MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Mimsy Were the Borogoves (1943)
Lewis Padgett (aka Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore)
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for hardcore fans of science fiction.

Far in the future, humans have not only improved their digestive tracts (eliminating the appendix and shortening their large intestine) and invented a time machine, but they have also invented educational toys which guide their children to learn abstract mathematics (non-Euclidean geometries and algebras in which 2+2 is not four). Two boxes of such toys, in fact, are sent back in time and have a dramatic effect on the kids that find them.

Mimsy Were the Borogoves is a classic Science Fiction story from 1943 by the writing team of Henry Kuttner and Catherine Moore under their pseudonym "Lewis Padgett". The title, of course, is a line from the famous nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll. The story has moved many readers over the years. (See "testimonials" below.) And it was the "inspiration" for the 2007 film The Last Mimzy. (The film's official site is mimzy.com, and you can read my comments about the film below.)

This story originally appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1943. If you want to buy a new book with this story in it, your only choice at the moment is the collection The Last Mimzy (previously released as "The Best of Henry Kuttner").

The new collection is worth the money, but some of you may be looking for a cheaper option. Until quite recently (March 2007) I was able to point readers to copies of this story available for free online. However, with the film coming out, it seems that the owner of the copyright has made sure that most of these were taken down. (Well, if you're looking for it online, you might be able to still find it. Try Googling "mimsy were the borogoves paradine holloway euclidean" for some that seem to have survived at least until 3/23/07.)

It was also collected in many other books previously and so there is a good chance you could find it at your library. For instance, it was reprinted in The Ascent of Wonder and you can read the comments that accompany it in that volume here. Another older source for the story is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol I.

The purpose of my Website is to discuss mathematics in works of fiction, and math is certainly important to this story, though it is not discussed very convincingly. The psychologist who figures out what is going on confuses logic, arithmetic, and geometry -- for instance -- when he suggests a "non-Euclidean geometry" in which "two and two needn't equal four". But this story is fun to read and the idea that learning alternative mathematical structures (other than the arithmetic of the real numbers and Euclidean geometry) could expand one's mind and abilities is probably true and a nice advertisement for mathematics. (Similar ideas pop up in Star, Bright, Another New Math, and Tangents.)

Here's an example:

(quoted from Mimsy Were the Borogoves)

"Your mind has been conditioned to Euclid," Holloway said. "So this -- thing -- bores us, and seems pointless. But a child knows nothing of Euclid. A different sort of geometry from ours wouldn't impress him as being illogical. He believes what he sees."

"Are you trying to tell me that this gadget's got a fourth-dimensional extension?" Paradine demanded. "Not visually, anyway," Holloway denied. "All I say is that our minds, conditioned to Euclid, can see nothing in this but an illogical tangle of wires. But a child -- especially a baby -- might see more. Not at first. It'd be a puzzle, of course; Only a child wouldn't be handicapped by too many preconceived ideas."

"Hardening of the thought-arteries," Jane interjected.

Paradine was not convinced. "Then a baby could work calculus better than Einstein? No, I don't mean that. I can see your point, more or less clearly. Only --"

"Well, look. Let's suppose there are two kinds of geometry -- we'll limit it, for the sake of the example. Our kind, Euclidean, and another, which we'll call x. X hasn't much relationship to Euclid. It's based on different theorems. Two and two needn't equal four in it; they could equal y, or they might not even equal. A baby's mind is not yet conditioned, except by certain questionable factors of heredity and environment. Start the infant on Euclid --"

"Poor kid," Jane said.

(Note: In the movie the psychologist character explains things in terms of neuron growth: that old people have "hardening of the thought-arteries" because they are not generating new neurons while children are. To me, this is a much less interesting idea than that learning one type of mathematics leads to a narrowness of thought that can be avoided by learning more complicated math!)

Spoiler: Stop reading now if you don't want to know how the story ends! The title of the story, of course, is taken from Lewis Carroll's "Jaberwocky". According to this story, it was actually written by Alice herself and is not just a poem but a mathematical formula with which one can travel to bizarre alternate realities. How does she know this? Well, of course, Alice discovered one of the boxes of toys from the future! (Again, this is something the film spoils by making this an early realization rather than part of the climax.)

