MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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We (1924)
Yevgeny Zamyatin
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Like 1984, We is a book about a utopia gone wrong. In fact, it is acknowledged as a source which Orwell used when writing his more famous dystopian novel. (We was written in Russian in 1921, published in English in 1924, published in Russian in 1952 in New York, and only finally published in Russia in 1988.)

The main character of the book, a mathematician named D-503, must come to grips with his love for the intriguing I-330 (lovely name, don't you think?) who gets him thinking more about "I" (the selfish self) than "We" (the OneState).

Unfortunately, I can't say I find it too interesting to read. (I have only read the sections reprinted in Imaginary Numbers.) The math in the book is all "pseudo-math". Here's a sample:

(quoted from We)

"I am completely bewildered. Yesterday, at the very moment when I thought that everything was already disentangled, that all the X's were found, new unknown quantities appeared in my equation."

"Of course, it's clear: in order to determine the true value of a function it is necessary to take it to its ultimate limit ... Hence, if we designate love as 'L' and death as 'D,' then L = f(D). In other words, love and death --- yes, exactly, exactly."

"Every equation, every formula in the surface world has its corresponding curve or body. But for irrational formulas, for my square root of -1, we know of no corresponding bodies, we have never seen them ... But the horror of it is that these invisible bodies exist ..."

(Note: these quotes were taken from Nik Weaver's "Math in Fiction" website. You can go there for his review of We and some other mathematically oriented books.)


Contributed by Craig Myers, Royal HS, Simi Valley CA

"I have been teaching this book to AP English students for 20 years. It always provokes a lot of discussion about the science and math contained in it, which I regard as healthy interdisciplinary carry-over. Perhaps part of the problem some readers have with the pseudo-math is that they forget that the protagonist-narrator, a mathematician-engineer, becomes increasingly mentally unstable as the novel progresses. The very foundations of his view of the world as mathematically and rationally definable begin to fail him when he becomes emotionally obsessed with a temptress who is merely using him to foment political rebellion. The mathematical analogies throughout help define the deterioration of his rationality. I would say that the debt to WE voiced by both Huxley and Orwell is indication enough of the literary magnitude of this work as a seminal dystopia."


An anonymous visitor to this site (known as "D") had this to say: "This novel is a great literary piece of writing and should not be judged on its mathematical content, or you will fall into the satirical trap of the novel. The whole point to the novel is that reason and math are not good foundations upon which to build a society. One should judge this novel by its philosophical stance if anything, not on how mathematical it is."

Another anonymous visitor said "We is a far more complex novel than 1984 if you truly analyze it's content. It is a fantastic piece of literature, and this must have been realized by Orwell when he stole most of Zamyatin's ideas. Overall, We is a great work if you are at all interested in analyzing a piece of literature."

An AOL visitor named "Lispeth" comments: "We has its problems, but it is clear in its philosophical message: Man's freedom cannot be crushed in the name of `reason,' and revolution must always occur. This is far more important than the book's use of math. Besides, if you are willing to think a little more abstractly, the mathematical imagery is really quite elegant."

Another anonymous visitor to this site tells us: "I am required to read this book for my IB English III class at school. Some people just don't understand the literary aspects of a novel until they are exposed to an instance in which they are required to deconstruct an entire work, evaluating imagery, characterization, theme, symbolism, etc. You cannot get caught up in the surface meaning, you have to further examine the work in order to appreciate it to its fullest extent. Please don't judge this book by the simple mathematical content, but look at it further and understand what it is really saying."

"Adam" says: "Those complaining about the pseudo-math are missing the point. That said, know that Zamyatin was a professor of Naval Engineering. He obviously would have known all this stuff like the back of his hand. If the mathematical language is sketchy, take it as a conscious choice on the author's part."

Contributed by Michael Long, Assoc. Prof. of Russian

"I cannot evaluate the math content of We. But the math is not the point. What makes We remarkable and a landmark in Russian literature, or world literature for that matter, is that Zamyatin managed to predict virtually every political/social aspect of high Stalinist culture of the Soviet Union long before those elements occured in reality. I have read the work both in Russian and English. Zamyatin's background in math and engineering allowed him a descriptive power unknown in literature before We. Contemporary Russians upon reading We are astoundied by his predictive insight into a society that he himself never experienced. We is a masterpiece of science fiction and political distopia."

Contributed by southpaw

"The math in We may be very basic, and so many readers probably simply consider it pseudo-math. I think it may not be such a good thing to discount it like that. I just finished reading the book, and I found it to be an excellent literary device. There is the story itself, but I honestly think it would not have been the same without the math Zamyatin uses. Their whole society is based on the Table of Hours, which in itself is centered around different calculations. The math Zamyatin actually explains is very often an extension of this, and so has an important role in the development of the plot."

Contributed by The Benefactor

This book seems to focus more on the basic nature of numanity, and its illogical way of functioning. Although THe One State is based on math, math does not seem to play a very large role in the story, whent discussing the story's meaning. If one were to discuss the role of math, it would be to show that humans CANNOT be governed by mathmatic principles and 100% logic. More to the point would be to focus on the idea of happiness, or revolution.

Contributed by Anonymous

I loved this book. I think it is a great piece of literature and the pseudo math doesn't bother me in the least.

Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com. Amazon.com logo
(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 We
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  2. Solar Lottery by Philip K. Dick
  3. The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd
  4. Paradox by John Meaney
  5. River of Gods by Ian McDonald
  6. Drunkard's Walk by Frederik Pohl
  7. Statistician's Day by James Blish
  8. The Unteleported Man (aka Lies Inc.) by Philip K. Dick
  9. Souls in the Great Machine by Sean McMullen
  10. Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
Ratings for We:
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:
2.73/5 (47 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3.91/5 (53 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreScience Fiction,
MotifMath as Cold/Dry/Useless,
Topic
MediumNovels,

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Your Help Needed: Some site visitors remember reading works of mathematical fiction that neither they nor I can identify. It is time to crowdsource this problem and ask for your help! You would help a neighbor find a missing pet...can't you also help a fellow site visitor find some missing works of mathematical fiction? Please take a look and let us know if you have seen these missing stories anywhere!.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)