a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|In this unnerving, `Kafka-esque' suspense novel by well known horror author Richard Matheson, a government mathematician sees reality collapse around him as his life is turned into a surrealistic version of a James Bond movie.
Chris Barton is working on "the turbulence project" at a military research facility. (We are told that this has to do with working out how to get a laser beam to pass through "distortions in the atmosphere" so as to be able to reach its target.) Unfortunately, he is stuck. In the opening chapter, Barton has a dream that symbolizes his difficulties by making him the director of a play, trying unsuccessfully to organize a cast of people wearing costumes like mathematical symbols.
But, that soon becomes the least of his worries. After he is challenged by a strange old hitchhiker to show that he knows the difference between what is real and what isn't, his life rapidly becomes very bizarre. He arrives home to find a strange couple living in his house (claiming they have lived there for eight years), becomes the frequent target of murderous CIA agents and the mysterious underworld figure 'Cabal', sees friends and acquaintances vanish, comes under the protection of a beautiful European agent who seems to be the ghost of a woman from ancient Rome, finds mysteriously scrawled messages (such as "7 Steps to Midnight") in the most unusual places, and appears to be the victim of "reality slippage".
It is notable that the book spends some time discussing how Barton does his mathematics. Like some other fictional mathematicians (e.g. the fictional John Nash in the film A Beautiful Mind) the mathematics seems to just appear magically before his eyes
Now, I would not go so far as to say that no mathematician has a brain that works like that. I don't personally know of any, but there are some pretty unusual brains out there. However, I just want to point out to any readers who might be mislead that this is really not how mathematicians work in general. For most mathematicians, doing math research requires conscious thought and effort. It is not unlike the thoughts that are required to do math homework, although at a much higher level. Moreover, there are moments of inspiration which seem to come from nowhere, but they are relatively rare and -- I would argue -- are the result of intuition built out of experience rather than anything magical.
Also, I would like to point out that turbulence actually is a problem of mathematical interest. (See this link for a low level description and this link for the site at the Clay Institute which literally offers a $1million prize for mathematical research on turbulence.) So, Barton is right on page 126 when it says
However, it is a more general question of fluid dynamics and does not obviously have anything to do with lasers as far as I can tell.
Overall, I must say that this book was quite enjoyable and hard to put down. The main character is a mathematician, which probably helped me to empathize with him, but the mathematics is definitely not on center stage here. The main purpose of the novel is to give you that weird feeling that you don't understand what's going on as inexplicable things happen around you...and it is very good at doing that!
|Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com.|
|(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)