MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Tenth Muse (2019)
Catherine Chung
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Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

This wide-ranging work of historical fiction unfolds in the period from just before World War II though to the 1960s, in America, Europe and Asia. In the first chapter, Katherine who narrates it is already an aging mathematician with an impressive reputation. But, most of the novel takes place during her youth as she recalls the twisting and intertwined tales of her two primary goals: to learn about her family and to prove the Riemann Hypothesis.

This book really has a lot of math in it. The Riemann Hypothesis, of course, keeps coming up again and again, and there is a decent amount of discussion of other tangential topics including Gödel's theorems, dynamical systems, mathematical encryption, etc. In addition to all of this real mathematics, the book also tells us a bit about the Schieling-Meisenbach theorem, which is fictional and serves as the MacGuffin of the whole story.

One of the blurbs on the jacket says "Reading it feels like a glimpse of what mathematics might be in the eyes of its ablest practitioners -- both secret and sublime." I would not say that it has the most math that I've seen in a novel, but generally having a lot of math results in a very limited audience. The thing that most amazes me about this book is that somehow it is able to get readers who would not normally read a book that mentions math to actually care about the subject for a little while.

I have a few theories for how she might have achieved that, though I readily admit that I don't really know for sure.

One thing is that the story does have a lot of twists and surprises. Both in her search for her true family and in her mathematics research, there is a lot of misinformation: theorems that were not really written by their supposed authors, relatives who were not really related to her, etc. Each time one of these falsehoods is discovered, we feel a sense of discovery, but we also begin to doubt that we are getting nearer to the truth. Perhaps readers get so caught up in it that they would even read about math to find out what happens next. If so, then that is great because that is actually what math research often feels like, and it is wonderful to think that Chung has figured out how to share that with those who are not mathematically inclined.

Another is that much of the book is focused on issues of oppression and identity politics. It is quite ambitious to have one book cover the inequities faced by women in math and science, the anti-miscegenation laws in mid-20th century America, wounded veterans returning from the war, the feeling of isolation of Asian-Americans in their own country, the kidnapping and rape of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers, the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis, a tiny bit of gender-queerness, and more. To put all of that not just in one novel, but in the personal life of a single individual is perhaps even beyond ambitious. For me, at least, it was too much. But, I know that some of these topics are only really now being discussed openly for the first time and there is a great deal of interest in them.

Finally, I wonder how much the author's playful use of mythology and symbolism helps to increase the readership of a book that is so focused on mathematics. The book title refers to the fantastical tale which appears before the first chapter concerning the "tenth muse" who is unwilling to inspire men to feats of creativity (as do her nine sisters, the better-known muses). Later in the book, the woman who raised her tells Katherine the story of a Buddhist saint that seems to have a nearly opposite moral. The book then frequently alludes to one or the other of these two contrasting tales. One of my personal favorite parts of the book is a dream that Katherine has where she sees a line of open graves containing the coffins of her ancestors. The mathematical symbols on the coffins seem to form a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, and so she tries at first to figure it out. But, she soon recognizes that one essential part of the proof would be on the open casket which is to be hers, suggesting that the proof cannot be complete until she dies.

The author has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago. At the end of the book, in addition to listing the works that she consulted (including not only some popular math books but also the writings of Einstein, Noether, Weyl and others), she thanks mathematicians she spoke to like Karen Uhlenbeck. My point here is that Chung has bona fides in mathematics, and it shows. Nearly everything she says about math is correct and well-put. (Two minor exceptions to this rule are her description of Gödel's theorems which would give the reader the misimpression that he proved that math does contain contradictions and a passage in which she repeats the common falsehood that a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis would necessarily allow hackers to read messages encrypted using number theory.)

This novel deserves the high praise that it is receiving from critics and readers. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, mathematical fiction, political fiction, and/or journeys of personal discovery.

Contributed by Curtis Steele

I found this book to be a rare jem, a book I enjoyed so much I am carefully re-reading it. I am not a mathematician. I passed my requisite university math courses without learning any math. I simply had to pass them to have any chance at getting into medical school, and used intuition and guesswork to get Bs in them. This book has opened my mind about math.

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(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 Tenth Muse
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Continuums by Robert Carr
  2. The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
  3. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
  4. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis von Konigslow
  5. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  6. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
  7. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
  8. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  9. Incendies by Denis Villeneuve / Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne / Wajdi Mouawad
  10. Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
Ratings for The Tenth Muse:
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 (2 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
5/5 (2 votes)
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Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifAcademia, Proving Theorems, Real Mathematicians, War, Female Mathematicians, Romance,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)