One of my favourite genres of stories is mathematical fiction. This love was originally inspired by reading Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice as an 11 year old and getting a clearer picture of the mathematical and philosophical jokes Lewis Carroll placed in the two Alice books and his other work.
That encouraged me to seek out Gardner’s other books of mathematical puzzles and encountered some of his own mathematical fiction including The No Sided Professor. He also led me to read Edwin Abbot’s seminal Flatland. At the same time I was reading science fiction and loved the work of John Sladek which also played lots of games with concepts in maths and science and whose author shared Gardner’s love of puzzles.
Although I didn’t know it at the time the Oulipo members – whose founders included mathematicians as well as writers – were also experimenting with the use of maths as a way of developing creativity though formal constraints.
Since then I have devoured the works of Oulipo and its fellow travellers as well as science fiction writers and others who have blended the queen of sciences with literature.
There are three basic categories of mathematical fiction:
- stories about mathematicans (my least favourite although I would recommend Mark Blacklock’s Hinton ;
- stories explaining maths in a fictional framework (Gardner’s own work, Flatland and work by Ian Stewart);
- and, best of all, stories which are either about maths itself, or whose structure is based on mathematical concepts. In this category, the works of the amazing Rudy Rucker and some stories by Connie Willis stand out alongside much of Sladek’s work and a lot of work by members of Oulipo. A better known example is work by Jorge Luis Borges.
There are a number of anthologies that are good entry points to the genre, including the recently published Penguin Book of Oulipo edited by Philip Terry. If you can get hold of a copy, Rudy Rucker’s Mathenauts is an almost perfect selection and the earlier two books by Clifford Fadiman – Mathematical Magpie and Fantasia Mathematica are also excellent. William Frucht’s Imaginary Numbers is not quite as strong (partially because the other three have most of the best in them) and the recently published Dangerous Dimensions by Henry Batholemew has a fascinating set of horror stories using maths as a keystone.
Flatland is still in print, of course, with a version annotated by Ian Stewart, and you can also seek out the works of Charles Hinton whose semi mystical inquiries into the fourth dimension often take fictional form. There are also a number of (sort of) sequels to Flatland by others including some by Hinton, Dionys Burger’s Sphereland, Stewart’s Flatterland, Rucker’s Spaceland (and many of his other works) and the facsinating The Planiverse by A K Dewdney. The Annotated Alice has just had a 150th anniversary edition published which includes new annotations from The Lewis Carroll Society of North America and some by Gardner that were not included in the Millennium edition. Speaking of Gardner, it’s worth checking out his novel Visitors from Oz.
Sequels to Alice by other hands are generally not as maths based with the exception of Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore (although still worth looking at). I would recommend, Gilbert Adair’s Alice Through the Needle’s Eye and Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice.
If those are not enough, seek out the wonderful Mathematical Fiction page by Alex Kasman which is an exhaustive cataloguing of the genre categorised by reading age and including critiques and descriptions.