MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Stochastic Man (1975)
Robert Silverberg
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Contributed by Vijay Fafat

This is a tautly written story of political intrigue involving 3 central figures: a student of statistics, Lew Nichols, who invents the field of predictive stochastics, a seemingly clairvoyant and eccentric old man, Carvajal, and a rising politician, Quinn. The plot revolves around Lew's obsession with helping Quinn rise to the very top of American politics and his use of predictive data analyis techniques toward this end. As he does this, he is guided by the mysterious Carvajal to start seeing Stochastics as a window to the actual future, which is a pre-determined entity (he even predicts the time, place and manner of his own death, which uncannily follows the prediction. There is a very poignant description of Carvajal, which shows the plight of a man who knows all of his future.)

Lew, over the course of the novel, starts gaining these clairvoyant powers and by the end of it, nearly masters them. But by then, he's a hunted man for Quinn now sees him as a mortal threat and the militant arm of his political machine is out to kill him. Thrown in the mix is an erotic sub-plot involving Lew and his ultra-sexy Indian wife, Sundara. Something for everyone.

Most of the novel is well-written to hold attention, though Silverberg seems to have hedged his bets in an inconsistent manner at the very end. In particular, the book shows a constant tension between two rival views, free will versus pre-destination of a "block universe". Every event predicted by Carvajal does happen, leading the reader to believe that free will has been discarded. But in the end, Lew, who has seen the future with Quinn as an absolute, Hitlerian dictator, postulates that the future is not inviolable, that it can be re-written. There is an extended, not-convincing discussion about alternate timelines as well. That feels like a jarring u-turn in the end, after the description of all of Carvajal's powers. That's where Silverberg leaves it, which in some ways is appropriate but leaves you feeling that something did not hold together in a consistent theme.

Mathematical references figure prominently in the first few chapters of the book to explain the foundations of stochastics. A few are:

(quoted from The Stochastic Man)

"As Bernoulli demonstrated early in the eighteenth century, an isolated event is no harbinger of anything, but the greater your sampling, the more likely you are to guess the true distribution of phenomena within your sample."

(quoted from The Stochastic Man)

" The pure stochastician teaches himself to observe the Bernoulli Interval, a pause during which we ask ourselves, "Do I really have enough data to draw a valid conclusion?"

(quoted from The Stochastic Man)

"So much for probability theory. I pass swiftly and uneasily over Poisson Distributions, the central Limit Theorem, the Kolmogorov axioms, Ehrenhaft Games, Markov chains, the Pascal triangle, and all the rest."

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Works Similar to The Stochastic Man
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Risqueman by Mike Wood
  2. The Face of the Waters by Robert Silverberg
  3. Statistician's Day by James Blish
  4. The Year of the Jackpot by Robert A. Heinlein
  5. The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges
  6. The Inverted World by Christopher Priest
  7. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
  8. The Exploration of Space by Barrington J. Bayley
  9. Dark as Day by Charles Sheffield
  10. The Bees of Knowledge by Barrington J. Bayley
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Categories:
GenreScience Fiction,
MotifFuture Prediction through Math,
TopicProbability/Statistics,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)