After reading Fine Structure I went on a feverish search for other books by Sam Hughes. And I found out he wrote another book after Fine Structure, and it was even better.
If Fine Structure was about “what if technology were a lot harder?,” Ra is the just-as-horrifying opposite extreme. Some time in the 1970s, a retired Indian mathematician attempts to “optimize” a mantra for use in meditation. And the mantra does something.
Magic is a branch of applied science, rather like electrical engineering or computer science if you could use it to kill people with your mind. Don’t worry, though, getting to the stage of mind-killing requires a PhD.
Sam Hughes has worked everything out. The meaning of the various Words of Power, the accent you have to use when you pronounce them, the look and feel of the written language that represents them and the mystical talismans – ahem! I mean, “the precision industrial equipment” – that wizards can use to manipulate the forces of nature. He’s figured out what wizards do to unwind (bojutsu, because it helps hone their staff-wielding skills), the boring jobs wizards get in industry, the dreams they have for more. Sam Hughes has created something just on the edge of being real, and then he brings it crashing down in a very exciting way.
If you’ve read Sam Hughes before, you know it’s not a question of whether the Earth will be destroyed, it’s a question of how many times.
Nota Bene: I read both the official ending and the alternate one, and I actually like the alternate one better.