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The Girl with the Celestial Limb (1990)
Pauline Melville

Although recognized as mathematically talented in school, Jane Cole hid from all things intellectual after having a frightening epiphany regarding infinity. Math, however, seemingly exacts its revenge on her when her leg turns into a "dazzlingly intricate, three-dimensional network of geometric shapes" in this short story.

Aside from the obviously fantastical aspect of her leg becoming a mathematical object, the characters who come to Jane's aid in the story also are obviously somewhat unreal. The first is a stranger who offers a business card reading "J.F. WIDDERSHINS / GEOMETER AND MAKER OF DIVIDERS AND POLYHEDRAL SUNDIALS". He somehow recognizes her as a person who should know mathematics (though she has become used to the catch phrase "dunno really" since intentionally suppressing her intellect):

(quoted from The Girl with the Celestial Limb)

`Well, well," said Widdershins, kneeling to inspect the mathematical limb more closely. `No wonder hte shoe and sock were painful -- all those acute angles. Has the pain abated somewhat?' ,P. Jane nodded. Widdershins regarded her quizzically: `You seem surprised. Why is that?' he asked.

Jane searched for the vocabulary she had jettisoned. It failed to arrive: `Dunno really,' she said.

`Come, come.' His tone was mildly reproving. `You are one of us. I think you have always known that there is nothing real except mathematics. May I help myself to one of your chips?'

Jane still held the warm, greasy packet of fish and chips to her chest. She opened it and he took one, pulling up one of the armchairs to sit beside her in the evening light:

`I am a pure mathematician. A classicist. The pure mathematician is the only one in direct contact with relaity. The reality of pure mathematics lies outside us. The area of a circle is πr2 not because our minds are shaped one way or another but because it is so, because mathematical reality is built that way....'

Widdershins calls for assistance from an acquaintance named Hoodlum who describes himself as a "Rock and roller...anarcho-syndicalist and collector of irrational numbers." At one point, he points to one of the perfect unit squares in what was formerly Jane's leg and says `Which means that the diagonal of your one centimetre-sided square is the square root of two. An irrational number. It don't exist.' (I am not sure what the author meant us to make of this remark. Since the Pythagoreans, there have not been many people who insist that irrational numbers do not exist!)

The next `expert' to get a look at Jane's leg is a self-described `nuts and bolts man', differentiating himself from the `airy-fairy' mathematicians. But, he brings questionable interpretations of quantum mechanics into it, claiming for example that unless she observes her leg it does not exist. General relativity also comes into it when he suggests that her leg has become a black hole.

This story appeared in Shape-Shifter, the first collection of short stories by the actress Pauline Melville. The collection won some awards, and the story was entertaining enough to read. However, at least from my perspective of viewing it as an example of mathematical fiction, this story was not particularly special.

In fact, the only thing it really makes me think about is other stories that are somehow similar. In the way that it describes the suffering of a person who has developed a mathematical "illness", it reminds me of Connie Willis' haunting Schwarzschild Radius. Widdershins' description of mathematics as reality made me think of The Mathenauts. Moreover, the caricatured representation of the experts and the humorous encroachment of the mathematics of infinity into daily life reminded me of Art Thou Mathematics?.

Though the sentences in Melville's story are as beautifully written (if not more so) than those in the other stories mentioned above, the ideas themselves are not presented as interestingly here as in those previous works.

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Works Similar to The Girl with the Celestial Limb
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
  2. The Mathenauts by Norman Kagan
  3. Art Thou Mathematics? by Charles Mobbs
  4. Self-Reference ENGINE by Toh EnJoe
  5. Schwarzschild Radius by Connie Willis
  6. Message Found in a Copy of Flatland by Rudy Rucker
  7. The Four-Color Problem by Barrington J. Bayley
  8. Numbercruncher by Si Spurrier (writer) / PJ Holden (artist)
  9. The Zero Theorem by Pat Rushin (screenplay) / Terry Gilliam (director)
  10. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
Ratings for The Girl with the Celestial Limb:
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:
4/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
MotifFemale Mathematicians,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Mathematical Physics,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)