a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|A psychic mathematician is driven to the edge of insanity as his life partner approaches death. The mathematician's research is described explicitly -- as are some of the horrific events that befall him as his world collapses around him. According to the Amazon reviews, most people either love or hate this book. I'm somewhere in between. Dan Simmons definitely deserves his reputation as a great writer. Although I have some complaints about the book -- but I'm hypercritical, aren't I? -- I still think it is quite masterfully written.
The protagonist, Jeremy Bremen, is a math professor at Haverford whose research on the Fourier analysis of standing waves is an attempt to understand his own psychic abilities. His wife, who is also psychic but not a mathematician, shares his excitement for discovering the secret of their mind reading skills, which are shown to be more of a curse than an asset. When he meets an older scientist -- a holocaust survivor -- whose studies of brain waves seems to mesh with his own, they seem to be on the way to discovering not just the secret of psychic abilities but the true nature of quantum mechanics and the role of the human mind in shaping the universe. Then, Bremen's wife is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and things start going downhill, leading Bremen through some dangerous (and -- frankly -- disgusting!) encounters with America's seedy underside.
Simmons has pulled out some interesting mathematics, which is discussed quite explicitly in the book. In addition to throwing around terms like "chaos" and "fractals", he brings KAM theory into it, even including a diagram copied from Abraham and Marsden's seminal textbook on dynamics. However, he gets quite a bit of it wrong. In particular, he makes the standard mistakes of thinking that chaos theory is somehow mathematics without formulas and is representative of non-determinism. (Quite the contrary; the most interesting thing about chaos theory is that it shows us how complicated things can look even though they are deterministic and are governed by relatively simple looking formulas!) Moreover, recognizing that chaos theory is a branch of nonlinear mathematics, he presumes that everything other than chaos theory is just "classical linear" mathematics. (There is quite a bit of nonlinear mathematics outside of chaos theory and even is part of classical mathematics, well known to people like Newton despite this book's suggestion to the contrary.)
However, there are many good things about the book and I would not want to overemphasize the importance of these mathematical errors. If I were to complain about anything, it would be how needlessly disgusting and violent the book can be at times, but this website is not about violence or nausea and so I will continue to focus on the mathematics! ; ) There is quite a lot of characterization of Bremen as a stereotypical mathematician (and therefore not interested in reading novels, not interested in people, only interested in the big idea, only fond of baroque music, etc) in contrast to his wife (who likes sf novels and is interested in the human side of things). Of course, this is only a stereotype and one should not presume that all mathematicians are like this. Still, there is nothing unrealistic about thinking that this one particular mathematician has these traits, and Simmons does a relatively good job of presenting him as such. In particular, his thoughts about work and research seem believable to me (apart from the errors in understanding of mathematics addressed above).
The book is highly recommended...especially if you have a stronger stomach than I do.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)