MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Simplest Equation (2014)
Nicky Drayden
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Mariah is a Stanford University math major who has lost her interest in the subject of mathematics. She is initially annoyed when Kwalla takes the seat next to hers in class. Kwalla is an alien with rows of sharp teeth and strangely jointed legs, and on her planet it unthinkable for anyone to dislike math. Kwalla shows Mariah a correspondence her species has developed between stories and equations, and a device that forms floating fractals based on those equations by crystalizing water vapor in the air. The way that this procedure can take stories (such as the story of how Mariah and Kwalla met and became friends) and turn them into visually beautiful mathematical objects restores Mariah's interest in mathematics, and helps their mutual affection bloom into love. However, the future of their relationship is threatened when Kwalla is accepted at one of the better universities in another solar system.

This story, by the author whose pseudonym is "Nicky Drayden", was published in Issue #120 of Space and Time Magazine. However, there are two easier ways to obtain it than through that original publication. It can be read online for free at Glittership.com (2017) and you can listen to a podcast of a famous actor reading it on the "Levar Burton Reads" podcast from 2019.

In any of these formats, the story is notable for being one of the few works of mathematical fiction featuring a Black female mathematician or lesbian romance. It also addresses the idea that some people are "born to do math" and everyone else shouldn't even try:

(quoted from The Simplest Equation)

“Give me a break,” I say, rubbing my eyes. “I might not get your ‘stories’ but you don’t get how incredibly hard this is for me. I wasn’t born a genius like you, solving proofs while still in the womb.”

From the grit in my words, I expect Kwalla to ask me to leave, but instead she lays a spindly hand on my knee.

“I’ve worked hard to get here, Mariah, but what you say is partially true. Math is our first language, and we crave it when we’re born like you crave your mother’s milk. It is our first friend. Our first love. Our first everything.” Kwalla pauses, face riddled with uncertainty, then draws a black pouch from her backpack. She unties the drawstring and slips a large, tear-shaped crystal into the palm of her hand. Hundreds of facets speckle the ceiling with light, so beautiful. “I’ve never shared this with anyone,” she says timidly.

“It’s amazing…”

“I haven’t even started yet,” she says with a laugh, then leans close so I can get a better look. Foreign symbols are etched into each cut side of the crystal. “It’s a yussalun, a calling piece. It’s similar to your auditory instruments, except… well, it’s probably easier just to show you.”

Kwalla holds the piece up in front of her like a trumpet, but several inches away from her mouth. Her thin fingers tap across the facets and the air above the piece crystallizes into an intricate fractal pattern, a living snowflake that blooms sideways and then stretches for the ceiling with all its might. Buds gracefully unfurl to the rhythm of an inaudible beat, stirring up a sense of wonder within me. Then the ice crystals slow, becoming thinner and more delicate until they peter out with a hopelessness that fills me with inexplicable grief.

“That was the equation we’ve been working on,” she says after we’ve both had a chance to catch our breath. “Now do you see?”

I nod, feeling wounded and vulnerable. There’s a terrible rawness inside my chest that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and yet I crave more. I need more. “Do another,” I whisper.


Spoiler Alert: By the end of the story, Mariah is recognized for her mathematical skill and receives her own invitation to study math at a prestigious university.

For the most part, this is a serious story, but my personal favorite line is this humorous one that occurs when Mariah tries to evacuate the dorm after her attempt to make a fractal threatens the safety of its residents:

(quoted from The Simplest Equation)

“Fire!” I say, over and over through the hallways at the top of my lungs, figuring it will draw more attention than yelling “fractal!”

More information about this work can be found at www.glittership.com.
(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 Simplest Equation
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  2. Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine Asaro
  3. Hidden Figures by Allison Schroeder (writer) / Theodore Melfi (director and writer)
  4. Luminous by Greg Egan
  5. Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright
  6. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons
  7. The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree by Michael Swanwick
  8. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
  9. Strange Attractors by Charles Soule (author) / Greg Scott (Illustrator)
  10. Risqueman by Mike Wood
Ratings for The Simplest Equation:
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)
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Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)
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Categories:
GenreScience Fiction,
MotifAcademia, Aliens, Female Mathematicians, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful, Romance, Math Education,
TopicChaos/Fractals,
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)