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Literature / Ra

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“The advert at the top of the page is offering me a Bachelor's degree in solar energy from Atlantic International University. Not sure they understand the can of worms they might be opening.”
— Comment by "P" on "All Hell"

Magic is real.

Discovered in the 1970s, magic has matured into bona fide field of engineering. There's magic in the factories, magic in your television. It's what's next after the information revolution.

Student mage Laura Ferno has designs on the future: her mother died trying to reach space using magic, and Laura wants to succeed where she failed. But first, she has to work out what went wrong. And who her mother really was.

And whether, indeed, she's dead at all...

Ra is a Science Fantasy story that was completed on December 13, 2014, written by Sam Hughes, creator of Fine Structure and the other works at Things of Interest. It is a distinct reworked story from Sam's excursions during the 2010 NaNoWriMo.

The story centers around Laura Ferno, an extremely talented mage in training university student majoring in Thaumic Engineering.

The story is heavily told through Magic A Is Magic A and Magibabble.

Available here.

Some of the trope names below may be spoilers in and of themselves. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

This Web Original novel contains examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Subverted by Ra. It didn't malfunction; it was deliberately reprogrammed by Virtual Humanity.
  • Ancient Artifact: Since magic was first discovered in 1972, it's rather baffling when one of these is discovered.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Wheel Group is so old that they may date back to the invention of the wheel. Or so Laura believes. In fact, the Wheel Group is less than forty years old.
  • And I Must Scream: Benj Clarke, Nick Laughon, and by implication possibly Kazuya Tanako are trapped in Tanako's World, an active nightmare, while (in the former two cases) Ra puppets their bodies.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Nanomachines and "nonlocality technology". The latter somehow allows "arbitrary quantities of mass, energy, momentum, spin and electrical charge" to be transferred from any location to any other at the speed of light. These technologies give Ra (and its users) godlike powers.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence
    • In the chapters 'Daemons' and 'Deeper Magic', Kazuya Tanako claims to have done this by accident, by being killed inside the Akashic Records; he's essentially immortal and can use geological mana.
    • In later chapters, this conclusion is called into question by Ra's ability to inhabit an arbitrary number of bodies simultaneously. It eventually becomes clear a greater entity is simply wearing him like a mask, and tricks Laura into some very rash behavior.
  • Akashic Records: Mentioned as part of one character's magibabble.
    • Revealed in "Deeper Magic" as an extremely high-fidelity recording of all magical events on Earth.
  • Alien Space Bats: Magic is a new field of science and engineering in the past half century from the modern day. This leads to obvious changes in technological development, but also more subtle things: For example, in Ra, Space Shuttle Atlantis, not Challenger, was lost with all hands. There's more to it than a simple point of divergence when magic is discovered, though.
  • Always Identical Twins: Averted. Natalie and Laura are very similar in appearance, but dress very differently. Natalie is also a bit thinner and has lighter hair than Laura.
  • Anachronic Order: The story is meant to be read in the order it was written, but many events are presented outside the sequence in which they occur.
  • Apocalypse Wow: The destruction of Actual Humanity civilization in Abstract War. We're talking lasers the size of Mt. Everest, fragments of artificial worlds bombarding the Earth like asteroids, nanobots corrupting humans into Humanoid Abominations, moons getting blown up...the works.
  • Arc Words: "This isn't me." Benj keeps saying this to whatever he's seeing in Iceland, and most folks just agree with him. He Came Back Wrong from Tanako's World.
  • Beyond the Impossible: There's an entire chapter called The Seventh Impossible Thing. Magic is poorly understood even by cutting-edge researchers, so a lot of things that are believed to be impossible at some point (starting with the existence of magic itself) turn out to be very possible indeed.
  • Bond One-Liner: One of Exa's personal mottos is "Don't quip until the quarry's dead". We only get to hear one in the course of the story. And then it turns out his target isn't actually dead.
    [Exa catches up to his target, who has just exited Tanako's World.]
    Laura: I don't understand. Why does this part have to be real? Nothing else is real. Magic isn't real.
    [Exa shoots her.]
    Exa: Gotta wake up some time.
  • Brain Uploading:
    • A visit to Tanako's World is essentially this, as your mind becomes completely detached from your physical body. Later in the story you can drop the "essentially", since Tanako's World turns out to be the Cyberspace interface of the Akashic Records machine.
    • The Akashic Records themselves are incidentally brain uploads; the recordings are so high-fidelity that everything in them, including the people, can be pulled back out into the real world as a perfect reconstruction.
    • In the backstory, humanity separated into two distinct strains: Virtual Humanity, living entirely as brain uploads in virtual spaces, and Actual Humanity, which chose to remain in physical space. Actual Humanity still used brain upload technology, for things like Body Backup Drives and interplanetary travel; they just chose not to live inside a computer.
