If you’re a math-and-science type person, please read this and give me your thoughts.
Tonight I thought up a question that really shouldn’t wait until after my trip is done, because depending on the answer, I may end up working it into the revision I’m trying to do while I’m here.
Before the question, though, the background: Charles Babbage designed two devices, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. The former is essentially a calculator, doing polynomial functions; the latter (had it been built) would have been an early computer, capable of being programmed to do several different mathematical jobs.
So imagine you’re reading a book set in 1884, and it tells you that faeries got hold of those ideas and built them, But Better — for values of “better” that involve extrapolating this design in a magical direction. My question to you all is twofold. First, what extrapolations would you consider reasonable, given the parameters? Second, what extrapolations would make you say “Oh please” and put the book down? Example: “It would be cool if it could do calculations using imaginary numbers, but dumb if it could run World of Warcraft.” Or whatever. In essence, I want this to be interesting, but I don’t want it to be interesting in a way that’s totally divorced from the original purpose of the design.
I’m soliticing feedback because this is, among other things, a matter of the boundary between “suspension of disbelief” and “excruciating torture of disbelief.” Which varies from person to person, though math-and-science type people are likely to have a much firmer boundary than those who don’t know Babbage from Byron. Also, thanks in part to a declining series of math teachers in my education, I no longer have much love for the subject; ergo, if I ask my brain to think about “math magic,” it pulls up images of workbooks designed to make third-graders believe math is fun. So I am ill-suited to judging what I can get away with designing. Would it bother you if the faeries’ Analytical Engine performed non-numerical calculations of some kind? What if its function was predictive, analyzing a situation to make semi-divinatory, pseudo-statistical descriptions of the future? Would something like that bother you? What wouldn’t bother you, that also isn’t so mundane that it wouldn’t add much to the story? (The other ideas I’ve come up with so far all fall into that latter camp.)
Feel free to respond however you like — brainstorm, talk amongst yourselves, go off onto wild digressions about nineteenth-century math. I know some of you have thought about math + magic, so I’d love to hear what you have to say.