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I read this short story ages ago in one of the "Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy" anthologies— it was about an equation (or series of questions? something like that) written in the 1700s or 1800s that could answer ANY question posed to it, which led to the development of fantastic technologies. The story centered on two (?) time-travel agents sent back in time to stop the equations/questions from being written/distributed, and the agents were chosen for their ability to perceive the universe shifting as things were changed in the past and remember past iterations of the universe.

I really loved this story and would love to read it again... any help would be appreciated!

  • Sounds interesting. Could you possibly narrow down "ages ago" to a decade or three? To some people the 80s were "ages ago", to others it's the 30s or 40s. – user14111 Jan 10 '17 at 8:31
  • I read the story between 5-8 years ago, but I went through a period of reading all the anthologies my library had so the actual story itself could've been from the 80s or 90s. – Allegra Jan 10 '17 at 23:27
  • This rather sounds like the Vogons destroying Earth, now, doesn't it? – Spencer Oct 22 '17 at 1:42
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This is "Things Undone" by John Barnes. It can be read online here.

  • equation (or series of questions? something like that) written in the 1700s or 1800s

Six hundred years ago, in the One Great Lecture of 1403, Francis Tyrwhitt articulated the theory of indexical derivability, and after his death, his eleven students carried the work on. In 1421, a six-page calculation overthrew all of Aristotelian mechanics and Ptomelaic astronomy, and told them how to build the telescopes and chronometers with which to confirm it. In 1429, Marlow discovered the periodic table of the elements, valence, and carbon chains in his calculations in a single thick codex; Tyrwhitt's last living student, Christopher Berkeley Maxwell, laid out the basic equations of electromagnetism in the notes found in his rooms after his death.

Indexical derivability made all things inevitable. Once you had its fourteen definitions, seven axioms, and forty-one basic theorems, from then on if you could describe what you wanted to do, it was just a matter of doing the steps, deriving the equations (or proving that no equations could be derived, which was equivalent to absolute impossibility), and then solving them.

  • ANY question posed to it, which led to the development of fantastic technologies.

...but once you could ask a question intelligently, it was only a matter of a few hours to learn whatever you wanted. As for building whatever you dreamed up, with such a variety of tech stuff out there, if you had a Liejt i.d., you could probably get the parts from any junkyard or hobby store.

The universe still is what it is. Turns out questions like "How can I love my neighbor?" are impossible to write in a soluble form, but "How can I make a really big bomb?" and "How can I go back and change the past?" are easy—just slap it together following the directions that come out of the tube and off you go.

  • The story centered on two (?) time-travel agents

Horejsi (Ruth) and Rastigevat (Simon) doing contract work for a government agency finding rogue time travelers.

  • sent back in time to stop the equations/questions from being written/distributed

That part differs:

the person they have to find is the one who is trying to stop the equation from being written/distributed

  • and the agents were chosen for their ability to perceive the universe shifting as things were changed in the past and remember past iterations of the universe

If us Feds didn't like what people were doing now, we'd eliminate them at some time back in the past, and history would close around the little space they had taken up—not "as if they had never been"—but just plain, they had never been.

Only freak-memory social isolates like me and Horejsi would recall it. That was part of how the FBI found us. Say a Com'n boy developed a crush on his personal slave. You couldn't punish him for that; he was higher. To punish and forbid meant admitting it was possible to cross the boundary. So you made it that it never had been crossed; a Federal agent took a short hop back and the slave girl had some quick, painless accident as a small girl, and the boy's family was warned to find more appropriate slaves.

But if three weeks after she ceased to exist, the boy was asking about her, you knew you had someone who had that kind of memory; you could fix him by having him talk to a lot of people, but if he wouldn't do that, he would be either an FBI agent, or someone who needed sequestering.

  • Can you give some more info about how this matches the question (agents from the future, futuristic tech, etc)? – Valorum Oct 21 '17 at 23:24
  • It was reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection. – sjl Oct 22 '17 at 5:38
  • @Valorum I edited the answer. – Ayshe Oct 22 '17 at 7:36
  • Now vastly improved. Kudos – Valorum Oct 22 '17 at 7:58
  • Amazing!!!!! Yes this was it!!! I just reread it and it was just as fantastic as I remembered. Thank you so much!!!!!! Ironically was starting to think I'd dreamed it up hahahha – Allegra Oct 23 '17 at 1:37

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