Ragdoll Physicist


"Interesting" is the term geologists use to describe Iceland, and geologically interesting places are worth paying attention to in the same way that warzones and brand new nuclear powers are. Entire cubic kilometres of lava are seen emerging from the place. Sometimes it grows new islands. Sometimes its volcanic fissures eject so much sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere that the global temperature drops significantly, crops fail across the Northern Hemisphere and millions die from famine. Iceland is the place you go to remind yourself that planet Earth is a machine: very large, continuously operating, working on a time scale too long to easily observe, towards a highly uncertain end; and to remind yourself that all the organic life that has ever existed amounts to a greasy film that has survived on the exterior of that machine thanks to furious improvisation rather than any specific dispensation.

Iceland is also one of the few places on Earth, other than on people's skin, where mana is naturally occurring. It's a geological phenomenon, arising from molten rocks with just the right combinations of rare earths stirred into them. If you travel to a suitable spot and scan the horizon through a suitable oracle, you can see luminous mana radiating off the mountains and coiling into the air, like steam off microwaved pudding. There's a research centre, a smallish clutch of temporary buildings offshot from Reykjavik University. They drill holes into volcanoes and model the natural process on computers. There's a cooperation program with the UK.

So Laura and Natalie Ferno are here, along with a collection of other people from the same year and a few staff. It's a three-hour flight to Reykjavik, practically next door, but the town of Blönflói is almost on the other side of the country, so the final leg by road takes substantially longer. It's midsummer, which means noonday temperatures peak around "brisk". When the Sun is up (21 hours per day at this time of year), it casts a clean, white light uncommon in the UK, such that the grass here really does seem greener. There are sheep and Icelandic horses and dry stone walls at the outset, but as they travel, the countryside becomes wilder and more inhospitable. Grass shortens, clinging closer to the ground until bare soil is exposed.

"This isn't me," Benj says again.

"It's just culture shock," Laura says again. She's in the passenger seat; Benj Clarke and Natalie Ferno are crammed in the back between rucksacks. Benj, by his own admission, doesn't like foreign countries. Or foreign languages. Or customs, roads, buildings or food. It's like he's attached to his birthplace with an elastic cord. The further he travels away from home, the more highly strung his nerves become. "You can get used to anything," Laura elaborates. "This is day one and you'll be here long enough to get used to it."

"This isn't what I do," says Benj.

Laura's loving the scenery. Nat's quiet as ever, indifferent as far as anybody can tell. Years ago, as kids, Laura used to try to enthuse her about interesting things (sandcastles, computers, boys). She gave up when they were around thirteen or fourteen. Nat decides what she's into, nobody else does. Trying to force her into something just makes her less inclined to pay attention.

Blönflói lands on a ragged boundary where the soil, too, is starting to run out. It's a minuscule settlement, sparsely distributed yet small enough to fit entirely into a single photograph taken from ground level. The buildings are square and painted uniform white and red and pale blue; from a distance, they look like delicate wooden models. There's one huge fjord nearby and three ridges of tall, nude black mountains, but from the middle of the town looking directly to the north, there's nothing but the Arctic Ocean, all the way to the North Pole. It's more than a thousand kilometres further south than the northernmost inhabited point on Earth, but it feels like an outpost at the end of the world.

"Do you feel anything unusual?" their driver prompts them as they arrive. His name is Þór. (Nobody got his surname.) He is sixtyish, bearded, spectacled and very bulky; half of the bulk is fat, the other half is thick woolly sweaters. "Do you feel like there's more energy in the air?"

Benj and Laura generally agree. "Yeah, I definitely feel something, sure."

"Well, you shouldn't," Þór snaps. "There've been double-blind experiments. Nobody can pick up anything at this range without equipment. Pay more attention. This is a place where we do science."

The car rumbles along in silence for a little way. He's had this discussion before, Laura thinks. With tourists.

"It's nine more kilometres to the lab and three kilometres from the lab to the nearest foldback epicentre," Þór adds. "You might as well claim you can hear birds squawking all the way up there."

Nat nods.

There are fifteen students and staff on the trip altogether: Nat, Laura and Benj in the car, and the rest in a minibus following them. Accommodation is an informal youth hostel/guest house/cottage sort of place, a square two-storey building with a pointy red roof. A nice blonde lady of about forty-five shows them around the place and shows them the written list of rules and quirks. It has a lot of bedrooms full of bunks, a collection of showers, a big kitchen full of heavily used cookware and mismatched cutlery, and a beaten-up lounge with a big old CRT television. She disappears just as a welcoming party of three more Icelandic geophysicists arrives with a substantial container of local fish and other supplies. It's now well into the evening, UK time and there's a lot of hunger in the house so the four most resourceful and organised people in the building - students P and Andy, chemical mage Steve Aldridge and one of the Icelanders, Tómas - cook enough to feed an army. All of it gets eaten.

A few mages express concern about the shortage of alcohol in the house, head out and buy an amazing amount of beer. Nobody talks shop that evening; topics of conversation are sport, Icelandic customs and impenetrable late-night Icelandic television. Benj seizes on the beer, as it's something he can relate to. Laura drinks until she can't pronounce her True Name properly, at which point Natalie calmly redirects her to bed. The locals go home relatively early; the last of the students turn in at 2:45am, as the Sun is about to start rising again.


On day two they visit the main research building, where the establishment's second-most senior mage shows them a presentation. The subject is elementary volcanology. Spectroscopy, geology, The Local Shape Of Iceland, stratigraphy, volcanometry, geophysics, magma crystallisation, eruption types. After a short break the slides proceed seamlessly onto the topic of tools, drills, measuring equipment, vehicles and procedures. The safety section covers what to look for, what not to tread on and whom to keep in eyeshot, before abruptly ending after less than a minute. Then the magic comes into it and everybody starts paying more attention.

