a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|The protagonist in this science fiction novel, Jack Potter, is a tenure track math professor in a future where San Francisco has sunk under the ocean, all non-academic employment in the United States is essentially slavery, and academics communicate to each other through a direct mental connection. Although he is mostly worried about obtaining grants so that he can secure tenure, his research into cryptography and especially his attempt to extract meaningful information from apparently random signals has attracted the attention of the government, and his "uncle" who works for "the other side". It also allows him to communicate with an alien named "Wheeler", light-years away, who is interested in establishing a business relationship with a human.
The author has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a master's degree in physics. This gives him enough mathematical background that he can toss around some real mathematical terms. Some readers have complained that there is too much mathematics in the narrative, but in my opinion, the main problem is that it is not used sensibly.
One idea of the book which may be artistic, but which I found frustrating, is the idea that in the future we will interface to our computers through a "metaphor". For instance, at one point Potter seems to be watching Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar at Woodstock, but this is just his computer (through a "bubble" interface) trying to suggest to him that he needs to be looking for signals in a broader way:
At one point, Potter is trying to decipher a signal he has received from a new alien species. Nylund wanted to build on the classic cliche of aliens first communicating through elementary mathematics (since we suspect that "1+1=2" will be universally understood) by having this alien message encode an entire proof of Cauchy's integral formula from complex analysis. (Actually, from the description it sounds more like the Residue theorem, which is a corollary of Cauchy's integral formula.) It is nice to see this theorem mentioned in a work of fiction, but it is really rather difficult to believe that this would work as a first message. For one thing, to write out the proof of either Cauchy's integral formula or the Residue Theorem would require far too many symbols to make a good FIRST message intended to be understood by a stranger. If we encode the integral symbol as "0101" and dz as "1010" and the variable z as "1100" etc then the result would be something so long and complicated that there would be many, many different reasonable ways to "decode" it. Moreover, the notation for something as complicated as calculus is likely to be unrecognizably different from one species to another.
Okay, perhaps I'm being too picky. There is a lot of mathematics (too much for some readers and not well used in the opinion of others). Aside from that, the book is fast paced, imaginitive and enjoyable.
BTW, the title is obviously a reference to the common expression from information theory "Signal to Noise Ratio".
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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.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)