Napier’s Bones by Derryl Murphy is the third book I’ve read based upon the Big Idea concept from Scalzi’s Whatever blog. The concept of an ecology of numbers sounded interesting to me and so, here we are…
We start in the midst of things. Dom (the main character) is walking through the Utah desert in search of something.
With this sentence (a lovely sentence by the way):
There was a rustling sound from overhead, and he looked up to see a series of logarithms flapping by like wiry bats.
We have it firmly established that something interesting is going on with Dom. Dom is then fairly quickly rendered unconscious as:
A grey mass, pulsing with unclear integers, fuzzy and indistinct against the now-screaming numbers in the sky above, launched itself over the edge of the ridge, dropped through the air and pierced his body.
When Dom awakens, he finds himself in a town and that he is no longer alone in his own body.
What is going on, is that Dom is a ‘numerate.’ This means that he is able to sense and manipulate numbers. Since numbers are really at the basis of everything, this means that Dom is able, to some extent, manipulate the world around him through this ability.
We learn that numerates are somewhat rare in the world and that Dom is stronger than average. We also learn that whoever caused Dom’s unconsciousness seems to be perturbed and wants to track Dom down and probably stomp him into the ground. Dom’s ‘passenger’ in his body is an adjunct personality named Billy. Billy doesn’t remember much about his own life, but knows that he is the (somewhat incomplete) manifestation of a recorded essence of a past numerate. The numerate records his personality into some object that can later manifest as the whole personality. In traditional fantasy, Billy would be a ghost. In traditional SF, Billy would be a personality record left in a computer.
That is one interesting aspect of the book–it walks a line between being outright fantasy and outright SF. Depending on how you want to interpret various events, you could go either way. The relationship of Dom and the world to numbers forms the background of the book, but you certainly don’t have to have a deep understanding of math in order to read the book. There are a few amusements along the way if you know a bit about the history of math.
The chasing of Dom and co. forms the main conflict of the book. The writing style is a little choppy at first, but seems to gradually smooth out as you are drawn towards the end. I almost wonder if this wasn’t intentional on Murphy’s part. As events in the novel escalate, so does the writing style.
I enjoyed this book. I especially liked the ending and resolution method. I won’t mention anything else about the resolution as that would give a bit too much away. Overall, it was a fun, fast paced read.