Exactly how the magic arises is not totally understood as yet, hence the research. The foldback points where the emanations start are kilometres deep, driven by insane magma heat and friction with the underside of unusual ultramafic rock strata. There are two major theories and a flurry of variations on those themes, some less likely than others. All the plausible ones tap into the same basic thermal equation. Research is carried out using scientific oracles, ranging from flat A4 sheets of hundreds of tiny engraved washers up to cadmium steel rings wide enough to drive trains through. The big ones are mounted on unconventional tractor-like vehicles with fat, expensive tyres.

Watching mana pour out of the interfaces and bubble upwards is informative, but what's really needed is hard chemical data, which requires dedicated deep drilling operations, which requires serious funding. More would be available if the naturally occurring mana was useful for anything. Geothermal energy is great, and thaumic turbulence modelling has come on in leaps and bounds thanks to the wealth of observations, but mana boiling out of the Earth itself doesn't belong to anybody. Sure, you can detect it, but it isn't concentrated or "collared"; it can't be used or stored by people. It certainly isn't dangerous. It's a continuously gushing oil well, except that the oil is valueless: invisible, intangible aurorae and chi-band mana particles.

In the afternoon they take their first trip up to Krallafjöll, where the magic happens. Most of the students ride in the minibus, bundled up. A few lucky ones get to ride in the mobile oracle tractor unit. The staff distribute a dozen or so monocle-sized oracles, which the students pass around, using them to study each other and the scenery. Krallafjöll is a volcanic fissure, a ridge where the local surface of the Earth has been forced upwards to breaking point, as if an axe split it from below. Lava, ash and cinders vent from the fissure, at least in theory. It's more than a hundred and fifty years since anything that could be termed an eruption took place.

The vehicles can't get far up the side of the ridge, but that's no problem. Tómas and another geophysicist, Haukur Tómasson (of no relation), use the tractor unit's two big hydraulic arms to aim the big ring directly at the core of the ridge and prime it. The ring has a huge surface area and needs specialist oracular enchantment. Haukur delivers the convoluted spells seemingly without effort or concentration. His enunciation is as sharp as anybody's and he doesn't make a single mistake. Nat and Laura are watching him alertly through a monocle as he finishes up. "Akla orotet j'lutyu j'lu astata," the last phrase which buttons the whole thing down, visibly depletes almost all of his available mana reserves. At his command, the big ring begins transducing all of the chi mana passing its mouth into visible photons, becoming a working holographic overlay of the ridge behind it. The image is hard to decipher at first, monochromatic like an X-ray image. After a moment to compose himself, Haukur adds false colour - well, additional false colours - to the picture.

"So, now we have a picture of the interior of the, the mountain," explains Tómas. "So, now we want to see clearly events that happen deep inside the mountain. So, can anybody guess how we do this?"

"Move the oracle closer," somebody suggests.


"Tune it to give a magnified image," is Nat's offer.

"How?" is Tómas' response.

"...I don't know."

"An oracle is a window. It is not a lens. If you want to lens light, you just use binoculars or a telescope." Tómas produces a pair of binoculars from a pocket. "It is a very strange feeling to use binoculars to look into the, the ground. But I, you get used to it."

"Would this approach be useful for geological surveys?" Aldridge asks. "I mean general geology, without magic being involved."

Haukur shakes his head. "You need the mana. The world is mostly pitch dark in the chi band. You just can't see anything. Maybe in ten years when detector spells get better."

"Is this kind of reaction visible in space?" Nat asks.

"Using a satellite?"

"No, not looking down. There are other places in the solar system with volcanic activity, where mana must be naturally occurring. Like Io. Couldn't you fit an oracle to the front end of a real astronomical telescope and see?" The Icelanders don't answer immediately. "Has anybody tried?"

"I don't know," says Tómas. "That's not really our department."

"Astrothaumics, Nat," Laura says, poking her in the arm. "You just invented space magic!"

Nat doesn't respond.

The oracle's vision shows an upward-pouring waterfall of mana. The real topology and composition of the ridge's interior are difficult to determine because the rocks themselves are totally absent from the picture, but the behaviour of the mana flow gives significant clues. The rock is igneous, of varying granularity. Darker areas are granite. Brighter patches of mafic rock collect the flow or perturb it into lazily coiling shapes. Here and there are small, very bright vortices and thin tubes. These are underground features of uncertain crystalline structure - something naturally similar to a magic staff. Rising mana is caught inside these features and stays bound to them for minutes or hours, in a decaying orbit or on a narrow main sequence path, before escaping and bubbling upwards.

The flow is slow, and entrancing to watch. This is Iceland the component of Earth the machine.

For their next trick, the Icelanders lay the big ring almost flat on the ground like a divining pool. The students gather around it and, kilometres below, they can see the deep foldback points where magma heat is transduced into mana and starts rising through the rock. "I definitely feel this," Benj says. The ground is warm underfoot and staring into the ring is like staring into a cauldron or furnace, so a sensation of rising heat isn't unexpected, but Benj is right-- there's enough randomised, unclaimed mana in the air that it can be felt. The output for the whole ridge must amount to megawatts, if it could be harnessed in a useful way.

But it can't. After more of the geology lecture, the ring is turned upwards towards the ridge peaks, where magic billows into the sky in spreading clouds. The process is continuous, though varying in intensity over the course of weeks depending on the "underground weather". Nobody can spell using the natural mana; it's nobody's to use and nobody's to give away. "Perhaps if planet Earth itself said a spell," says Tómas, "something terrible could happen. But it has no throat. And the shortest known fullspell is, is a hundred and fifteen syllables? Very unlikely!"


By this time everybody's been standing around in the cold for too long. The enthusiastic half of the group decide to climb to the top of the ridge, take some photographs, inspect some measurement equipment and throw some spells around. They'll walk back, it's only 30 minutes and all downhill. The rest, including Laura, Benj and Nat, take the bus and the ring tractor back to the lab where Haukur Tómasson explains the speciality magic they use for deep geological inspection. At first, Laura finds the "Blönflói Book" of pre-written spells and conjunctions fascinating, but it soon becomes clear how much of a kludge their framework is. It was built piecemeal over the course of years and has never been cleaned up. Good spells are brief without being obtuse, meaningful without being waffly; they loosely couple many independent charms together for maintainability. But the Blönflói Book spells have obfuscation, pointless repetition and spaghetti-like interconnections. In many places, perfectly normal second- or third-year results are painstakingly derived from first principles in ugly, non-standard ways. Of course, the whole thing works, for a given value of "works", and that's why it's never been fixed. But Haukur's just so proud of it all. Laura soon has to excuse herself; it's the only way to avoid saying something regrettable.

