Previously

When a man and his love interest first encounter one another in an adversarial setting, it's supposed to go like this: he proves overconfident; she proves overwhelmingly more competent; she decisively gets the better of him, with embarrassing and hilarious results; this impresses him (and anybody else who happens to be watching) while demonstrating that she's sassy and capable and can take care of herself.

But this is a little too early in the lives of Nick Laughon and Laura Ferno, and neither of them can really take care of themselves yet. It's their first year at university and it's their first Beginner's Bojutsu lesson. Every time she lands a blow on him they both drop their bo staffs, and every time he tries any kind of clever spinning move (while the instructor, who would disapprove, is not looking) he loses his grip and ends up hitting himself in the stomach. The whole lesson is awkward stances, heavily telegraphed moves and clumsy falls. Fortunately, stage one in any martial art is learning to take a fall. And stage two is learning to not feel like an idiot for falling down over and over again.

Nick has turned up for the class because a group of his friends have taken it up. After the end of the lesson, he invites Laura along to the pub with the rest of his gang. She, it transpires, has already been invited to the pub and is already coming along. In fact, she already knows everybody in the gang except Nick. This is because apart from Nick, all of them are thaumic engineering or theoretical magic students. They've all been taking elementary magic theory together for the last week and a half.

Huh.

So Nick, a mere English student, trails along behind their animated and highly technical conversation, listening in, bewildered. He watches Laura's bracelets jangle as she waves her hands around as she talks. She puzzles him. Most mages, including all of his mage friends, are male. And magic rings and the other small metallic tools of the mage's trade really are tools. Every mage he knows wears at most a few small rings hooked on a keyring or on a carabiner on a belt loop, with the rest in a rucksack or an actual toolbox. He's always thought of them as washers and gaskets and nuts and bolts. He's never considered them as jewellery.

It dawns on him why mages would be interested in bojutsu, and he feels stupid for missing it. Magic rings are less than half of the picture. A mage-in-training is a person who intends to spend most of his or her adult life waving a magic staff around for a living and a magic staff is a six-foot-long metal pole for propelling and coercing mana into the right shape.

Nick Laughon is 18, middle-sized, wavy-haired and fresh-faced. It's mid-evening in early autumn, hence dark and cold already, but he wears shorts in every weather and season. He cycles everywhere. When he's needed somewhere that's inaccessible on wheels, he runs there. Things that can't be run through, he climbs over. He is constantly reading and seemingly constantly eating, replenishing burnt energy; all of his books are full of dropped crumbs. He loves movies and music and beer and sport and learning new things that he didn't know before. He has almost no definition beyond what he loves. It's almost as if nothing bad has ever happened to him. His personality is pure, sharp and golden.

Laura Ferno is 18 and fiercely intelligent. When Nick pulls up a stool next to her and finds his way into her conversation, she gives him the impression of a girl caught at the instant of launching herself out of the starting blocks of her life. She intends to make history; she intends to learn literally everything there is to know about magic over the next three years, and then continue at the same pace of discovery for the rest of her life. Whether she has the talent to accomplish any such thing is not for Nick to judge, having known her for all of three hours, but she has determination and confidence. She talks at length about Montauk battery theory, magic-driven casting, the Three Open Problems and her mother, a gifted mage who taught Laura everything she knew. Laura has designs on the future.

So they drink Greene King IPA and gin and tonic respectively, while the evening and the conversation get comfortable and settle in for the long haul. It's the beginning of something, although it's not obvious to either of them that this is the beginning of anything. Later, she'll scale back her ambitions - a little - and he'll get a better grip on reality and how badly it sometimes works. And the relationship will grow patiently, like the good kind of record, the kind that doesn't sound good until the third or fourth listen. By the time either of them realises that they should have been counting from somewhere - Nick will realise first, but Laura will be the one who brings it up - neither of them will remember what day this was.

*

Precisely six months later they're in the pub again. Nick still hasn't succeeded in bringing Laura around to the real ale point of view. He'll eat or drink anything, regardless of what it used to be, what it was cooked in or whose plate it's on. People with the audacity to express preferences come off to him as wimps and he refuses to stop teasing Laura about her refusal to drink a real drink.

