a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Going Out (2002)
Scarlett Thomas
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

A group of unusual friends go on a journey to Wales to meet with a healer who they hope can help each of them with their problems. The group consists of Luke (who is unable to go outside due to allergies to things including sunlight itself), Leanne (who believes she has the power to make her wishes come true), Charlotte (who feels guilt about her boyfriend's death), David (who has testicular cancer), Chantel (who has literally won the lottery), and the main character Julie (who is terrified of everything and has a secret crush on Charlotte).

Since this clever and entertaining book unsubtly warns the reader that it is a rip-off of The Wizard of Oz (with Julie as the Cowardly Lion, Luke being the Tin Man, Lianne the Wicked Witch, etc.), the happy ending did not come as a surprise. But, what did surprise me was that it turned out to be "mathematical fiction". Honestly, although the author has written two works of mathematical fiction that I enjoyed (click on her name above to see them), none of the descriptions I had read of this book made any mention of mathematics. And so, I read it with the intention of taking a break from mathematical fiction.

Math is briefly mentioned early on. Julie is described as being someone who enjoys doing homework problems and the certainty of mathematics:

(quoted from Going Out)

If her homework was finished and there were no clubs, she would attempt maths puzzles set for her by Mr Banks, her maths teacher, involving challenges to trisect angles, square circles, double cubes or find the square root of -1. Mr Banks was very small, clever and sadistic, and always seemed as if he wanted to simultaneously reward and punish Julie for being so interested in his subject. Almost all the puzzles he ever set her turned out to be impossible to solve, or they'd be famous theorems no one had solved yet. But he did tell her how to work out square roots without a calculator, and how, with logic and time, you could solve almost everything - or at least explain why something couldn't be solved. Julie liked that. Everything was wrong or right; impossible or possible; unknowable or knowable. One or the other. You could be certain about maths.

Still, I did not consider this to be mathematical fiction. I only thought it was setting up her character so that we would be surprised when she intentionally fails her A Levels, ruining her chances of attending university.

Throughout the rest of the novel, we slowly learn how completely terrified Julie is. She is too afraid to drive on major highways, is afraid to eat prepackaged sandwiches since they may have been laced with LSD, hides in cupboards during lightning storms, etc. I have seen this sort of neurotic behavior in mathematician characters in fiction. (See, for example, Odds Against Tomorrow.) However, with only that one paragraph about enjoying "maths" homework, I was not really identifying Julie as being a mathematician.

Later in the novel, however, it is revealed that she thinks of herself as a mathematician. In fact, she works on solving famous open problems of mathematics even though she never attended college and works as a waitress:

(quoted from Going Out)

Julie sighs. 'I just like being a waitress and reading about other stuff in my spare time. I wouldn't want to do a maths job or a chemistry job. Did you know I was good at chemistry as well? I liked the equations. But anyway, I'm scared of chemicals, so I definitely wouldn't want to do a chemistry job. I liked physics, too, although I'm hardly going to become an engineer or anything. And maths? I don't want to be in business or do economics or accountancy. I'd like to solve a theorem, or a problem that's never been solved before. I suppose that's my dream, even if it is a bit of a stupid one.'

'Like thingy - that French one?'

'Fermat's Last Theorem? Yeah, that's been solved now. There's a maths institute offering million-dollar prizes for solving certain other unsolved problems, though. There's one problem in particular - I think about it when I'm waitressing. That's basically it. I'm a waitress trying to solve maths theorems and I'm happy with that. No one knows about the maths, by the way, so you've got two secrets out of me tonight.'

There is a long discussion in which Julie and Charlotte discuss imaginary numbers. Actually, for quite a bit of it, Julie is merely trying to convince Charlotte that the product of two negative numbers would be positive:

(quoted from Going Out)

'It's not theoretical, though,' Julie says. 'It's what actually happens. Um .. I'm trying to think of a good example. . OK, say you smoked a pack of 20 fags every day. We'll call that a value of minus 20, in the sense that you're taking 20 cigarettes away each time you smoke them. You see what I mean? You had them. They're gone. Minus 20. OK? But say you gave up smoking for 5 days, and you therefore didn't smoke your normal packet a day for those 5 days. So if we multiply the minus 20 cigarettes by the minus 5 times you have smoked them, you get I00 cigarettes. Do you see what I mean? You haven't smoked 20 fags a day for 5 days, so you're left with 100 unsmoked fags. Do you see that? So minus 20 times minus 5 equals I00.'

Charlotte looks confused. 'I sort of get it.'

For some reason, we are told that Julie sees numbers in different colors, a sort of synesthesia:

(quoted from Going Out)

The number 32 is turquoise, for example, and the number 17 is pink, as is the number 15; 28 is brown, and 37 is blue. Pi is light blue, and e is navy. Julie's favourite number, i, is cream.

We also learn that she doesn't like perfect squares, apparently finding them too conceited.

Another odd thing about Julie which is somewhat mathematical is her strange reaction to the "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics. Aside from seemingly treating this as a fact, rather than possible way that physicists have proposed to resolve the apparent paradoxes of quantum physics, she seems to think it means that everything has an equal probability of occurring. She specifically mentions the possibility that she would turn into a lemon in this regard (as well as the probability that the sandwich she purchased at a gas station would be laced with LSD). I suppose if one accepts the "many-worlds" interpretation literally, then it would say that low probability events do occur in some universe, and in that sense anything which is possible has a probability of 1 of occurring somewhere, but this would not change the fact that the probability of it occurring to this particular version of her in the universe which she is experiencing is still very low!

Now that I list all of these mathematical aspects of this book in one place, I see that it's actually a rather nice work of mathematical fiction, even if it reinforces the stereotype of the neurotic mathematician and even if I had been trying to take a break from math fiction when I read 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 Going Out
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
  2. Probabilities by Michael Stein
  3. The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
  4. Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich
  5. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
  6. Along Came Polly by John Hamburg (Writer and Director)
  7. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
  8. Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby
  9. Leaning Towards Infinity by Sue Woolfe
  10. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
Ratings for Going Out:
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)

MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Insanity, Female Mathematicians,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Mathematical Physics,

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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)