Benj joins her outside.

Laura says to him, "I wish I could say these guys were underfunded and underequipped. I mean, maybe the job they're doing and the tools they're working with are harder than they're making it sound. And there must be more difficulty to geological magic than meets the eye. And their volcanometry is really impressive, I've never seen that kind of high-fidelity measurement stuff before, the outside factors that they have to take into account to get reliable numbers are insane. But, is this where you see yourself working? I'm torn between straight-up replacing every spell they've written with something good, and running screaming and never looking back. It's the kind of mess I never want to inherit."

"This definitely isn't me," says Benj.

"That's your phrase of the week," says Laura.

"I'm sticking to it. When do we eat?"

Laura checks her watch. "Not for ever. Is the food you? Have you changed your mind?"

"The food isn't, food in general is."

"Let's work something out."

They walk down to a shop in town, buy some vegetables and some fish and bring it back up to the hostel/guest house/Magic Castle. By the time everybody else returns for their main evening meal, Laura and Benj have cooked, eaten, washed up and made a decent start on the evening's drinking.


It's nine in the evening and the Sun is still basically up when Natalie announces that she's going up Krallafjöll herself. "I'll be back by the time it gets dark."

"We'll come," says Laura. "How cold is it?" It's getting colder, but everybody brought a decent amount of gear and the sky's basically clear. "Yeah, we'll come. I'm going to go and put some layers on and then I'll definitely come with you. Gloves! Benj, is this you?"

"Sure," says Benj.

"I'm just going to look," says Natalie. "I want to think. I want to work through some numbers. It's more than a day since I meditated."

"Sure," say Benj and Laura.

"So hang back and try not to talk to me," Natalie clarifies.

"...Sure," say Benj and Laura.

On the way up that's what happens. Natalie strides ahead with her thoughts while Laura tells Benj she wishes Nick could have come. "I'll have to bring him another year. He'd love it. He'd run around a different volcano before breakfast every day. He's a nutter."

"I thought you were never coming back."

"...I did say that. Yes." Laura falls silent, now preoccupied resolving her cognitive dissonance.

Benj fills the gap as they walk by showing her his project. At the moment it's a fat, heavy molybdenum steel ring with deep engravings. It's a base unit, a highly versatile core element of many experimental spell systems. "You take a conical force field and modulate the field spell so that it moves forwards and backwards."

"You brought that on the walk to show me? Those things weigh like a kilogram each."

"I've got this bag here."

"So what does it do?"

"What do you think it does?" Benj demonstrates. "Simple triangle wave. Two hundred hertz. Ibra oniki opint five cee amag ennee. JULI-- wait. Konung konung. JUNYIA two cee a ennee."

The ring in his hands begins buzzing, a continuous low booooooooooooop.

"You've made sound!" Magic is silent, to say nothing of the fact that, until very recently, small-scale non-flat force fields were impossible. "Nat, he's made sound! He's an audiomage!"

"I hear it," Nat replies, not looking back. "And stop inventing words."

"So JUNYIA's a procedure you committed in advance?" Laura asks Benj.

"Sure. Ennee JUNYIA ixuv." The sound cuts out.

"Can I see that procedure some time?"

"When it's done."

Laura starts talking about the applications of sonic magic. She comes up with two dozen applications and limitations and areas for further research off the top of her head.

Benj has already thought of all of them. "Of course I have," he says. "I've been working on this for long enough."

"Encoding real recorded sounds into the spell is obviously impractical unless you want to sit there dictating pulse codes for a week. You need a recording device. And then you want to make something that can read the data it needs from somewhere. Reading from an electronic storage format is going to be amazingly difficult."

"I know."

"You need to invent a dedicated data storage format that can be read by magic. Maybe you can use an engraved ring like a vinyl record. Maybe you can modulate mana flavours and queue the flavours up inside a Montauk battery--"

"Laura, I know."

"Okay. Then I'm just going to stop talking."

Benj spins the ring once between his palms, deactivates it and puts it back in his rucksack for the climb. The steepest part is almost a scramble, requiring hands. Natalie leads, followed by Laura and then Benj. There's still plenty of light for now. If they're still up there when the Sun sets (around eleven PM local) they'll have a problem, Laura thinks. She starts working out illumination spells.

Nat can feel her head clearing as she climbs. It's not the cold wind. It's fresh mana rising up from the rocks underfoot. It has a different "smell", she thinks, from mana produced by people. It's less... she tries to think of a better word than "icky", which displeases her. Organic?

It's a long enough climb that they reach the top panting. The Krallafjöll ridge easily commands a view of Blönflói town and a hundred times more besides. At least fifteen kilometres of Route 1 can be seen, the Ring Road that completely encircles Iceland. To the south are rolling dark mountains leading towards the country's interior. To the north are the minuscule fishing port, the fjord and then pure, steel-cold Arctic Ocean. Nat stares into the wind and thinks, lapsing into something approaching a meditation cycle. Laura takes some photographs. As for the so-called volcanic fissure itself: other than a jagged confusion of rocks in a deep, intermittent crack at the top of the ridge, there's nothing to see. Laura was half-expecting to be able to look straight down into a pit of lava. But, she remembers, the feature has been inactive for decades. Dormant as a doornail.

"Yeah, I was going to sneak out and climb this myself," says Benj, pulling his base ring out again. "But since you're here, you're here. You need to help me. Ibra oniki ennee."

"Help you with what?" Laura asks, speaking over Benj's next spell, which she almost misses. All she notices is that this time he invokes a stored spell not called JUNYIA, but QUINIO.