So it's the same two drinks, and so far tonight it's just the two of them; others may turn up but arrangements have been lazy and confused. In fact it's pretty much just the one of them. Nick feels like he's the only person who qualifies as "in attendance", because Laura's spent the last five minutes fiddling with the manual controls on the television mounted in the upper corner of the lounge, trying to find the channel showing today's Shuttle launch from Florida. She is maniacal about Shuttle launches. Today's has been relatively simple to catch, but NASA's operations adhere to no working day and even if they did it would be five hours removed from Laura's, so every few months she skips lectures or supervisions or bo lessons, stays up until two or gets up at four, whatever is necessary to be near a television at the right time.

"This is it," she says when she finds it, sitting back down and getting ready for the show, still not "in the room" in any real sense. There's no sound, but the rocket on the pad is visibly hissing with anticipation, venting steam and liquid oxygen vapour. The countdown is paused at T minus twenty minutes. It's a routine built-in hold. Laura has the whole sequence memorised from cryo tanking to MECO. If Nick watches her eyes carefully during the countdown, he can almost see the big banks of lights flicking from red to green.

"I still don't get it," Nick says. "Is this a magic thing? Isn't this the fiftieth Shuttle launch there's ever been and haven't you seen them all?"

"Fifty-six recorded, one in person, thirty-eight on live television," says Laura. "Soon to be thirty-nine. The full set."

"Is this a magic thing?"

"First-generation Shuttles predate any kind of serious magical modelling capability," says Laura, "so they left the whole technology on the shelf for safety reasons. They didn't understand it well enough back then. I mean, magic is pretty predictable now, because we have some solid theories about how magic moves and we have simulations that can model mana flow in three dimensions properly. But this was back in the late Seventies. It would stun you how low-tech these things are. You know how - you must know this - your wristwatch has a more powerful microprocessor in it than the Apollo Lunar Rover did?"

"My wristwatch, or any wristwatch? This is pretty sophisticated."

"I mean yours. Probably not so much an eight-quid Casio. But it's almost the same deal with Shuttle computers. You'd be stunned. But it makes sense because of how fanatical about safety you have to be when you fly space rockets with people on them. I think they have a saying, or if they don't have a saying then they should, which is 'If it ain't broke, fixing it can endanger the mission'. If it ain't broke, don't... don't kill people."

"Which is why there's a Space Shuttle II now," says Nick.

"Yesssss," says Laura. "Which is about ten percent lighter because of thaumic heat shielding, and also because it has ring-and-sigil attitude controls, and... a bunch of other stuff which they didn't want to retrofit into an existing orbiter."

"Has there been a Space Shuttle II launch yet, and if not..."

"Not for another few years," says Laura.

"...Are you going to watch those launches too?"

"I don't know," says Laura.

"You never answered my first question," says Nick.

"Which question?"

"My first question. Because space travel is cool and all, but you nearly missed an end-of-term exam last year."

Laura doesn't answer.

"Are you waiting for another Atlantis disaster? Because that was our generation's 'do you remember where you were' moment. You want to see a Shuttle blow up live?"

"No," says Laura, staring into her drink. And adds, "I've already seen that once." Here goes nothing, she thinks.

There's a pause.

"You saw the Atlantis disaster live?"

"Yeah."

"Wait, TV live or live live?"

"We were there," says Laura.

"You were there? You and your family?" Laura nods. "You were what, fourteen?" Another nod. "Wait. Wait." Nick realises there's something important here. He does some mental arithmetic.

Laura stares, holding her glass in both hands, eyes defocusing. She's been working up to telling him this for how long? And she still doesn't have more than the first few words worked out.

"Was that how your mother died?"

The countdown starts ticking again. Nineteen minutes, fifty-nine seconds.

"I don't know."

Fifty-eight. Fifty-seven. Fifty-six.

*

It's December 1993 and the Space Shuttle has never failed. As a super heavy lift launch system, the Shuttle program has a mind-boggling quoted probability-of-mission-failure figure of 1 in 60,000. The actual figure will later be discovered to have been closer to 1 in 60, with the difference made up by carelessness, lax safety culture and systematic managerial overconfidence. This overconfidence has arisen predominantly from the Shuttle's flawless track record. The Shuttle program is broken and unsafe. It is unsafe largely because everybody thinks it is safe. It is about to fail because it has never failed before. Tomorrow's headline will be: "LOST".

