a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Stella Maris (2022)
Cormac McCarthy

Readers of McCarthy's 2022 novel The Passenger learn quickly that its protagonist's sister was a mathematical prodigy who committed suicide. That isolated fact provides motivation for the remainder of the novel. This companion piece published in the same year fleshes out that back story by providing transcripts of the sister's therapy sessions at the psychiatric hospital "Stella Maris" in the weeks before she killed herself.

In Stella Maris we learn that Alicia Western traveled to IHES and worked with Alexander Grothendieck on topos theory in 1972 while she was still a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. Her professional life seemed to be going quite well. However, for reasons that even she cannot explain, she re-admits herself to Stella Maris. She insists that she is not there for treatment, but nevertheless has long conversations with Dr. Cohen (her therapist) during which famous mathematicians are "name dropped", topoi are discussed, and the underlying nature of mathematics itself is probed. This would be difficult reading for anyone unfamiliar with mathematics, even forgetting about McCarthy's unusual writing style. As for me, I am too tired of the insane-mathematician-with-hallucinations stereotype to be able to really appreciate it.

I read somewhere that the material which became Stella Maris was originally supposed to be included in The Passenger, but the publisher insisted that it be edited out of that novel and published separately. This may well have been a wise decision from a financial point of view. (McCarthy fans each purchased two books instead of one.) But, I can't help wondering whether it reflects a bias against mathematical fiction on their part. Would they have insisted on deleting this material from The Passenger if there was not so much discussion of mathematics in it?

I am grateful to Zinn Beckhurst for bringing The Passenger and Stella Maris to my attention.

Contributed by Zane Miller

I am in an interesting position here because I am a mathematics student at the University of Chicago (where the book takes place partially) who is a longtime fan of Cormac McCarthy. I was very excited when this book came out. I disagree that it is an example of the insane mathematician trope. Rather, I find that the book is about mental illness, and rather reprieve from mental illness is granted to Alicia by mathematics. It is a relatable book and a great example of McCarthy's sparse yet haunting style.

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Works Similar to Stella Maris
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Perelman’s Refusal [Les Refus de Grigori Perelman] by Philippe Zaouati
  2. When We Cease to Understand the World [Un Verdor Terrible] by Benjamin Labatut
  3. Shakespeare Predicted it All by Dietmar Dath
  4. Symmetry and the Expatriate by Tefcros Michaelides
  5. Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca Suárez
  6. A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel by Gaurav Suri / Hartosh Singh Bal
  7. Pythagorean Crimes by Tefcros Michaelides
  8. Pythagoras' Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery by Arturo Sangalli
  9. Sophie's Diary by Dora Musielak
  10. La formule de Stokes, roman by Michèle Audin
Ratings for Stella Maris:
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:
3.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (2 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Didactic,
MotifProdigies, Mental Illness, Real Mathematicians, Female Mathematicians,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics, Logic/Set Theory,

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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)