"I actually did solve the encoding problem," Benj explains.

The molybdenum steel ring in his hands wakes up and buzzes momentarily. Then it starts talking in a low, heavily synthesised voice. "Ibra oniki ra. QUINIO alef a ra."

"Nice," Laura says, genuinely impressed. "How'd you do it? Not that that's going to work."

"Wait for it," says Benj.

"Ibra oniki ra. QUINIO QUINIO alef a ra," says his speaker ring.

Laura hesitates, puzzled. "Dulaku eset. That's... You can't cast a magic spell with a voice synthesiser." Nat turns around at this point, fixing Benj with a curious eye, which he doesn't notice.

"It turns out that two things in the universe can use magic," Benj explains. "One is sentient humans. The other is magic itself."

And the base ring says, "Ibra oniki ra. QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO alef a ra."

Laura backs away a step and almost trips on the uneven ground. "But... nobody cast that spell. Without a human mind behind it, it's just pressure waves in air. There've been dozens of experiments. Thousands. Machines can't spell. Machines can't do magic. It has to be a human being."

Suddenly standing right behind her, Nat takes her arm. "He's written a quine," she murmurs in her ear.

The ridge shakes. This would be an alarming development on flat ground, but at this altitude it's heartstopping. Benj falls, but gets back up again, laughing. Laura slips, Nat catches her. A few tens of metres along the ridge behind Benj, a substantial-sized rock formation dislodges and start rolling down the hill. With or without falling rocks, the incline is steep and rough enough to do serious damage to a rolling human; if he or she was careless or unlucky, they could easily reach the bottom of the slope dead.

Laura's mind is running flat out. This has happened to her before: a mage with skills beyond hers throws a fistful of new tricks in her face and she has to pick up the pieces. This time she's not getting left behind. Machines don't have mana resources. Machines don't have Names. Where's the energy coming from?

"Ibra oniki ra. QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO alef a ra." The ring sounds as if it's double-tracked.

This time the ground beneath them jumps up a full twenty centimetres. Benj lands flat on his back and drops his ring, which rolls away down the hill. Nat and Laura are separated by the jolt, but Nat recovers fast and scrambles back to Laura. With difficulty, self-preservation has managed to override Laura's curiosity. She motions for both of them to get out of there, back down the side of the ridge to relative safety. But Nat tightens her grip on her sister's arm. She shouts, "This isn't you, Benj! So who is it?"

"I told you. I've been telling you and telling you," Benj replies, sitting up.

It's a quine, Laura thinks. She can feel that she's almost got it. It's a magic spell which casts a magic spell which casts a magic spell. Nobody's done that before.

"--QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO alef a ra." That's five.

"Why are you doing this?" Nat demands.

"He's using up naturally-occurring mana," Laura manages.

"This is about freedom," Benj shouts, clambering back towards the top of the ridge.

Laura swears she feels the wave rising like a tide--

And this time the ridge explodes, a two-dimensional curtain of lava erupting from the one-dimensional fissure above them. The explosion drives the hillside up into Laura's knees, hurling her flailing into the air.

In freefall, upside-down, she experiences a split second of perfect clarity. Over her head, the solid real world spins, completely physically disconnected from her and therefore abstract, like an expensive computer render. Under her feet is the red and black molten light show, spreading like rose petals against the deep blue sky. There must be an Olympic swimming pool of lava in the air, plus the entire side of the hill. Hi, says a vivid, primitive part of her consciousness, a hot black bullet-like node whom she's met once before. Hi.

You're going to die.

Nat cannons into her side, long hair whipped over her face. She's shouting something. And she's had her ear pierced. This, of all things, takes Laura by surprise. Nat doesn't wear jewellery; she's always said that she doesn't believe in piercings or tattoos, but there it is. A tiny engraved metal bead on a simple loop of wire through her left earlobe. A driver dot.

"--zero EPTRO zui!"

Natalie's spell engulfs both of them in a closed, six-inch forcefield duvet, a fat bubble layer coddling them like Michelin Men. They hit the hillside as a unit, bounce a little and slide a long way further, protected from the shock and friction. Krallafjöll, about a quarter of the whole mountain, is still in the air. Nat's bought them three seconds. There's no way her protective enchantment can withstand what's coming next.

"Laura, you're up!" Nat bellows. "SHIELDS!"

Laura's finally in fight mode. She dives for the shallowest possible trance state and the shortest possible spell formation. "Sedo EPTRO dulaku--"

It's the same spell, performed with the same parameters, on identical equipment. But this one has half a year of Montauk-accrued energy behind it. There's a bone chilling instant after Laura finishes enunciating the last syllable, an infinitesimal delay. Then Laura's shield inserts itself into exactly the same physical space as Natalie's and spreads across exactly the same topology. Not inside it, not outside it, but directly reinforcing it.

And then they're drowning in rock like some drown in water.


Next: Broken 'Verse

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Discussion (59)

2012-05-04 21:02:19 by Newfur:

At last! Glad to see more fiction. It's good.

2012-05-04 21:18:25 by qntm:

I really don't know about the last line of this one. I couldn't figure out what to put there.

2012-05-04 22:40:52 by Robert:


Either magic is sentient, or mana particles can self-interact.

2012-05-04 22:49:27 by jalapenodude:

Well we know from the previous chapter that thaumic flow is self-interacting ("Reflectivity," he clarifies. "Full-blown fully-accounted 5D thaumic flow is self-interfering."). But yes, I think we're supposed to relate this to the discussion about Earth itself casting spells...

2012-05-04 23:38:30 by YarKramer:

I grinned at the phrase "scientific oracle." It's one of those phrases that sounds counterintuitive, but with "oracle" as a previously-defined technical term it technically makes perfect sense!

And then things got Really Interesting. Making me curious about all sorts of things, starting with whether Benj knew this was going to happen, and what exactly he *thought* would happen if not, with a wellspring of *other* questions if the answer is yes ...