    • The story ends with Natalie saving all of Earth humanity by uploading them to an encrypted virtual-reality replica of Earth. Without their knowledge.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Explicitly not present. Though this was the case in the NaNoWriMo precursor to Ra, Sam said he deliberately eliminated this element.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Alluded to in the title of Sufficiently Advanced Technology. Sufficiently advanced magic definitely looks like this from time to time.
  • Demonic Possession: Natalie Ferno describes Ra's puppeting of Nick Laughon as this.
  • Doing In the Wizard: "Magic" is eventually revealed to be sufficiently advanced technology powered by the titular Ra, a solar-powered AI constructed in the far future to grant humanity's every desire, and invisible nanomachines that act as "listeners". After this went catastrophically wrong, the Wheel Group created "magic" as a layer of abstraction to put more limits on using Ra.
  • Downer Ending:
    • For the world in general: The Earth is physically destroyed. The people of Earth are saved, but the simulation in which they live could theoretically be halted or terminated at any time.
    • For Laura specifically: In addition to being directly responsible for the destruction of Earth, she lost her mother (a second time), her boyfriend, and her near-omnipotent power, and is now trapped in a toy universe with no way out.
    • For the Wheel Group: They eventually lost the Abstract War and can't save even their recreated earth. They evacuate to Sirius, where some humans left after the first war for a brand new start, but they aren't welcome there. They are stored as data indefinitely unless someone more forgiving happens to release them someday.
  • Dream Land: Tanako's World is a dream/nightmare shared by all mages, which are actually the archives of the Akashic Records. If there's enough ambient magic in the air, it becomes extremely dangerous.
  • Dream Weaver: Mages can manipulate Tanako's World just by willing it. Conventional magic does nothing, however.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: The Abstract War starts with about 60 thousand hollow Earth replicas being destroyed.
  • Endangered Species: At the conclusion of Abstract War, there are only two hundred and fourteen humans left, out of a pre-War population that numbered at least in the quadrillions. Downplayed in that they can just ask the near-omnipotent supercomputer to procedurally generate some more humans, but there was a brief window where they hadn't yet taken control of said computer.
  • Fake Memories: Anyone who thinks they were born before 1970, since they were actually created from scratch at that time.
  • Formulaic Magic: Magic is physics; the hard kind of physics. But much like physics, outside of any context, groups and scattered geniuses with greater understanding of magic might as well be literal magicians.
  • Healing Magic Is the Hardest: Justified by the rule that magic has to describe everything it's doing (it takes many, many hours just to float a few lengths of metal together into a staff) and living bodies are very, VERY complex.
  • Hollow World: Tens of thousands of replica Earths, which were all destroyed in Abstract War. They were supplied with enough Artificial Gravity to make them feel like "filled-in" planets.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The monsters of Tanako's World are made of human parts, but they're not quite...arranged in the right way. And their teeth are much, much sharper.
  • Humans Are Special: Seemingly defied at first; fully justified much later. There are natural sources of mana, but the mana produced is unusable by human mages. The only sources of usable mana are humans, who produce it from seemingly nowhere, violating the known laws of conservation.
  • Hyperlink Story: The only connection some of the characters share is that they study magic.
  • Improvised Weapon: Laura's magic rings, bangles, and so on are technically research tools, but they can be extremely dangerous with the right spell. She ends up having to explain this to the police.
  • I Know Your True Name: Mages all have true names, which are necessary to cast spells. They choose their own, and can change them if they like.
  • Insistent Terminology: Magic is not magic. It's just a very poorly named branch of physics. This doesn't stop magic from being fundamentally inexplicable in several particulars.
  • Invisibility Cloak: An invisibility spell should, according to current magical theory, be far too complex for a single person to cast. Yet the guy who bombs Laura's house uses one to cloak himself. Laura manages to cast one herself not long after (albeit with the aid of a powerful artifact).
  • Mad Scientist: Some of Laura's later magical experiments are... haphazard. Natalie calls her out on this.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: Yes. Magic obeys very strict rules. This does not prevent characters from doing apparently impossible feats every so often because the rules are not completely understood. It is later revealed that the rules are strict because "magic" is an artificial construct. To prevent a second Abstract War, the survivors created a system of restrictions where no one had access to Ra's unfettered power, but it could still be invoked in a limited way.
  • Magical Incantation: Required, though it's not clear to the reader what the syntax is (the mages themselves seem to know). It's possible to save up long incantations into quick-castable "macros".
  • Magic Is Mental: Using magic requires more than just saying the words of the spell, you have to think your way through them as well. This is likened to performing advanced mental arithmetic. Part of a mage's daily routine is meditation for this reason.
  • Magic from Technology: All of it. "Magic" is basically a fake field of physics that is being simulated in real time by an unimaginably powerful supercomputer with a lot of Nanomachines and really, really good Teleportation technology.
