Author Topic: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones  (Read 11368 times)

Bdoomed

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Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« on: December 04, 2009, 07:56:44 AM »
Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones


By Stephen Gaskell
Read by Ian Stuart, voice actor for hire through voices.com

A
DESCRIPTION
OF THE ADMIRABLE
TABLE OF LOGA-
RITHMES:
WITH A DECLARATION OF
The Most Plentifvl, Easy,
And Speedy Vse thereof in both kindes
of Trigonometrie, as also in all
Mathematicall calculations.

Tom flicked through the book. Obtuse definitions and diagrams like fishbones filled the pages. A — seventeenth century? — textbook on logarithms? How the hell had Great Uncle Alvin ended up with this? Tom peered into the box. Another chapbook titled “Rabdologia”, by the same author, John Napier.

He shuffled through the other papers in the box. All writings by or about the man: extravagantly illustrated occult texts; religious revelations; serious biographies. At the bottom, wedged beneath a thick medical textbook with an MRI scan of the brain on the cover, Tom caught sight of several off-white stones. Their smooth, heart-shaped surfaces gleamed in the torchlight.



Listen to this week's Pseudopod.
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ElectricPaladin

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #1 on: December 05, 2009, 02:18:42 AM »
I was surprised by not being enormously moved by this one, for one main reason: I found a glaring plot hole. It occurred to me quite early, and because the plot was fairly predictable (this is not, itself a problem), I found that it was accurate and hindered my enjoyment

Basically, the problem is this: his uncle is described as a "late bloomer" not a "spent a few weeks as a genius, then suddenly became insensate." That's not a late bloomer who dies early, that's a footnote to an untimely demise. The fact that the condition progressed so quickly with Tom didn't make much sense. The problem could have been solved with a simple passage - some kind of warning that overuse of the process was bad or something, some indication (which Tom ignored out of hubris) that the uncle knew he was going to burn out early, didn't care, and modulated his mental growth to give him a lifespan he could deal with - and its absence leads me to believe that the author just didn't see the problem.

Also - and I know I'm being a snot here - that's not what Parkinson's looks like. You don't have a stutter in the morning and become totally immobile the next day. A doctor would be more likely to assume a stroke.

Other than that, it was quite good. That kind of disease really is terrifying. I liked the characters and the situation - the dysfunctional tutorials were neat - and the pacing was perfect. Not a great story that I'm going to remember for months, but a nice way to spend a commute.
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Scattercat

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #2 on: December 05, 2009, 08:30:05 PM »
I enjoyed the concept - I've even written along similar themes myself - but I couldn't quite engage with this story.  It spent so very long on the buildup that I was expecting... well, more from the ending.  Tom seems to have so many problems, and intellectual shortcomings seem to be the least of them.  The shyness, the dissatisfaction with his family, the low self-esteem... I just didn't quite get how being smarter was somehow the answer to his life's dream.  It felt like the story veered rather sharply instead of building to the proper conclusion.  I don't really understand why Tom was so very attracted to the idea of expanding his mind, such that he was willing to risk his life and health to get it.

"Shy, stutter, nervous, doesn't fit in, has a girlfriend who is WAY out of his league, is jealous of the smarmy jerk who taunts him... so he's going to find a way to another place, where he fits in, right?  He wants to leave.  He wants a new life.  He... uh, apparently I guess he wanted to be a genius.  Hunh.  I would have thought some of the preliminaries might have leaned a little more heavily on 'I wish I was smarter' not 'I wish I was bolder.'"  It's not like his problems can really even be addressed by his newfound intelligence.  He's still socially unacceptable and all that.

The random science fiction bits at the end threw me rather a lot.  I'm not quite certain where they came from or what purpose they were meant to serve.  (And really, if meditating on this formula leads to exponential growth, I would have thought that a computer that did nothing but calculate it further and further out would be some sort of AI god-thing by now.  That is, the constant mention of computers made me wonder why computers weren't involved in the mathemagical ritual in any way.)
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That Hirschman Guy

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #3 on: December 07, 2009, 03:28:29 AM »
his uncle is described as a "late bloomer" not a "spent a few weeks as a genius, then suddenly became insensate." That's not a late bloomer who dies early, that's a footnote to an untimely demise. The fact that the condition progressed so quickly with Tom didn't make much sense.
OK, I was definitely missing something until that synopsis. Thank you for clearing that up for me.
I have lately been disappointed by the vagueness or abruptness of the last few Pods, but I am glad it was me and not the story that was missing something this time around.
Now that my brain has been aligned, I can say I did enjoy this one very much. I can listen to Ian Stuart any day of the week.

kibitzer

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #4 on: December 07, 2009, 10:35:33 AM »
Flowers for Algernon, anyone?

(I'm being my trademark dick self here, having only read FfA 2 weeks ago)

Scattercat

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #5 on: December 07, 2009, 08:06:53 PM »
Flowers for Algernon, anyone?

(I'm being my trademark dick self here, having only read FfA 2 weeks ago)

Nonetheless, it's a valid comparison, and I think this story comes out the poorer on that particular scale.  Mind you, "not as good as Flowers for Algernon" is hardly the most damning indictment in the book...
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ElectricPaladin

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #6 on: December 07, 2009, 08:56:57 PM »
Flowers for Algernon, anyone?

Flowers for Algernon backwards. Sort of a Algernon for Flowers.
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Marguerite

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #7 on: December 07, 2009, 09:12:30 PM »

The random science fiction bits at the end threw me rather a lot.  I'm not quite certain where they came from or what purpose they were meant to serve.  (And really, if meditating on this formula leads to exponential growth, I would have thought that a computer that did nothing but calculate it further and further out would be some sort of AI god-thing by now.  That is, the constant mention of computers made me wonder why computers weren't involved in the mathemagical ritual in any way.)