At 10:08:08 on 17 December, T+45.5 seconds into Shuttle mission STS-77, a large chunk of ice is pulled into Space Shuttle Atlantis' fuel system. The ice is there because the fuelling system was accidentally exposed to air while the External Tank was being filled. Two of the Shuttle's three main engines are destroyed instantly. The flight controller immediately orders "Abort RTLS", Return To Launch Site. At this point in the mission, Atlantis is still attached to two much larger Solid Rocket Boosters. Once triggered, SRBs cannot be shut off, so they are left to run out and detach as normal at T+123 seconds. Then the orbiter and External Tank, still mated to one another, pitch forward and fire their one remaining engine in the opposite direction, cancelling out their forward and upward velocity and accelerating back along the flight path. The plan is this: achieve a satisfactory course and trajectory back towards Florida; roll upright; disconnect the External Tank; and glide in to land at a dedicated landing strip at the launch site, which is ready for this exact eventuality. This is an insanely risky plan with many variables, chief of which being that whatever knocked out the first two SSMEs could imminently knock out the third. However, it is the best and only plan conceivable, and it has been prepared for. An RTLS has never happened before in reality, but it has happened ten thousand times in simulations: the pilot and six crew are as ready as any humans could ever be. If anything could work, this is it.

At T+181 seconds, Atlantis' last engine goes dark. A second piece of ice has been pulled into the turbopump system, which is now gutted and haemorrhaging liquid oxygen and hydrogen into clear air. The vehicle is 22 miles up and 31 miles downrange, still travelling directly away from its landing strip at well over a thousand miles per hour, upside down, with no motive power and freefalling like a thrown rock. The mission is now over. There are no more abort modes. There is no pulling out of the trajectory, no chance of crossing the ocean to a transatlantic abort site, and no crew bailout capability. In another minute, Atlantis will reach peak altitude. Around five minutes after that, it will crash into the Atlantic. Everybody on board will be killed. And everybody watching on the television and everybody listening on the radio and everybody watching from the ground is going to stand there while it happens. Except one.

"Doug," Rachel Ferno says to her husband, and surprises him by kissing him as he turns to look at her. "I love you," she says. "Kasta anh sukudat mirsii. Kids!"

"Rach, what are you--" Douglas Ferno begins, then stops, distracted, as the five pieces of Rachel's two-metre-long magic staff jump out of her rucksack and screw themselves together in mid-air. This apparently simple trick astounds him. He's seen his wife do a lot of magic, and he's seen the staff a million times, but he's never seen her assemble it except by hand, laboriously, taking at least a minute each time. He's a treasurer, no mage, but he knows that a spell like this takes about a month of writing and a month of practice, because of the laundry list of failure cases that have to be handled. How do the pieces know how to exit the rucksack? How do they pick a spot in the air to assemble at? How long should the assembled staff wait to be collected? What if there are only four pieces, what if half of them are stuck behind a wall?

Laura and Natalie are teenaged, and don't pick up on her urgency when Rachel hugs them both at once, one with each arm, and says "I love you," again. She tries to cover her bases by inflecting somewhere between "I love you: see you in a little while" and "I love you: goodbye forever". "Eset kasta oerinuum OOLO," she adds, which starts her oxygen supply. It's not tuned properly: it blasts her hair downwards like an invisible localised hurricane. Her clothes flicker in the gale and the grass under her feet splays out in all directions. But there's no time for corrections. Here are the components that do matter: "Sedo oerinuum INKEH sedo MOMEH. Kasta esduq jachta!"

Douglas Ferno doesn't recognise the phrasing; the words just wash over him. Laura and Natalie fare worse. They have enough basic magical knowledge to understand that what their mother is doing is either nonsense, or so far beyond the modern magic state of the art that it might as well be... well, whatever comes next. Rachel Ferno has just initiated a pair of high-throughput transduction spells with almost fractal complexity. The patterns of mana radiating off her are incomprehensible. More than that, they're as bright as a sun. To a tuned mind, they're blinding. Who can handle spells that advanced? Who can imagine them?

Rachel Ferno's feet rise a few centimetres from the ground. She moves her hands around, something like sign language, distributing virtual controls to points in space where she can reach them. She's building a virtual cockpit. And she's just using hand signals and finger and thumb rings to do it. She's not even saying any words now. "Mum, what are you doing?" cries Laura. She and Natalie can now see luminous manifolds of mana closing up around their mother, like ornate armour.