2012-05-04 23:57:29 by Turgid:

The last line is great as it is.
I absolutely love the ideas in this chapter as well. I wonder if you intended magical engineering to have such an obvious parallel to software engineering, down to the old, unmaintained code. I also wonder how such a simple spell could use so much mana and be so destructive after only five loops, but on the other hand the simplest infinite loop in a computer program can crash a system. Or perhaps "Benj" found the Godel sentence of the mountain, so to speak, or some kind of resonant frequency.
Anyway, keep them coming! I love your fantastic science.

2012-05-05 04:04:54 by eneekmot:

Awesome. Good to see another one of these, and you've definitely made it worth the wait.

2012-05-05 04:53:47 by Thrack:

Let's see, what are some potential resolutions to their dillemma? Did Laura use up *all* of her stored energy to reinforce that shield? Is that quine still being cast? I'm guessing it will stop once the machinery is destroyed by the lava.
Perhaps if they can freeze the lava that they are floating in to stall for more time. Hopefully they can float to the surface first though... or would it just sink?

I'm a bit surprised that Laura is having so much trouble with the idea of magic casting spells. I guess the idea that "machines can't cast spells" became generalized to "only conscious creatures can cast spells" and then ingrained itself into her mind.

Hmnn... actually, this story is beginning to remind me of Atlantis. Or certain retellings of Atlantis at least. If people keep learning new aspects of magic and performing spells like that then the world will be at severe risk.

2012-05-05 05:56:33 by Guy:

Oh god. Benj didn't want to come back...

2012-05-05 11:22:06 by FeepingCreature:

Gaia Theory? The audio synthesizer turns Mana into Voice; this is a place where Earth Itself could cast spells? If it had a voice? Which Audio Guy just gave it ("This is about freedom")? Is that where you're going?

2012-05-05 17:26:50 by Kugala:

The question would be freedom from what?

2012-05-05 20:03:03 by TomTom:

My theory: Benj's been possessed by...something. Magic itself maybe? When he keeps saying "this isn't me", he's actually talking about what he tries to do at the end of the story.

2012-05-05 20:48:10 by Thrack:

I just remembered, Benj originally planned on doing this when noone was around and as it is he probably doesn't expect there to be any surviving witnesses of what he did. Thus, it can't very well be a message unless he wants people to think the earth itself is sentient and used up those mana reserves of it's own volition. Which is possible but what would be his motive?

I find it weird that Benj says "I told you. I've been telling you and telling you," when Nat asks him who it is because he has only said that it is magic casting the spell once. This might actually fit the idea that he is being possessed but my first thought was that he has tried to talk about this to other people. He also must have some history that led him to doing this and probably had the intention of either suicide or becoming a martyr of some sort since he isn't likely to survive this.

2012-05-05 21:30:17 by skztr:

"this isn't me",

if you want to follow that line literally, in "know" we saw Jeremy build a "new Benj" when they couldn't find him. Then Laura "does something and Benj wakes up inside the Benj body".

This all took place in an as-yet-unexplained metaphysical realm in which thought was reality, but we don't know the implications of anything yet, really.

Here's hoping there's less of a wait between chapters this time around :)

2012-05-05 21:37:22 by Raphfrk:

Lava has the same density as rock, so they should float. Ofc, that could just mean they are being blanketed in lava from all sides.

2012-05-05 22:10:21 by Thrack:

Wait, Benj was in "What you Don't Know?" I didn't realize we had seen *any* of these characters before besides Laura and Nat. I knew it was most of the students from the same class (or multiple classes?) but didn't realize anyone important from the last story was here. Very good to know, I can throw out my idea that this is similar to school shootings now. MUCH more interesting to analyze now too.

2012-05-06 00:42:40 by Mike:

I see you're not waiting until the end this time to start blowing up large icy landmasses.

2012-05-06 02:57:08 by Daniel:

That's not exactly a magical quine; quines just output, rather than self-execute. It's closer to a fork bomb.

I was worried something like that would happen, even before I read that part of the story. Algorithmic manipulation of reality is dangerous; ordinary programming methods tend to assume that fatal errors are ultimately harmless, which isn't the case when there are substantial physical side effects.

2012-05-06 06:46:44 by john:

My theory? Original-recipe Benj never came back from Tanako's World. Quinespell-inventing Benj is trying to get back home, but needs high-energy magic to do it, and lacks the personal resources.

2012-05-06 15:36:19 by Twey:

Except that output of magic *is* execution, so every quine is an infinite loop. I don't know why the spell changes on each execution, though.

2012-05-07 12:02:22 by joel:

I have two questions:

1. How did Benj test his code before deployment? Unless there's another smaller, and therefore easily exhaustible, source of natural mana somewhere, it seems highly unlikely that something this experimental would work the first time. And even so it would tell us why he seems to know that it would work in advance.

2. Is there going to be any official documentation for the spellcasting system? from what we've seen so far UPPERCASE seems to be a convention for invoking a predefined routine/procedure/function/whatever.

My current wild guess is that the language is lambda- or combinator-based., but then that just makes it probably unnecessarily complex.

2012-05-07 12:14:52 by Solteur:

It takes place in Iceland! :D

(I'm icelandic. This story makes me gleeful)

2012-05-07 13:06:24 by qntm:

Apologies for the inevitable factual inaccuracies relating to Iceland.

Spells obey a language which is rather fuzzy and so not entirely consistent, but there are some basic rules. "Ixuv" means "terminate a spell in progress", "sedo" means "repeat a previously cast spell". An ALLCAPS word is a shorthand invocation of a much longer spell. Every mage has a True Name, which has to be used whenever they invoke magic. If you look at the spells that have been cast you should be able to figure out True Names for Laura, Nat, Benj and maybe one or two other people...

2012-05-07 14:31:32 by Matthew:

So as far as I can work out, that makes "dulaku" Laura's True Name, "zui" I'd guess is Nat's. From the previous story, I'd say "Kzarn" is Dr. Czarnecki's.
In this story "enee" appears to be Benj's True Name but here's where it gets interesting: the quine loop doesn't use Benj's true name when repeating. He uses it to start the loop but the machine doesn't when doing the loop.