Perhaps the author was trying to keep the ritual in the perspective of Napier himself, with it's chalk-drawn spiral and candles, and visionary as he was, I don't imagine he had any conception of computers.  His greatest advancement in calculation were tables carved on bones.

My greatest frustration with this story was the abrupt stop of the advancement within the ritual because it was so jarring.  Here we have a society advancing from a single couple to space-faring marvel, and then... nothing.  A pause, a crash, but no explanation.  The story built us up to feel that life always found a way, always advanced, always pushed, always grew - but then we have this abrupt end.  Did Tom reach the limit of his capacity to understand?  Did the society transfer to beings of pure thought or electricity and the crumble was their neglected physicality?  Or is the author a fan of the punctuated equilibrium model?
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Sgarre1

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #8 on: December 08, 2009, 12:32:23 AM »
Quote
Did Tom reach the limit of his capacity to understand?

That's the one, at least I felt.  He pushes too far and the theoretical, symbolic society moves further than he can comprehend, with negative consequences for him.

cdugger

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #9 on: December 08, 2009, 01:48:02 AM »
I liked this one, and have absolutely no idea why.

Didn't care for the reading.

The story was a tad confusing in the middle.

And, I didn't like any of the characters.

But, liked the story.

Am I going insane?
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kibitzer

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #10 on: December 08, 2009, 05:34:39 AM »
Am I going insane?

Yes. But it's OK. You're in good company.

Scattercat

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #11 on: December 08, 2009, 07:27:58 AM »
Am I going insane?

Yes. But it's OK. You're in good company.

Though if you could use your sanity-crushing intellect to invent a cure for cancer before you go irrevocably mad, that'd be lovely.
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cdugger

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #12 on: December 08, 2009, 12:32:39 PM »
Though if you could use your sanity-crushing intellect to invent a cure for cancer before you go irrevocably mad, that'd be lovely.

What? That? Pshaw! Old news. Telomeres and telomerase research is already working on it. Anything I did would just be redundant.

I'm reserving my intellect for something really important.

Like, how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie-Pop?
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yicheng

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #13 on: December 08, 2009, 04:49:20 PM »
I liked this one, and have absolutely no idea why.

Didn't care for the reading.

The story was a tad confusing in the middle.

And, I didn't like any of the characters.

But, liked the story.

Am I going insane?

I found the reading off-putting as well.  There's not enough distinction between the different characters, and the main character came across as an unrelatable wimp.

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #14 on: December 08, 2009, 08:01:22 PM »
Though if you could use your sanity-crushing intellect to invent a cure for cancer before you go irrevocably mad, that'd be lovely.

What? That? Pshaw! Old news. Telomeres and telomerase research is already working on it.
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Ben Phillips

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #15 on: December 08, 2009, 10:29:43 PM »
Basically, the problem is this: his uncle is described as a "late bloomer" not a "spent a few weeks as a genius, then suddenly became insensate." That's not a late bloomer who dies early, that's a footnote to an untimely demise. The fact that the condition progressed so quickly with Tom didn't make much sense.

Given the strange nature of the exercise, it could have simply affected them at differing rates, right?  Maybe Tom started out smarter than his uncle and figured more of it out faster.

ElectricPaladin

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #16 on: December 08, 2009, 11:09:45 PM »
Basically, the problem is this: his uncle is described as a "late bloomer" not a "spent a few weeks as a genius, then suddenly became insensate." That's not a late bloomer who dies early, that's a footnote to an untimely demise. The fact that the condition progressed so quickly with Tom didn't make much sense.

Given the strange nature of the exercise, it could have simply affected them at differing rates, right?  Maybe Tom started out smarter than his uncle and figured more of it out faster.

I'd have bought either explanation, but the author never tried to sell them to me, which was the problem. I prefer my horror stories to have a certain terrible internal logic rather than simply being terrible and senseless... there's a little too much of the latter kind of horror in the real world for me to enjoy it in fiction, thanks! I'll agree that it's not a categorical flaw - I wouldn't say the author did something "wrong" - but I found the randomness off-putting.
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cdugger

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #17 on: December 09, 2009, 02:20:15 AM »
radiolab mortality episode?

Originally heard about it in a book, but, unfortunately, I have forgotten the name and author. One of those books I no longer have and am still kicking myself for getting rid of it.
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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #18 on: December 10, 2009, 04:09:04 PM »
This one was okay, there were a few minor things that bugged me, but I just didn't connect with the character much.

I'll echo the sentiment that this reminded me of Flowers for Algernon, but without being as good as Flowers for Algernon. 

As others pointed out, his original problem didn't seem that related to intelligence, but to confidence, and so this is an odd way to go about this.

I don't really understand how contemplating the e constant would actually make your intellect grow in such a manner.  That seemed like quite a jump that was never really resolved for me.

The sidebars with the city of his mind were more of a distraction to me than anything.  The cities built of cities was an interesting image, but not particularly plausible.  This parallel view only seemed to serve the purpose of giving us something to watch when it all crashed down, but if that was all it was there for it took up an awful lot of time for just that.

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Re: Pseudopod 171: Napier’s Bones
« Reply #19 on: December 15, 2009, 11:52:15 PM »
I have no idea if I liked the story or not at this point. Certain confusions pointed out already are currently confusing me. Despite the confusion I have to praise the craft of the author and chosen narrator.

I have spent a small amount of time living in England and was even in Oxford a month ago. All the sensations and and happenings within the story brought me right back to my time in Oxford. The setting as well as the main character Tom were presented in such a way that I was able to be in the story. Whenever an author is able blur away reality to bring me into the story I am always impressed.
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