Douglas Ferno can't: he reaches for his wife but is stopped by the invisible force field. "Rach, what's happening?" And he's right to be confused, because the smallest, simplest force fields in the world require a portable module the size of a motorcycle to project, and they categorically cannot be curved. Nothing she is doing is possible. "Rachel!"

Rachel reaches out with her right hand and collects her staff from where it was waiting, suspended in air. "Here goes nothing." As she touches it, there's a single pulse of real light, like a camera flash. Then she's airborne, following the exhaust trail out to sea and the plummeting orbiter.

*

Of course there are witnesses. It's impossible to watch a Shuttle launch from a good spot without company; the Fernos' spot is a crowded park in Titusville. That Rachel Ferno has disappeared, the police are prepared to believe. That she disappeared out at sea, during a Shuttle launch? The coastguard take the notification seriously and a search is begun. But even the people who watched it happen - even the people with photographic evidence - don't believe that she flew away.

A human being doesn't show up on radar. A human being in the air at 40 miles' range is too small a speck of dirt to show up on the video footage.

At T+318.9 the venting liquid oxygen and hydrogen finally ignite, blowing up the External Tank. The crew compartment of the orbiter survives the explosion and hits the Atlantic almost intact, though it and its occupants are pulverised on impact.

Seven bodies are recovered from the crash site by NASA.

*

(Nine minutes.)

"That's it?"

Laura shrugs.

"So what happened? ...Laura, what happened?"

"We don't know! We stayed in Florida for a month, waiting for information. And they never found her. The police, the coastguard, NASA. If NASA were looking for an eighth body, which is doubtful. We don't know what happened. We don't know for sure that she tried to save the Shuttle. We don't even know if she's actually dead. She's been missing for... well, not long enough. In another few years we can declare her legally dead. Does that answer your question?"

"Christ," says Nick, and takes another long pull from his pint while he thinks. And once he's done that, he says, "No. It doesn't.

"You loved your mum. But when you talk about her she always sounds as if she was half-teacher and half-rival. She taught you everything you know about magic - you and Natalie - and you were well on your way to catching up with her and then eventually surpassing her. No problem. Then just at the moment when you were starting to be a real match for her, she pulled the rug out from under you both. She did seven or eight completely impossible things right in front of you, things which she had never bothered to try to explain were possible, and then she flew away without telling you what she'd done or how she'd done it. She left you with no idea how much else she was holding back, or even who she actually was, because in that last second, she--"

"It was like she'd dropped the mask of mum-slash-wife," says Laura. "'This is who I really am. I'm a fucking Titan, I'm a cloaked thaumic witch-goddess and I can do anything. Goodbye.'"

"She was like an actual magician--"

"--never revealed her secrets," says Laura. "That interpretation had occurred to me too. But - and I'm sure I've covered this - magic is the worst-named field of science in the world. It was a lousy, stupid nickname for some genuinely new physics, and it stuck, and now everybody hates the man who coined it. Including himself. Magic isn't magic. It is a field of science. You do not sit on results. Not results like that."

"So you don't follow the launches because you're scared of another launch failure and want to be the one who stops them from happening," says Nick.

"No."

"And you don't follow them because you miss her."

"No."

"Although you do miss her."

"I do."

"And you definitely don't secretly want to be like your mother."

"God, no."

"So I don't get it. She made you angry. This is nothing but a big bad memory. What do you want?"

"...What I want is for us to go into space right now," says Laura. She takes off a few bangles and spins them idly between her fingers. "Just us two. We could walk out the door and it would take about ten minutes to get there, straight up. I just need the right words to say. I want autokinetics, air UI, the fluid pump spell she used for O2, non-vocal casting, DWIM, dynamic shielding, and whatever it is she used for a mana source. To begin with. I want it all and I want to be the first person to go into space without a vehicle. Today, if possible. And more after that.

"Magic's not the Force. It's not mystical, it's a gauge theory. It explains observations. It is, at its root, a collection of dry and unpalatable nonlinear partial differential equations which are known to be not totally accurate. Magic does not speak to us or obey our commands. Getting magic to do anything, let alone what you want it to do, is close to impossible without insanely complex equipment. The equipment itself couldn't be built prior to around 1981, and prior to 1990 computer-aided design and manufacture weren't sophisticated enough. That's to say nothing of the mental gymnastics. You know that people on my course are supposed to spend at least twelve hours a week meditating?"

