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Operation Chaos / Operation Changeling (1969)
Poul Anderson
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Part of a series of stories about detectives who use magic and religion published in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine in the 1960s, Operation Changeling (later published in novelized form in Operation Chaos) has the Matuchek's enlisting the help of some historical mathematicians.

(quoted from Operation Chaos / Operation Changeling)

Barney cleard his throat. "Uh, the idea is," he said, "that a first-rank mathematician would go on learning, improving, gaining knowledge and power we can't guess at, after passing on. We want a man who pioneered in non-Euclidean geometry."

"Riemann is considered definitive," Falkenberg told us, "but he did build on the work of others, like Hamilton, and had successors of his own. We don't know how far the incomparable Gauss went, since he published only a fraction of his thought. On the whole, I'd favor Lobachevsky. He was the first to prove a geometry can be self-consistent that denies the axiom of parallels. Around 1830 or 1840 as I recall, though the history of mathematics isn't my long suit. Everything in that branch of it stems from him."

"That'll do," Barney decided, " considering we don't know if we can get any particular soul for an ally. Any whatsoever, for that matter," he added raggedly. To Falkenberg: "You and the pastor work out the words while we establish the spell."


"Hear us, O God, from Heaven Thy dwelling place," he called. "Thou knowest our desire; make it pure, we pray Thee. In Thy sight stand this man Steven and this woman Virginia who are prepared to harrow hell as best as is granted them to do, that they may confound Thine enemies and rescue an unstained child from the dungeons of the work. ...We beg Thee to allow them a guide and counselor...If we are not worthy of an angel, we ask that Thou commend them unto Thy departed servant Nikolai Ivanovitch Lobachevsky, or whomever else may be knowledgeable in these matters as having been on earth a discoverer of them."

As it turns out, they get Lobachevsky (whose soul shares a body with one of the detectives) and Bolyai (who unfortunately has to inhabit the body of a cat)!

Personally, I disagree with their decision to get Lobachevsky over Riemann. Lobachevsky worked with an example of a non-Euclidean geometry, but Riemann worked out the general formulation that is still the basis of our study of general geometries. But, I'm sure this is a debatable point. In any case, the book does include some nice biographical information about both Lobachevsky and Bolyai.

Thanks to Paul Hafke for suggesting it!

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Works Similar to Operation Chaos / Operation Changeling
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Mathemagics by Margaret Ball
  2. Fermat's Last Tango by Joanne Sydney Lessner / Joshua Rosenblum
  3. After Math by Miriam Webster
  4. The Gate of the Flying Knives by Poul Anderson
  5. The Babelogic of Mathematics by Vijay Fafat
  6. When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte] by Kurd Lasswitz
  7. A non-Euclidean story or: how to persist when your geometry doesn’t by Rami Luisto
  8. Merlin Planet by E.G. Von Wald
  9. Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska
  10. Counting the Shapes by Yoon Ha Lee
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MotifReal Mathematicians, Religion,
MediumNovels, Short 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)