MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Enigma (1995)
Robert Harris / Tom Stoppard
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In this this espionage story set in England's Bletchley Park at the height of the Second World War, Tom Jericho is a clever mathematician at the famous code breaking facility who -- either despite or because of his pathetic mental state owing to a "nervous breakdown" has also taken on the self imposed task of solving a mystery and finding a mole. Although the math is not terribly important to the story, it is mentioned more than a few times, we see how math might have been extremely useful in helping the Allies win the war and we meet another clever but crazy mathematician character. I think this book is underappreciated and hope that some of the Math Fiction fans reading this will check it out.

As is so common in mathematical fiction, the mathematician (Jericho) is known as a genius and is also certifiably insane. (If you have read my thoughts on this elsewhere then you will know that this is a "pet peeve" of mine, that literature likes to suggest that there is some deep connection between insanity and mathematical ability.) In this case, he has supposedly had a nervous breakdown due to the ending of a brief affair with the beautiful and fun Claire. When he returns from to help his colleagues break the new "Shark" code, Jericho finds that Claire has gone missing. His attempts to find her lead him to unexpected romance and intrigue.

In the novel, Jericho is one of Alan Turing's students working on the Riemann Hypothesis with him before the war and Turing is a recurring -- though minor -- character in the novel. For the film (2001) version, however, Turing has been completely eliminated with Jericho playing both the role he plays in the novel and also being Turing at the same time. It is a little bit strange to see Alan Turing's historical role usurped by this fictional character. However, if you are not bothered by this bit of fake history, the movie is also worth seeing. In exchange for losing Turing, the film adds Tom Stoppard's brand of witty dialogue and a few nice comments about mathematics by this playwright who may be the most eloquent apologist for mathematics. It is interesting to note that the enigma machine used in the film is a real one, that happens to belong to one of the films producers, Mick Jagger! (Jagger also makes a cameo appearance in the film.)

I've read more than a few reviews of the film which praise it for finally acknowledging the role of England in this important part of world history. It is true, as the reviews imply, that most of the previous films on the subject emphasize the American role. There are lots of explanations for this fact. It is, of course, partly due to American nationalism and the fact that America tends to make more films than other countries. It is also partly England's fault for seeking to keep Bletchley secret for so long. (IMHO, England did a great disservice to the world by keeping knowledge of their wartime achievements secret for so long and did something nearly criminal when they had all of Tommy Flowers' "Colossus" computers destroyed for "security purposes".) However, lest the British critics get too self righteous about the fact that this film "finally sets the record straight", let me point out that this film also obscures the true role of some important and brilliant heroes of the story. In particular, upon reading the true history one learns that the first key steps in breaking the Enigma (involving bravery, brilliance and a bit of clever engineering) was done by some Polish mathematicians just before the Nazi invasion of Poland. It was only upon receiving help from them that the British first started making headway. Not only does the movie version Enigma not mention this part of the story, it vilifies the only Polish character in the film!

Contributed by Ruth de Haan

This is one of the best books I've read. I have yet to read his "Fatherland," which I've heard is even better. The main reason why this book is so good is because it ties together elements of historical fiction, love, and a mysterious disappearance of Claire, the main character's girlfriend.

Contributed by Ernest Gallo

As a work of historical fiction, this novel is a marvel. The author has taken a wide selection of facts about Bletchley Park and ingeniously reimagined them, weaving them into a coherent and (mostly) convincing plot. Of course the presence all this ingenuity would not matter if the novel were not in fact a fine bit of fiction.

By the way, Jericho (the mathematician and cryptanyst) has a breakdown not because the book represents mathematicians as flaky, but because of the demands of his work. Historically, cryptanalysts like Friedman did in fact undergo serious wear and tear because of their work.

The film is very worth viewing but, in spite of being written by Tom Stoppard, falls a bit short, in part because of totally unnecessary and arbitrary doodling with the plot.

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 Enigma
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  2. Sekret Enigmy by Roman Wionczek
  3. Sebastian by David Greene (director)
  4. Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore (playwright)
  5. Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
  6. The Company of Strangers by Robert Wilson
  7. Turing's Delirium by Edmundo Paz Soldan
  8. The Imitation Game by Morten Tyldum (director) / Graham Moore (screenplay)
  9. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  10. En busca de Klingsor (In Search of Klingsor) by Jorge Volpi
Ratings for Enigma:
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:
2.45/5 (11 votes)
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Literary Quality:
3.73/5 (11 votes)
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Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction, Adventure/Espionage,
MotifInsanity, Real Mathematicians, War, Romance, Turing,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumNovels, Films,

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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)