Nick does know this. He also knows that Laura gets away with less.

"Magic is difficult," she continues. "It's harsh and expensive and obtuse. Magic isn't magic."

"...But it should be," Nick concludes.

"Yeah."

"It's not likely to happen today, Laura."

"This week, then."

Nick shakes his head. Laura shakes her head too. She knows what she's asking for.

Their glasses are both empty. "Another?" Nick asks.

"In a minute," Laura says, pointing.

On the television screen, because she knows what to look for, Laura can see the launch pad sound suppression system activating, dumping a thousand tonnes of water onto the pad just before liftoff in order to protect the orbiter from acoustic damage. In the pit underneath the Shuttle's engines, a shower of red sparks erupts, burning off any lingering pockets of flammable hydrogen before the engines themselves fire. In the absence of an on-screen timer or an audible commentator, Laura is counting to herself:

"Nine. Eight. Main engine start--"

They start, all three of them, bright red at first, then white, then ramping up in a matter of seconds to a temperature where the hottest part of the flame isn't visible. The whole launch stack pitches forward slightly, reacting to the off-centre thrust, then gently leans back towards vertical. All that's left now is for the SRBs to ignite. "Four. Three. Two. One."

 

Next: What You Don't Know

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Discussion (45)

2011-12-08 23:29:27 by qntm:

This one was agonising to write as you can tell by the delay.

The main thing I was trying to achieve here was to introduce a new character in the form of Laura's boyfriend, so far only mentioned in "Thaumic City". I knew he had to exist so I had to figure out who he would be, how/where they met and of course his name. I was able to use this to also introduce the magic staff concept (which I've had kicking around for a while and I've been looking for a logical way to introduce it), and also the stick-fighting, staff-as-physical-weapon thing, which has been around as a fantasy story concept for ages. This is a neat bit of background and will hopefully pay off hugely later. Wink.

The other thing that I wanted to do in this chapter was to execute a story concept which I've had for some time, which can be summed up with the words "Magic Challenger Disaster", i.e., a Space Shuttle disaster of some kind, but with magic involved. Anybody who read my NaNoWriMo two-parter "Magic Nasa"/"Placebo Engineering" (http://qntm.org/nasa, http://qntm.org/placebo) has seen a first draft of this idea already. One basic concept was that if a magic Space Shuttle crashes, you don't get Richard Feynman in to find out why, you get a mage. But obviously a huge amount has changed here. Firstly, it is now a conventional Shuttle, not a second-generation Shuttle using thaumic engineering principles (although those will probably come into existence and regular use at some point in the story timeline). Secondly, the disaster happens live and Laura's mother tries to stop it, as opposed to the disaster happening in the past and Laura trying to unthread the reason why. (There were about a million different ways that all of these details could have been locked down, and this paralysed me with indecision for a great deal of time.) Thirdly, magic in "Ra" is *not* dependent on how much faith anybody has in it. That whole story concept has been dropped.

Finally, I hope we now have some sympathy for Laura's character, which previously we kinda didn't.

2011-12-08 23:58:34 by qntm:

Oh! And I should credit The Custodian for being an absolute Space Shuttle guru and helping me out with technical details here. My original intention was to fabricate the Atlantis disaster in as much detail as the real Challenger or Columbia disasters, but this proved far too ambitious.

2011-12-09 00:05:46 by Favil:

Well, I must say that this, to me at least, was worth the wait. I enjoyed the story, and wish you would write more parts of it soon.

2011-12-09 01:32:08 by Kevin:

Excellent work, this was an enjoyable read.

2011-12-09 01:38:03 by MHD:

I continue to be amazed by how well you build up this concept of Magic-as-a-branch-of-Physics.

2011-12-09 02:56:42 by frank:

Absolutely amazing. Glad the faith-based idea has been dropped, though I thought it could have tied in well with some of the thought-as-a-force components of your other stories. Laura's mother's death (or not) was almost paralyzing. Glad that her mother taught her so much, adds some plausibility to the story. As an engineering student, I can work all my days and could never approach that level of competence; not from classes, for sure. Keep it coming!

2011-12-09 04:16:58 by Lucas:

The wait was worth it, definitely. I'm really, really, really looking forward to what's in store with Ra.