Contributed by Jeni Bynes

"This story was a real eye-opener for me. I first read it at age 19, when I was young and still believed that I knew everything. It amazed me that there might be more out there than what all our scholars currently perceive. There could be things that we have no way of perceiving because of our conditioning rather than because of our biological inabilities. We may all be geniuses capable of doing so much more and yet restrained by the limits of our current knowledge. Incredible. This is the first time I've looked the story up online and I am now 40-years-old. This story made more of an impression on me than any other I had read before or since. Thanks for the website."

Contributed by Bill Loxsom

"I love this story, which I also read as a teenager. I think that even if I had read it for the first time as a 40 year old, I would have liked it also. There is something poignant about the departure of the children, which seems to speak symbolically to the mixed feelings that parents have to the eventual departure of thier children in normal times."

Contributed by Charles W. Phillips

"Like Brave New World, I was not only delighted by the story, but I was also quite surprised at the copyright date, 1943. It is a story that seems ahead of its time, for example, when I first read Brave New World, I thought it was written in the 1950s, not the 1920s. In the case of "Mimsy Were The Barograves," I read it not as mathematical fiction (my mind doesn't work that way, I am more interested in epistemology, rhetorical theory,B and the history of ideas and civilizations), but rather as existential fiction and in that sense, it was ten years ahead of it's time. In 1943, Victor Frankl was still in a Nazi concentration camp, and had not yet written his book opening the doors of psychology to existential theory. And 1943 was at least ten years before Albert Camus' The Fall, the finest work of French existential fiction ever. As existential fiction, it might be conceived that it is rather the opposite of what would be called mathematical, since mathematics is based on an absolute reality, whereas existential thought is more to a consensual reality, with a concession to the 'real world realities' that, even if they are not absolute, might as well be from the point of view of the individual, and so proscribe our existance."

But, Charles, that's exactly the point. Mathematics is not so objective and fixed as people believe. The step from Euclidean to non-Euclidean geometry is just one example. And, although we have not achieved time travel as a result (yet), opening up our minds to the possibilities of mathematics beyond our initial image of it has lead us to amazing and unexpected applications.

Contributed by Craig

I thought it was pretty cool that people in the future send their educational toys into the past. God knows we need them back here.

Contributed by Barb Byro

I love this story. It's close to my absolute defining Sf/Fantasy story - and I introduced it to my children and they all fell in love with it, too. An exquisite experience to read.

Contributed by Anonymous

The work was amazing, but it's math content wasn't incredibly huge. Basically, I was able to mostly understand it and I wouldn't concider myself a math person.

Contributed by paul mcleod

great story. i love well thought out s f especially from this period. nearly as good as the original "Flowers for Algernon" + some of John Wyndham's short stories.

Contributed by Leroy

I read 'Mimsy' in the very early seventies. I found it in a collection of very fine short SF stories. I believe that it came in a box of books that were given to our submarine to entertain us as we silently patrolled below the North Atlantic during the Cold War. I read it every now and then to this day. There seems to be.... Hell! It's just a very good read.

Contributed by Nathan Phillips

I first read this story in the mid 90s in a science fiction collection from the 70's, which is when I thought it was written. I was struck by the time travelling and the concept of children being able to be conditioned to a point beyond adult understanding. I didn't understand the concept of non-euclidian math until much later, but with my understandings of things today, the story seems to have greater implications.

Contributed by Anonymous

I first read this as a teenager 30 years ago and have often found myself daydreaming about this fantastic work. The new to be released "Mimzy" appears to be an attempt on this story. Just the little I saw if the trailer reminded me of this story instantly! I only hope they (Hollywood) do it the justice it deserves.

Contributed by Viviane

I first read "Mimsy were the borogroves" when I was about 9 years old, and had to get the dictonary out for some of the words, but I was deeply moved by the story. I was given a set of anthologies of best sci-fi short stories, and I read every one of them. This story is the only one I still remember. I have been looking for a copy of it within the last year, to no avail. But then, yesterday, I saw a preview for "The Last Mimzy" and it was great! I'm so glad this tale will be available to the public on a large scale.

Contributed by Kate Storonskij

Having watched the preview to Mimzy, I noticed the reference to "genius"

I believe genius is a way of thinking, optimizing one's capacity for learning.

Magic is any phenomenon, imbued with wonder, compensating for, or in place of understanding.

Both definitions, I learned by osmosis from this story...

-Kate

Contributed by Susan Belzer

I still still remember this story after nearly 25 years. When I watched the trailer for the movie I knew immediately the source. What the authors were trying to convey (my interpetation) was the concept: There are no absolute truths, and the mind of a child can be far more open to possibilities. As an example, we have come full circle regarding parallel universe theory, the idea was out there in Lewis Carroll's day, but most serious scientists would have called in bunc in the last decade. There is a little bit of "magic" in math and kids find it really cool. We should teach our child to learn, and there really are infinite possibilities.

