January 07, 2010

Index and Railgun -- Touma's power

This is a discussion of how Touma's "imagine break" power works, inspired by a post over at Ubu's place.

It's spoilers for To Aru Majutsu no Index and To Aru Kagaku no Railgun, so it's below the fold.

UPDATE: Ubu responds.

At the beginning of ep 8 of Railgun, we see part of a class that Saten is attending on how to develop special abilities and how they work. This is what the teacher says (as translated by Chihiro):

As you can see, the most important aspect of the curriculum for ability development here in Academy City is "Personal Reality." In other words, attaining a reality of your own. This is the basis of every paranormal ability.

So an ability user is fighting against normal reality as dictated by the laws of physics and mathematics. They imagine a change, and then use their power to make reality conform to what they've imagined. Their power level is a measure of how well they can do this: how reliable it is, how big of an area they can affect, and how long they can keep doing it (i.e. stamina). And in that deep sense, all of them are doing the same thing.

What varies is the kind of thing they imagine is changed. Each person who has a paranormal ability has one kind of thing they can control in that way. Why only one? Because they've always been told that people can only have one kind of power. So when they manifest a power, they cease trying to find any other and instead concentrate on the one (the first one) they've found.

As described in Index, magic was developed by people who didn't have paranormal abilities in order to give them equivalent capability. People with paranormal powers do these reality changes with their own power. Magicians do it by calling upon external powers, e.g. angels, or through potions and special items created through alchemy.

The second arc in Index has an alchemist who has developed something like a paranormal power. Whatever he describes happens. Only Touma eventually figures out that it isn't his words that matter; it's his thoughts. His power is that whatever he thinks becomes real, and Touma eventually uses that to beat him. (Touma convinces the alchemist that Touma is an undefeatable monster -- and becomes one.)

When ability users contend with each other, both are trying to alter reality simultaneously in ways which are mutually exclusive. It becomes a contest of raw power against raw power, and whichever has more power wins, in the sense that the stronger one's image of what should change is what happens.

That's why Accelerator seems to be invulnerable. It isn't that he has the power of invulnerability; there is no such thing. But as the top rated level 5, he has more power than anyone else known, so when he fights someone else, and contends ability-against-ability, he has more power to impose his will than anyone else.

So what is Touma's "Imagine Break"? It's actually very straightforward: he has a very strong power to impose his will -- but what he imagines is unaltered reality. His will is that reality not be changed.

And when he comes into conflict with other ability users, his will to prevent change always triumphs over the other ability user's attempts to change it.

Is there some sort of underlying tendency to maintain reality unaltered? Probably so, which is why ability users have to use a lot of power in order to change it. That would work in Touma's favor, to some extent. But I don't think that explains everything.

Magic and paranormal abilities are the same, except in where the power comes from. If a magician were to try to cast a fireball on Accelerator, it would fail. Not because Accelerator is immune to magic, but because Accelerator has more power to impose his will on reality than the magician has to change it. If the magician was stronger, Accelerator would get toasted. And assuming someone else with the same kind of ability as Accelerator but at a lower power level, that is exactly what would happen.

That explains why Touma's ability also works against magic. Any ability user can use their power against magic. Touma's power isn't inherently exceptional (except in the sense that he seems to be the only one who has that particular one). What's special about Touma is that his power level is particularly high.

Which is to say that it is my opinion that Touma is actually level 6, the only one known. And the powers that be in Academy City are deliberately keeping this a secret, partly because they want to avoid painting a target on him. Not just to prevent every thug who has a lot of power seeking him out for a fight, but also to prevent magicians from trying to kill him. He is, after all, vulnerable to normal physical attacks -- swords, gunfire, poison; those things will work fine against him. His power level is very high but his ability is extremely specialized. Crowley doesn't want to lose him, so Touma is being kept in hiding (in plain sight).

And I think he knows that he's really level 6, and agrees that it's a good thing to keep it secret. He doesn't want to be famous/notorious. (That's why he doesn't want to be a hero after saving Mikoto, Uiharu, and the little girl from the explosion in Railgun ep 7.)

