a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|This novel, which is the first in a series of prequels by the author for her Hugo Award-winning story "The Lady Astronaut of Mars", is a sort of alternate history version of Hidden Figures.
In the world where this story takes place, Washington DC is destroyed by a meteorite impact in 1952 (during President Dewey's administration). NACA mathematician Elma York survives only because she happens to be vacationing in the mountains with her husband (and because they take quick action when they see the flash, thinking that it was a nuclear bomb). The tragedy heightens the space race in this alternate universe so that they are quickly talking about manned missions to the moon and Mars. However, Elma (an accomplished WW II pilot) becomes the public face of a political movement arguing that women should be allowed to be astronauts themselves rather than being relegated to working as "computers". Little girls begin to view her as a hero and calling her "The Lady Astronaut".
Although it is supposed to take place in 1952, all of the sources of conflict and interest in this book are things that happen to be hot topics now in 2018:
Let me say a bit about the math. At several points, Elma is called upon to do computations to determine how large the impactor was, when a recently launched ship reaches orbit, etc. This is cool to me as a fan of "mathematical fiction". I always like to see math as being useful.
There are a couple of scenes, reminiscent of Hidden Figures, in which other people insist on Elma's hand calculations rather than (or to verify) computations done on a digital electronic computer.
Another notable scene, from both a mathematical and a feminist perspective, is one in which Elma and other astronaut candidates are taking an "orbital mechanics" exam. The person giving the test complains that Elma wrote just the answers to the questions without showing her work. (Aside: As a math professor, I believe that such a request is reasonable. But, in this case we are probably intended to think that he is just giving her a hard time.) He even suggests that she may have gotten the answers from her husband. But, the "punchline" of this story comes when he is informed that she not only knows all of the equations necessary to answer the question, but she was the mathematician who originally derived many of them in her job as a computer for the space program.
Now, this may sound unlikely, but I actually have a lot in common with Elma Young. She is supposed to be originally from Charleston, SC, to be a relatively non-observant Jew, a mathematician and a physicist. Well, I am a non-religious Jew who has lived in Charleston for almost two decades. Moreover, I am a mathematician and about half of my research papers are in physics journals. See, very similar! IMHO, the author gets the Jewish part right. (Unlike some other books I've reviewed on this site, this one uses all of the Yiddish and Hebrew terminology correctly.) The Charleston part also seems about right. (She says "y'all" and "bless your heart"...perhaps a bit too often, but that's correct. I guess she does seem surprisingly non-racist for someone from Charleston at that time, but maybe we are supposed to appreciate that as an unusual positive character trait.) Presumably, that is because the author has some personal experience with Charleston and Judaism. But, I am left wondering if the only mathematicians she actually knows are the fictional ones she has read about and seen in movies. For example, even though mathematicians do "solve for" variables when using algebra, I don't know any who metaphorically talk about "solving for" other things in non-mathematical contexts. And, although I think many mathematicians do appreciate the relative certainty and clarity of mathematics, I don't know any real mathematicians who use it as a shield the way Elma does. For example, like so many other fictional characters I have seen, she recites the digits of π or the sequence of primes as a sort of mantra in times of stress.
Alright, I know that most people are not as concerned about the way mathematicians are represented in fiction as I am. So, I'll just leave it at that. But, let me move on to some concerns of a more scientific nature:
|More information about this work can be found at .|
|(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.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)