MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Timescape (1979)
Gregory Benford
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
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On the positive side, we have a clever idea that shows some of the flavor of modern mathematical physics, some positive comments about mathematics and mathematical name-dropping, and even some mathematical details done correctly that are usually screwed up. On the other hand, the book is dated by its racism, sexism and view of the "future" (1998), there is not very much mathematics, and I found myself thinking "yeah, right" a few too many times at plot twists that I found cliche or unbelievable.

The clever idea of the book is that scientists in 1998, aware that the world is dying from environmental consequences of human activity, send a message back in time in the form of tachyons that interfere with a physics experiment in 1963. Perhaps the most interesting part of it for me was watching the physicist in the past trying to figure out why the interference in his experiment seemed to be a scientific message written in Morse code.

An example of the positive comments about math is this one, from a description of a theory in which one closed universe can be a subset of another:

(quoted from Timescape)

The mathematics was what made it all; the pictures men carried inside their heads were useful but clumsy, cartoons of a world that was as subtle as silk, infinitely smooth and varied. After you had seen that, really seen it, the fact that worlds could exist within worlds, that universes could thrive within our own, was not so huge a riddle. The mathematics buoyed you.

The mathematical facts that, I must admit, it is nice to see stated correctly in a fictional setting for once, concern Gödel's Theorem and the "fact" that half of the data samples are below the mean. In a casual conversation we hear:

(quoted from Timescape)

"One of the laws of nature," Gordon said, "is that half of the people have got to be below average."
"For a Gaussian distribution, yeah," Cooper said.

The mention of Gödel (in the context of the possible paradoxes created by the faster-than-light messages) is not what I would refer someone to for a serious description of the theorem, but it is pretty good for a single paragraph in a novel!

What about the cliches? Okay, how about finally figuring out the true nature of the universe right before dying in a plane crash? And, what do you supposed the "butterfly effect" caused by the reception of the message from the future back in 1963 will do? (I hope I'm not surprising anyone with this...) Of course, a kid -- who tells reporters that he was in the book depository to get some magazines with articles about the message from the future -- spots Oswald and tackles him before he kills Kennedy.

The example of racism (there was only one but it is so obnoxious as to seriously affect my opinion of the book) occurs when one character figures out that a nervous looking black man at a bus stop is actually a pick-pocket or mugger and scares him away. He says that if not for the man's skin color he might not have recognized him for what he was! [Note: I have noticed similar racist comments in other Benford writings. There is even another criminal who is recognized because of his "Black-Mexican" origins in his 1979 Calibrations and Exercises, which might qualify as mathematical fiction itself.]

As for the sexism, the scientists in the 1990's (the future when the book was written) are all men with wives who "tend the homefires"...except for one woman scientist who is bi-sexual.

Contributed by "Nazidlav"

"I disagree about the racism part; Markham makes it clear that he realizes the implied racism of his observation. moreover, the squatters, which Benford comes to describe as ill mannered scum, are white. However, I think you're quite right on the cliches. Kennedy must be the most resurrected person in history second to Jesus :P. All in all, though, I enjoyed the book and loved the physics stuff of the flow of time and the final, and almost predictable but who cares, buddist revelation. By the way, you've got a nice page here. Keep up the good work!"

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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 Timescape
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. PreVision by John Pierce
  2. Mozart on Morphine by Gregory Benford
  3. Artifact by Gregory Benford
  4. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  5. The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd
  6. The Grand Wheel by Barrington J. Bayley
  7. River of Gods by Ian McDonald
  8. The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke / Stephen Baxter
  9. Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
  10. Paradox by John Meaney
Ratings for Timescape:
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:
2/5 (3 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3.5/5 (3 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreScience Fiction,
MotifTime Travel, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful, Gödel,
TopicMathematical Physics,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)