  • Magic Staff: Ubiqutious. Trainee magical engineers take bojutsu in order to better control them.
  • Magitek: Magic cast by technology is explicitly ruled out. Magic incantations require a certain state of mind and a mana supply. A computer has neither, so it can't cast spells, though it can solve the equations required to design a spell. And magic can be integrated with technology - a microchip cooled by magic is mentioned.
  • Mana: Comes in various flavors. Deep examinations of the manipulation of mana often occupies the story's Magibabble
  • Meaningful Name: Exa is several orders of magnitude more powerful than the average mage in the setting.
    • Also, his last name is Watson. It is pointed out that a laser powerful enough to kill him before his kara could repair the damage would have a power level measured in exawatts.
  • Mind Screwdriver: "Deeper Magic" explains several mysteries of the story in plain language, while throwing up many more.
  • Mugging the Monster: Classic example in Thaumic City.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • Holy shit, Laura. Her actions directly result in Ra coming awake and the world being destroyed.
    • Rachel saving the seven astronauts on the Atlantis is the catalyst which pushes Laura to make the fatal mistake listed above. Hope it was worth it, Rachel!
  • No Such Thing as Wizard Jesus: Half the reason why the "Jesus Machine" is so remarkable.
  • Omniscient Council of Vagueness: The Wheel Group has elements of this. The fact that their members regularly teleport into war zones to fight magical threats makes this something of a subversion.
  • One-Paragraph Chapter: "Death Surrounds This Machine".
  • Or Was It a Dream?: After one trip into Tanako's World, Laura and Natalie are unable to identify when they woke up. To make matters more confusing, the magic they did there somehow affected the real world, as well.
  • Orwellian Retcon: Hughes felt that the original ending of the story note  was rather weak and abrupt, so he wrote a new one. The original ending is still available on the website, though it's been moved to a different section.
  • Painting the Fourth Wall:
    • Magic words are written in a different font and color.
    • Scenes in Tanako's World have the text right-aligned.
  • Past Right Now: The entire Earth. The Wheel Group "rebooted" the planet to a historical reconstruction of 1970 (with magic added), when the real year was 19391 or 19392.
  • Present Tense Narrative: From start to finish.
  • Properly Paranoid: After the first chapter, Laura thinks that people are trying to kidnap or kill her, and goes to the trouble of inventing a personal Deflector Shield for herself and her sister Natalie. Natalie thinks Laura is being crazy. It is revealed in From Darkness, Lead me to Light that the Wheel Group was attempting to murder Natalie, not Laura, because they thought she had been able to detect their presence. They killed one of Natalie's professors for the same reason.
  • Reality Warper: See Clarke's Third Law.
  • Regenerating Mana: Mages regenerate mana; this natural generation of mana is the only usable source of mana. Mana can also be stored in special containers for future use, increasing the amount of mana to hand.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Magic was discovered in India, so some of the terminology (yantra, kara) is taken from Sanskrit traditions.
    • Computer science terms also abound (the Wheel Group, Abstract Types, and one piece of minor equipment is compared to a USB key). And the world was "rebooted" to the start of Unix time.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: Magic is a branch of quantum physics. It took years of analysis before Rajesh Vidyasagar could telekinetically move an object.
  • Summon to Hand: The complexity of a spell to make this happen with a disassembled mages' staff is so mind-boggling, it makes Laura's list of seven or eight "impossible things".
  • Swiss-Army Weapon: Abstract Weapon, from the chapter of the same name.
  • Terraform:
    • Done to Earth itself. After Abstract War, Earth was a thin-atmosphered radioactive wasteland with nothing left alive but a few bacteria. The Wheel Group reconstructed it as a living, inhabited world.
    • Also done to the fifth planet in the Sirius system, by the Abstract War survivors who chose not to join the Wheel Group.
  • Title Drop: Ra is initially declared to be Tanako's True Name but it turns out that whatever was pretending to be him at the time was lying. Ra is actually the name of the solar-system-wide, mind-reading, desire-granting, all-powerful machine that draws energy from the sun itself and uses non-locality technology to distribute it.
  • Transhuman Treachery: The cause of Abstract War. Virtual Humanity wanted to convert the physical solar system into a bigger, better computer to run themselves on, and they were willing to wipe out Actual Humanity to get what they wanted.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Much of the first-person segment of Deeper Magic seems plausible enough, given the events of The Jesus Machine, Abstract Weapon, Death Surrounds This Machine, and Zero Day, but there's obviously more to his story than "I am Kazuya Tanako. My True Name was ra."
  • Wetware Body: Benj Clarke and Nick Laughon are bodily taken over by Ra.
  • Words Do Not Make The Magic: It's not enough to speak a spell. The mage must think through and understand it as well.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside:
    • Time flows differently in Tanako's World. You could spend an arbitary amount of time in it during a fraction of a second in real time.
    • In the backstory, Virtual Humanity lived in simulations that moved much faster than the real world. This made it extremely difficult for the Virtuals and the Actuals to communicate, furthering the schism between them.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Averted. Tanako's World is only dangerous if there's a lot of ambient mana nearby.