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Drunkard's Walk (1960)
Frederik Pohl
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

A number theorist is suffering from frequent and inexplicable suicide attempts, the latest victim of a small epidemic among academia. In between lectures on Pascal's triangle and the binomial theorem and numerous other mathematical details, along with several close calls on his life, the number theorist investigates a puzzling statistical anomaly and comes to a startling (and dangerous) conclusion about society.

This is a rather cute book, and I think it's a shame that it can only be found by looking to used booksellers. However, there seem to be a lot of copies out there (I found a really nice first edition quite cheap) and it's worth taking a look at. Things that I think are especially worth considering are:

  • An interesting view of the future (the year 2196), in which University lectures are like prime-time TV shows [well, I think they are quite a bit more like TV shows now than when Pohl wrote this; he certainly caught on to this trend early], marriage is a short-term contract, and our coastlines are surrounded by floating "texases" (power stations).
  • The mathematicians all focus much of their efforts on creating mnemonic devices for remembering mathematical definitions and theorems. (Quoting "Master Carl" from the book: "A mathematician must know these simple classical facts and definitions as well as he knows that February has 28 days, and in the same way. By mnemonics!") For example:

    "If a number set M is closed by subtraction
    A modul is the term for this transaction."


    "Strike the Twos and strike the Threes
    The Sieve of Eratosthenes!
    When the multiples sublime,
    The numbers that are left, are prime."

  • The investigation into the statistical anomoly is a bit far fetched and unbelievable, but still it is an interesting (and important) role for mathematics in the story.
I guess I ought to admit that I found the ending a bit disappointing, but perhaps that is just my taste. For the rest of it, I agree with the review on the cover which says "an SF novel so biting funny, so sharply satirical..." I am quite grateful to "Mr. Emba" for pointing it out to me.

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Works Similar to Drunkard's Walk
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Statistician's Day by James Blish
  2. Aleph Sub One by Margaret St. Clair
  3. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  4. The Janus Equation by Steven G. Spruill
  5. Ground Zero Man (The Peace Machine) by Bob Shaw
  6. Sorority House by Jordan Park (Cyril M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl)
  7. The Investigation by Stanislaw Lem
  8. Monster by Alex Kasman
  9. The Fairy Chessmen by Henry Kuttner
  10. Shaffery Among the Immortals by Frederik Pohl
Ratings for Drunkard's Walk:
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:
4/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifInsanity, Academia, Math Education,

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