a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Strange Attractors (2013)
Charles Soule (author) / Greg Scott (Illustrator)
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors).

This is is graphic novel in which a mathematics student seeks the help of a seemingly insane genius who claims he has been using chaos theory to save the city of New York from disaster for decades.

Heller Wilson contacts Doctor Spencer Brownfield who once worked for the math department where he is pursuing a PhD in the hopes that he can help him to finish his thesis. Instead, the old man recruits Heller to help with seemingly bizarre projects -- pouring paint at the entrance to Grand Central Station, collecting garbage and piling it up near Grant's Tomb, etc. -- which Brownfield claims he has determined mathematically necessary to keep the city functioning. Of course, it never really explains how this works, but we are meant to understand that these small actions have large consequences, like the famous "butterfly effect" of chaotic dynamical systems.

(quoted from Strange Attractors)

Brownfield: If you know what to change you can make anything happen and I know, Mister Wilson. I speak the city's language. I communicate with the city's systems and use them to steer the city in the direction I want it to go and when New York breaks, I fix it.

Heller: But the best people in the field have only been able to do things like that in controlled labs and computer simulation, and with much smaller systems. This is a city -- it's an entirely different level.

Brownfield: Did it ever occur to you, Mister Wilson, that I'm just much better at this than anyone else?

As Heller's comment above suggests suggests, there is something fantastical about how well Brownfield's methods seem to work in this graphic novel. Because of their complexity and because of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, these systems are difficult to understand or control. In some instances, we are meant to imagine that the character is surveying a complicated scene -- illustrated in the book as if a laser beam were hitting all of the key elements like a pinball bouncing off of bumpers and relaying all of the information back -- and then able to figure out exactly what small change would be necessary to steer it in a certain direction. Fun to look at and think about, but difficult to believe.

In fact, chaotic dynamical systems and complexity theory are real areas of research, and I would argue that they are important. Merely understanding that these complicated systems can be produced by simple and deterministic rules is an important observation, even if one is not able to do anything with it. But, in some instances it is also possible to use the information. Perhaps my favorite application is the method of low-energy transfer for steering unmanned space vehicles developed by JPL mathematician Edward Belbruno

This is a beautifully produced work of art: the illustration, the binding, the mathematical diagrams (which were done by Robert Saywitz), the whole package. In addition, it is a "love song" to both New York and mathematics. Some reviewers have compared it to the movie Pi, and I can certainly see that it bears some slight resemblance to that. However, unlike that film which I jokingly suggest has the moral "it is better to have a lobotomy than to do math", this is more "upbeat" and has a positive message.

BTW The technical term "strange attractor" is clearly very appealing to authors. This is, in fact, the third work in this database to use it for a title. (See also here and here.) This is probably because everyone knows the words "strange" and "attract" and so it is not necessary to be an expert to get an idea of what it means. If you are interested in knowing the actual definition, however, you can read about it here.

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Works Similar to Strange Attractors
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Pi by Darren Aronofsky (director)
  2. Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury
  3. Big Numbers by Alan Moore / Bill Sienkiewicz
  4. Numbercruncher by Si Spurrier (writer) / PJ Holden (artist)
  5. In The Country of the Blind by Michael Flynn
  6. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons
  7. Improbable by Adam Fawer
  8. Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
  9. Music of the Spheres by Ken Liu
  10. Risqueman by Mike Wood
Ratings for Strange Attractors:
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:
4/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifInsanity, Academia, Future Prediction through Math, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful,
MediumNovels, Comic Book,

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May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)