2011-12-09 08:53:32 by Ianso:

That's a great read, and here's me in the office should've started work ages ago :-) Seriously, seriously good stuff.

2011-12-09 11:21:04 by qntm:

It's interesting. When I go back and read "Magic NASA" and "Placebo Engineering", which took two days to write between them, the writing is a little messier but it also seems much less strained. That's because of how quickly I wrote them and how little I worked on them. "Magic Isn't" feels like I might have been overthinking it.

2011-12-09 14:16:40 by Tom:

fantastic, loving this story so far

2011-12-09 15:10:51 by Kochier:

So you've dropped her grandmother as her teacher as well?

2011-12-09 15:26:33 by Adam:

I couldn't suppress a small yelp of joy when I saw this latest instalment come up on my RSS feed, and it didn't disappoint. Absolutely captivating stuff, and nice work agonisingly cutting it where you did. Keep up the very, very good work.

2011-12-09 15:28:16 by qntm:

Kochier: pretty much, yes. I couldn't get the timeline to work out properly, and it introduced a whole intermediate generation of Fernos whom I didn't know what to do with.

2011-12-09 19:50:00 by KevinH:

Absolutely fantastic. I love the story thus far.

2011-12-10 04:07:43 by manu:

Hey, Sam. First, I want to point out a typo.

"We we there," says Laura. | Must be "were", methinks. And unfortunately the typo took a lot of tension away, this being a crucial passage on the story. Not being pedantic, just letting you know how the typo impacted on me.

Now, man... You have some serious plot going on here. It doesn't feel like a reharshed sci-fi edgy narrative, you're blending the magic with science in a UNDERSTANDABLE way. You're not justifying anything about magic being a mislabeled branch of science, and that's how I'd like it to be. Let me say you're paying attention to the right aspects (character development, staging, plot development) and since I like where this is heading, I can tell you this: keep up the current level of technicisms/geekery - if you continue to level it, you will make a great difference among the vast majority of sci-fi writers that use the let's-fill-gaps-and-scenes-development-adding-scientific-terms - needless to say you're not using the "tensor algebra" catch-phrase to explain something. You're crafting very well your science here, you should know.

I won't say no more about the story until the next part comes up, but overall you're going in a very favorable direction.

Cheers!

2011-12-10 04:55:21 by eneekmotatyahoodotcom:

Sam, you're definitely growing as a writer! Keep up the good work!

2011-12-10 17:31:21 by Knut:

Seconding all the people saying this rocks!

Magic as a hard science has always been a fantasy of mine. I guess the reason i like physics is that it's as close to magic as you can get in the real world, but it's oh so far away from what i want it to be. Can't wait to read more about this world though!

Also a small editing error. When Laura's mother magically assembles her staff the pieces "fly jump out of her rucksack". Possibly some of that overthinking you were talking about?

Keep up the amazing work!

2011-12-10 20:49:04 by Marv:

Unifying science fiction and fantasy. This must be the equivalent in literature to unifiying quantum mechanics and gravity. Most. Epic. Story. Ever.

2011-12-10 23:05:24 by Quotidian:

Loving this story so far. The idea of "magic" as something quantifiable and understandable has always appealed to me, for some reason. Using magic in NASA missions? Awesome. Using magic to achieve personal space flight? BEYOND awesome.

One question, though. Since the narrative straight up states that by 1993, the shuttle has never failed (and, you know, all the magic going on) we're to assume this is an alternate history, right? So how much has changed? Or is it too much to really get into in a comment and we'll just have to wait and see?

2011-12-10 23:43:54 by qntm:

Yes, history in the Ra universe started to diverge from ours in 1972 when the first magic spell was discovered. The degree to which magic has altered the world is going to be elaborated upon shortly.

2011-12-11 20:59:48 by Ian:

Alright, Sam. Since nobody else is going to say something, I feel obligated to provide you with some criticism.

I thought the whole beginning introduction to Nick was awful. I thought the whole story about Laura's mother was pretty poorly done, as well. It's like you forgot the most basic rule of writing: show don't tell.

With Nick's section it was entire paragraphs of, "This is Nick. See Nick run. Nick runs fast. This is Laura. See Laura run. Laura runs fast." And the section on Laura's mother ain't much better. It has the benefit of magic, but it's still told in the style of, "She did this, and then this, and then this. And it was awesome."