Contributed by SCIFAN

I read this story as a teenager (I am now 62) and never forgot it. It had a huge impact on me -- I still remember not only the complete plot, but also dialogue in the story. When I saw the ads for The Last Mimzy I knew immediately it was taken from the story. I am skeptical, however, that they did it justice (Hollywood has a tendency to "improve" books and stories). However, sucker that I am, I'll probably go see it. Is the original story available in any anthologies, still in print, etc.?

Contributed by Jack Holleran

I read this story in the 40s as a child and loved it. Padgett had always been a favorite of mine and I especially liked his robot stories..

Contributed by Sue

We just saw the Last Mimzy movie- liked it in a different way from ET (the adult scientists were much better), John Wyndham's alien inspired children of the damned, or Arthur C Clark's "Against the Fall of Night", referencing next step-in-evolution children..

Contributed by Alan in NYC

Amazing. I also read this short story as a teenager (am 60 now) & it had a profound affect on me. I also was immediately reminded of it when I saw the movie trailer & was moved to seek out more info on google - which is how I got HERE. I wish I could find a copy of it now but my scifi book collection disappeared ages ago. Maybe the movie (if it succeeds) will lead to a reprint?

Contributed by Anonymous

This story came out of my father's collection, don't know what book. We (my family) loved "Alice in Wonderland" and my parents knew the "Jaberwocky" by heart. We were quite a show at dinner! Couldn't believe it when I read "Mimsy Were the Borogoves"! Can't wait to see the movie. Eve

Contributed by Danielle

I just saw a sneak preview of the movie, and I have to say... It was GREAT. I immediately returned home to see if i could find a copy of the origional story, and this website is as close as I could get... But I just ordered the science fiction anthology mentioned above from Half.com for less than $7... Get it while you can!

Contributed by Karen

This novella was also reprinted in "Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 5 (1943)" (DAW Books, 1981). I loved that story as a child, along with Wilmar Siras's "In Hiding" and other books about genius kids having to hide in an indifferent or hostile world.

Spoiler: One of the things I appreciated more as I reread it later was the unintended consequences of the original experimenter. He put his son's outgrown toys in the boxes just as a placeholder; their effect on Alice Liddell and the Paradine children was an outcome he hadn't considered.

Contributed by Anonymous

I read this story many years ago. It made quite an impression on me. I felt as if I were just waking up from a long sleep and should be part of the story myself; or that I was part of the story and somehow got separated from it and couldn't get back home. If only I too could figure out how to make the slithy tove I too could get back home. When I read the end of the story, it seemed so simple I couldn't imagine how I could not have known the answer. I haven't seen the movie yet, and I hesitate to say what I remember lest I spoil the story, but I don't know how they resolve the movie. So I won't say. I remember wanting to know non-Euclidian math and that I never would. I was sure that it was not being taught on purpose. It took a long time for the effect of this story to leave me. But the moment I was the preview on tv I felt as if there was something profound that I had forgotten. My kids and I saw an extended trailer tonight and I literally jumped out of my seat screaming: "how could I have forgotten! I know this story. I changed me!" My kids think I'm nuts but I can't wait to see the movie. On an ironic note, I recently gave away the lion share of the scifi books I collected over the last 30 years. One of them contained this story. Who knew? At least I know where I donated the books so perhaps I can get the copy back.

I know my kids are learning math at a rate far excellerated than I did. Some of what they are learning I paid big money to learn in college at art school. It amazes me and makes me sad and happy all at the same time. Perhaps they will be the ones to make this story come true. After all, if it something that can be imagined...

Contributed by LYNN

You asked why the filmmakers might have changed the spelling of "mimsy". This is just a guess, but in the phrase, "mimsy were the borogoves", the word is clearly an adjective. In the phrase, "the last mimzy", the word is clearly a noun. Perhaps that is the reason...they changed the spelling when they changed the part of speech.

Yes, apparently in a moment of marketing brilliance, someone came up with the idea of making "Mimzy" a noun...a cute, cuddly, bunny doll that can be sold to children!

