a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Understand (1991)
Ted Chiang
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

"An experimental treatment for a drowning victim turns him into an incredible supergenius. Mathematics is mentioned several times in passing, and twice the supergenius explicitly uses it for his applications. But he forgets one obvious thing."

Originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, August 1991.

Contributed by Lapo Fanciullo

This novelette is breathtaking - perhaps the only serious attempt I've ever read at describing what a superhuman mind could be - but its focus on finding patterns and meaning in the world makes little mention of explicit mathematics.

The most notable passage, mathematically speaking, is when the protagonist decrypts in hours a file that would normally take years to a supercomputer, claiming to be using a technique for factoring large numbers he's discovered while amusing himself with number theory.

Contributed by Juan Mikalef

I'd say the focus is information theory rather than classic matematics. (spoiler alert) Though the evolution of the main character intelect is quite a compelling read, the key insight for me was how two equally powerful intelects, presented with the same information could diverge so wildly in their interpretations and actions, based solely in their relatives points of view of such reality (introspection for Leon, empathy for his nemesis).

Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life and Others is a mandatory read in my opinion.

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Works Similar to Understand
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
  2. Snow by Geoffrey A. Landis
  3. Luminous by Greg Egan
  4. Conservation of Probability by Brook West
  5. Pure Math by John Timson
  6. The Cubist and the Madman by Robert Metzger
  7. Eye of the Beholder by Alex Kasman
  8. Love and a Triangle by Stanley Waterloo
  9. Proof by Induction by José Pablo Iriarte
  10. Axiom of Dreams by Arula Ratnakar
Ratings for Understand:
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:
2.17/5 (6 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.83/5 (6 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MediumShort Stories,

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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)