a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|When a mathematician is killed in an explosion immediately before presenting his paper on the inevitability of a one-world economy to the World Trade Organization, the case falls to Interpol agent Henri Poincaré. No, not the mathematician Henri Poincaré whose work on celestial mechanics led him to discover sensitive dependence on initial conditions (a hallmark of chaos theory). This is his great-grandson, whose investigation leads him to questions about everything from fractals to theology.
The praise for this book on the back cover from award winning authors is impressive: "A rare gem of a book." "Len Rosen has created a work that would stop both John le Carre and Umberto Eco in their tracks." "Only the very best of writers can weave a compelling story from a maze of complicated ideas. With this deftly crafted novel, Len Rosen has proven himself to be one of them."
I am afraid I do not share these sentiments.
Mathematically, the book is okay. The main mathematical content is that the genius has discovered the same fractal structure in everything: from the stock market to the San Andreas fault, from the patterns in leaves to the beating of a heart. Even though this is not stated explicitly until the end of the book, I do not feel that I am giving away any surprises. On the one hand, this basic idea will not sound at all surprising to anyone who has read (or even heard of) Mandelbrot's 1983 classic "The Fractal Geometry of Nature" and his 1999 Scientific American article applying the same ideas to Wall Street. Moreover, it becomes obvious very early in the book when the mathematician's notes clearly reveal that he recognizes the same fractal patterns in disparate natural phenomena, and that he was working with the CEO of a financial company who is extremely interested in his work...so it is not a big surprise at the end of the book when the amazing discovery is revealed. Presumably the mathematician character has something more specific than just the popular idea about the ubiquity of fractal structures in the natural world, but the book does not provide any specifics. Aside from this, the only mathematical content consists of references to Poincaré's famous great-grandfather and other less obvious name-dropping in the form of other characters who have the same names as famous mathematicians (Laurent, de Vries, etc).
As a thriller, this book failed for me since I found all of the plot twists completely unbelievable. From little things (the way the genius secures his computer with a big password that he then leaves in plain sight), through things of medium importance (who killed Poincaré's grand-daughter and how), to the biggest question of all (the reason and methods behind the explosion that is the main driving force of the plot), I found myself thinking "No way" and "Yeah, right". It is not that these were interesting and unpredictable surprises. For me, at least, they seemed literally ridiculous. (I will say more at the bottom, below the "spoiler alert".) I don't think John le Carre has to worry.
The reviews also suggest that this book explores deep philosophical questions. To me, the mathematics mentioned above is about as deep as it gets. There is, of course, a running theme of death and danger. (He thinks a lot about his grand-daughter who was killed.) But, that does not seem unusual for a thriller like this. The idea that the terrorist groups threatening the world in this book are fundamentalist Christians rather than Muslims is an interesting choice, but not much is done with it. I feel similarly about the political group concerned with the the interests of people from the Third World. It is not a bad idea, but I cannot describe it as deep.
The book does try to say a little something about theology. In particular, stated casually at the beginning and then repeated with more certainty at the end of the book is the idea that ``there cannot be a plan without a planner'' and therefore that the universality of the formula that the mathematician discovers proves the existence of God. Once again, I have trouble seeing this as particularly deep. This is an old argument (although, of course, newly applied to this fictional scenario). Is the complexity of life evidence for the divine or for natural and unplanned evolution following the laws of physics? People have debated this for a long time, and I do not see that this fractal formula would actually change anyone's mind. After all, there are already ideas in math that apply stunningly throughout nature, and some see it as evidence that "God is a mathematician" while others see it as confirmation that reality is a consequence of unalterable mathematical rules and hence does not require a "plan".
Spoiler Alert --Spoiler Alert --Spoiler Alert --Spoiler Alert --Spoiler Alert --Spoiler Alert --
Do not read below this line if you would like to read and enjoy the book on your own.
There are a few little things in the book that I find a bit hard to believe (e.g. the whole triplet thing, the assassin who is a look-alike for the mathematician's assistant, etc.) but my real problem is that the resolution of the mystery makes no sense to me. I am writing this here not merely to complain about it but also in the hopes that someone else can explain it to me in case I'm just being stupid.
In the end we are supposed to believe that Fenster, the mathematician, needed to hide from the scary rich guy who wanted access to his discovery in order to get richer. So, with his long lost triplet siblings, he planned to blow up a hotel room with rocket fuel, sacrificing his brother (who was dying of cancer anyway) to make it seem that he was dead. Here's what seems wrong with that idea:
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|(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)