a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Difference Engine (1991)
William Gibson / Bruce Sterling
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Two of the innovators of the cyberpunk novel -- famous for showing how messed up the future will be because of technology -- turn everything around and show us instead how great the past would have been with computers. In this "alternate reality", mathematicians Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace succeed where their counterparts in our world failed: actually making a computer.

In this "steampunk" version of history, 19th century Britain has many of the features we associate with the computer age, except they are achieved mechanically with gears rather than semi-conductors. In addition to talking about "clacking" and "The Steam Intellect Society", occasional mathematical terms are tossed around, like "nonlinear analysis".

But, the primary role of math in the story comes through the important (though rarely seen) character of Ada Lovelace. In this book, she goes by Ada Byron because in this alternate reality her father (the poet Lord Byron) becomes Prime Minister. Ada herself is not doing that well. As in our version of reality, she becomes addicted to mind altering substances and gambling, and her reputation as a mathematician suffers. But, early in the book we are given reason to believe that she has made one more great discovery.

(quoted from The Difference Engine)

"Ada had an insight once that ranked with Descartes' discovery. No one has found a use for it as yet. It's what they call pure mathemaitcs." Mick laughed. "`Pure.' You know what that means, Sybil? It means they can't get it to run." He rubbed his hands together, grinning. "No one can get it to run."

One of the main characters is entrusted by Ada Byron with a wooden box containing punch cards, which play the role of the MacGuffin in this novel. And, although math does not play much of a role in the rest of the book, it is a key component of the climax, at least for those knowledgeable enough to understand it.

Spoiler Alert!: Do not read any further if you hope to read the book and enjoy the ending without any further clues as to the final surprise.

Spoiler Alert!: Do not read any further if you hope to read the book and enjoy the ending without any further clues as to the final surprise.

Spoiler Alert!: Do not read any further if you hope to read the book and enjoy the ending without any further clues as to the final surprise.

Contributed by Frankie

I especially liked that Lady Ada's mathematical discovery is actually Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.

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Works Similar to The Difference Engine
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
  2. Georgia on My Mind by Charles Sheffield
  3. Murder at Queen's Landing by Andrea Penrose
  4. The Whisper of Disks by John Meaney
  5. Conceiving Ada by Lynn Hershman-Leeson
  6. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  7. Doctor Who: The Turing Test by Paul Leonard
  8. Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
  9. Shooting the Sun by Max Byrd
  10. Gentzen oder: Betrunken aufräumen [Gentzen or Cleaning Up Drunk] by Dietmar Dath
Ratings for The Difference Engine:
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:
3/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.5/5 (2 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Science Fiction,
MotifProving Theorems, Real Mathematicians, Female Mathematicians,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Logic/Set Theory,

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Exciting News: The total number of works of mathematical fiction listed in this database recently reached a milestone. The 1,500th entry is The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire. Thanks to Vijay Fafat for writing the summary of that work (and so many others). I am also grateful to everyone who has contributed to this website. Heck, I'm grateful to everyone who visited the site. Thank you!

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)