The reason Touma was willing to take Accelerator on is because he knows he's stronger, level 6 to level 5. And the "level 0" cover story works in his favor, both to make Accelerator underestimate him during the fight, but also to discredit Accelerator after his defeat.

UPDATE: Consider the explosion in ep 7 of Railgun. The explosion is a physical effect, right? Once the bomb goes off, that's reality, right? Wrong. The bomber's ability is not just to imagine the explosion beginning, but also to imagine all the damage that results. The whole thing is imposed by his will. As his power increases (using the Level Upper) part of what he gains is the ability to imagine bigger and bigger areas of devastation. Remember, the earliest bangs he created were little more than big firecrackers.

In the area where Touma resisted, in the department store, Touma prevented the bomber's imagined reality change. That's why the floor was untouched and why the three girls were all safe.

Touma's power is called "Imagine Break" because he has the ability to prevent someone else's imagined changes from becoming real.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Engineer's Disease at 12:08 PM | Comments (13) | Add Comment
Post contains 1107 words, total size 7 kb.

1 Huh, I've seen that underlying metaphysics in supers settings before.

Posted by: metaphysician at January 07, 2010 01:40 PM (vM63Z)


Here's part of what I posted as a comment at Ubu's:

The one I like better is this: Touma can’t run time backwards. When the edge of the explosion reaches him and he touches it, what’s already happened is permanent as far as he’s concerned. He can’t retroactively nullify it. But he can prevent it from continuing to spread past him and into the area behind him, and that’s what he does do.

So why doesn't the explosion stop everywhere when he finally touches it? The simple answer is that like every other psionic, Touma's power works the way he believes it will work, and he doesn't think he can do that. the reason for the parabolic unaffected-volume behind him is that it's what he expects his power to do.

As to the railgun attack, the entire path of the coin is the same as the explosion. Whether Mikoto is using electric fields on the coin or not, she is using her power to move it, in the sense that what it does after she thinks she’s ceasing to use electric fields is still the result of her imagination rendered physical by her power. So the coin would stop once it struck Touma’s right hand, and fall on the floor.

However, as I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I don’t think that Mikoto is really firing a projectile. What she’s doing is to vaporize the metal and use it to create a plasma channel for an electricity attack. So the channel would stop at the point where it touched his hand, and any electric arc passing down it wouldn’t connect to him and zorch him.

When Touma cancelled Mikoto’s iron-sand whip, he wasn’t doing so retroactively. He cancelled its existence going forward, and that works in terms of his power and his conception of what it can do. Cancelling an entire explosion, however, would require time paradoxes, so he doesn’t do that.

Now it's true that this means that Touma could be defeated by a magic user who was able to channel enough power against him. We presume that there's a tendency for reality to resist change, which is effectively a boost for Touma in the power comparison equation, but evidently it isn't all that much of a boost. But it hasn't happened because of the other distinctive thing about Touma: he's ridiculously strong. I believe he is level 6, which is kind of a no-upper-end category.

In Index he does face two foes that I believe were stronger than him, the alchemist and the angel. The good guys won in both of those cases, but Touma didn't beat them with his right hand.

And now some new thoughts:

But how does she know that there is rebar in there? Well, if she can walk on the wall, then it must have, right? ...even if it doesn't really. As long as she believes rebar is there, she can walk on that wall.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 07, 2010 06:33 PM (+rSRq)

3 It also leads to some weird powers, like asphalt girl's....

I'm not sure I buy the "one person, one power" explanation.  People would have naturally developed multiple talents before some scientist figured out the rules (and got that one wrong.)  Of course, if he were a very authoritative wrong, he just might convince the world that's how it really works, which would cause it to actually work that way since people would believe him.

Hm.  Don't anybody let Al Gore get this power... I'm just sayin'....

Posted by: ubu at January 07, 2010 11:49 PM (uIaT5)

4 I don't know, as with the example above, its not hard to BS an explanation linking two effects to the same power.  I could easily see individuals with two or more apparent powers being "explained" that way by the scientists.

