Napier's Bones: math and mysticism make for great international adventure

By Cory Doctorow

Canadian science fiction author Derryl Murphy's debut novel is Napier's Bones, a novel about a secret group of "numerates" who have the power to control and manipulate the deep math lurking beneath the physical world to their benefit. All the great mathematicians of history were numerates, from Archimedes to the titular John Napier to Einstein, but most numerates never publicly pursue math. Instead, numerates use math to amass power, grabbing at the invisible numbers floating all around us and ordering them to do their bidding, manipulating probability and numerical systems to their advantage, cadging free phone calls and gaming ATMs. Numerates prize -- and fight over -- mystical artifacts of numerical significance or coincidence. The best numerates can imbue objects in the world with their own numbers and achieve a practical form of immortality.

Dom is a numerate who comes to awareness of a bus in Utah with no memory of how he got there. All the numbers on his ID and money have been charred off, and there's another person inside his head. This person -- Billy -- is the crippled avatar of some long-dead numerate, memories of his corporeal life lost. He and his former host were chasing a powerful artifact in the desert when they encountered a much more powerful numerate, possibly inhabited by John Napier and Archimedes, and the ensuing duel killed Billy's host. Desperate for new accommodations, Billy fled to Dom's mind.

Thus begins Dom's adventures, fleeing from the powerful numerate who killed Billy's host and attacked him. He quickly teams up with Jenna, an untrained proto-numerate who spots him when he rubs the serial numbers off his money before buying lunch from her at a deli and pursues him and demands that he train her. They flee to Canada, and then to Scotland, and on the way, we are treated to glimpses of the numerate world, where coincidence is power, where prime numbers can defeat pursuers, where number-intensive pursuits like stock-trading and sports flare off raw power there for those who want it.

Murphy's vision of numbers as the secret, driving engine of the physical world is striking -- he plays right into the mind's own propensity to ascribe pattern to the patternless, significance to the random. The resulting mystical system feels very convincing, and forms the basis for as fun and intense an adventure novel as you could hope to find. The physical book, produced by Canadian specialty press ChiZine, is a smart and beautiful little package with striking, subtle use of embossing and type-design that makes it a fine artifact in its own right.

Napier's Bones

Published 6:14 am Thu, May 12, 2011

About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

17 Responses to “Napier's Bones: math and mysticism make for great international adventure”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I actually just finished reading this book, for those too worried about the math i wouldn’t. The numerates don’t deal with anything really mathematical it’s more akin to magic then anything real.

    It’s a really good read though, just don’t be surprised if it’s more magic than mathematics.

  2. pKp says:

    I am suddenly reminded of the magic system in Mage: The Ascension (oldish pen&paper RPG). At least, the non-silly aspects of it.

    Other than that…seems pretty cool. And what Skroo said…my “BUY THIS” bookmark folder is about a hundred links long buy now. I guess I need a better-paying job.

    • Latro says:

      Actually, this would not be out of place in an Unknown Army RPG session. It sounds exactly as one of the obsessive-compulsive schools of “postmodern magic” that form half the backbone of it.

  3. dobbsthedog says:

    i’m just in the middle of this book and am really enjoying it!
    i was lucky enough to receive a special limited edition hardcover copy from the author. =)
    and i’m really happy to see it reviewed here, on one of my favourite sites!

  4. craiig says:

    Math isn’t numbers! It’s the study of relationships and patterns. Mathematicians are primarily concerned with examining the relationships between mathematical concepts, not with collecting, enjoying numbers. Infact, even the study of numbers (Number Theory) isn’t about studying particular numbers, but the relationships and patterns they form.

    Barf on this book (and everything else) for math==numbers.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is interesting.

  6. Thylacinthine says:

    I always thought maths was magic. Just ordered this. Can’t wait!

  7. Chevan says:

    I read this book based off Cory’s recommendation, and I have to say I wasn’t impressed. I felt that the basic premise of the book – that certain people could control numbers – was very poorly explained and implemented. I thought there was a lot of potential to geek out and get into the mathematical rules and probabilities governing nature, but instead I got some generic plot-device handwaving about numbers floating around doing things.

    Basically, I read the book expecting speculative fiction and found it to be basic fantasy.

  8. damiro says:

    This sounds good, whether or not the numenaries manipulate “math” or “magic.” The powers of the mind are very close to magic anyway, as anyone who has passed calculus and been amazed at Newton et al.’s genius could tell you. If you’re looking for another good book incorporating the earthly and mystical powers of numbers, check out Neil Stephenson’s Anathem–as I’m sure many of you have already.

  9. AnthonyC says:

    This is definitely getting added to my reading list.

    I hope it’s good. I find the premise… troubling, though. If you told me the Numerates could change the laws of physics, or physical constants, or the statistical distribution of particles, energy, and momentum in a system, I would have no complaints at all. But changing *math?* Math just *is.* You choose a set of premises, and theorems inexorably follow, whether you want them to or not, whether you’re aware of them or not.

  10. jphilby says:

    Damn great idea. Now see, kids, why you should pay attention to your math teacher?

  11. Rotwang says:

    This sounds excellent – I’ll have to check it out.

  12. Anonymous says:

    The math background to the plot in this novel reminds the one to Arkady & Boris Sgtrugatsky’s Definitely Maybe.

  13. Anonymous says:

    If you like something different, intelligent and thought-provoking, Derryl’s your man. I also recommend his anthology Wasps at the Speed of Sound. The two stories I remember best were the title one, and a reality TV show take on watching the last member of an endangered species expire.

  14. codersquid says:

    There was less math in the book than I was hoping for. When I read the premise I had expected there to be something akin to different magical ‘styles’ based on different maths e.g. set theory, topology, logic, etc. that aside, I did enjoy the book, and might get a sequel.

  15. simonbarsinister says:

    I fear reading this book could damage my mind.

    Years ago I read Kit Willams ‘Masquerade’ and Bamber Gascoigne’s commentary on it ‘The Quest For The Golden Hare’. I started seeing patterns everywhere. Billboards and pennies on the sidewalk were clues. It took a few months for it to fade away completely.

  16. Skroo says:

    Damn you Cory for adding another book to my already too long “want to read” list.

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