a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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At Ocean (2016)
Oliver Serang
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Because she still makes discoveries with her own brain (unlike most scientists in the near future universe of At Ocean whose discoveries are all made by computers), Eun Kim is selected for a dangerous mission to the North Pole to retrieve a recently discovered and mysterious object. However, the focus of this novel is not so much on the object and its hidden message as it is on Eun's life and philosophy.

Her unusual upbringing includes a handicapped father who is pessimistically rationalistic, a devoutly religious and more optimistic mother who beats her, and a childhood romance that ends tragically. Her co-workers on the mission are superstitious, violent and drug-addicted, even the "Samurai" assigned to protect her. And, that's not even to mention the comet frequently visible in the sky that just might collide with the Earth endangering all life as we know it. With all of that, it is little wonder that Eun is a bit odd herself, prone to drift into dreams and remembered symbols from childhood, and with a habit of tapping on things to listen to the sound of the material.

Oh, but I guess I need to say something about the math. At Ocean isn't as obviously mathematical as Serang's first novel, Stay Close, Little Ghost. A reader not looking for math might not even notice it. Some of the math, such as the pattern encoded in the logo on the book's cover, are literally hidden. But, even the explicit mathematical metaphors would probably be ignored or at least unappreciated by a non-mathematically inclined reader. And, perhaps that is a good thing because it broadens the potential audience!

Even when it is not being explicitly mathematical, there is a general "mathematical feeling" that could be attributed either to the author's unintentionally mathematical choice of words or because Eun and her father are supposed to be broadly trained in "STEM" areas. For example, consider the sentence "Sex, Eun had decided at some point, was isomorphic to food." Whose choice was it to use the word "isomorphic"? Was that Serang because he is a mathematician, or was it Eun herself because she learned mathematical terminology even though she is a chemist? [Ah, I see now that "isomorphism" has a meaning in crystallography where it applies to two different chemicals that form the same shaped crystal. Still, I think its use in this sentence sounds more like what a mathematician would say. To a mathematician, an isomorphism can exist between two very different types of things where in chemistry it literally just means that two crystals have the same shape!]

One potential source of mathematics that is noticeably underutilized is the discussion of the trajectory of the comet. All we learn is that experts seem entirely uncertain whether it will collide with the Earth. Presumably, mathematics would be involved in trying to decide, but we are not shown any of the analysis or even given a probability for the potential disaster. If the author had no mathematical training this could be attributed to a lack of knowledge, but Serang clearly knows mathematics well. The danger of the comet was accepted but not analyzed, just as we unquestioningly accept the dangers in our nightmares. So, for me at least, this made the story seem more like a dream and less like reality.

The two main explicitly mathematical references in the book are to the pattern of prime numbers and the idea of a combinatorial "library" of all possible digital images of a certain size and resolution. In regards to the former, it arises merely in Platonistic musings towards the beginning of the book regarding whether the pattern of prime numbers existed before people defined them, but later itself becomes physically manifested in both the mysterious object that is the quest of Eun's mission and in a medieval work of art that links Alexander the Great to alchemy. When the hidden message in the artwork tied together seemingly disparate pieces of history and science, it seemed as if this book was transforming into a "Da Vinci Code"-esque conspiracy novel. For better or worse, that turned out not to be the case.

And, as for the idea of a museum featuring all possible images (reminiscent of Borges and his "Library of Babel"), for me at least, this became a way of understanding the entire book. Some of the things that befall Eun Kim in her life are tragic and others are beautiful, there is danger and excitement and also a discussion of crumbs in a colleague's beard, the plot moves along but not towards any particular destination. By the end of the novel a reader could be left wondering what it was about and why he/she has read it. But, there would be no reason for a visitor to Eun's hypothetical "museum of all possible images" to ask that question of a picture. Most of the images there would be of little interest to anyone, but if one image happened to move you emotionally or aesthetically, then that would be enough. Being as it was random, there would be no point in looking for purpose behind the image. In the same way, I can see the bizarre and improbable life of Eun Kim as told in this novel as being interesting but entirely random, and if that makes you question the meaning of life as well as the meaning of the book, then perhaps that itself is the point.

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Works Similar to At Ocean
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  2. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
  3. His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem
  4. Stay Close, Little Ghost by Oliver Serang
  5. Napier's Bones by Derryl Murphy
  6. The Axiom of Choice by David W. Goldman
  7. Void Star by Zachary Mason
  8. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
  9. A Catastrophe Machine by Carter Scholz
  10. Leeches by David Albahari
Ratings for At Ocean:
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:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)