a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Habitus (1998)
James Flint

There is no doubt that this novel is a work of mathematical fiction, but I'm not sure how to describe it. I think the best word for it may be "uneven". It does some great things, both presenting some well written literary passages as well as some thought provoking scientific ideas. However, each of these is equally balanced by something unbelievably bad -- either an amateurishly written passage that doesn't seem as if it should ever have been published or scientific/mathematical mistakes that make you doubt the author has any idea of what he is talking about.

As far as genre, the book probably fits best into the category of science fiction, although it is a weird, schizophrenic nightmarish sort of science as opposed to the "hard" science fiction of Heinlein and Asimov. Take, for example, the running subplot of Laika in her capsule. As you probably know, Laika is the dog who was sent into orbit by the Russian space program before it began its manned flights. Many people are saddened by the idea of Laika having died alone, in space. However, in this book, she did not. Somehow, by being the first living creature in space she is transformed into a being that can survive (and grow to disgusting proportions) on the radio and TV transmissions from Earth.

The plot of the story concerns a child born of three parents: the son of a famous actress who has to deal with problems of race, a Hasidic math prodigy who leaves his family and customs behind to study at Cambridge and work at CERN, and the daughter of a woman who worked at Bletchley Park breaking codes for the British in WW II. Because of its unusual parentage, the child is not quite human, having two extra types of neurons and all sorts of super-powers which she uses to try to bring her three parents together again.

Math is really used all throughout the novel, appearing in one form or another in each of the many subplots. Certainly, the most mathematical aspect of the story is the genius and training of Joel Kluge (whose circumcision is the opening scene in the book). Joel is obsessed not only with mathematics but also with its physical and religious implications, which he ties together into a unique insanity. Eventually, he is convinced that there is no such thing as randomness, and so he seeks to "understand" the Holocaust by visiting each of the sites of concentration camps and collecting data...including the values of "random" dice rolls at each site. The discussion of the fringe culture of Satmar Jews in Brooklyn is very convincing, apart from a few minor mistakes that give away the author's goyishness. (The word "payot" for the long sideburns that Hasidim wear is plural, so you can't say "a payot", it should be "a paya".) His mathematical genius is presented in the stereotype fashion, including a tutor who is soon surpassed in skill by his student and a thesis advisor who is just using Joel as a source for inspiration in his own work.

I really like the passage in which the differentiation of cells (the way they become separated into different types of cells such as nerve cells and muscle cells) is discussed as the result of the different attraction basins in the dynamical system controlled by the DNA. I think it is a very clever idea, and I am curious to know if the author made this up or if (like so much else in this book) it was just copied from some real scientific source. In a few cases, the author contradicts himself as if to verify for me that he doesn't really understand what he is saying. For instance, Joel and a colleague build a computer to predict the outcome of the spin of a roulette wheel. The colleague says "You're right, it's Newtonian and therefore predictable." It is not just the character who is supposed to believe this, since we are expected to believe that the machine really exists. But, just a few chapters earlier in the book the author relates (in a nonsensical aside) a well known counter-example to this claim. "The behaviour of a graviational system with only two easy to predict if you know a few basic things about the objects involved...but introduce a third body and however much information you have it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen." (A similar goof occurs in the discussion of the delivery of the baby where he makes a big deal about the type of incision that the surgeon is going to make, and then describes her making an incision of a completely different sort. The mistake, however, about twins usually coming from a single ovum and different sperm is stated without any contradiction.)

This book can also be complimented for its deeper portrayal of the mathematics involved in the development of the computer. It mentioned Boole ("the father of modern algebra"? I would have given that title to Galois) and von Neumann as well as Turing. We also get the usual shpiel about Mandelbrot and the ubiquity of fractals in interesting but definitely overplayed card in popular writings of mathematics.

As I read more mathematical fiction, I am developing a taste for "poetic mathematics". Statements that make no mathematical sense, but create a sort of poetry with mathematical ideas. This book has a few good ones, such as Joel's statement that a map of Europe annotated to show the number of deaths in concentration camps is "Europe as a field, a quantum field, with death the spectral calibration for all and any eigenvales." More clearly poetic is the description of Joel's "one true love": Her eyes were made of `and' gates, her mouth of `ors' and her (expletive deleted because my official employer is the state of South Carolina and I could get in trouble for writing this word here) was made of `nots'. Not not not not not. And in that lay her charm. Her brain was made of slide-rules and her flesh of logarithms, tables and matrices. Her breasts were sets, her hair had square roots and her clothes were quite transcendental. In short, she was perfection and all the more perfect because Joel could attain her, in a glorious jouissance of integration, whenever he wished. Logic is its own reward and Joel liked nothing better than to trace out its many branches until his brain felt ready to implode.

You can find a "professional" review of this book at Salon and the author's own page here.

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Works Similar to Habitus
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. White Light, or What is Cantor's Continuum Problem? by Rudy Rucker
  2. The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
  3. Napier's Bones by Derryl Murphy
  4. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons
  5. Paradox by John Meaney
  6. Improbable by Adam Fawer
  7. Stay Close, Little Ghost by Oliver Serang
  8. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  9. Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter
  10. Diaspora by Greg Egan
Ratings for Habitus:
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:
3.66/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.33/5 (3 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifGenius, Mental Illness, Alan Turing,
TopicChaos/Fractals, Probability/Statistics,

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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)