a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

The Sabre Squadron (1966)
Simon Raven

Daniel Mond, a British PhD candidate in mathematics, finds himself in mortal danger after traveling to Göttingen in the 1950s to analyze papers by the deceased German mathematician Dortmund.

I had never heard of the author before frequent contributor Hauke Reddmann wrote to bring this book to my attention. However, Simon Raven apparently was well-known in the 1960s for his wry satire of British culture and his blunt discussions of sensitive topics. I was therefore expecting this book to be more of a comedy, a mad romp. In fact, although it did have its humorous moments, the overall plot and especially the conclusion were dead serious. Various clandestine organizations want to know what Daniel has discovered in those papers and are prepared to take extreme measures to find out (even if they are technically barred from using torture).

The title refers to a group of British soldiers stationed in Germany who he befriends somewhere around the middle of the book.

The mathematical ideas, of course, are no more than a MacGuffin. It hardly matters what they are aside from the fact that many governments want to know them. But some mathematical details are included. We learn relatively early on that Dortmond was developing a higher-dimensional analogue of matrices, three-dimensional arrays of numbers. In fact, there really is such a thing. The mathematical theory of tensors is such a generalization. It was already fully developed and utilized in differential geometry by the early 20th Century. I suppose it could be that the author knew something about matrices and independently came up with the idea that there might be use for a higher dimensional generalization. However, since Daniel later claims that these 3-dimensional matrices describe space that is "curved or otherwise distorted" and because other familiar ideas from mathematical physics are presented as if they were Dortmund's inventions, I suspect that the author had read something about tensors and general relativity and was disingenuously pretending that this was something that people would be surprised by (and willing to kill over) in the 1950s.

Here is a bit of discussion between Daniel and a German professor who attempted to understand Dortmund's work to give you an idea of how it handles the mathematical content:

(quoted from The Sabre Squadron)

"You know, as we all know, that Professor Dortmund invented a novel notation. This notation, we say, was necessary in order to convert an ordinary matrical method into one much more complex, occupying three dimensions. This was the Professor's object, this must be our clue : relate the notation to its function and the way of its working must sooner or later become apparent. You agree?

Daniel nodded.

"Then why has it not become apparent? Through nearly fifteen years?"

"Because so little is known about the function to which it must be related."

"Precisely, Herr Dominus. And then suppose that we knew even less. That Professor Dortmund was not always devising his novel notation for what we would be thinking but for something else. That he transferred himself, at some stage, from his three-dimensional matrices to a different, even more complicated field- related, very possibly, but different. What then, Herr Dominus?"

Two mathematician stereotypes arise in an early section in the book when Daniel is trying to convince the College Tutor to endorse his trip to Germany. First, it becomes clear from the discussion that Daniel is the sort of pure mathematician who dislikes the idea that mathematics has applications. (He pretends to object only to bad applications like atomic weapons, but in truth he appears to dislike any applications at all.). The idea that only young mathematicians can do math research leading to major advancements is used by Daniel himself as an argument for why he should be sent to try to understand Dortmund's work when other (older) mathematicians have failed.

As for the political (and supposedly "politically incorrect") aspects of the book, the author is known for his dislike of the egalitarian views of the late 20th century (which he blamed on America), and this book includes some of that. [Somehow, Raven seems to have seen the fact that poor, working people actually want money as an argument for maintaining the class hierarchy.]. Moreover, a major plot point is that Daniel Mond is uncomfortable about going to Germany since he is half-Jewish and homosexual. (As he points out, even though the Nazi uniforms are gone from Germany in the 1950s, the people who wore them are still walking around.). Personally, I was troubled by one scene where Daniel and a Jewish colleague agree that Jews bear responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ. [This idea has always been a source of both confusion and annoyance for me. Even if we forget that Jews do not believe the story in the New Testament to be true, and even if we forget that Jesus and his disciples were themselves Jewish, the part I don't understand is why all Jews forever would be guilty of something that one Jewish person, Judas, did in the past. It would be like claiming that all people from Maryland are forever responsible for the murder of Abraham Lincoln just because his assassin was from there. Still, even though this idea does not stand up to scrutiny, it has long been used as a justification for treating Jews poorly. For these reasons, I find this portrayal of Jewish characters seemingly admitting their guilt to be disturbing.] But, despite these issues, I think the book aged pretty well and could still be read and appreciated today.

With that remark (that the book can be read and appreciated today, if you can get your hands on a copy), let me offer a Spoiler Alert. I will be commenting on a bit more math and on the conclusion of the novel below. If you'd like to read the book for pleasure, I strongly encourage you to stop reading this now.

Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert: Don't read below this line unless you want to hear about how turns out

In addition to the idea that Dortmund was developing a mathematical structure like tensors, we learn that he was following particle trajectories in spacetime and that he investigated the consequences of the idea that there was a smallest unit of distance, zeta. Again, neither of these things would be a terribly big surprise to a mathematical physicist in the late 20th century (with the Planck length presumably being the inspiration for Dortmund's minimum distance zeta). From these, we are supposed to believe Dortmund's theory would allow someone to fully understand everything that happens at the atomic level, from the quantum jump of an electron between orbitals to the forces which hold matter together. And, from that, we next supposed to accept that this idea is too dangerous for people to know since it would allow a person to start a chain reaction which could destroy all matter in the universe.

Although I liked the earlier discussions of Dortmund's work on tensor-like objects, these final revelations were a bit much for me and made it difficult for me to appreciate the rest of the novel. Still, the point is that there is was brilliant mathematical discovery which is too dangerous for anyone to know, and there is a cat-and-mouse game between Daniel who is trying to hide it and these spy organizations trying to get their hands on it.

One last "spoiler alert". If you plan to read this book for pleasure, please stop reading now. The thing is, since this book is no longer particularly popular nor easy to obtain, I am assuming some people will be interested in it for historical reasons without necessarily wanting to read it themselves. For those people, I'm about to say something about the conclusion.

Spoiler Alert: (Stop reading now unless you want to see how the book ends.)

One of Daniel's first friends in Germany is an American history student. It turns out that this American actually works for one of the organizations seeking knowledge of Dortmund's discovery and that their friendship was all part of a plan to emotionally manipulate Daniel into revealing the secret. The plan is foiled when Daniel develops a true friendship with the members of the Sabre Squadron. So, the plan is changed and instead they attempt to use his affection for the Sabre Squadron against him, by threatening to ruin their lives and careers if he does not tell them what they want to know. The book ends on a sombre note, with Daniel about to slit his own throat to protect both the Sabre Squadron and the mathematical secret.

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.)

Works Similar to The Sabre Squadron
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Mathematician by Will Manson
  2. Torn Curtain by Alfred Hitchcock (Director)
  3. The 39 Steps by Alfred Hitchcock (director)
  4. Enigma by Robert Harris / Tom Stoppard
  5. Petersburg by Andrei Bely
  6. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
  7. En busca de Klingsor (In Search of Klingsor) by Jorge Volpi
  8. The Eight by Katherine Neville
  9. Decoded by Mai Jia
  10. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Ratings for The Sabre Squadron:
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:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Adventure/Espionage,
MotifMath as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Mathematical Physics,

Home All New Browse Search About

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)