a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Disposessed (1974)
Ursula K. Le Guin

A utopian novel in which theories of time in mathematical physics ("chronotopology", "sequency and simultaneity", "general temporal theories") play an important role.

I have not yet read this book, although many consider it a classic. If you have and can say more about the plot or the significance of mathematics, please write in with comments.

Contributed by Ernest Gallo

This note is in response to your request for comment on Ursula K. Leguin’s The Dispossessed. In brief, it is a gem of a novel. Shevek, the protagonist, is what we would call a mathematical physicist–though there is little math as such in the text. Devoted to the anarchic principles of his world, Anarres, Shevek specializes in reconciling the two branches of temporal theory. Sequency represents the progression of time, from which new and free societies–like Anarres–can evolve. Simultaneity represents solidarity of the future with the past, and that includes the capitalist world of Urras. (Ironically, Anarres is a moon of Urras, to which the anarchists were allowed to emigrate.) The idea is that both in personal and political life, one does not simply shed one’s past. Shevek returns to Urras for the sake of developing his physics, regarded with suspicion by his ideologically limiting world.

Ursula K. Leguin does a beautiful job of presenting Sequency and Simultaneity as complementariy theories in theoretical physics, while subtly making clear that they point metaphorically to the reconciliation of continuity (fidelity to family, to country) with progress. She succeeds in making theoretical issues into urgent personal metaphor: the only other work I know of that succeeds as well is Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.

Contributed by Jessica Conner

The Dispossessed is about the inner and outer journey of a physicist, Shevek, on a far away planet. The mathematics & physics content is vague and mostly fictional. It is important to the story that Shevek has a superior ability to think and reason, but it would not break the story for him to be a master chemist instead.

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Works Similar to The Disposessed
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  2. Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
  3. The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd
  4. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  5. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
  6. Timescape by Gregory Benford
  7. The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin by Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi
  8. Distress by Greg Egan
  9. Paradox by John Meaney
  10. His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem
Ratings for The Disposessed:
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:
1/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.67/5 (3 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
TopicMathematical Physics,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)