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The Fermata (1994)
Nicholson Baker

This book is certainly more about sex than it is about mathematics. However, I find the one mathematical passage in it so hilarious that I have to include it here.

The premise of the book is that the main character, Arno Strine, is able to temporarily halt time. (The title of the book is the name of the musical notation for a drawn out note, held longer than usual.) Strine does not use his power to steal (when he takes something from a store, he leaves approximately the right amount of money and a note in the cash register to explain) but to use women and their bodies for sexual pleasure. Here he discusses the moral issues:

(quoted from The Fermata)

I would condemn in the strongest terms anyone else who did what I have done. But the thing is, I did it. I did it, and I know myself, I know that I mean no harm, I mean well. I want simply to know what every woman looks like and feels like. I mean only to appreciate what the ribs of a complete stranger feel like under my hands, or to hold some hair I haven't held before, or to come in someone's face while she is paused in her own orgasm.

It is an unusual idea, presented as some hybrid of literature, pornography, humor and science fiction. If you are offended by this passage, though, don't read the book because it gets much more explicit than that! Strine uses various means to freeze time. For a while he is able to do it merely by clicking a mechanical pencil. But, in the only mathematical passage in the book, the pencil trick doesn't work so well by itself anymore and must be supplemented with "the special equation that [he] had adapted from a journal of mathematics."

(quoted from The Fermata)

"I wrote it on the placemat: the Strine Inequality. I had come across the germ of it in the Birkhoff Library at Harvard on a Sunday afternoon in a state of Tourette's syndromish meditativeness that I knew by now often presaged a Fermata discovery. I opened an issue of The Canadian Journal of Geometry at random and was surprised by how many symbolic systems mathematicians had pressed into service: Greek and Russian letters, of course, but the British pound sterling sign? Capital letters in a florid script that looked as if it came from a wedding invitation? From a short paper entitled 'Minimally Gilded Hodge Star Operators and Quasi-Ordinary Handlebodies Within a Localizable 4-Manifold Whitney Invariance,' I copied out an equation, as follows

[Mathematical notation, including a tensor, the word "End" (for "endomorphism group"), the blackboard bold C and R for the complex and real numbers, but meaning absolutely nothing as far as I can tell. - ak]
Several hours later, at the Ritz Carlton bar, guided by a will greater than my own, I substituted several of the international textile care-labeling symbols for key variables in the original, and changed the equal sign to a less-than-or-equal-to sign. I felt as if I were speaking in tongues as I watched my possessed hand draw a crossed-out iron and a crossed-out triangle ('no bleach') and a stylized half-filled washtub with a large hand in it ('hand wash'). When I had finished with the substitutions and the Strine Inequality stood complete on the page, there came a sound, a sound of distant chronic liposuction, of fine cosmetic work being done on the cosmos, nips and tucks tactfully taken, infinitesimal hairplugs of time removed from distant star-systems, where they wouldn't be missed, and arranged in quantity serially for me to live through. I was free once again to roam the Fold. To return to time I only had to erase the inequality sign, disabling its potency."

(I learned about the mathematical content of this book from Nik Weaver's "Math in Fiction" website. Check it out for his review of this book and some others.)

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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 Fermata
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Nymphomation by Jeff Noon
  2. Habitus by James Flint
  3. Forbidden Knowledge by Kathryn Cramer
  4. The Girl with the Celestial Limb by Pauline Melville
  5. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
  6. The Four-Color Problem by Barrington J. Bayley
  7. By a Fluke by Arthur Porges
  8. On the Quantum Theoretic Implications of Newton's Alchemy by Alex Kasman
  9. The Butterfly Effect by D.F. Roberts
  10. Doing our Babbage by Ira Slobodien
Ratings for The Fermata:
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:
1.67/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (3 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)