a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Symposium (1974)
R.A. Lafferty
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

This story consists of a philosophical discussion between characters with names like "Wye" and "Zed". A good bit of it is about mathematics and its foundations. For example:

(quoted from Symposium)

"And, Zed," said O doubtfully, "every one of those elements is shaky. We are unable to separate space from one of its elements—shape. We do not know whether the particular distortion we live in is one of shape or of space. For instance, with us, the relation of the ring to the tendon of a circle is three and a continuing decimal to one.. But we know from Scripture, and also from the geometry of Jordman, that in undistorted space or shape the relation would be exactly three to one. Now, if we were in such an undistorted space or shape, might we not think undistorted thoughts? It is certain that we would think in a different manner and that every object of our thoughts would differ from the present. We would not have the same grammar or conventions."

"There is no undistorted space, O," Wye said solidly. "Distortion is a necessary element. If I be not distorted, then I be not at all. The shape of space depends on the amount of matter in the universe. Matter is the distortion, but no matter is nothing. The amount of matter posits its own mathematics. There cannot be theoretical mathematics, only the mathematics of an actual universe. But, should the mass of the universe increase by only an ounce (Nictitating nebulas!—that's a little too slight), should it increase by no more than a thousand galaxies, then every mathematical property would change. The ratio of the ring to the tendon of a circle might then become three and a half, or five, or nine, or one. There might then be thirteen whole numbers between one and ten.

"For my part, I believe that we do live in a universe of changing mass, and that every property changes with it. Do you know why nobody discovered certain simple relationships before Pythagoras did so? It was because they had only just then become true relationships. Do you know why nobody discovered the three laws of motion before Newton discovered them? Because—they had not been true the day before."

At the end of the story, it is revealed that the characters having the debate are actually a child's (artificially intelligent) alphabet blocks.

This story was first published in Roger Elwood's collection Omega (1974). Thanks to Fred Galvin for bringing it to my attention.

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Works Similar to Symposium
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Narrow Valley by R.A. Lafferty
  2. Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett (aka Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore)
  3. Unreasonable Effectiveness by Alex Kasman
  4. Been a long, long time by R.A. Lafferty
  5. Cantor's War by Christopher Anvil
  6. Q.E.D. by Bruce Stanley Burdick
  7. Three Cornered Wheel by Poul Anderson
  8. The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges
  9. Sword Game by H.H. Hollis
  10. The Pre-Persons by Philip K. Dick
Ratings for Symposium:
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)

GenreScience Fiction,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Logic/Set Theory,
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)