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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 fiction 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 centres 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.


This Web Original novel contains examples of:

  • Ancient Artifact: Since magic was first discovered in 1972, it's rather baffling when one of these is discovered.
  • 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.
  • Alternate History: 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Courtroom Antics: Averted and Lampshaded. Laura goes through a legal battle in Sufficiently Advanced Technology, but it's only one paragraph long.
  • 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.
  • 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 People: The things in Tanako's World might be. Ra apparently is, as well.
  • Dream Weaver: Mages can manipulate Tanako's World just by willing it. Conventional magic does nothing, however.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending
  • Eldritch Abomination
  • 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.
  • Functional Magic: of the Rule Magic and Force Magic varieties.
  • Geometric Magic: REALLY BIG circles.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Like That Show but with Mecha: Similar to Fine Structure, but with a much greater focus on the Functional Magic of the setting.
  • 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 and carefully designed rules. This does not prevent characters from doing apparently impossible feats every so often because the rules are not completely understood.
  • Magic Is Mental: Part of a mage's daily routine is meditation for this reason.
  • Magic Staff: Ubiqutious. Trainee magical engineers take bojutsu in order to better control them.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: 4, "One Big Lie" - based entirely around a fictitious field of physics, namely nonlocality technology — the ability to instantly transport matter and energy from any location to any other — which allows the eponymous AI to display near-godlike powers, including simulating the existence of an entire fake field of physics, i.e. magic.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Painting the Fourth Wall:
    • Magic words are written in a different font and color.
    • Scenes in Tanako's World have the text right-aligned.
  • Present Tense Narrative
  • 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).
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: Magic is a branch of quantum physics. It took years of analysis before Rajesh Vidyasagar could telekinetically move an object.
  • Super Weight
    • Despite having supernatural powers, the vast majority of mages are in the same category as Muggles. At the start of the story, Natalie Ferno doesn't carry any special equipment, works on pure theory, and mentions once that she doesn't know how to cast uum. It's explained that magic is difficult to use and impossible to improvise; any given spell will only do one thing and takes hours to weeks to write.
    • Laura fights off muggers in her first scene, makes several breakthroughs in magical research, and survives a volcanic eruption among other things.
    • And then there are people like Rachel Ferno, the Wheel Group, and presumably some other groups not yet introduced, who use magic so far beyond the cutting edge it might as well be... whatever comes next.
  • 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.
  • Think Twins: Laura has a lot of practical experience, while Natalie understands a lot of the theoretical basis that Laura tends to skip. Put together, they're capable of feats of magic rivaling their mother's.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • Words Do Not Make The Magic: It's not enough to speak a spell. The mage must think through and understand it as well.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Averted. Tanako's World is only dangerous if there's a lot of ambient mana nearby.