Also, think about it, if you discovered you could, say, telekinetically move objects.  Would you try to run really fast, on the off chance you also have superspeed?  Or would you try seeing if you could fly, or create invisible barriers, or some other effect that would intuitively be related to telekinesis?  Even without the science, paranormal individuals would tend to have one power.  It just might grow more broad with time and practice, starting at "I can do one specific thing" and theoretically ending up at "I can do anything as long as I can work the word 'magnetic' into a sentence about it."

Posted by: metaphysician at January 08, 2010 06:50 AM (vM63Z)

5 But if you want to continue on your theory, why then does that make Touma apparently incredibly unlucky. Does his view of what reality mean that he believes that reality sucks, and so the unluckiness is a manifestation of that view?

Posted by: TheBigN at January 08, 2010 08:56 AM (agGZ+)

6 I don't think he is unlucky. He just bitches a lot.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 08, 2010 09:22 AM (+rSRq)

7 I don't know, I'd argue manifesting a power that doesn't actually help one's normal life any, but makes you a target or a pawn for a wide variety of other people, might count as 'unlucky.'

A better question is "Why does any paranormal manifest the particular initial power they do, if its based on belief?"  I mean, not having see Index/Railgun, I can't say about it per se.  However, in almost every story or setting that uses this metaphysics for superpowers that I have seen. . . well, its pretty rare for them to *consistently* have a good explanation based on belief.

Sometimes you've got powers that reflect important aspects of a character's personality.  Sometimes you've got powers that reflect their wishes and desires.  Sometimes you've got powers that reflect their fears and nightmares.  Sometimes you've got powers that reflect a dire survival situation.  And some characters just get weird powers that don't make any sense.

Posted by: metaphysician at January 08, 2010 12:12 PM (vM63Z)


Metaphysician, my retcon powers are great but I can't perform miracles. Not even the great Chizumatic can completely compensate for Japanese writers who don't care at all about consistency and logic.

I think that Crest/Banner of the Stars is the only science fiction series I've ever seen which is not vulnerable to the refrigerator effect.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 08, 2010 12:31 PM (+rSRq)

9 Oh, I'm not complaining.  A 100% rigid and explained system does not a good superhuman story make, in my experience.  I was just saying that, comparatively speaking, that's the biggest elephant in the room.

Its probably for the best that the writer go with "sometimes things just turn out this way."  Trying to keep 100% to a deterministic model when dealing in belief based superpowers?  *Sooo* easy to accidentally turn your story dark and horrific. . .

Posted by: metaphysician at January 08, 2010 01:59 PM (vM63Z)

10 Heh. Good point, like the suggestion I made last time that consistency would have been served by Kuroko succeeding in teleporting everything except Touma's right hand.

Regarding his luck, though, it's not just perception, as his father went to extreme measures to try and mitigate it.  Touma's in Academy City because his father thought they might find an explanation and solution.  Which, as Steven points out, they seem to have.

One thing is, I can't explain any of Touma's manifested abilities without assuming that his sub-conscious expression of his power is not the same as what he consciously thinks/states it is.  As I stipulate over on Bridgebunnies, I think he briefly realized how it works, but  

Posted by: ubu at January 08, 2010 03:41 PM (i7ZAU)

11 ANN now says Railgun is a 24 ep. series, but they don't have any titles after the 14th, just air dates.

Posted by: ubu at January 08, 2010 09:47 PM (uIaT5)


I haven't watched it yet (just downloaded it) but from Aroduc's post it looks like ep 14 is about Saten trying out for membership in Anti-Skill. That doesn't seem like something they'd do for a series ender.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 08, 2010 09:53 PM (+rSRq)

13 No, although we get to see the supervisor, and even Konoe-sempai again. 

Preview for ep. 15 indicates that the Sisters arc isn't starting next.

Posted by: ubu at January 09, 2010 02:26 AM (uIaT5)

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