Contributed by Raymond A. Tucker

I was a teenager (now 65) when I first read this story in an anthology of Science Fiction which also featured the novella "Flowers for Algernon". Nothing has affected me as much as the sheer joy of this first reading of two of Sci Fi's classics, and I've been a rabid fan ever since. I hope we see more of Henry Kuttner's work (The Proud Robot. etc.) in film and reprint.

Raymond A. Tucker Sr., Hyattsville, MD

Contributed by Paul Hafke

This story is available in "The Best of Henry Kuttner" Ballentine Books 1975. I am sure I have at least two more in various books I have collected. I suggest used book stores or the web for purchase. I was facinated by this story because it deals with interpreting the environment in non - classical ways. I believe it is such thinking that will eventually lead to Faster than Light travel and new sources of energy. If an electron can Change energy levels in zero time doesn't this imply matter transmission ? Many of these types of new thinking are pushing the frontiers of high energy particle physics and modern cosmology.

Contributed by Janet Freeling

On reading the movie trailer for "The Last Mimzy," the familiarity of the plot started to tickle my brain. A quick Google search lead me here, where I found it was a story I read in my early 20's (I'm 59 now). I was going to try your suggestion of searching for an on-line copy when you mentioned The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol 1. A perusal through my library, and voila! I still had that book! I'm looking forward to reading/enjoying it again. I'm SO glad I found your site. Thank you! PS I'm still a science fiction fan after all these years. I still have all my original Ray Bradbury as well.

Contributed by Larissa

Unfortunately I read this story translated into Russian. Now I am trying to get it in English. But I think it is brilliant. Not because of maths or anything like that. For my the main idea of the work is that the younger the child is, the more opportunities of learning different, unusual for an adult things he or she has. It is adults who make children lose these unique abilities.

Comments about "The Last Mimzy": The movie does not qualify as "mathematical fiction" since all of the explicit mathematics has been removed from it. In fact, I must say that I was very disappointed with the film. It is not only that the math has been replaced by some biology, some environmentalism and quite a bit of "New Age" religiosity. One important thing that has been lost in this story's translation to film is the implication that just an idea can change the world. If you read the comments above, you will see that many readers of the story were moved by the concept that non-Euclidean geometry, or other changes to our assumptions about mathematics, by itself can give us powers to do things that we could not do before. In some ways, I think this really is true of mathematics in a way that does not have a parallel in the other sciences. Moreover, while the plot in the movie makes the toys into the attempt of a scientist to save humanity, in the story they were just toys for training children in the future, just like our computer games today are toys for teaching children the alphabet and arithmetic but would look magical to people in the distant past. Personally, I like the simplicity of that plot over the excitement (and extreme sappiness) of the film. But then, when I saw the movie the audience applauded at the end, so I'm sure others will disagree.

Contributed by Cam Dix

When I saw an advertisement for the first time for the film The Last Mimzy I got goosebumps up and down my back. In that instant I was taken back some thirty-seven years to my reading of Mimsy Were the Borogroves and the father’s frantic calls to Emma and Scotty. Back then, at thirteen years of age, I wanted so badly to know where they had gone and if they were OK. I wanted to know about this special math they had learned. I no longer have my copy of the book in which the story appeared.

Then, a week or so ago these wretched advertisements for the film started to appear. I exclaimed to my children, “I know this story!” and began to tell them of Emma and Scotty and the toys. I don’t know why but I was fighting back tears as I did this. Then, this afternoon my thirteen year-old son and I went to the film. On its own I enjoyed the film very much. However, because the film is connected to this story I want to be even more positive in what I say about the film. Then, because of the film’s differences from the original story I want to criticize the film. Somehow or other I hold the original story quite dear. Stories – boy they can sure get to you and this one will stay with me forever.

Contributed by Heidi Hammel

My thoughts echoed much of what has been written - read the book as a little girl (dad was big scifi fan) and was intrigued, entranced, delighted, and provoked to further reading. After hearing about the movie, I thought "wait a minute - that's Mimsy!" and I scoured my completely out of order collection to track to track it down. Thanks to Janet for mentioning the anthology by name (Silverberg's Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol 1). I was not surprised my copy actually fell open to this story.

Although the math in Mimsy was thin (mostly referential), it did open my mind to possibilities, and for that reason stuck with me. And perhaps it is not a coincidence that some of my best classes at MIT were in math, even though I did not major in that, I took extra math for fun!

I will likely see the movie, but have little faith in Hollywood to capture the essence of the book. I long to be wrong.

