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The Lions in the Desert (1993)
David Langford
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Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for hardcore fans of science fiction.

Two men are hired to guard a mysterious treasure. One of them is a math grad student, and so their discussions to pass the time take on a mathematical flavor. Of particular interest are the references to the old "how to catch a lion" jokes that have become standard fare in mathematical humor. (See, for example, here and here.) The story concludes with additional mathematical references, to the idea of reducing a new problem to one that has already been solve and to the mathematical notion of an existence proof. (An "existence proof" is one that demonstrates that something exists without actually presenting it or even a method for obtaining it. A real example is that the existence of a well-ordering on the real numbers is a consequence of the Axiom of Choice, but nobody has actually been able to produce one.) However, unlike the humorous references to the lions, these latter story element take a sharp turn into the horrific, which is why this story was reprinted in Year's Best Horror Stories XXII. (It originally appeared in Weerde II, a collection of stories all involving the idea of shape-shifters.)

Thanks to Vijay Fafat for discovering this wonderful little story and bringing it to our attention.

Jean-Pierre Zurru has written to let me know that an early source of the mathematical lion hunting method jokes (at least in English) is the article The mathematical theory of big game hunting written pseudonymously by "Hector Petard of Princeton University" and published in the American Mathematical Monthly in the August-September issue of 1938. There seem to be a few copies available for free on the internet, such as this PDF.

Contributed by peter

Without reservation, one of my favorite short stories. I was conservative on the mathematical content rating, since I am not a mathematician and these themes might have struck me with more impact than someone who was more familiar with them.

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

GenreFantasy, Horror,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)