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Ninefox Gambit (2016)
Yoon Ha Lee
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!

In a desperate attempt to retake the Fortress of Needles from the heretics who have taken it over, the mathematically talented Kel captain named Cheris is promoted to the rank of general and mentally linked to the ghost of history's most famous mass murderer.

Although the cover of the book and many of the reviews classify this novel as "science fiction", I really consider it to be fantasy. Certainly, it has a lot of the trappings of a traditional SF space opera. It takes place in what appears to be a distant future of the human race when giant space battle cruisers equipped with powerful weapons and artificially intelligent robot servants battle for control of space stations. However, it is also a world in which a person's shadow and reflection can change to reflect their rank, or the "ghosts" that are linked to them. It is a world where eating the glass shard remains of someone's essence can give you their memories. And, it is a world where the ritual calendar (literally the holidays of the religious beliefs of a culture) affect the laws of physics themselves (which is why "heretics" who have their own calendar are so dangerous).

Because the weapons and battle formations depend in an unspecified mathematical way on the ritual calendar, Cheris has to be able to quickly do computations and informs her troops of their plans by showing them equations. It is her mathematical skills, rare in someone of the warrior class of her society, that lead her to be chosen for the dangerous mission which is the central plot of the novel. Mathematical terminology and discussions of mathematical ability show up frequently in the book. Indeed, it becomes clear to the reader that math is a very important skill in this world where it seems to be a sort of connection between science and magic, between technology and religion. The famous inventor of the "mothdrive", a mysteriously old but powerful figure, is said to not care about people "unless the people could keep up with him on things like number theory". Nevertheless, the reader does not need to know anything about math to understand the book and will not learn any math from it either.

In an interview about one of his earlier stories, Yoon Ha Lee said "I became fascinated by the idea that you could use mathematical imagery to inform a story. (I admit I'm a little scared of what a real mathematician would make of the story!)" Indeed, this novel too is filled with mathematical imagery. Some good examples are:

(quoted from Ninefox Gambit)

"We need to get closer," Cheris said. "Look --" She mapped the calendrical gradients. "The fractal boundaries are a mess, but we can't define them better without active probing that that'll take too long." She pointed out the key equations. "There, there and there. If you solve for the roots and iterate --" She demonstrated. The map updated itself accordingly.

(quoted from Ninefox Gambit)

"I've had Doctrine running figures on exotic weapons. The data we got from the corrosion gradient helped us pin down some key coefficients." She sent over some equations. "Look at these three matrices in the chain, sir. Now this is a preliminary result and we have to run some feasibility tests, but" a cluster of coefficients turned red "if we can hammer this diagonalization into place, there's a chance we can modify our threshold winnowers to work."

(quoted from Ninefox Gambit)

The heretics had designed a calendar where these axioms weren't true.

Lee needn't have worried about what a mathematician would think of it. Although it is true that I appreciate it when an author can work some real mathematical meaning into a work of fiction, this sort of impressionistic mathematics that generates some feeling without actually saying anything can also be good. Lee seems to do it as well as anyone else and better than some who do not even know how mathematicians use the same terms. For example, when he calls weapons that do not depend on the choice of calendar "invariant", it sounds mathematically correct.

I think the feeling of confusion of the strange game that is taking place is really what this book is about. There are many different classes of society, there is the hexarchate and their enemies the heretics, there are individuals we get to know and huge numbers of anonymous individuals who die in battles, and there is some complicated plan. Throughout the book, we don't quite really know what is going on, but we know that there is a competition, that the stakes are very high, and that math plays some nearly magical role in it all. People talk about "the fog of war", and here Lee takes that to a new level by setting it all within a culture and a universe that defy our understanding. If that literary vertigo is the goal then the use of mathematical terminology (something that many readers already find confusing) is an ideal choice.

Contributed by Gregory Cherlin

Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit (in the database) is the first volume of a trilogy in which the same ideas about calendrical mathematics as a form of technological magic inform the universe. See here.

On that basis all three titles probably should be in there. Though this aspect is more striking in volume 1, because it is new - and one notices the world building less and the plot more as one goes on.

FWIW Gregory Cherlin also sent me this link to a website featuring songs by Yoon Ha Lee. They are apparently intended to be a soundtrack to this book series. (One of the songs is entitled "Burn it Down with Math".; )

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Ninefox Gambit
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Robot's Math Lessons by Yoon Ha Lee
  2. Light by M. John Harrison
  3. Paradox by John Meaney
  4. Neverness by David Zindell
  5. Napier's Bones by Derryl Murphy
  6. Arcadia by Iain Pears
  7. Calculated Risks by Seanan McGuire
  8. Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska
  9. On Another Plane by Colin Adams
  10. Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
Ratings for Ninefox Gambit:
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:
3.33/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (3 votes)

GenreScience Fiction, Fantasy,
MotifWar, Female Mathematicians, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful,

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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)