MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Prime (2013)
Steve Erickson
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Because he is jealous of the relative success of colleagues he considers his intellectual inferiors, a mathematician kidnaps a celebrity to learn the numerical secret of fame.

The kidnapper in this short story was a "golden boy" at MIT and worked at NASA before teaching at a state college. He seems to believe he is a brilliant mathematician who never received the accolades he deserved. While on a cruise ship with a woman who is famous for nothing other than being famous, he lures her into his room and locks her in so he can learn the "secret code" of fame.

As soon as the author mentioned this celebrity who has done nothing to deserve her fame, I had an idea of who he might be referring to. The extra information in this excerpt leaves no doubt that this unnamed celebrity is actually someone in particular that we are meant to recognize:

(quoted from Prime)

“Right there,” he pointed around the corner of the doorway at 8÷11x(x + 5)2=104.727, craning his neck to her vantage point, “that’s your father who successfully defended the famous football player who killed his wife—with the exponent of 2 signifying, of course, your alliteratively named sisters, all assuming I’m correct that the x factor in conjunction with the coefficient +5 is the number of years the wife and the football player who killed her were married…I’m afraid these things always involve postulations that are less than certain. And there,” pointing at another equation, “is your mother leaving your father to marry the famous Olympic athlete. Your rich blonde friend—”

All through the story, the mathematician uses math in this nonsensical way. Not only does he tend to think in numbers, he is shown to actually dislike words:

(quoted from Prime)

“The prime number for anger is 113,” he told her, “the highest prime three-figure integer followed by the greatest total of composite integers representing the highest percentage of the original prime. In other words, 14 composite integers follow 113 before you come to the next prime of 127, 14 representing…. ” Did it mean anything that he had written 113 in green? Shouldn’t the number for anger have been written in red? My God, he swallowed hard, mesmerized by the horror of this self-revelation: Red, green—I’m becoming enmeshed in…in…adjectives.

Although there are numbers in there, that is not math! That's numerology, which has as much to do with math as astrology does to astronomy. It is not clear to me whether the author really thinks this is what all mathematicians do or whether we are supposed to simply believe that this particular mathematician is just crazy. Probably the author intended the latter but the fact that he seems to believe that 1 is sometimes considered to be prime or that 0 is not a number suggest a lack of familiarity with mathematics. Either way, I do fear that this story will reinforce negative stereotypes of mathematicians. (It may also reinforce negative stereotypes of celebrities, but that is not my concern on this website.)

The story appears in Issue 6 of the the online magazine Nautilus and is available for free here. Although I don't particularly like this story, I am grateful to Dr. Allan Goldberg for letting me know of its existence.

More information about this work can be found at nautil.us.
(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 Prime
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Book of Irrational Numbers by Michael Marshall Smith
  2. Twisted Seduction by Dominique Adams (writer and director)
  3. The Brink of Infinity by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  4. Leeches by David Albahari
  5. The Body Counter by Anne Frasier
  6. Secrets to the Grave by Tami Hoag
  7. My Heart Belongs to Bertie by Helen DeWitt
  8. Flea Circus: A Brief Bestiary of Grief by Mandy Keifetz
  9. After Math by Denise Grover Swank
  10. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
Ratings for Prime:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
Genre
MotifEvil mathematicians, Insanity,
Topic
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)