaining protagonists are en route to the Final Battle.
- Just Think of the Potential: The US Military is studying the Powers in hopes of learning how they tick, with the eventual goal of creating artificial Powers (an endeavor in which they succeed). Ching also believes that they're hoping for an eventual American Birth. This is the Military Applications variant, though they also use the artificial Powers for life-saving civilian applications.
- Kill 'em All: Other than Mitch/Xio who gets to go home, only one (maybe two) major named characters survive to see Oul destroyed, although a few die of old age offscreen.
- Language of Magic: It's science, not magic, but the fact remains that various people gain Reality Warper powers by becoming fluent in Eka. (Or possibly its secondary form, Dvi.)
- Unfortuantely, due to the nature of the Imprisoning God, you can only do any given thing once. If anyone tries something that was banned before, it won't work.
- Lightning Can Do Anything: Each Power is empowered when a bolt of lightning strikes them, earthing a fraction of Oul's or Xio's power in them. Other incredibly precise lightning strikes turn out to be the will of the Imprisoning God. The most common thing the bolts of divine will do is reprogramming computers.
- Lost Technology: Anne Poole spends thousands of years trying to slow down humanity's inevitable rediscovery of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. When she inevitably fails, planet-wide mind wipes are carried out, returning such tech to Lost Technology status.
- Magic Pants: Lampshaded in Power of Two. Jason Chilton notes that his body armor has been torn almost completely apart after his fight with the Tenth Power, but his pants have remained miraculously intact.
- Mind Screw: Not helped by Sam being fairly tight-lipped as he was writing it.
- More Than Mind Control: Zykov/Oul uses overpowering telepathy to the point where his servants try to kill millions on their own initiative, because they believe its the right thing to do.
- Xio uses the same thing on Anne and a few other scientists, partially because Anne is necessary for him to remain immortal, but mostly to cover his tracks.
- The Multiverse: Introduced (and created) in 'Verse Chorus.
- Mysterious Antarctica: Anne and Mitch calculate the Solution in a base on the seventh continent, to keep it from being disturbed as humanity rises and is cast down.
- Not So Different: In the final installment, Ching reveals that he's figured out that Xio has been mind-controlling the various scientists, just like Oul has. There is even some doubt as to whether Xio or Oul is the aggressor because Xio would have been as destructive as Oul if he had the power, though Sam clarified that Xio's story was not misleading.
- Omnicidal Maniac: Oul.
- Optional Canon: Marooned, by Word of God. See Retcon below.
- Precursors: Our civilization, and at least half a dozen that followed it After the End, are this to the civilization of 1970-.
- Power Levels: Deconstructed, as the ever-ascending power levels make the individuals in question too dangerous to be left alive, especially coupled with the Unstoppable Rage that accompanies their Birth. Power levels in Fine Structure are measured in powers of two, with (for example) the Ninth Power (Jason Chilton) being twice as powerful as the Eighth Power (Arika McClure). After the Twelfth power, most of the rest are handwaved away (except one story about the Sixteenth power, and a single mention in passing of the Nineteeth Power).
- Punny Name: Powers refers to both superpowers and the fact that every year each member of the Line's abilities increase exponentially.
- Recap Episode: "The Story So Far". See Hyperlink Story.
- Retcon: Marooned, formerly the second segment of the final chapter of Fine Structure, changed the accepted fact of when Mitch/Xio came into his powers, implying a much darker characterization for him. It was sufficiently controversial that it was, itself, retconned out, and is now considered Optional Canon.
- Sacrificial Lamb: Ashmore's death is when the plot pieces built up separately start to come together, and happens right before the Recap Episode. It also is one of the first examples of how utterly brutal the Imprisoning God is.
- Schizo Tech: The societies after the crashes rise up surrounded by the detritus of ages of technological civilizations. Their development is therefore quite erratic: one society develops spaceflight before antibiotics (justified by the fact that an immortal physicist guides each society’s rise, and she needed to reach Neptune real quick).
- Sealed Evil in a Can: Repeatedly and recursively (cans in cans!)
- Oul's Egg contains the local manifestation of Oul. Due to the actions of some Soviet scientists, Oul inhabits the body of condemned convict Mikhail Zykov.
- When the Soviet scientists accidentally unleashed Oul into Zykov, they sealed their lab off from the rest of the world to contain him. This lasted at least a year while Zykov/Oul worked himself free.
- The Imprisoning God is a sentient prison wall keeping Oul sealed in our universe, thus keeping the rest of the higher Multiverse safe from its ravages. Yes, our universe is the "can".
- Sealed Good in a Can: As the cost of keeping Oul sealed in with him, Xio is unable to leave our universe as well.
- In the Optional Canon story "Marooned", something similar to Oul's Egg is described, shortly before Mitch's accidental death and subsequent possession by Xio. By parallel, this would be Xio's Egg.
- Shaggy Dog Story: Everyone except Xio and Ching, but particularly Arika. Her quest to redeem herself and save lives ends up irrelevant since the Hot Wars obliterate human civilization a few years after the New Cosmology goes into effect.
- Shooting Superman: Arika is on the receiving end of this in Capekiller.
- Shout-Out: To "The Elements" by Tom Lehrer (a song) in this was supposed to be a parable about the power of the imagination.
- To the Kardashev Scale in "Last Ergs"; a starship capable of travelling between universes is named the "Kardashev V".
- Shrug of God: At least one question in the comments on the Q&A is answered "Who cares?"
