a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Sanatoris Short-Cut (1948)
Jack Vance
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A well-written story about a happy-go-lucky character called “Magnus Ridolph”. Magnus was one of those guys who are meticulous in their analyses in one sphere of life while being surprisingly unplanned in some others. Indeed, the story starts with:

(quoted from Sanatoris Short-Cut )

MAGNUS RIDOLPH often found himself in want for money, for his expenditures were large and he had no regular income. With neither natural diligence nor any liking for routine, he was forced to cope with each ebb of his credit balance as it occurred, a fact which suited him perfectly. In his brain an exact logical mechanism worked side by side with a projective faculty ranging the infinities of time and space, and this natural endowment he used not only to translate fact from and into mathematics, but also to maintain his financial solvency.

Magnus had one thing going for him. His brain perceived mathematical patterns and reasoning well. He could deploy this rationality judiciously to outsmart the world and get by. Indeed, the tagline of the story says: “Mathematics is Magnus Ridolph’s weapon against a pirate of space!” He had a feel for mathematics in action, particularly at casinos. In one such sojourn, on the planet, “Fan”, in “the Hall of Doubtful Destiny”, he analyzed a game called “Lorango” with fine measurements and mathematical modeling, enabling him to win such a large sum that the house had to write a credit check to him, to be cashed in a few days. That was a problem, for the owner of the casino was Acco May, a known-but-cannot-be-proven criminal responsible for murders and robberies on multiple planets. One thing led to another and Ridolph entered into a bet with Acco that he would traverse a particular distance of 308 light-years between Fan and Sanatoris Beta in 12 days, when the fastest ship in existence could not do so in less than 13 days - strong shades of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”. If he succeeded, Mayo’s letter confessing to all his crimes would be with the authorities. Failing, the large check would be voided.

Ridolph wins, of course, by deploying curved-space geometry and taking a very unconventional space-route. As he explains to Acco at the end:

(quoted from Sanatoris Short-Cut )

"Magnus Ridolph turned Acco May the blandest of stares.

"Have you ever examined a Mercator projection of, let us say, the planet Earth ?”

“ Naturally.”

“The shortest course between two points, when charted on a Mercator projection, appears as a curve, does it not ?


“Classical space charts,” said Magnus Ridolph, “are constructed after the pattern of a Mercator projection. The coordinates meet rectilinearally, the grid components running perfectly parallel but to infinity. This is an admirable system for short voyages, just as use of the Mercator projection results in little error on a cruise on Long Island Sound. However on voyages of some duration, it is necessary to remember that the earth and —on a larger scale—space is curved, and to make the necessary correction. Then we find a very significant saving of time. A journey which by classical astrogation requires thirteen days,” said Magnus Ridolph, turning upon Acco May his wide guileless gaze, “may be accomplished in twelve days by use of the proper correction—though to the ignorant eye, it would appear as if the astrogator is far off his course.”

In doing so, Ridolph exemplifies his own quote, which appears as the epigraph to the story:

(quoted from Sanatoris Short-Cut )

“Gambling, in the ultimate study, stems from the passive, the submissive, the irresponsible in human nature ; the gambler is one of an inferior lickspittle breed who turns himself belly-upward to the capricious deeds of Luck. Examine now the man of strength and action: he is never led by destiny. He drives on a decided course, manipulates the variables, and instead of submitting to the ordained shape of his life, creates a pattern to his own design.”

While the language of the story is of high quality and descriptions well-done, the author does slip in a couple of places. e.g. he has Ridolph’s calculations “facilitated by a small integrating machine and differential analyzer”, in a world-setting which has faster-than-light spaceships. Surely a richer conception could have been referenced. Similarly, on a planet far, far away, in speaking of journeys of hundreds of light-years, referencing earth and Long Island Sound is incongruous (though understandable, given the readership). Minor quibbles, for sure, in an otherwise fine story.

This story appeared in the September 1948 issue of Startling Stories.

(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 Sanatoris Short-Cut
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Land of No Shadow by Carl H Claudy
  2. A Subway Named Moebius by A.J. Deutsch
  3. Into the Fourth by Adam Hull Shirk
  4. The Galactic Circle by Jack Williamson
  5. Gold Dust and Star Dust by Cyrill Wates
  6. A Modern Comedy of Science by Issac Nathanson
  7. The Mobius Trail by George Smith
  8. The Captured Cross-Section by Miles J. Breuer (M.D.)
  9. The Professor's Experiments - The Dimension of Time by Paul Bold
  10. Through the Black Board by Joel Rogers
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GenreScience Fiction,
MediumShort Stories,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)