Jan 252020
 

Ra, by Sam Hughes

Synopsis: When magic is discovered in the 70s, it quickly becomes a branch of applied engineering. After losing her mother under magical (and mysterious) circumstances, a young student takes up Magic R&D to try to undo that loss.

Book Review: There’s so much to like here, it’s hard to decide were to begin. Right off the bat, this is the most true-to-life depiction I’ve seen of what would happen if magic did exist in our world. Much like the discovery of electricity, arguably the last time we found magic, we immediately set out to understand this new thing and learn everything we could about it, then use it to make life easier and better. But also much more complicated, and sometimes more dangerous. Especially in the period of time where we don’t yet fully understand this new force — which is the period that this book is set in. The most exciting time. :)

I’m also impressed by how deep the plotting and world goes, and how skillfully it’s slowly revealed to us. Every time we mostly grasp something, a new layer is revealed that adds to the mystery and intrigue. The rabbit holes are branching and deep, and often self-supportive.

But the scope of this whole thing is what really gets me. When I started the novel, I was in an interesting near-future story about magic and research. By the time I got to the end the story had morphed several times and greatly expanded, seamlessly enough that I didn’t notice at the time. But when I finished the book, and I looked back on where I finished, vs where I started, I would have never guessed I’d get there from here, and damn was that a hell of a ride.

This novel is supremely ambitious, and it’s a joy to read something that bites off so much, and chews it so well.

Along the way, I was confronted by a new revelation about what I value in reality/life, and I had to think hard about what makes human lives valuable. I still haven’t come to answers for the moral questions that the book raised in me. These two things are among the highest praise I can give a book.

It’s not perfect. There are times where it drags a bit (one too many digressing vignettes), and other times where it’s too damned hard to follow (I’m still confused about a couple minor points). Most regretably, about 2/3rds of the way through there is a revelation which caused me to almost stop reading the book entirely. I put it down and considered just not bothering to continue. I’m glad I did, because it turned out I was incorrect in my reading of that revelation, which I discovered two chapters later. But that’s a flaw that could have been avoided with slightly clearer writing.

Nonetheless, this is an outstanding work, and worth reading every word. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a challenging read, and not for everyone. A few people dropped out early in frustration, and attendance was a bit light due to that. And not everyone that stuck it out enjoyed it quite as much as I did, a couple of them thought that the density and focus on the engineering angle brought down the story overall. However we did have a fair few things to discuss and either marvel over or complain about. And it was certainly interesting to mull over the human-value related question as a group. I think you’ll have to take your group into consideration before deciding on this one, it certainly makes the reader put in work. I think it’s worth it, so – Recommended.

Personal opinion/note – The author released a Revised Ending several years after the original publication of Ra. This Revised Ending is so much better than the original that I recommend not even bothering reading the original ending. Maybe if your curious, afterwards, just to compare. But the Revised Ending is leaps and bounds better.

The book can also be read or downloaded freely from the author’s home webpage.

  6 Responses to “SF/F Review – Ra”

  1. Maybe I’ll try it again but the last time I tried it, it got to a point where I no longer had the slightest idea what was happening. I was reading the comments under each chapter and it felt like they were theorizing about an entirely different book from the one I was reading; I didn’t have any clue what anyone was talking about. I had similar difficulties with the last third of Blindsight.

    • I didn’t read the comments at all.. and I think it’s intentional that you often don’t know what’s actually real or not. I don’t know if that’s some kind of genre but there are other stories like that.. uhm…

      John dies at the End
      Shutter Island

      Are just two stories that are similar in that regard.
      Sometimes it jumps to a different time but usually that’s mentioned in one of the first two paragraphs of that chapter and the rest is chronological.

  2. I started reading it now. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. For people who like seeing the messy origins of things, it’s worth having a look through https://qntm.org/nanowrimo where a lot of the ideas that became Ra got their starts. I would recommend reading it first though.

  4. I’ve started reading his SCP stories too now.. I didn’t know I was into horror but I guess I am now. At least I think that horror would be the main genre of those stories.

    http://www.scp-wiki.net/antimemetics-division-hub

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