So when it came to the section about Laura's mother, it was better because we were witness to some magic, but not much. With more, I might be able to pin down just what I found objectionable, but at the moment, the characters all just feel flat. Laura is, for all intents and purposes, a Mary Sue. And Nick is just another name.

Still a fan, and I'll keep reading. Just had to point out some problems I was having since no one else seems to be saying anything but "YOU ROCK!" Which, you do.

2011-12-11 22:31:09 by qntm:

I guess I find it difficult to "show" character attributes. Or at least I haven't tried hard enough to do that in the past. When you're writing a story, every scene should usually do at least one of two things: build character, or drive the story forward. Otherwise, the reader's time is being wasted. Historically, my characters have had no deliberate character development at all. I write science fiction and up until now all I've really cared about is the fictional science, so I've been single-minded in focusing on driving the story forward as succinctly as I can, and most of the "character development" has fallen out of the story naturally, or (more frequently) not at all. So, having character personalities bashed out before the story begins is a bit of a new thing for me. I'm still figuring it out.

Another thing is that if you want to show how a new piece of science works, the simplest way to accomplish that is to just explain it directly to the reader in simple terms that make sense. *Then*, having set out the "rules", I start playing with the concept. A clear, up-front explanation followed by some examples was standard practice when I was studying mathematics and also works well now that I engineer software for a living. In other words, "tell, then show". That's what I guess I've slipped into here. I've told you who the characters are, and later I'll show you how they behave. Of course, while that's the simplest and quickest and clearest way to convey technical information, it's not the most effective for narrative and it's also the lowest-effort.

The one thing that I've never done - or even tried to do - is write a scene primarily to illuminate some portion of a character's personality. Obviously this is something I need to work on.

As for Laura being a Mary Sue: she's not a wish-fulfillment fantasy version of myself (for that, see Ed MacPherson in the Ed stories) but she is obviously too idealised right now. I've been very conscious of this since right after I wrote "Thaumic City". To make up for it I've been deliberately trying to set her up as arrogant, overconfident and selfish (notice how in this story she wants her mum's insane magical powers so she can go into space, not for any stated altruistic reason), but perhaps that hasn't been working so well or it's not the right approach. I was also intending to expose those faults and take her ego down a notch at some future time, but if that's going to be part of Laura's character arc then it might not happen for a while. It's all a little up in the air.

Finally, I did actually have a small note which said "Rewrite [the STS-77 scene] from Laura's POV". I wanted to describe the Fernos' day at the park and what the family got up to, then take the reader through the NASA radio commentary and Laura's reactions and stuff. I'm sure that would have improved the sequence. The reason I dropped the idea was that I'd already been working on this chapter for two months (and on this whole story for well over a year), and I was conscious that it's very easy to become trapped in an eternal loop of refinement without ever shipping a completed word of prose. I wanted to get this chapter out of the door and press on at whatever cost.

So thank you for your patience and please bear with me as I try to become a better writer.

2011-12-12 01:57:32 by TheCustodian:

I feel uniquely privileged to have been able to serve as one of Sam's space-tech-idea-bouncing-surfaces, and am tickled as all hell that I now get to read more Ra/LF. Moar plz kthx.

2011-12-13 03:15:05 by Michael:

I like the evolving system, and how you touch on every aspect of physical mechanics in a magic spell: how do the pieces know how to exit the bag? how do they know where to form in what order? what if some are missing, out of reach, or blocked? This feels to me like the most realistic aspect of such a system, and I believe that I would be very much gratified if it became as predictable as chemistry. Well, not chemistry per se, but more akin to the Standard Model, as in "this piece of the system should be but we haven't found it yet" and then finding it. A veneer over physics, a reliable exchange of verbal expression for physical results. Correlation, correspondence, consistency, compatibility… that is what magic IS. And this you have offered.

May I see ever more.

2011-12-13 03:22:16 by Michael:

Oh, and my own personal idea (not theory or suggestion, just conception) about that little needed-for-everything-but-never-available tool, is that it simplifies spells for casting and makes lots of spells work with each other. For example, I noticed Rachel saying "oerinuum", which is clearly "uum" with a prefix. Perhaps it was the little dangle-thing that simplified that oft-used hundred-syllable spell down to one manageable, combinable syllable. Just a thought.

