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7 Steps to Midnight (1993)
Richard Matheson

In this unnerving, `Kafka-esque' suspense novel by well known horror author Richard Matheson, a government mathematician sees reality collapse around him as his life is turned into a surrealistic version of a James Bond movie.

Chris Barton is working on "the turbulence project" at a military research facility. (We are told that this has to do with working out how to get a laser beam to pass through "distortions in the atmosphere" so as to be able to reach its target.) Unfortunately, he is stuck. In the opening chapter, Barton has a dream that symbolizes his difficulties by making him the director of a play, trying unsuccessfully to organize a cast of people wearing costumes like mathematical symbols.

But, that soon becomes the least of his worries. After he is challenged by a strange old hitchhiker to show that he knows the difference between what is real and what isn't, his life rapidly becomes very bizarre. He arrives home to find a strange couple living in his house (claiming they have lived there for eight years), becomes the frequent target of murderous CIA agents and the mysterious underworld figure 'Cabal', sees friends and acquaintances vanish, comes under the protection of a beautiful European agent who seems to be the ghost of a woman from ancient Rome, finds mysteriously scrawled messages (such as "7 Steps to Midnight") in the most unusual places, and appears to be the victim of "reality slippage".

(quoted from 7 Steps to Midnight)

"I understand," said Modi, nodding. "What I am getting at, however, is the nature of the work. I have no desire for you to mention details, which are necessarily confidential. By the nature of your work, I shall I put it?" He paused, then said, "Does it deal with aspects of reality perhaps? With areas that go beyond the merely mechanical into zones of, shall we say, more nebulous reality? Where, perhaps, the senses need to be transcended?"

Chris had no answer for that. He thought about it hard. It was true that the areas he'd been dealing with were certainly beyond the senses, nebulous. Still --

"Well, I am a mathematician," he said.

"Ah." Modi nodded. "and your work, I much suspect, does not involve adding columns of figures."

Chris smiled. "No."

Modi was silent for almost a minute before he said, "In India, as you have sensed, we are more intimate with concepts of reality and unreality. We know full well that the tissues of what we say is real are thin indeed. That they can be torn asunder with more ease than people realize. And if your work -- your mathematics -- seeks to deal with elements beyond the senses, well..." He gestured vaguely. "Perhaps you have -- how shall I put it? -- trespassed."

It is notable that the book spends some time discussing how Barton does his mathematics. Like some other fictional mathematicians (e.g. the fictional John Nash in the film A Beautiful Mind) the mathematics seems to just appear magically before his eyes

(quoted from 7 Steps to Midnight)

Amused, he let his mind have its way. That was how it functioned best. He would consciously "stand back" and let it generate on its own. Numbers and symbols fluttered across the screen of his awareness. He often visualized his brain as a computer screen operated by his subconscious. Or was it his superconscious? Whatever it was, when things were clicking and the "computer" was on, he had only to watch -- sometimes bedazzled, even amused -- as the formulas appeared on the screen as though entered by his autonomous operator.

Xm both ax (s,y,z). He "saw" the symbols. The words scattering effect. More symbols: Ix (x,y,z). More words: due to significant extinction. More symbols, more equations.

"Wait a second," he muttered, superimposing his will on the "readout". "Run that through again."

The screen flickered backwards like a VCR picture being rewound while played. He reviewed the numbers and symbols. Interesting, he thought. He'd never noticed that before.

Now, I would not go so far as to say that no mathematician has a brain that works like that. I don't personally know of any, but there are some pretty unusual brains out there. However, I just want to point out to any readers who might be mislead that this is really not how mathematicians work in general. For most mathematicians, doing math research requires conscious thought and effort. It is not unlike the thoughts that are required to do math homework, although at a much higher level. Moreover, there are moments of inspiration which seem to come from nowhere, but they are relatively rare and -- I would argue -- are the result of intuition built out of experience rather than anything magical.

Also, I would like to point out that turbulence actually is a problem of mathematical interest. (See this link for a low level description and this link for the site at the Clay Institute which literally offers a $1million prize for mathematical research on turbulence.) So, Barton is right on page 126 when it says

(quoted from 7 Steps to Midnight)

He had taken it for granted that there were multiple mathematicians everywhere noodling with the turbulence problem, some of them better than he was. The idea that he was so important to the project that he'd become a victim of some interational cabal seemed just too farfetched...

However, it is a more general question of fluid dynamics and does not obviously have anything to do with lasers as far as I can tell.

Overall, I must say that this book was quite enjoyable and hard to put down. The main character is a mathematician, which probably helped me to empathize with him, but the mathematics is definitely not on center stage here. The main purpose of the novel is to give you that weird feeling that you don't understand what's going on as inexplicable things happen around you...and it is very good at doing that!

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

It appears that the movie, "The Game" starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn is loosely based on this book (though I don't recall seeing such an attribution and the story setting in The Game involves a banker and his brother).

Having seen the visually stuning and quite movingly made movie "What Dreams may come" based on Matheson's novel, I had high hopes for "7 steps". I have to admit that on the literary quality, this book is an utter failure. It is full of breathless italics designed to create tension without serving that purpose. On every second page, the protagonist on the run keeps talking to himself (about the same thing, repetitiously) and exclaiming, "Oh Shut Up!" I lost count of the number of "Oh God!", "God Almighty!" and "Jesus Christ!" (I groaned every time the mathematician groaned). While the idea is very good, the writing left a lot to be desired and you can see the conclusion coming a mile away.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to 7 Steps to Midnight
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Last Enemy by Peter Berry (Screenplay) / Iain B. MacDonald (Director)
  2. Echoes from the Past by Edward Michel-Bird
  3. The Fringe (Episode: The Equation) by J.R. Orci (Screenplay) / David H. Goodman (Screenplay)
  4. The Visiting Professor by Robert Littell
  5. The Eight by Katherine Neville
  6. Torn Curtain by Alfred Hitchcock (Director)
  7. Improbable by Adam Fawer
  8. The Sabre Squadron by Simon Raven
  9. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons
  10. The Blind Geometer by Kim Stanley Robinson
Ratings for 7 Steps to Midnight:
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:
3.67/5 (3 votes)

MotifCool/Heroic Mathematicians, Proving Theorems, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful, Romance,
TopicAnalysis/Calculus/Differential, Mathematical Physics,

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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)