a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Gate of the Flying Knives (1979)
Poul Anderson
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

For his contribution to the first "Thieves' World" collection, Poul Anderson contributed a fantasy story about an illustrated scroll which forms a gateway between dimensions.

As the story progresses, there are a few clues indicating that mathematics will play a role. Jamie CAppen, a "rationalist" who is skeptical of magic, claims he can demonstrate some tricks as well:

(quoted from The Gate of the Flying Knives)

"Some are quite elegant, virtual exercises in three-dimensional geometry." See interest kindle in her, he added, "I studied mathematics in boyhood; my father before he died, wanted me to have a gentleman's education. The main part has rusted away in me, but I remember useful or picturesque details."


After the meal, and after Danlis had scrambled off to ghet a closer look at a kind of lizard new to her, Cappen demonstrated his skill. She was especially taken -- enchanted -- by his geometric artifices. Like any Rankan lady, she carried a sewing kit in her gear; and being herslef she had writing materials along. Thus he could apply scissors and thread to paper. He showed how a single ring may be cut to produce two that are interlocked, and how a strip may be twisted to have but one surface and one edge, wand whatever else he knew.

When the gateway between universes is being explained to Cappen, references are made to "the theory of dimensions, the subtler aspects of geometry."

The resolution should be obvious to most readers at this point, but if it is not, I urge you to stop reading now before I get to the "spoiler" below if you have any interest in reading Anderson's cute story.

Of course, the solution to the problem posed by this gateway between universes (and the punchline to the joke that this story represents) occurs when Cappen takes the scroll and forms it into a Möbius band so that it no longer has two sides (one in each universe), but rather becomes a single-sided surface.

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Works Similar to The Gate of the Flying Knives
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Calculated Magic by Robert Weinberg
  2. Moebius Trip by Janny Wurts
  3. The Tower of Babylon by Ted Chiang
  4. Counting the Shapes by Yoon Ha Lee
  5. Operation Chaos / Operation Changeling by Poul Anderson
  6. Your Magic or Mine by Ann Macela
  7. Phantom by Terry Goodkind
  8. Voyage of the Shadowmoon by Sean McMullen
  9. Black Numbers by Dean Frank Lappi
  10. Matrices by Steven Nightingale
Ratings for The Gate of the Flying Knives:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)

MotifHigher/Lower Dimensions, Mobius Strip/Nonorientability,
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)