Contributed by Rosemary DenBeste

I just saw the movie, which I enjoyed very much. And after reading all of the comments on this site, I definitely need to get a copy of the story and read it. Though I've been reading science fiction for about 50 years (71 now) this is one that I've never come across and I look forward to reading it.

Contributed by david ware

I read the story about forty or more years ago, so my appreciation of its math content must be taken as fallible and cloudy, but I still remember the excitement it brought. Took in the film last night--good on its own terms, and as a translation of a literary gem it does better than most---even if the children are left here. Some of the comments above seem to take exception to the mystical "new age-ey" elements, but they didn't bother me--maybe because I have miles enough on my personal odometer so that I'm less dismissive of such things than I was, some decades back. Thanks for having this site running, Alex--interesting stuff.

Contributed by James Seagoe

Like many of the others, I read Mimsy Were the Borogoves many years ago, before I had children. I told my daughter about it when she was a teenager and she went and found it in the city library. She told me "I want those toys!" I must admit I had a similar reaction. The story is exceptionally well-told and the themes of changing paradigms and the power of toys are developed and explained clearly and memorably. The author was obviously interested in explaining some math to the audience, but you don't really need to understand multiple-dimension geometry to enjoy the story.

The Last Mimzy missed the mark badly. To update the story is one thing; to miss the point entirely is unforgivable. For one thing, there was just about no math at all. Worse, the movie failed to develop the children's growth properly: they did not become super-smart, as in the movie; they just learned to see things differently from their parents.

In retrospect, that was the power of the original story, from the parents' point of view: your children learn things that you don't understand - that you fundamentally cannot understand - and their new knowledge takes them to places where you cannot go, and where you cannot protect them. And yet, for the children it just seems normal: "Why don't people go down to the sea?" The end of the story, where the children disappear, depicts a universal experience: the generation gap. All parents face this but the movie's producers couldn't bring themselves to tell that story.

Contributed by Judy

I read this sci-fi story as a young teen in the Asimov-edited anthology and immediately selected it as the #1 story in the anthology. Every so often, I reread the story, and at age 47, I'm still fascinated by it. I was unaware of the film until I found your site, and I don't think I will see it. I don't think any film could do justice to the story that has lived inside me for so many years.

Contributed by Glenn

I read "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" at about age 18. I am now 63 and a retired educator. As I tended to be a SciFi buff in my early youth (well, I guess I still am), I read Mimsy without much thought, one way or the other. Interestingly, the story has, in away, haunted me all these years. When I saw the movie, I was not disappointed. Of course, as most movies I have seen over the years do, great liberties were taken with the story. The movie retains a ghost of the original story, but is enough different that someone with some imagination could still make a movie more true to the original story and it would be very intertaining. I loved the movie, although little reference is given to anything mathematical other than, the science experiment web, geometrics in the device, their shared dream toward the end, and the references to the "bridge." Hmmm, okay. LOL

Contributed by Bonnie

I read Lewis Padgett's story so long ago that most of it escapes my memory...I have longed to find it again, and thanks to the movie "The Last Mimzy" I have the author's name at last. Having been disappointed so many times in the past by movies based on beloved books, I was not expecting the movie to resemble what I could remember of the story. The movie was entertaining, and hopeful, but only loosely based on the ideas put forth by the story.

Contributed by Nancy

My husband and I read this story in the early 70's when enrolled in a science-fiction and fantasy literature class in college. Our son was about 2 years old. I didn't mind the math, though I don't understand it, but was given chills afterward while watching our child play with toys in ways that were not the designer's intent. I now get chills watching my granddaughter play, and hearing the songs she has "composed" at the age of 3!

Contributed by Pat Conolly

It always occurred to me that the children would have a difficult time wherever they wound up, particularly the older boy. They would basically be feral, atavistic children in that world.

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 Mimsy Were the Borogoves
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Star, Bright by Mark Clifton
  2. Nice Girl with Five Husbands by Fritz Leiber
  3. Tangents by Greg Bear
  4. Another New Math by Alex Kasman
  5. Pi in the Sky by Rudy Rucker
  6. Panda Ray by Michael Kandel
  7. Four Brands of Impossible by Norman Kagan
  8. All on a Golden Afternoon by Robert Bloch
  9. The Feeling of Power by Isaac Asimov
  10. Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein
Ratings for Mimsy Were the Borogoves:
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:
3.21/5 (51 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
4.25/5 (53 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreScience Fiction,
MotifTime Travel, Math Education,
Topic
MediumShort Stories,

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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)