|The ghost of math professor Ray Bellwether tries to solve the mystery of
his own murder in this `first novel' by Amy Babich (Webster is just a
pseudonym). Babich has a Ph.D. in mathematics (and a Master's in the
classics) and advocates the use of bicycles in Austin, Texas. As far as I
know she only published one piece of mathematics research, but it is
notable for defining a new mathematical term that is imaginitively named if not useful: scrawny
I've finally been able to read this book (March 2002), after a long delayed
order from [a well known on-line book-seller] arrived and I must say that
I do highly recommend this book to those interested in mathematical
fiction. The story is interesting enough, but it is the writing style and
the use of mathematics that I appreciate most.
"Webster" has a good understanding of what mathematics is really like for
those who do it professionally. So, more than in most works of mathematical
fiction, the math in this one comes across sincerely. I think that one
could probably guess from reading the book alone that the author was a
graduate student in mathematics when she wrote it, since there is quite a
lot of emphasis on preliminary exams and the job of TA'ing for a math
professor. Similarly, her viewpoint on environmental issues and religious
fundamentalism also are not hidden in the book, but leap out at you.
Often, I am put off by the visibility of the author, but this time I didn't
mind it. I don't think it is only because I myself was a math grad student
too long ago and have political views that may not be too different from
hers. Part of the reason that the visibility of the author is not a
problem here is that she emphasizes it and makes fun of it herself. In
asides that imitate and explicitly refer to the writings of 19th centruy
British novelist Anthony Trollope, she admits to the reader that she is
writing this book and that it is her first novel. She explains why she
does something one way instead of another or why she isn't including
something in the story at all. This gives the visibility of the author an
intentionality and innocence that I find not only innoffensive but even
enjoyable. My only complaint is that the sexual relations between the
characters, both frequent and important to the plot, seem strained and
unrealistic to me...but perhaps that is also an intentional comment on the
part of the author. Strangely, however, I find the sex in the book less
believable than the spirit of the murdered mathematician trying to find his
murderer in a mathematical fantasy world blooming with giant purple brussel
Some mathematical highlights include the way the
character's personalities seem to coincide with their area of expertise and
the description of how math research works for one famous but now almost
senile professor who finds himself literally lost in a mathematical fantasy
Apparently, the best place to get a copy of this book right now is from the publisher's website: zinkapress.com.
Detective novels and ghost stories are some of my least favorite genres (right behind legal thrillers and those choose-your-own-ending tricks). I also dislike puns. These things always sound promising - Chandler, Blackwood, and Shakespeare spring respectively into mind - but then you see the standard execution, and it's not pretty. However, for a ghost-detective story with a pun for a title, After Math is pretty damn awesome.
First of all, it involves math. And not that fuzzy kind of magical stuff portrayed by journalists trying desperately to cater to the public, but real, down-to-earth, beautiful math portrayed by someone who knows and loves it. Which is not to say that it's full of equations, or has some pedagogical purpose. It's a bona fide novel which just happens to concern people in a mathematics department. But somehow this is more exciting and more important to me than a lot of stories about tormented geniuses, etc.
Second, it's funny. Comedy dispels fear of the unknown and the sacred; it also just makes things way more fun. I read it in a couple of days, and I am normally a real feet-dragging kind of reader. The interlude addresses to the reader and other self-referential touches could easily have gotten on my nerves, but didn't, becasue there's no pretension there, just the desire to entertain.
Third - and this is hard to sum up in one word or phrase - it mixes the disciplines. Mathematicians are portrayed with humanistic leanings and vice versa. (Most memorable are the poet Rodolfo's attempts to write an ode to electromagnetism.) Such well-rounded characters are important in putting to rest the idea that mathematicians are monomaniacal left-brainers, and that art and science are antithetical. We need a lot more of it, and in real life, not just stories. But I'll take what I can get.