The True Name of the machine or more likely, the Earth or indeed magic itself would appear to be "ra"
(Ibra oniki *ra*. QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO alef a *ra*.)

And the name of this fiction series is...

Not actually sure if that's of any significance but I'm sure the discussion about the Earth being able to cast spells must have something to do with the story - it's just too cool a concept for it not to.

2012-05-07 17:05:58 by Thrack:

But didn't Benj design the spell? If Ra is the Earth's True Name then Benj must have figured that out somehow. Hmn, come to think of it how do people learn their own True Name?
Unless Benj is now some part of the Earth's mind (if it has one) and is trying to get back home. If that's true and is the main plot then I will be a bit annoyed because it's the exact same motive that Mitch (or rather, the higher level being that was possessing him) had in Fine Structure.

What is a True Name? Where did that concept come from? It's been mentioned a few times I think but never really explained. Based on comments I've seen I gather that it is used in fictional magic in other stories but I've never read them before. Are there any other concepts in Ra that requires prior reading?

2012-05-07 17:27:54 by qntm:

There is no background reading. You know everything that I want you to know right now.

2012-05-07 20:55:50 by atomicthumbs:

we would like to know more


feed us, sam

2012-05-07 21:27:53 by Omegatron:

How does the shorthand invocation of a much longer spell (the ALLCAPS) actually work? What associates the shorter word with the longer spell?

2012-05-07 22:18:20 by Sean:

Hmm, Laura's mother's True Name seems to be "kasta".

In "What You Don't Know", we have this quote:

'"I do know your names," says Dan. "Dulaku, tolo, adaba." Again, nothing.'

At this point, Dan's trying to find Benj. It's unclear from context whether he tried to list the three True Names of the students, or if he was just trying to mention Laura in a spell. (The conversation suggests the former, while the phrase "Again, nothing." suggests the latter.) Since neither "tolo" or "adaba" appear in Benj's casts in this story, that would suggest that either this statement was not a list of their names, or else that Benj's True Name has changed (or, by implication, that the original Benj is not the one casting the spell, but has been replaced by "ennee"). In any case, he seems to have retained his memories, general personality, and tendency to stumble over the words in spells, so he hasn't completely been replaced with something else.

It's not clear what Benj was running from in the earlier story when he was trying to avoid being found; whatever it was, it might be responsible for what's happening in this one (or he might have been running because it had already compromised him). It might be some kind of possession, but if Tanako's world really is a sort of shared dream, from mages' minds spontaneously linking, maybe it just has bits of knowledge, spells, memories, fragments, or something slipping around in it. Or of course, it could have something to do with wherever Laura's mother got her knowledge, and the motivation to keep it secret.

Would also be interesting to know if Tanako's world has any significant connection to "ra" (e.g. the Earth's mana field somehow establishes, interacts with, stores, or sustains its information content). Or it could relate to magic generation that might occur on a different planet, as Nat suggests. Does "ra" refer to a particular feedback system, to mana generated in Iceland, throughout the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, or all mana in the universe not associated with sentients? To magic itself as a kind of meta-entity? To something that only came into existence in this story? Without knowing more about what True Names are, it's hard to guess how the True Name applies to something that's not a sentient person.

2012-05-07 22:22:06 by qntm:

Whoops! That's a mistake. I forgot I'd given Benj a True Name already. He has now retroactively always been "ennee".

2012-05-07 23:15:27 by atomicthumbs:

What if Benj is now Tanako

and Tanako is Mad about Magic

2012-05-08 18:43:28 by IanO:

The title seems to point in the direction of some sort of possession.

2012-05-09 23:35:49 by Thrack:

I was thinking the title was merely a reference to how powerless the physicists are compared to the situation they are in. In a natural disaster such as this (er, if this counts as "natural") you are mostly helpless and can get thrown around like a ragdoll.
Of course, there are no rules saying a title may only mean one thing so it could well be referencing both ideas.

Do you suppose there are ways to cast spells other than vocalizing them? If humans had some kind of organ to produce light of varying frequency and intensity as easily as we produce sounds of varying frequency and intensity would we be able to cast spells with it? Or using any other type of wave?
What if you cast a spell in different mediums, would that have an effect? Helium for instance, known for making people sound like munchkins?

2012-05-10 03:07:48 by Turgid:

I think the title is just a play on "ragdoll physics" which is a technique in shooter videogames for letting dead bodies flop around procedurally instead of using a canned animation. It was a buzzword for a few years after the technique was invented, nowadays it's pretty standard I think.

2012-05-10 21:02:57 by Aegeus:

How do you pronounce an ALL CAPS spell? Do you just say it louder?

2012-05-11 07:05:55 by Sean:

"Whoops! That's a mistake. I forgot I'd given Benj a True Name already."

Aha! I caught you! My fake degree in Editorhood has paid for itself already!

(But seriously, it does brighten my day when I've got something about a story like this figured out to a point where I stumble on an author's mistake. And kudos to you for writing a world that's detailed and consistent enough to be interesting to study.)

2012-05-11 07:24:55 by Sean:

One more interesting line:

"Yeah, I was going to sneak out and climb this myself," says Benj, pulling his base ring out again. "But since you're here, you're here. You need to help me. Ibra oniki ennee."

I wonder why he planned to ask for help with?

2012-05-12 19:56:18 by jalapenodude:

I notice that I am confused about true names:

1)So far everyone/everything we've encountered has a true name of three syllables or less.
2)There's been no indication that magic requires some innate ability to learn: it seems like a science you can pick up by learning the techniques (and, possibly, being sentient).

These two facts seems to suggest that *every sentient being* should have a true name. There are a lot of unique three-syllable words--my quick estimate is somewhere between 10^8 and 10^12--but that's still uncomfortably small even before we start considering sentient beings on other worlds. (Which gets us into a whole new can of worms--can only beings with vocal cords use magic? Or is pronunciation only one way to cast spells? If the latter, what does the concept of true name map to?)

