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A Catastrophe Machine (2004)
Carter Scholz
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

A well-written, vaguely surrealistic story loosely based on the real mathematical field of catastrophe theory and set within the context of the Vietnam War.

The title is taken from an invention of mathematician Charles Zeeman which illustrates an essential feature of Rene Thom's "Catastrophe Theory". In particular, this mathematical theory considers the case in which sudden, drastic consequences occur as a result of slow, incremental changes. (For more information on the real mathematics, see this nice description in the AMS Notices.)

In the story, the protagonist becomes interested in catastrophe theory as a youth, builds a Zeeman like device and (this is one of the surrealistic parts) apparently causes disasters with it. The character pursues a degree in mathematics, focusing on the topology of catastrophe theory and creating a field he names noetics. Upon getting his PhD, he decides to work for NOUS, a "think tank" with government contracts. There is some discussion about the choice between an academic profession and this alternative career, colored by the politics of the Vietnam War. In particular, it is suggested that the use of mathematical research is merely to justify the unpopular decisions already made by politicians. The environment at NOUS is surrealistic, in a Kafka-esque sense. He finds that his thesis has been classified and used for military purposes.

Though the story, which is understandably more interested in emotional potency than mathematical accuracy, describes catastrophe theory as "the mathematics of loss", the mathematics makes no such value judgment. That is, despite the term "catastrophe", the theory does not study bad things, but drastic things. In reality, they could be wonderful things, terrible things, or essentially neutral from a humanistic point of view. But, the story seeks to tie the mathematics to things which happen in the main character's personal life, such as his mother's death, his father's alcoholism and his own divorce. Unfortunately, this serves to reinforce the (unjustified, IMHO) stereotype of mathematicians as being particularly neurotic, socially inept and emotionally distant. However, I do like the way this story makes use of the mathematics and the questions it raises about the responsibility of those in basic research for the eventual applications their work may find.

This story appears in the collection The Amount to Carry. This book contains other stories that are not written in the style of most popular science fiction but have definite connections to science (and theology). For instance, in one story the "waveform" that was the explorer Marco Polo encounters an intelligent computer in an unmanned ship at the edge of the galaxy. A most bizarre "story" takes the form of letters about the classic mathematical fiction story The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke. Also, at least in my copy of the book, each story begins with an illustration of a torus (the geometric object which looks like a donut) from various viewpoints.

Contributed by Malcolm Bryant

Please note: Author is CARTER Scholz, not 'Charles'. [Ooops! Thanks. -ak] Otherwise congratulations on an excellent summary of the story, which I have only just read. The author is new to me but so far (I am reading The Amount To Carry collection) he seems extremely talented. Thanks for a great website.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to A Catastrophe Machine
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Immune Dreams by Ian Watson
  2. Axiom of Dreams by Arula Ratnakar
  3. Schwarzschild Radius by Connie Willis
  4. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  5. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  6. Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
  7. Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan
  8. Unreasonable Effectiveness by Alex Kasman
  9. Eye of the Beholder by Alex Kasman
  10. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
Ratings for A Catastrophe Machine:
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:
3.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (2 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifAcademia, War,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Chaos/Fractals,
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)