MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Rubicon Beach (1986)
Steve Erickson
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
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One of the three plot lines in this bizarre novel follows a mathematician who has made a (supposedly) horrific discovery.

Since there are no direct connections between the other two characters and the mathematics (AFAIK), I will only mention them briefly. One of the story lines concerns an ex-convict who is released from prison into a dystopian future Los Angeles and is haunted by memories of gruesome murders. The other is about a beautiful immigrant from South America who struggles to get by in what is presumably the "contemporary" Los Angeles of the 1980s when the book was written.

As for the mathematician, the strangely named Jack Mick Lake, he discovered a previously unknown number. Finding this to be disturbing, he flees to England where he behaves like a madman and eventually disproves the existence of reality...or something like that. Allow me to use a long excerpt to illustrate the way this is conveyed:

(quoted from Rubicon Beach)

On the stone walls of the cottage he added things, he subtracted them. He divided things and multiplied them. Sometimes he used chalk, sometimes coal, scrawling the equations the length of the room. After a couple of weeks the entire inside of the cottage was filled with additions and subtractions, multiplications and divisions; he then moved to the outside of the house. When the outside of the house was covered, he began writing equations in the earth. When he went to work at the shipping company, he began filling the company books with this arithmetic and then the top of his desk. Soon the moors where he lived were filled with arithmetic; he then took to adding and subtracting on the roads leaving Penzance, down on his knees with his back to the end of the island, adding and subtracting himself into a corner of Cornwall. The townspeople noted this behavior. They consulted among themselves and wondered what it was about this part of their country that attracted such preposterous Americans, one more preposterous than the other. Months passed, and when the spring gave way to summer, and the summer to autumn and winter, and when the year gave way to the next, Lake was still writing equations, new ones in the spaces between the old.

His was not aimless adding and subtracting, however it might have seemed to the native people. He had determined to disprove, once and for all. the existence of The Number. He had determined to show that ten followed nine after all, that the only presence between the two was the debris of fractions and percentages, nothing more, and that The Number was only a terrible delusion, a personal fable he had told himself, and that there was no reason to follow the music across the river that night years before because there was no music: that The Number did not exist and the music of The Number did not exist and the passion of the music did not exist. In this way he would justify a private collapse. While he had tried once before to so disprove this thing, he had hoped then not to succeed; he had attempted to disprove it only in order to affirm it. Now, however, he laid siege to it.

He failed. He could not disprove his number or his music or his passion. He disproved everything else. He disproved the existence of the very walls of the cottage on which he wrote the equations; he disproved the existence of the books and the desk at the company where he worked. Under his employer's bewildered watch, he disproved the existence of the employer. He disproved the existence of Penzance. He disproved the existence of the sea and the boats on it, and the castle in the middle of the bay. He disproved the existence of the moors and the sun in the sky. He disproved the sky. He mathematically and empirically disproved his memories, one by one, all the way back to the blonde he had loved whose name and face he couldn't remember. But what he could not disprove was the love itself and the huge reservoir of hunger of which it was a part. In the end he hoped to disprove his own existence and the huge hungry place of which he was a part and which was a part of him. But he could not. When he had disproved one, two and three, when he had definitely ruled out four, five and six, when he had banished from all conceivable reason seven, eight and nine, and every exponent thereof, there was still his awful number left, the last number in the world.

As a consequence of all of this, it seems to me that Lake has gone insane. (The official blurb for the book describes him as being "possessed by numerology".)

I have to admit that this reminds me of some other works of mathematical fiction that I consider to be among my favorites. In The Secret Number, a nice short story which was made into an even better short film, a mathematician discovers a previously unknown whole number between 3 and 4. And, in Division by Zero, a real masterpiece of mathematical fiction, a mathematician suffers from deep depression after proving that mathematics is flawed at its very foundation. But, I really could not enjoy or even understand what was going on in this mathematical passage from Rubicon Beach. Perhaps it is because this is supposed to be a critique of my own field, or because I'm taking it too literally (a stereotype of mathematicians in fiction), but I found the whole idea of Lake's "discovery" to be nonsensical and consequently had difficulty appreciating it at all.

The stories of the three characters do intersect in a weird, mystical sort of way. If you have read this novel and enjoyed it more than me, please write to let me know, and explain it to me if you can.

Much thanks to Thomas Riepe for bringing this book to my attention, since it certainly belongs in this database even if I didn't quite "get it".

Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com. Amazon.com logo
(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 Rubicon Beach
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Division by Zero by Ted Chiang
  2. Tigor (aka The Snowflake Constant) by Peter Stephan Jungk
  3. The Secret Number by Igor Teper
  4. 2+2=5 by Rudy Rucker / Terry Bisson
  5. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
  6. Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd
  7. Com os Meus Olhos de Cão [With My Dog Eyes] by Hilda Hilst
  8. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  9. Good Benito by Alan P. Lightman
  10. Neverness by David Zindell
Ratings for Rubicon Beach:
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:
2/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
Genre
MotifInsanity, Proving Theorems,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Fictional Mathematics,
MediumNovels,

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Exciting News: The total number of works of mathematical fiction listed in this database recently reached a milestone. The 1,500th entry is The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire. Thanks to Vijay Fafat for writing the summary of that work (and so many others). I am also grateful to everyone who has contributed to this website. Heck, I'm grateful to everyone who visited the site. Thank you!

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)