a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Countable (2011)
Ken Liu
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

An autistic boy finds comfort in Cantor's discovery that the set of fractions is greatly outnumbered by the set of irrationals. (See, for example, Cantor's Diagonal Argument.)

I did not much enjoy the representation of the autistic child, his well-meaning but ineffective mother, and her abusive boyfriend. This is not so much because there is anything wrong with the writing, it was fine, but rather only because I feel that I have seen all of this before.

On the other hand, the idea of applying Cantor's notion of cardinality to daily life, to the question of the relative "cardinality" of the good moments to the bad, is an intriguing and even inspiring one. The effect is enhanced by the inclusion of quotations from a non-fictional text on the way that time is (mis)perceived by the brain.

Moreover, this story does an excellent job of teaching the underlying mathematics, so that even someone who did not already know it could really learn it without even having to consult an external source. It includes figures to demonstrate the correspondence between the rational and natural numbers, definitions of the transfinite cardinals "aleph sub zero" and "beth sub one", and even an appendix addressing a subtle point in the Cantor's diagonal proof (i.e the fact that rational numbers which can be written with a denominator that is a power of ten actually have two different decimal representations).

The Countable was published in the December 2011 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. However, I am not putting it in the "science fiction" category in my database since the story does not portray any events which are beyond our current scientific understanding or technical abilities. Rather, it uses fiction as a way to explain some interesting real mathematics, and uses that mathematics to offer a new perspective on life...which makes it an example of great mathematical fiction.

More information about this work can be found at
(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.)

Works Similar to The Countable
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Long Division by Michael Redhill
  2. The Infinite Assassin by Greg Egan
  3. Music of the Spheres by Ken Liu
  4. Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer by Ken Liu
  5. Lost by Tamora Pierce
  6. The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
  7. Murder on the Einstein Express by Harun Šiljak
  8. Nightscape: The Dreams of Devils by David W. Edwards
  9. Casebook by Mona Simpson
  10. Young Beaker by J.T. Lamberty, Jr.
Ratings for The Countable:
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:
5/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

MotifAutism, Math Education,
TopicInfinity, Real Mathematics,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)