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Danny’s Inferno (2003)
Albert Cowdrey

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

An extremely hilarious tale about Danny, a lover of garlic and HP Lovecraft, who is married to a mathematician, Edith. Danny and Edith are somewhat of what you may term “misaligned couple”, with traits which don’t make them completely unhappy but there isn’t the bliss that comes with total conformity. So when Edith goes off to a mathematics conference in Kansas (I wonder if the author had Wizard of Oz in mind, given the subsequent development), Danny decides to re-live his lonesome bachelorhood evenings with large doses of food, wine, and Simon-Garfunkel, capped off with a bedtime reading of his favorite Cthulhu stories....

... And promptly finds himself in a psychedelic-dream-inside-a-dream; an HP Lovecraftian setting in the ‘phosphorescent jungle’ near the ‘Mountain of Madness’, with his past friends, lovers, acquaintances as fellow explorers. The dream alternates between the funny, the outrageous and the horrific, till Danny no longer knows if he is dreaming or ‘dead and caught up in a nightmare after-world’.

In a stroke of mathematical genius he had absorbed from Edith, Danny invokes a topological formula to completely disintegrate “Nyarlathotep”, the ‘crawling chaos’ of Lovecraft mythology, finally waking up to new realization about married life and appreciation for what you have...

A few references should give partial flavor of this wonderful story:

(quoted from Danny’s Inferno)

“Edith's a checker by nature; she'd already checked six times to be sure she packed the sprightly paper on N-Dimensional Spaces with which she intended to astound fellow members of the North American Non-Euclidian Society.”

(quoted from Danny’s Inferno)

“I grunted noncommittally. I attribute much of the success of our marriage to mathematics. We wouldn't understand each other anyway, and things like N-Dimensional Spaces give us a nice, objective reason not to do so. I write horror novels, she messes with fractals. Normally our universes are incommensurable, i.e., slide past one another without touching, and as a result our lives are blissful.”

(quoted from Danny’s Inferno)

“Now, truthfully: Can you imagine a mathematician calling anything weird ? Somebody who revels in an infinity of infinite numbers, no two of which are alike? Somebody who believes that a coffee cup and a doughnut are the same shape because each is a torus? Somebody whose favorite toy in childhood was a Mobius strip? Somebody who fills our windowsills with her collection of Klein bottles, three dimensional shapes that have only one surface and — like mathematics itself — don't hold water?”

(quoted from Danny’s Inferno)

“This is the world of my subconscious, and it doesn't run by any formula known to mathematics, ha, ha!" She looked around. The jungle had closed in; the path was becoming rough; lianas twisted from tree to tree. Strangler figs embraced forest giants. Unseen parrots shrieked. Glimpses of the sky still had a brazen hue, like a sunrise preceding storm. None of these portents affected her in the least.

"I bet you didn't lift the seat before you peed," she said. "How many times have I talked to you about that? Topologically, a toilet seat is the same shape as a coffee cup— "

"Or a doughnut. It's a torus. Everything is a torus."

"Not if its genus is zero or more than one. How many times do I have to tell you that V - E + F = 2 - 2p?"

(quoted from Danny’s Inferno)

“I am not a kid any more; I know that life leads to death and love to loss, that's just the way it is. I know that joy without pain is like the square root of minus one, an imaginary number.”

(quoted from Danny’s Inferno)

“Oh God, Edith, I thought, come home! Quit nattering about Fermat's Last Theorem! Abandon the fleshpots of K. C., the sensual delight of listening to papers on number theory, the crackling repartee of pimply youths and bloated elders who smell like homeless shelters and devote their lives to discovering Analytical Truth! [...] Suddenly I realized that there are many worse things in this world than living with somebody who is fundamentally alien and incomprehensible and boring. Had Edith realized that years ago?”

(quoted from Danny’s Inferno)

“I too wanted to get back, back to Edith if that was possible. Never had I longed so much for the touch of her tiny raccoon hands. But getting back meant I had to think. Think! me! I prayed. Your mind's incomprehensible, mathematics is incomprehensible, Nyarlathotep is incomprehensible, the universe is incomprehensible — surely that ought to provide some common ground!?

And then it came to me. "You know," I said slowly, "I just realized that Nyarlathotep is a bunch of toruses. Or tori, or whatever. I mean, all parts of him are generated by the revolution of closed curves around a central axis, right? And so's his halo. His body and his halo look different, but topologically they're exactly the same."

"So what?" asked Harry. "Well, if that's true, then he ain't no mystery after all, because he can be solved by the equation V - E + F = 2 - 2p."

"I think you have to say it louder," suggested Harry.

"Tout d la fois!” roared Dominique. "All together!!"

"V - E + F = 2 - 2p!!!" we thundered.

" ENCORE!" shouted Dominique, in the voice he'd probably used when ordering his cannon to knock hell out of the British redcoats on January 8, 1815, at the battle of New Orleans.

"V - E + F = 2 - 2p!!!"

At that Nyarlathotep began to come apart. His halo went first, whirling faster, rising like a helicopter and at the same time dispersing. Then his huge body melted into a single beam of intense white light...”

(quoted from Danny’s Inferno)

“I have often wondered, writes the sage, if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the titanic significance of dreams...”

BTW The equation "V - E + F = 2 - 2p" which appears repeatedly in the story is real. The left side of the equation is the Euler characteristic computed in terms of a count of the number of vertices, edges, and faces in a graph drawn on a surface and the right side is two times one minus the genus (i.e. "number of holes in the surface"), p. That they are equal is a deep topological fact. For more information, see here.

This story was published in the December 2003 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine.

(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 Danny’s Inferno
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  2. Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan
  3. Lost in the Math Museum by Colin Adams
  4. Math Takes a Holiday by Paul Di Filippo
  5. Journey to the Center of Mathematics by Colin Adams
  6. Naturally by Fredric Brown
  7. The Integral: A Horror Story by Colin Adams
  8. Matrices by Steven Nightingale
  9. Jack and the Aktuals, or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory by Rudy Rucker
  10. Incomplete Proofs by John Chu
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GenreHumorous, Fantasy, Horror,
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)