MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Lost Empire (A Sam and Remi Fargo Adventure) (2011)
Clive Cussler / Grant Blackwood
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Contributed by Evelyn Lamb

When archaeological adventuring couple Remi and Sam Fargo come across an old ship's bell off the coast of Zanzibar, they discover that someone else doesn't want them to find it. Eventually, their discovery and research into what exactly they found leads them to a paradigm-shaking discovery about the origins of the Aztec people that threatens the politics of the Mexican president. Along the way, they run into some math, the focus of this review.

In their research, they discover that the ship was once captained by a Union spy from the Civil War whose name escapes me, under whose command it was lost. He got a degree in topology from Harvard in the 1850s or 1860s (the word topology was not used in its present meaning in English until the 1880s; it was not really the field it is today until around the turn of the 20th century. The man in the couple (because obviously he instead of she would have studied math in college) explains to her that topology is the study of mathematical shapes, like a Möbius band (which is not described or explained) or the Fibonacci spiral (um...). This captain's diaries are discovered, and they contain a bunch of stuff involving Fibonacci numbers along with Aztec words. It seems like the Fibonacci sequence in the journals is supposed to give some big insight, but I don't think it actually ever pays off.

In my favorite (in terms of maximizing eye-rolling) mathematical moment in the book, the couple is talking to a math professor (a man, obviously) about the captain's journals, and the math professor notes that the captain thought abstractly, which is very unusual for a mathematician.

I'm sure if I were an expert in the Civil War, Aztec history, or Indonesia, I would have similar comments and observations about the way those topics were handled in the book, but as I am a mathematician, the math jumped out to me.

Disclaimer: I listened to an abridged version of this book on a road trip, so my report is based on an incomplete version of the book, and I was sometimes distracted by the arguably more important matters of paying attention to traffic and directions. I am not inclined to read the full version of the book to give a more complete review.

Thanks to math bloggers Evelyn Lamb and Kate Owens for bringing this book to my attention. Somehow it eluded my detection for these seven years! But, I do have a paperback copy on my dresser now and I will hopefully get a chance to read it sometime soon.

Update: I've now read Lost Empire and I completely agree with Evelyn's assessment. Indeed, the mystery in this adventure novel hinges on the writings of a 19th century mathematician named Blaylock who made a discovery about the origins of the Aztec civilization while on assignment as an American agent in Tanzania just after the Civil War. (If that sounds unbelievable to you, then this book is not for you because there are tons of occurrences here that seem even less likely than that. Each of the heroes' daring escapes struck me as impossible, and the villains' motivations also were quite hard to swallow.)

As she says, it is anachronistic for them to have described him as being a topologist in the 19th century. The only math he uses in encoding his secret message is a Golden spiral associated with the Fibonacci sequence, and contrary to what the book says repeatedly, that is not topology. (Topology is the study of geometry without any sort of measurement. Specific distances or angles don't have a role in topology, but those things are precisely what make a Golden spiral.) And, again confirming Evelyn Lamb's criticism, on page 381 the CalTech professor that they consult for help with the spirals says of Blaylock:

(quoted from Lost Empire (A Sam and Remi Fargo Adventure))

"First of all, this fellow's a very abstract thinker -- which is especially strange for a mathematician."

(This misconception surprises me. Math is generally criticized for being too abstract!)

In addition, although the character of Blaylock does break some of the mathematician stereotypes (e.g. he is strong and has fighting skills), the book also repeatedly suggests that he suffered from a mental disorder:

(quoted from Lost Empire (A Sam and Remi Fargo Adventure))

In halting Swahili, Sam replied, "Nzuri. Unasema kingereza?"

"Yes, I speak little English."

"We're looking for the Blaylock Museum."

"Oh, yes, Crazy Man House." (p. 116)

(quoted from Lost Empire (A Sam and Remi Fargo Adventure))

"I'm pretty sure Winston Lloyd Blaylock, the Mbogo of Bagamoyo, was certifiably insane." (p. 220)

(quoted from Lost Empire (A Sam and Remi Fargo Adventure))

"Remi, I'm starting to think that the malaria was only part of his mental problems." (p. 250)

(quoted from Lost Empire (A Sam and Remi Fargo Adventure))

"You can read them yourself, but it is clear that Blaylock was descending into insanity." (p370)

As you know, I get very tired of the "crazy mathematician" trope. It would not have changed this story much at all if they had just let poor Blaylock remain sane until his death, but Cussler and Blackwood chose to follow the rule (perhaps more like a "guideline") that all mathematician characters in fiction must be portrayed as certifiably insane.

On a separate note, one thing I found odd about this novel was the degree of detail. From a discussion of the ingredients in the food they order in a restaurant to the precise method that they used for raising an artifact from the sea floor, this book went into far greater detail than I am used to seeing in fiction. I suppose some people may like that. Furthermore, each of the authors is an expert of sorts. (Cussler is known for his underwater archeological work including his claim to have discovered the wreck of the Hunley submarine here in Charleston and Blackwood has a military background.) So, I suppose they want to show off their knowledge. Unfortunately, their knowledge of math (and physics...there is a clinker about waves also) was underwhelming.

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Works Similar to Lost Empire (A Sam and Remi Fargo Adventure)
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Body Counter by Anne Frasier
  2. The Last Enemy by Peter Berry (Screenplay) / Iain B. MacDonald (Director)
  3. Gospel Truths by J.G. Sandom
  4. Travelling Salesman by Andy Lanzone (writer) / Timothy Lanzone (director and writer)
  5. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  6. The Cipher by John C. Ford
  7. Ghost Dancer by John Case
  8. The Steradian Trail by M.N. Krish
  9. Seven Wonders by Ben Mezrich
  10. The Amber Shadows by Lucy Ribchester
Ratings for Lost Empire (A Sam and Remi Fargo Adventure):
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:
2/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreAdventure/Espionage,
MotifInsanity,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Geometry/Topology/Trigonometry,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)