2011-12-13 03:25:05 by Michael:

Or just something that channels mana from place to place. I dunno.

2011-12-15 04:52:58 by Lethario:

This is great. You're writing is certainly still developing but I think it's great to read the work of someone trained as a Mathematician/Computer Scientist.

2011-12-17 03:02:02 by zim:

I love the whole concept of this story: having 'magic' exist in a version of our world in a way that it can be described by physics and mathematics. I'm surprised there isn't incredible amount of interest in the subject though. It seems like Laura's friends react to her studying magic like it's quantum physics: "Oh, you study quantum physics? That's cool. It's way over my head, so I know that's not for me!" I would think it would be more like: "Magic? So you say a sequence of words and can do incredible things? Well shit.. maybe I can do that.". Granted there's a level of difficulty involved, but I don't think that would stop people from trying. And in magic's early stages there's so much potential for new discoveries and infamy. Basically, I just don't understand why Nick would choose to be an English major!

2011-12-17 12:06:13 by pepps:

in response to zim:

why would Nick not choose to study magic? the same reason people don't become rocket scientists
they got bogged down in the tedious math goo

I'm sad to see the "belief" concept disappear

2011-12-19 18:42:53 by Michael:

"Belief" is overdone.

2011-12-22 04:02:23 by Andrew:

Personally I am glad Sam decided to drop the "belief" system of magic. I don't have to believe in gravity to stay stuck to the ground, science doesn't change based on our belief in how, or if, it works.

2011-12-25 00:45:07 by Boter:

And spinning off of that... you *do* believe in gravity, because you can feel it working, the constant downward tug. The first time someone sees something blatantly magic, they'll believe in it, so if the hurdle to practicing magic is that you must believe it... well, *everyone* would believe, so its not a hurdle at all.

2011-12-25 23:41:47 by Michael:

Well, the point is, it isn't a hurdle, rather an aspect of physics that explains why it works.

2011-12-26 19:43:17 by Michael:

Oh, new theory about the USB stick: it creates isomorphisms.

2012-01-06 23:49:13 by Snowyowl:

Michael: Have you tried using logarithms?

2012-01-07 06:02:50 by Mike:

For what?

I know this is a reference to something, but I can't remember what. -_- Maybe xkcd?

2012-01-07 10:01:54 by Snowyowl:

Yes, it's XKCD. But what do isomorphisms have to do with anything?

2012-01-07 21:08:46 by Mike:

Well, perhaps it allows some words or runes to stand for other words or runes, or perhaps even some real physical results. It would sure make sense.

2013-04-15 07:25:18 by Sydney:

It always weirds me out when a member of the SCP Foundation community uses the word 'Montauk'...

2013-04-15 09:07:25 by qntm:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montauk,_New_York

2013-04-19 13:10:30 by Sydney:

Yes, I know, but the association is there now because I learned about the city second. Another word poisoned forever...

2013-12-07 21:27:11 by henrebotha:

Hello. I recently read and loved Fine Structure, and now I'm doing this story. Loads of fun, I'm a huge fan of the 'magic as physics' thing, and I love that we get to learn so much of how magic actually works (not just 'think happy thoughts and say Expecto Patronum', but actual gritty details).

I can see you're trying to become a better writer, and I'm not one, but I have a criticism. I've seen this happen in this particular chapter of Ra, and in places in Fine Structure. You'll start two characters on a nice dialogue that reveals important character development, and just as it's about to come to a close, one character will attempt to clarify a point, but not without elucidating their entire train of thought, starting with initial knowledge and leading through a step-by-step logical derivation to arrive at a question. It smacks a little of http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AsYouKnow and really hurts what can otherwise be exciting character development.

Anyway, love it, don't stop.

2014-04-14 18:36:37 by Alclab:

I absolutely love your stories, and have been following Ra quite interested! I love how you explain the concept of magic and the revelation of what happened to their mother just makes it more excillerating!

2016-04-05 20:10:12 by Evonix:

So if the words are a keyboad then the staff is a mouse?

2017-03-26 02:38:38 by Ada:

Another series with a magic system that tends towards science is Diane Duane's Young Wizards series, which start with _So You Want to be a Wizard_. Highly recommended. I'm enjoying Ra so far & plan to download the e-book in the morning when I have bonus data.