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Stamping Butterflies (2004)
Jon Courtenay Grimwood

A "going back to change the timelines" SF story involving a reclusive rock star, a suspected terrorist being subjected to harsh tactics by US intelligence, and the young Chinese emperor who rules thousands of years in the future.

Prisoner Zero, whose identity is one of the central motivating mysteries of the novel, is being held by the US at a prison on an isolated island. Already sentenced to die for his plot to assassinate the president (based on a confession obtained through torture), the prisoner writes equations on the walls of his cells using a sharp wire and his own feces. Psychiatrist Katie Petrov figure out his secret -- "A secret with the power to restore hope to the future...or stamp it out forever".

There really is not much math to discuss here. The word "mathematician" is tossed around (e.g. "Jake Razor, the maniac, musician and mathematician notorious for having no friends"), as is a reference to a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem and the term zero-point energy. In addition, there is a description of the geometry of spacetime which suggests periodicity (i.e. time repeats itself). None of these things is discussed in great detail and, as it is hard for me to imagine how they have anything to do with each other, it seems likely to me that they were just included as popular "buzzwords" to justify the plot that ties together three separate timelines: past, present and future.

My favorite line in the book describes Prisoner Zero's attempts (before being arrested, of course) to attract the attention of likeminded individuals by posting mathematics on internet bulletin boards:

(quoted from Stamping Butterflies)

And his equation had just sat there, unanswered and perhaps unread. One of a dozen fragments he took from the notebook and posted in his attempt, fleeting and destined for failure, to find the numinous within numeracy.

Although the plot is a bit contrived and the mathematics does not make it any more believable, this is a decent science fiction novel with lots of references to real current events. For me, it succeeds more as political fiction than as mathematical fiction, but that may only reflect my lack of knowledge about politics and/or my over-education in mathematics.

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Works Similar to Stamping Butterflies
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Dear Abbey by Terry Bisson
  2. The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
  3. Improbable by Adam Fawer
  4. Ghost Dancer by John Case
  5. The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke / Frederik Pohl
  6. The Blind Geometer by Kim Stanley Robinson
  7. The Lure by Bill Napier
  8. The God Wave by Patrick Hemstreet
  9. The Fringe (Episode: The Equation) by J.R. Orci (Screenplay) / David H. Goodman (Screenplay)
  10. Altar of Eden by James Rollins
Ratings for Stamping Butterflies:
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 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction, Adventure/Espionage,
MotifTime Travel,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)