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The Discovery of Heaven (1992)
Harry Mulisch

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

This novel is considered to be the magnum opus of one of the greats of Dutch postwar literature. (Original Dutch title _De Ontdekking van de Hemel_, English translation 1996, film version in 2001)

_The Discovery of Heaven_ begins with one angel explaining to his superior that he has successfully engineered the recovery of the "testimony" from Earth, and it took him nearly a century of arranging for just the right person to be born with just the right parentage, with just the right history. Between scientific progress going too fast and that unfortunate pact that mankind has made with Lucifer thanks to Francis Bacon, Heaven is engaging in an emergency exit, and retrieving the "testimony" is pretty much the last bit of clean up necessary.

The novel then begins with Max Delius, astronomer and son of a notorious Dutch WWII war criminal, giving a ride to Onno Quist, linguist and son of a famous Dutch politician. They become fast friends, essentially intellectual twins. A loveless love triangle involving one Ada Brons ends with her pregnant, officially by Onno but possibly by Max, and Onno marrying Ada. But in a terrible car accident, Max and Onno survive without a scratch, while Ada goes into a deep coma, still expecting. The child Quinten is eventually delivered by Caesarean section, and raised by Max and Ada's mother, while Onno dabbles in politics.

A few breaks in the narrative remind us of the angels behind the scenes, clearly manipulating everyone.

Life continues in its way, with Quinten turning out to be a rather precocious child. Little by little, disasters hit Max and Onno, setting the scene for Quinten's seemingly natural but ultimately highly unusual quest. Just what the angels ordered, in fact.

The first three quarters of the novel make for a fairly standard "novel of ideas", with plot and action fairly thin compared to the intellectual developments, with history, philosophy, politics and science leading most of the way. A small amount of mathematics makes it in every so often. Towards the end of this part of the novel, remarkable radio astronomical signals leave Max baffled, until he spends a night contemplating infinity and Cantor and some projective geometry.

The fourth quarter is Quinten's quest, seemingly random and seemingly impossible. While still heavy with history and philosophy, the ideas now have a point, leading Quinten to commit the most profound crime in all of human history. And so the novel ends with the angels satisfied, mission accomplished.

The closest comparison I can think of to Mulisch's novel is Umberto Eco _Foucault's Pendulum_. Lots of intellectualizing that turns suddenly real out of nowhere. Mulisch is drier and less engaging than Eco when comparing their long abstract lead ups, but Mulisch turns out to be far more profound, thrilling, and ultimately disconcerting, when comparing their concrete wind ups.

(Note: most online summaries are filled with total spoilers.)

For more information, check out Wikipedia and IMDB.

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Works Similar to The Discovery of Heaven
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda
  2. Tigor (aka The Snowflake Constant) by Peter Stephan Jungk
  3. The Embalmer's Book of Recipes by Ann Lingard
  4. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  5. Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar
  6. A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved
  7. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein
  8. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
  9. Rough Strife by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
  10. Continuums by Robert Carr
Ratings for The Discovery of Heaven:
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:
2/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Infinity,
MediumNovels, Films,

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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)