a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Light (2002)
M. John Harrison

This dark and violent space opera features many references to fractals and spaceships "which were made of nothing much more than mathematics, magnetic fields, and some kind of smart carbon".

Here is an example of the author's use of mathematical imagery in the text:

(quoted from Light)

Something had entered the ship's mathematics, It was inside the Tate-Kearney transformations themselves, fractally folded between the algorithms.

The Tate-Kearney transformations mentioned in the quote above are a set of formulas co-developed by one of the characters, Michael Kearney. These equations are responsible for humanity's ability to travel freely in outer space, but the brilliant scientist is hardly a "hero". Back in 1999, we learn, Kearney was a serial killer, murdering women to satisfy his own twisted desires. (Although Kearney is described as a physicist rather than a mathematician, he is most famous for these equations and so I am tagging this work of fiction with "Evil Mathematicians".)

Unlike some other similar works of science fiction utilizing mathematical terminology as a sort of poetry, this one at least sometimes reveals an actual understanding of the underlying mathematics. For example, this quote (about a "dipship" named the White Cat) correctly uses the word "fractal" to refer to a geometric shape whose number of dimensions is fractional:

(quoted from Light)

The White Cat's massive array--aerials an astronomical unit long, fractally folded to dimension-and-a-half so they could be laminated into a twenty-metre patch on the hull detected nothing but a whisper of photinos. A few shadow operators, tutting and fussing, collected by the portholes and stared out into the dynaflow as if they had lost something there. Perhaps they had. "At the moment," the mathematics announced, "I'm solving Schrödinger's equation for every point on a grid of ten spatial and four temporal dimensions. No one else can do that."

I recognize that in many ways this is a masterfully composed work of mathematical fiction. It is intricate and complicated in a way that I generally enjoy. The cute idea of fractals that can only be seen by pet cats lightens the mood a bit. However, the fact that the main characters in this book are all horrible people makes it difficult for me personally to appreciate it. (Aside from Kearney himself, we also follow another mass murderer, a spaceship pilot in the year 2400, who uses Kearney's equations while while destroying a convoy of unarmed ships.) If you, unlike me, do not require at least some of the major characters to be reasonably nice, then you may really like this otherwise well-written novel featuring many vague references to mathematics.

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Works Similar to Light
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Paradox by John Meaney
  2. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
  3. Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury
  4. Improbable by Adam Fawer
  5. Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan
  6. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (author) / Ken Liu (translator)
  7. Context by John Meaney
  8. River of Gods by Ian McDonald
  9. The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke / Stephen Baxter
  10. Habitus by James Flint
Ratings for Light:
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 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifEvil mathematicians,
TopicMathematical Physics, Chaos/Fractals,

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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)