The first magic spell is spoken by a 90-year-old retired Indian physicist named Suravaram Vidyasagar on 1st June 1972. It is one hundred and seventy- nine syllables long, comprising equal parts Upanishadic mantra and partial differential equation.
The effect of Vidyasagar’s spell is nothing at all. He has discovered what will later be called “uum”, the empty spell, which expends no mana and fails to rearrange the universe in any externally detectable way, but which then - crucially - returns to the dispatching mind and tells it so.
Ra is a wonderful and bizarre sort of story. On one level (about the first half of the book), you have a world where in the 1970s, magic was discovered in a world not unlike our own. And not just any magic, but essentially a magical programming language, with an all too familiar (from my own point of view) structure and syntax. It’s the hardest of hard magic systems and leads to entire fields of magical theory and engineering. Which, for some reason, is directly tied into NASA and the space program. A fascinating bit of worldbuilding all its own.
And then things really go off the rails. Because it turns out there is another, deeper level of magic out there . And we’re all actually living in a computer simulation . When it all starts falling apart / coming together, things start getting really really weird. It ends up working out, but man was it a change of the sort of book I thought I was reading. Personally, I think it would have made a better sequel/totally different story in the same universe, but so it goes.
One side note: Ra was originally published as a web serial: Ra . From time to time, it shows. There are a few jumps and pacing oddities that feel more at home in a chunkier (more serialized) structure. It can be jarring. I wonder if it would have if I hadn’t known.
Overall, give the first few chapters a try. If you love those, you’ll probably love the story as I did. If the technobabble turns you off–that will most certainly not be getting any better. Read something else. :)