This novel is about a brilliant mathematical modeler who works for big business finding correlations (such as that corporate reports tend to use nautical terminology when they are in trouble, even if they are trying to hide the situation from investors). When I first started reading it, I was really bothered by her portrayal. As you probably know if you've read my other reviews, I am annoyed by the stereotype in fiction of a mathematician as cold, out of touch with reality, and lifeless. As I read the first pages of A Calculated Life it seemed that Jayna was just another mathematically inclined character for whom normal human emotions were a mystery, as if mathematicians aren't real people. In some ways, Jayna in this novel seemed even worse than the similarly clueless mathematician Ronald Barr in Tracking the Random Variable. I was thinking "Man, she seems like a robot."
As it turns out, that thought was not far from being accurate. Jayna is a "simulant", a genetically modified human who was intentionally designed to be nearly emotionless. The original models, we are told, were made anosmic to limit their emotional response. When that turned out to have been a bad idea, however, they pulled back a bit and designed Jayna's model in the hopes that she and others like her would be emotionless enough to serve as cheap slave labor, but human enough to be able to do those jobs well. As you might guess, they turn out to be a bit too human, and that's essentially the plot.
At one point, Jayna thinks about Yutaka Taniyama, the ill-fated Japanese mathematician who became quite famous when the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture was referenced in Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Goro Shimura is quoted as saying of him that "He was not a very careful person as a mathematician. He made a lot of mistakes. But he made mistakes in a good direction. I tried to imitate him. But I've realized that it's very difficult to make good mistakes." Jayna also envies Taniyama's ability to think irrationally and make mistakes, but reach good conclusions. In other words, she wishes she herself was less logical like a robot and more intuitive like a human.
There is also a metaphorical description of her "swimming" through data. Otherwise, the only mathematical content of the book is the implication, never stated explicitly, that there is some connection between her lack of emotion and her mathematical abilities. In other words, intentionally or not, this novel capitalizes on that same stereotype. |