Book Review : ‘Mathenauts’ Adds Twist to Fiction

Mathenauts: Tales of Mathematical Wonder edited by Rudy Rucker (Arbor House: paperback, $9.95; 300 pages)

Back in high school in the early ‘60s, kids interested in math--and some others--liked to read a collection of mathematical stories edited by Clifton Fadiman called “Fantasia Mathematica.” He subsequently published a second volume, “Mathematical Magpie.”

Since then, the field of mathematical fiction has been sparse. Science fiction based on math is an unusual breed. In newspapers, we are never supposed to say that anything is the most or the biggest or the first, because invariably it turns out not to be, but I am tempted to say that mathematical science fiction is the most unusual breed.

In any case, Rudy Rucker’s “Mathenauts” is a welcome addition to the field, a delightful if uneven collection of stories with a mathematical twist. In some cases, the math is an integral part of the story and in some cases, it seems almost added on. But in all cases the stories are accessible to readers without a specialized background but with a generalized curiosity.

Don’t think that these are dry, technical stories of interest only to the nerds. They aren’t. Martin Gardner’s “No-Sided Professor” begins: “Dolores--a tall, black-haired striptease at Chicago’s Purple Hat Club--stood in the center of the dance floor and began the slow gyrations of her Cleopatra number, accompanied by soft Egyptian music from the Purple Hatters.” Nothing dull here.

But these are stories that deal with topics like Goedel’s Theorem, the fourth dimension, catastrophe theory, infinite regression, the liar paradox (“This sentence is false”) and the like. Clever little ditties, one and all.


Major Writers Represented

Besides Martin Gardner, some of the country’s major science fiction writers are represented here: Isaac Asimov, Gregory Benford, Larry Niven and Frederik Pohl, for example, along with Rucker himself, the editor of the book.

Not surprisingly, their stories are the best of the bunch. They sacrifice nothing to their mathematical themes, which is to say that they are as well-wrought and well-told as any contemporary short fiction. Some of the other entries in the collection are a bit more wooden and contrived.

Surprisingly, there are a few omissions of very good mathematical fiction. An excerpt could have been included from Piers Anthony’s 1976 novel “Ox,” which is based on the Game of Life, a stunning mathematical-computer recreation.

And why is there nothing by Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction writer who has devoted much attention to mathematics, computers, cybernetics and their philosophical implications and dilemmas? Lem may not be the world’s best science-fiction writer, but in any competition he would surely make the semifinals. Each of his stories and essays sets off hours of reflection.

There is also a less well-known collection of mathematical stories by R. M. Berry called “Plane Geometry and Other Affairs of the Heart” (Illinois State University: 1985), any one of which would have graced “Mathenauts.” Berry’s first story begins “Everyone remembers the winter you left me, Hazel,” easily as good as Martin Gardner’s opening.

Limits of Fiction

Despite these omissions, “Mathenauts” is a fine book, as interesting for its exploration of the limits of fiction as for the stories themselves.

It is strange how some words or stories or images that you’ve read many years before stick with you while things you’ve read more recently have completely disappeared. From Fadiman’s “Fantasia Mathematica,” I still think about “A Subway Named Moebius,” about a Boston subway train that disappears in the intricate topology of the Boston subway system; and from “Mathematical Magpie” I retain a vivid image of Robert M. Coates’ “The Law,” about the day the law of probability failed and all the cars in New York went to the Lincoln Tunnel and none went to the George Washington Bridge.

I’m not sure which of the stories from Rucker’s book will stay with me, but I know there will be some. Anatoly Dnieprov’s “The Maxwell Equations” is a good candidate. It’s about an effort to turn human brains into computers.

All of these books and stories demonstrate that mathematics is a rich source for science fiction that is too often neglected by authors and readers. People of a speculative turn of mind might do well to explore this field.