- Subspace Ansible: As far as most of the scientists are concerned, the plot is kicked off by the discovery of the A-Layer, which should allow faster-than-light communications, but doesn't.
- Superpower Lottery:
- All the standard-issue superheroes are Flying Bricks, most notably Arika McClure and Jason Chilton. Later members of the Line are stronger, but few manage to live long past their Birth.
- Anne Poole has almost Complete Immortality, although this is really more of Blessed with Suck considering she got it and then spent 18 months trapped in a coal seam completely conscious and insane.
- Mitch Calrus/Xio can become Intangible, and extend the effect to things he touches. He can also see through things. Evidently he also has More Than Mind Control, but just how often he uses it is up to the reader's interpretation.
- As Zykov, Oul has More Than Mind Control, as well as an unknown degree of super-strength. In the Final Battle, Oul's power is reality warping, to an even greater degree than Ching, but less imaginatively applied.
- Ching ultimately gains the powers of a self-aware Reality Warper, but he can only warp reality in a particular way once before that option is excised by the Imprisoning God. Any Eka speaker theoretically has this power, Ching just has it to an incredible degree due to earthing all of Xio's power in himself. In the final battle, Ching breaks so many fundamental laws of physics in such rapid succession that his death not only takes out Oul, it also breaks the Imprisoning God and undoes the severance of the solar system from the rest of the multiverse.
- Super Soldier: The US government can evidently turn people into Class VI supermen at will.
- Super Weight: Ranging from 0 for normal humans to 6 for the Imprisoning God, and everything in between for high dimensional beings and the various supers.
- Teleporters and Transporters: Teleportation works by swapping two areas of space. The very first teleportation experiment results in Anne Poole being sealed in a coal seam. The consquences only get worse from there - later, four scientists are simultaneously killed. Finally, an entire building is teleported underground, and teleportation is excised from the fabric of the universe.
- The Glasses Gotta Go: Subverted. One minor character, Srin Shapur, is described like this explicitly:
She has the kind of hair that's ideal for pinning up in a tight bun and then shaking down in slow motion halfway through the movie, and even has the thick, nerdy glasses
to take off dramatically too. Unfortunately, this will never happen, because she needs the glasses to see.
- The Stars Are Going Out: In The Astronomer's Loss. This turns out to be a good thing though.
- Time Abyss: Anne Poole lives around 20,000 years, and experiences every minute of it, including the centuries buried alive.
Sometimes the discovery becomes massive and everybody in the world finds out at once and I end up on a pedestal. Sometimes they make me their leader, sometimes they call me an abomination, sometimes I get arrested and studied, usually it's all of this at once. I've been everywhere. I've done everything, spoken every language, built a pyramid, survived re-entry. History goes in cycles. If you watch it for long enough you can see the tipping points coming and be there when they happen. I invented fire, the wheel, the electric motor, antibiotics, you name it, every era, every country. Fought in X number of wars. Once, I actually ruled the whole world.
I've walked on the Moon barefoot.
- Time Skip: Even disregarding the Anachronic Order, the story spans over 20,000 years and most of that time understandably doesn't get examined in detail. In detail it only really covers from 2000-2020 or so, and a few brief segments in between, before jumping to the end.
- Time Travel: With automatic anti-paradox protection going backward. Each direction only gets used once. It's used by one of Oul's slaves to blow up Manhattan.
- Title Drop: In the very first story. A few of the individual chapters do this as well.
Then it's over, Heaven number seventy-nine dopplering into our wake, torn bodily from its extradimensional moorings, fine structure bucking, scattering and shattering.
- Un-person: The result of applying an anti-memetic weapon to a human being. Such a person cannot be remembered or recorded. As far as anyone is concerned they don't exist. This happens to Thomas Muoka, and as a result, we, the readers, cannot ever know why.note
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee: In the lead up to the Final Battle, Mitch/Xio has a stated plan of reaching the Solution in Antarctica, and we hear a fair amount about the trip. He shows up just hours too late, but Ching, whom we haven't seen since he tried to drag Mitch out of the universe, shows up with the Solution and all of Xio's remaining power, ready to challenge Oul.
- Unstoppable Rage: For the first 15.8 seconds after becoming a Power, the person in question is an absolute berserker. Civilian casualties are usually very, very high. This is why most of the Powers 10 and higher are killed.
- Powers perceive time differently. For a sufficiently high Power, that 15.8 seconds can mean many hours. Plenty of time for them to destroy a whole city.
- The Wall Around the World: The Imprisoning God prevents any travel out of 3+ 1 dimensional space, keeping Oul and everyone else in.
- Wham Episode: 'Verse Chorus, where the story officially makes the transition to Anyone Can Die.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Ching drops out of the story about two thirds of the way through only to reappear at the climax. Played more seriously with Mouka, who disappears without mention, only being parenthetically referenced by Ching near the climax.
- Wild Mass Guessing: Just read the comments on the various stories. Note that comments were not there from the very start, but were put in place about halfway through.
- Word of God: Anything Sam says in the comment threads is this. He generally only clarifies points in his stories, rather than giving new information. The Q&A is the major repository of Word of God.
- Your Mind Makes It Real: Word of God is that a Klick Device is "a metal box with nothing in it, which serves as the focal point for a machine which its user builds entirely in his or her head".
- You Shall Not Pass: Zhang's Heroic Sacrifice creates the New Cosmology, an impenetrable barrier around the solar system, keeping Oul at bay for the necessary thousands of years.