a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Souls in the Great Machine (1999)
Sean McMullen
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

A thousand years in our future, civilization on Earth has been restarted from scratch following a combination of global warming, nuclear winter, and a mysterious periodic phenomenon known as "the Call". So much has been forgotten, many consider the stories of what machines and computers used to be able to do before those disasters to be nothing but a myth. However, the powerful librarian Zarvora has created a giant computer whose components are enslaved people which she uses for military, governmental, and scientific purposes (including catching tax fraud and predicting the next "Great Winter".)

Zarvora becomes so powerful that she rivals the "mayors" who are officially the rulers. The librarians serving below her, whose hold ranks like "Dragon White" and "Dragon Red" are the only ones who really know about her machine, the Calculor, and what it can do.

One of the primary characters, Lemorel, is a lower ranking librarian who wants to escape her reputation as an infamous duelist who killed many people in her home town. After applying to work for Zarvora, she finds herself quickly promoted because of her expertise in mathematics:

(quoted from Souls in the Great Machine)

"You just passed the test for Dragon Green, [...] and there's an end to it."

"But what about heraldry and advanced cataloguing?"

"Mathematics has become everything in Libris, at least for the that work you will be doing."

Other librarians who meet her refer to Lemorel's mathematical research into "the Call". Another great (female) mathematician is also mentioned. However, she is already dead by the time we hear about her and so she does not appear as a character, merely as a motivating memory for her (male) lover who is also a mathematician but not nearly as talented as she was.

Zarvora is ruthless in her goal of building and utilizing the Calculor. Prisoners who show any mathematical skill are assigned the title of "ADDER", "MULTIPLIER", or "FUNCTION", and spend all of their waking hours participating in calculations whose purpose they do not understand. Furthermore, to maintain the secrecy of the project, they will never be released. But, as the Calculor grew, it also became more difficult to maintain this secret:

(quoted from Souls in the Great Machine)

Spies from other mayorates noted that far more food went into the Libris signaling annex than the staff listed as working there could eat, and rumors of a vast team of calculating lackeys had even spread as far as the common folk of the city. That team was known to be hungry for new recruits. Men and women in all walks of life professed ignorance of mathematics for fear of being recruited by a blow on the head during some moonless night. Enrollments for mathematical subjects in schools and universities across the Southeast Alliance fell to a tenth of what they had been a year before, and students had to be granted the status of Dragon White Librarian before they would set foot in a mathematics class or lecture. Many mathematics edutors fled to the Central Confederation and even the Southmoors.

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

The premise behind the story "Souls in the Great Machine" by Sean McMullen appears to be the same as the one behind A C Clarke's story "Into the Comet", where the computer on board a spaceship chasing a comet fails and the entire crew has to learn to do calculations on an abacus to plot a trajectory back to earth.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to Souls in the Great Machine
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  2. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (author) / Ken Liu (translator)
  3. Into the Comet by Arthur C. Clarke
  4. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  5. The Cambist and Lord Iron by Daniel Abraham
  6. Forgotten Milestones in Computing No. 7: The Quenderghast Bullian Algebraic Calculator by Alex Stewart
  7. Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer
  8. Doctor Who: The Turing Test by Paul Leonard
  9. Diamond Dogs by Alastair Reynolds
  10. Bellwether by Connie Willis
Ratings for Souls in the Great 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:
2.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
2.5/5 (2 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifFemale Mathematicians,

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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)