MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Smithsonian Institution (1998)
Gore Vidal
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In the year 1939, a 13 year old orphan known only as "T." is recruited into a secret project to build a nuclear weapon after he is recognized by his algebra teacher as a math genius. From that description, you might correctly guess that T. gets to meet such figures as Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. Also, as you might guess from the title, the project is based at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Unexpectedly, he also gets to meet Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Moreover, he not only gets to meet Frances ("Frankie") Cleveland (the first lady of Grover Cleveland), but has explicit sex with her numerous times throughout the course of the novel. (If my web page is working properly, you may be able to see the original cover art for the novel above. That's T. and Mrs. Cleveland looking like characters from a Harlequin romance.)

If that leaves you thinking that the book sounds really weird, then you are completely underestimating how thoroughly bizarre the book is. It is not the actual Frances Cleveland he has sex with, but one of the manikins from the exhibits at the museum which come to life when no visitors are present. The Teddy Roosevelt that he meets also is just a manikin. The man at the museum who looks like Lincoln, on the other hand, is not a manikin come to life but the actual Abraham Lincoln who was rescued from Ford's Theater using time travel. (T. also travels in time. He and Frankie, whom he calls Squaw since he first met her in an exhibit about Native Americans, travel back in time and successfully prevent Woodrow Wilson from becoming president.) And then T. realizes that one of the dummies in an exhibit is a future version of himself who has died in World War II (which hasn't even started yet) and... Like I said, if you haven't read it yet, then you are probably underestimating the weirdness of this book.

Vidal knows enough about American history and has sufficiently strong political views that a reader interested those subjects can find ideas to "chew on" in this book, even if they may not entirely agree with all that he has to say. (At first, I had no idea why Vidal chose to portray Grover Cleveland's wife having sex with a 13 year old boy. But, having read her biography -- which I probably wouldn't have done otherwise -- I now have some ideas. FYI Her future husband first met her when she was an infant and he was 27. He bought a baby carriage for her parents and became her guardian when her father died, then married her when she was 21 and he was 49.)

As for math and science, however, I'm afraid Vidal does not have much valuable to say. He understood that Einstein found mathematical formulas that said some surprising things about particles, energy, time and space. The formulas that T. was scribbling in his algebra class that brought him to the attention of the project in the first place were "E=mc2 to the enth". No explanation of what that means, but apparently it is difficult to achieve while easy enough for a math teacher to recognize. And, as far as this novel is concerned, that means "anything goes". If you want a way to see into the future, change the past, clone people, or make a bomb that destroys buildings without hurting people (yes, that's what I meant, not vice versa), you just need someone to find the right formula and say that it's now possible.

Here is one brief sample:

(quoted from The Smithsonian Institution)

Dr. Bentsen went to a panel filled with switches, levers, buttons. He pulled, tugged, pushed. The screen lit up. Mathematical formulas began to appear. Then quantum variations. T. had no trouble reading any of them starting with E=mc2. As always, he could promptly visualize the meaning, in three dimensions only, of each formula. He had no idea how he did what he did. He just could; and did -- especially when Mr. Sofield was writing dim-witted algebraic formulas on the blackboard. Boredom, T. assumed, was the trigger to his peculiar gift. He also had, for several years, a subscription to the one monthly magazine that any would-be quantum physicist must never miss a single copy of, Popular Mechanics.

Note: It was Vijay Fafat who told me about this work of mathematical fiction way back in 2012. However, his e-mail message arrived at an unfortunate time and was misplaced. I only rediscovered that message in 2021 and am working my way through the many suggestions it contained. I am very grateful to Vijay for the suggestion and also very sorry that it has taken me so long to act upon it.

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(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 The Smithsonian Institution
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Doctor Who: The Turing Test by Paul Leonard
  2. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
  3. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  4. Pyramids by Terry Pratchett
  5. Arcadia by Iain Pears
  6. Monster's Proof by Richard Lewis
  7. Fermat's Last Tango by Joanne Sydney Lessner / Joshua Rosenblum
  8. The Square Root of Pythagoras by Paul Di Filippo / Rudy Rucker
  9. Monday Begins on Saturday by Arkady Strugatsky / Boris Strugatsky
  10. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things by Lev Grossman
Ratings for The Smithsonian Institution:
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:
2/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction, Humorous, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance,
MotifProdigies, War, Time Travel,
TopicMathematical Physics,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)