a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Old Fillikin (1982)
Joan Aiken
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

A farm boy who hates his math class seemingly calls upon his grandmother's "familiar" to get revenge on his teacher.

This reads like an old fashioned ghost story, but it is the kind where you can imagine non-fantastical explanations for what happens. Perhaps it was Old Fillikin, and perhaps it was just a coincidence.

Math appears throughout the story. Much of it is his teacher yelling at him. (She is not particularly pleasant.) Quite a bit of it comes in the form of quotes from his homework. (Much of that is not correct, but I'll get to that later.) And the most interesting parts are flashbacks to his grandmother's skeptical remarks about the "rules" of math:

(quoted from Old Fillikin)

"Numbers!" he remembered Granny scoffing, years agao, when he was hopelessly bogged down in his seven-times table. "Some people think they can manage everything by numbers. As if they were set in the ground like bricks!"

"How do you mean, Granny?"

"As if you daren't slip through between!"

"But how can you slip between them, Granny? There's nothing between one and two -- except one and a half."

"You think there's only one lot of numbers?....Numbers are just a set of rules that some bonehead made up. They're just the fence he built to keep fools from falling over the edge --".

Considering this theme of the story, it is perhaps ironic that I would complain about the accuracy of the mathematical quotes. (For example, the definition of the derivative appears both as a displayed equation in the text and in an illustration along with the monster Old Fillikin. The notation is odd in that there is a line under "lim" as if it was a fraction and "dx" is used as a variable, but it is also incorrect in that the denominator should be "dx" and the first "f" is missing in the illustrated version each of which would keep this from being the derivative. The formula in the text is just a complicated way to write "0" and the one in the figure works out to be "1-f(x)/x".) The only point in mentioning such mistakes is that I think it reflects that the author (as well as the editors) does not really understand the subject that she is implicitly criticizing.

I find myself wishing I could take the boy aside and explain that Granny is right that math is just rules that some people made up, and that you are able to explore the consequences of different rules. However, some rules are more interesting and useful than others. Before you go making up new rules, you at least need to understand the rules that are already in use and what they are good for. (Plus, killing your teacher -- even if she is mean -- is not a good solution to the problem at all.)

This story was published in the April 1982 issue of The Twilight Zone magazine and was brought to my attention by Sandro Caparrini. The author is the daughter of author Conrad Aiken and has a novel listed elsewhere in this database that presents a more positive mathematical role model.

(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.)

Works Similar to Old Fillikin
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken
  2. Nightscape: The Dreams of Devils by David W. Edwards
  3. Necroscope (Series) by Brian Lumley
  4. The Lions in the Desert by David Langford
  5. A Logical Magician by Robert Weinberg
  6. Through the Gates of the Silver Key by H.P. Lovecraft / E. Hoffmann Price
  7. The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft
  8. The Dreams in the Witch-House by H.P. Lovecraft
  9. Vampire World (Trilogy) by Brian Lumley
  10. The Number Devil (Der Zahlenteufel) by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Ratings for Old Fillikin:
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 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreFantasy, Horror,
MotifMath as Cold/Dry/Useless, Math Education,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)