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Finity (1999)
John Barnes

A madcap science fiction adventure involving much bouncing between alternate realities, with vague references to quantum physics and mathematics.

The narrator is an astronomer who has developed a mathematical theory of abductive reasoning and proved something called a "comprehensibility theorem". Although they were developed to help him select interesting hypotheses to pursue in astronomy research, a mysterious billionaire entrepreneur decides they will be useful skills for the team he is assembling to solve the mystery of what happened to the United States of America and so recruits him. (You see, in all of the different universes the USA has been missing for several decades, although most people haven't noticed it.)

There is much fun and excitement to be had as characters bounce between alternative realities, comparing who won World War II, when things were invented, and even personal timelines (as when he and his fiance realize that they disagree about when they met and when their cat died). There is also action as they are pursued by multiple copies of the fearsome rogue police officer known as Billie Beard.

The math gets discussed quite a bit at the beginning of the book especially during the astronomer's "job interview" with the billionaire.

(quoted from Finity)

"Er, yes", I swallowed hard. "Iphwin, this whole situation makes no sense to me. I'm not a particularly distinguished astronomer. It makes some sort of sense that you want me as a statistician, because that is the one area where I've done considerable original work, but all the same there are mathematicians out there who could do rings around me -- rings and groups and matrices and tensors, to tell the truth."

He didn't laugh. Inwardly I cursed whatever it was that had prompted me to make a feeble mathematical pun. Then abruptly he did laugh, and said, "But if they don't do Abelian groups, they'll have to live here in the building since they can't commute."

(quoted from Finity)

"Well, yeah, as soon as you point out that it's a possible application, all of a sudden I see the whole problem of talking to extraterrestrials in terms of the comprehensibility theorem. Isn't that odd? But it's simple: if you use the statistics of structural relations -- the business about the topologies of priority -- Lemma Four Dot Two -- then our ability to communicate with them would depend on the similarity of what they were saying to things that we had said to each other in the past, the similarity of form between their language structures and ours..."

He briefly uses his mathematical reasoning again in the middle of the book, to try to figure out what is going on. And, the word "finity" is used once (without much explanation) towards the end.

However, the math does not end up playing much of a role in the actual plot. In fact, for me, the end of the book did not involve enough of a "pay off" in any way. It was not satisfying emotionally or logically. So, if you choose to read this book, I recommend you "enjoy the ride" and not worry too much about where it's going.

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Works Similar to Finity
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Oracle by Greg Egan
  2. Singleton by Greg Egan
  3. The Whole Mess by Jack Skillingstead
  4. White Mars : or, the mind set free : a 21st Century Utopia by Brian Wilson Aldiss / Roger Penrose
  5. Diaspora by Greg Egan
  6. The Planck Dive by Greg Egan
  7. A Game of Consequences by David Langford
  8. Dark as Day by Charles Sheffield
  9. Six Thought Experiments Concerning the Nature of Computation by Rudy Rucker
  10. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons
Ratings for Finity:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
TopicMathematical Physics, Fictional Mathematics,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)