|A postdoc at the mysterious "Institute for Mathematical Analysis and Quantum Chemistry" is surprised to learn that his work on Riemann-Hilbert Problems is being used as part of his employer's crazy alchemy project.
Those who liked my previous stories (published in Reality Conditions) will also enjoy this newer story that follows the same approach of embedding some real mathematical ideas in a tongue-in-cheek story with a surprise ending. Those who did not like my previous writings (probably a larger group) may still enjoy this one, because I received advice from some highly skilled authors while writing it. It was written as part of the Workshop on Creative Writing in Math and Science at the mathematics research center in Banff (June 2006). The organizers and the other participants read drafts of the story and gave advice. So, if you like this one better than my earlier attempts, quite a bit of the credit should go to this team of advisors. (And if not, I'll accept all of the blame.)
The story was first published in the October 2007 issue of Analog magazine. A slightly different version appears in the collection The Shape of Content, an anthology of material from the participants at the Banff workshop. It is that second version which is available for free at this website in PDF format.
The story was reprinted (in Russian) in the February 2008 issue of Esli Magazine.
My first comment concerns the ideal reader. When I read the story, as a mathematician, my opinion was that to enjoy the story, one needs to have a certain knowledge of higher mathematics (by which I mean higher than calculus). Since then however, my wife who has no knowledge of higher mathematics has read the story. She told me that she did enjoy her reading very much and that she did not feel she was missing anything because of the mathematics. I thus would say that this story is for everyone irrespective of the mathematic knowledge level.
As for the story itself, the author succeeds in creating a story in which mathematics plays an important and believable role. The story is written in such a way that the research work described seems almost completely believable. It was really pleasant to read a story in which mathematics plays such a central role.
The characters in the story, for an academic like me, also seem almost believable. The author succeeds, at several instances, to make me laugh at how well he is able to describe and sometimes caricature the academic mind.
I thus give this story high marks for how well it is written and how good of a role the mathematics plays in it. I also give high marks for the light style in which it is written: I caught myself smiling at several instances while reading this story.
I liked this one, too. But in contrast to Unreasonable Effectiveness, it has problems.
Where the former managed to tie everything up with admirable concision, this story suffered from plot holes. Why does the protagonist not ask his advisor any questions about the research institute?
At some point late in the story, he thinks -- I'm paraphrasing -- for the first time, I began to doubt Dr. Stein's sanity. But he was harboring these doubts already, wasn't he?
And there are other places where the story's clunkiness comes out.
I will buy your book and am looking forward to reading the other stories. However, I could not help thinking that what you are hoping to accomplish is a new kind of And He Built A Crooked House, Robert Heinlein's famous story about an architect who builds a tesseract for his client.
That story remains the gold standard (pun half-intended, wry smile) for combining deadpan, laconic humor with a mathematical (topological) premise and leaving the reader feeling giddy with delight at the end of it.
Like an accomplished painter, Heinlein needs only a few brushstrokes to breathe life into his characters and they seem to hop right off the page, big as life.
The trick, I guess, is making the characters resonate with people resonate that readers have known in real life. Quirky is good, the more the better, but you want readers to snicker, Hey this guy is just like my zany Uncle Emil.
On the plus side, a passage such as this
|(quoted from On the Quantum Theoretic Implications of Newton's Alchemy)|
"I like to think
of myself as a wild animal trainer, but rather than making lions jump through hoops,
complex-valued functions on a Riemann sphere do the jumps for me. Calculus students
never see these animals; the functions in their zoo are well behaved, continuous
and differentiable everywhere."
is as good as it gets, a fine example of using similes to carry difficult mathematical concepts into the reader's world.
Eugene, having my story compared to Heinlein's (even if it is with the intention of saying that mine is inferior) is a compliment. As you browse this database, you will find that there are many works of fiction better written than my short stories. My motivation in writing them was not to create works of art greater than (or even as good as) the others that are out there. Rather, my goal was to extend the set of mathematical topics covered in mathematical fiction. In particular, it would occur to me "Hey, nobody has written a story yet about...." and I tried to fill those gaps. Don't get me wrong, if I could write better, I would have done so. However, the fact that I knew I couldn't did not stop me from doing my best either. (By the way, I think it is a bit ironic that you consider this story inferior to Unreasonable Effectiveness since this one was written with the help of professional writers at a workshop as a sort of attempt to approach the same genre but with higher literary quality. At least from your point of view, it seems that it backfired!)