Furthermore, if Matthew is right, Dr. Czarnecki's true name is one syllable long, which seems astronomically unlikely. (So is Earth's, which could have interesting implications about the prevalence of sentient life in this universe...)

So, something I assumed isn't correct here.
1)Maybe true names aren't unique?
2)Maybe not everyone has a true name?
2a)Maybe true names are only assigned when you start casting magic? If so, how does that work? Does magic *know* when you start casting spells and assign you a name?
2b)Maybe magic does require some sort of rare innate potential, and it hasn't been mentioned in the story?

2012-05-12 20:11:07 by qntm:

All of those questions have excellent answers. I'm not sure how many of them will come into the story organically, but they're right here in my notes.

I don't think it's a spoiler to throw this out right now: if two mages with identical True Names meet, then to avoid confusion one of them uses an "away Name" which is different from their normal one.

2012-05-12 23:31:47 by Jacob:

Are True Names only required for "short," "pre-prepared" casts of spells? Rajesh was able to use the same uum mantra/incantation as Suravaram.

2012-05-13 04:34:51 by jalapenodude:

"I don't think it's a spoiler to throw this out right now: if two mages with identical True Names meet, then to avoid confusion one of them uses an "away Name" which is different from their normal one."

Ooh, very interesting. This suggests that you can't (i.e. humans currently don't know how to) deliberately pick a certain True Name, because then people wouldn't pick identical ones. And it suggests that there are only a small number of possible True Names, again at least assigned to humans. Wolfram|Alpha says there are ~14000 physicists in the US, so we can safely say that there are <50,000 physicists in the world, and it seems unlikely that the number of mages is higher than that. So the fact that identical True Names are common enough that there's an agreed protocol on what to do when a clash occurs, but rare enough that the five names we know are all different, gives some reasonable expectation of how many True Names there are (exact number left as an exercise to the reader...). Presumably people have tried to see if particular True Names correlate with other observables?

2012-05-13 14:13:34 by jonas:

So people can share a true name, and this does occasionally come up in universe. However, just like any language, the language of magic has the facilities to disambiguate these cases.

Sam has decided to share this snippet of info, possibly because such a name clash is unlikely to come up in the stories, just like how shared real names don't often come up in fiction stories, for they can confuse the reader.

2012-05-13 17:06:08 by Thrack:

jalapenodude, my theory (well, more of a hypothesis) is that the use of vocal cords is only one way to cast magic. I expect that any type of wave will suffice. Though, I also suspect that an optical wave that is identical to the sound wave of an incantation wont have the same effect.

By my understanding the clouds of magic particles that surround people are shaped using tools such as magic staffs (and maybe their own hands for less precise control?) and the incantations... either shape it further (maybe altering it's structure or density or something) or affect some other property. Or not. Either way incantations are also used as triggers and can move or change the flow of magic particles. Hrmm... Laura's mother moved mana around with her hands to create virtual controls that she would activate during flight. Does this imply that the purpose of shaping the mana is to create a machine? And incantations may be like instructions to tell it what to do? Or maybe incantations are more analogous to circuitry, changing the way mana flows and in effect changing the shape of the machine you built.
Here is an analogy for my idea, let's say you have a robot. It has a physical structure, the motors, supports, battery, etc. (the clouds of mana) and it has circuitry and software that controls it (incantations).

Hmnn... ok, so let's examine how this would work when actually casting a spell. Let's say Laura's microwave spell. First you shape the unstructured mana around you by waving a staff around and/or uttering incantations (I think Laura only used incantations for this one?). Once the machine has the proper form you say some other incantations to focus the flow of mana to the right spot and direction and the machine converts the mana into microwaves.

That sounds good and logical. But how do predefined spells work? Effectively macros? Or spells like Konung which erase the effect of the previous word? And then the word before that if you say Konung twice. Speaking of which I notice that Benj apparently has to erase normal words, so there is no real distinction between incantations and speech in the sense that they both affect your spell. I suppose ownership is convenient in this way because otherwise you would be constantly saying Konung because of ambient noise.
Then there is ownership, you can't shape and use just any mana available which doesn't really make since in the system I built here. Hmnnn... yet despite that you *can* convert magic particles into light by using an oracle.... So theoretically there shouldn't be anything stopping you from converting it to anything else and getting useful work out of it. Or putting a solar panel in front of a regular Oracle for that matter.

2012-05-13 17:30:27 by Thrack:

Oh, and then there are things like Tanaka's World. Magic is connected to the mind somehow and I completely forgot to take that into account.

2012-05-13 23:10:30 by Mike:

Laura's mother had engraved rings on her fingers.

2012-05-15 18:23:31 by Omegatron:

I took Konung as erasing individual syllables. They've talked about syllables on their own before "unmatched floating syllables will hang around for the best part of half an hour before dissolving" and Laura "recites the spell in regular words" back in What You Don't Know.

2012-05-16 08:14:43 by TJSomething:

I would just like to note that the way that True Names work sounds like how you would handle hash table collisions with chaining. I suspect that there exists a hash function in the laws of magic of the form ((Set of all souls) x (Natural numbers)) -> (Set of all True Names). Then, magic has a physically local caching mechanism that maps all True Names used in a region to souls. This is stored in the same "space" as unused syllables and has the same range.

I've been making this assumption that True Names map to souls. From what I could tell, only objects that can cast magic have true names and the only such objects shown are humans and Ra, which may be the Earth or Magic itself. I suspect that the nature of Ra is similar to that of Truth in Fullmetal Alchemist. So, I'm assuming that anything that casts magic has some non-physical part that I've been calling the soul. It may not be a soul in any classical sense, but we don't know that. "Souls" here may permanent or temporal, divisible or atomic, movable or immovable, creatable, mergable, etc.

Anyway, I would guess that stored spells can be used when two mages have the same True Name, which would imply that spells are linked to souls, not names.

Assuming I'm right, what if the cache that referenced souls by True Name became stale by a soul being removed or destroyed? How does magic handle what would be, in computers, segmentation faults?

2012-05-17 02:17:41 by Sean:

The space of possible True Names is presumably reduced by syllables that are magic words themselves. (Or else someone with a particularly unfortunate True Name might have to throw in extra syllables to "quote" their own Name, or use an away Name almost all the time. It seems more likely that there's some mechanism to prevent namespace clashes between magic words, True Names, and invented procedures like JUNYIA and QUINIO. Lojban has a similar problem, and in fact there are conventions about what kind of names people are allowed to have, as well as "erase" words; "si" in Lojban is similar to "konung" in magic. You can quote any word or phrase in Lojban by following certain quoting procedures, but it's cumbersome to refer to people by names that don't follow the typical conventions.)

Notably, it seems to be possible to insert numbers from English into spells; a lot of numbers seem to show up, presumably as magnitudes or wavelengths. That means that either people conventionally bind the word "two" to mean two in their procedures, or else that there is some way to interface magic with natural languages. Or else that words that sound like English numbers show up a *lot*.

I've assumed so far that runes are transcriptions of the same magic words that people say out loud, which suggests that you don't need to speak them to use them. So far it does seem necessary to say some words to actively cast spells; if runes do use the same language as spoken words, they clearly have some effect, but need to be activated by a spell that's actively being cast, I suppose. It makes me wonder if it's possible to cast spells by writing very quickly, or using gestures (sign language), if one can do so in the same state of mind as when speaking, and knows the words.

I also wondered what happens if a mage dies while casting a spell. Do their spells just run out of power and stop as the mana runs out? Can they run on stored mana for a long time afterward? (I guess a similar question applies to losing consciousness; it seems like a mage might go to Tanaka's world if she tries to channel too much mana and gets stuck in the trance, and the same might go for normal sleep, but that doesn't explain what happens if she, say, gets hit really hard over the head, or put under strong general anesthesia, during a spell.)

2012-05-20 00:21:16 by fourd:

Runes an I imagine are probably as you say, and seeing as we learned in this that "the shortest known fullspell is, is a hundred and fifteen syllables", and a spell is able to be expressed in ten or fewer because the runes allow for a lot of legwork to be shortcut across. Allowing a mage to use shell script pipes rather than write the pages and pages of C.

As for dying mid casting, I'd imagine that they'd "hang around in the air for a half hour or so" in the same way as if a spell had been interrupted by other means.

2012-05-20 07:06:17 by Solus:

Great story, Sam.
You misspelled "ennee" as "enee" once.

I'm pretty sure that's a misspelling.

2012-05-20 12:51:21 by Snowyowl:

How would a person learn their True Name? Audio feedback from magic hasn't been done before, and learning new magic words by guesswork would be horribly inefficient. This seems to suggest that one can choose their own True Name, in much the same way as one defines stored procedures. (And, for that matter, in much the same way as one chooses their real name.)

We know that "new" magic words can be created easily. And it can hardly be coincidence that "Kzarn" is Czarneki's Name, unless he changed his last name to match his True Name at some point. So my theory is that one has a certain amount of control over what one's Name is - although there must be some sort of restriction on what words can be a Name, otherwise everyone would make their True Name the same as their real name.

I'd also imagine that "two", "three", "twenty two", and so on, are all the names of stored procedures that define numbers somehow, presumably in binary or in successor notation ("two" refers to SS0, "three" refers to SSS0, etc.). Could someone change these stored procedures and annoy every mage on the planet? I'd hope not.

I also wonder how the process for "committing" stored procedures works. Are they tied to you? Could Laura cast JUNYIA or QUINO with the same wording Benji used? Or would she need to say what amounts to "cast Benji's version of JUNIYA"? I like that one, but we see here Laura recasting Nat's spell EPTRO - so either EPTRO is a standard spell that every mage is taught, or stored spells are independent of the person who cast them. (Or Laura invoked Nat's True Name later on in her spell.)

Stored spells must be tied to their caster somehow, though. Otherwise I, halfway around the world, could create my own spell called QUINO and Benji's quine would invoke that spell instead of itself.

bleh, I don't know. I hope to see more of this story soon, it's brilliant.

2012-05-20 20:59:19 by Mike:

I think spell macros are tied to a particular true name. Like, they do that particular thing when they are cast with the true name they are created with. But then, how could magic invoke QUINIO? It must be that you can make a macro usable by multiple true names. But then Benj would have had to figure out that the magic's true name is Ra. So... maybe it doesn't work the way I thought it works.
Maybe you could tie them to a particular object, and have one be accessible when invoked with reference to (and presumably in the presence of) that object. Yeah, I'm going to go with that. And the first one.

2012-06-02 16:56:54 by jonas:

Argh, somebody else is commenting as "Jonas". I'll have to use an away name in the future.

2012-06-03 08:20:43 by bysjonas:

The shield Nat and Laura cast here seems to contradict what “Magic isn't” claims about force fields.

2012-06-03 09:35:08 by qntm:

No, force field technology has advanced a LOT in the intervening time.

2012-07-05 20:15:22 by Ross:

Was any of this Icelandic landscaping inspired by Journey to the Center of the Earth, perchance? As soon as I hit "long overland voyage from port to destination" it's what I thought of immediately.

2012-08-14 21:10:16 by StephenVan:

I would think that True Names are a magical description of the person condensed into the shortest form possible. As such since people haven't discovered how to control which aspects of their person are expressed in their true name its possible and likely for mages with duplicate True Names to meet. Additionally, if a person's True Name is discovered through the use of a spell, and everyone uses the same spell, then the spell is constructed in such a way that it favors certain attributes of a person above others preferring them in the formulation of a True Name.

2013-01-04 01:50:54 by Speising:

This reminds me strongly of "Wiz Biz" by Rick Cook, wherein a programmer is introduced into a magical world and proceeds to create a magical programming language, thereby reducing magicking from art to engineering.

2013-05-07 05:02:42 by Ant:

I starting reading 'Ra' back when it was new and I stopped for some reason. I just got back into and am really enjoying it. I was really making the programming connection with magic and am thrilled to see someone create a quine!