a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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White Light, or What is Cantor's Continuum Problem? (1980)
Rudy Rucker
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors).

I think the best description of this book is Naked Lunch meets The Wild Numbers, with a cameo appearance by Donald Duck's nephews. Happily, this book has recently been rereleased (2001) in a new format (without the mathematical subtitle, which I suppose it is feared might scare away readers.) Like many other Rucker books, I feel as if the hype on the jacket and foreward are ridiculously over the top. IMHO, they go too far in praising Rucker and overstate influence of this book...but that doesn't mean I don't like the book. In fact, I think it is an enjoyable read and a really great example of mathematical fiction.

The plot concerns mathematician Felix Rayman, whose bizarre out of body experiences are nightmarishly related to his research into Cantor's continuum hypothesis. Now, I'm not sure exactly how much this is really autobiographical, but Rucker admit's in the "afterword" that he actually had a position at the university described in the book, and that his own attempt to address the continuum problem led nowhere...except to writing this book which I suppose was the start of his successful writing career.

I don't know if someone unfamiliar with the logic of transfinite cardinals would be able to really understand what "Aleph-null" is after reading this book, nor why this infinite number is still too small to describe the how many real numbers there are, but if you already know (or can look it up in a set theory book somewhere) then this psychedelic journey to infinity and back can be a lot of fun.

Contributed by Danijil Vitalijovy?

While perhaps interesting to a layperson, it is only truly enjoyable for a mathematician. Very good fiction.

I'm actually quite fond of this book, and you can see it has relatively high "ratings", but frequent site contributor Vijay Fafat argues that it takes a good premise and "jumps the shark":

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

This story had so much promise in its premise and the imaginative idea at its base that I was very disappointed by the actual execution of it. To posit such a grand idea as that of an astral soul heading for a destination which is a putative “finis” of Mathematics itself - the concept of “Absolute Infinity” - and then to have the narrative just fracture and fizzle out into some puerile slam-bang-wham ending with basic errors is a severe let-down. Certainly for someone of Rudy Rucker’s caliber, who wrote the brilliant book called “Infinity and the Human Mind”. “White Light” had the imaginative potential to be a mini “Divine Comedy”, going through Circles of Infinity, but did not even aim at that.

A set theorist, Felix Rayman, has the ability to project his astral body out of his corporeal self. In one such moment of ectoplasmic detachment, Jesus Christ (!) sends him on a journey to save the soul of one deceased woman, Kathy. His mission is to take with him Kathy’s soul to the top of “Mount On” located in “Cimon”, a place of fantasy infinitely far away and yet, right next to every point in the real universe. Mount On is the mountain, a ziggurat, of the uncountably many infinities appearing as a landscape, with its own whackily fluctuating gravitational field). Reaching its top leads to a merger with “God” (though to do this, you have to be able to become, or merge with, “white light”, a trans-aleph mode of movement up Mount On). Along this journey, Felix discovers Dreamland, lives in the classic “Hilbert Hotel”, meets Einstein and David Hilbert in the in a cafe laid out as an inverse Poincare disk, finds a way to “speed-up” so that he can execute super-tasks requiring infinitely-many (“aleph null”) steps, explores a meadow with infinitely branching grasses, discusses a potential proof of the Continuum Hypothesis by comparing the aleph-1 cliffs of Mount On with the pages of a book comprising “c” number of pages (the conclusion of that discussion is incorrect, IMO), etc..

So far, so good. Makes for very imaginative reading. But then, in very typical Rucker style which can be seen in many of his other novels, he veers off into needless and bizarre sexual situations which are childish and senseless (in the present instance, sex with an inflatable human *rolling eyes*), and from there, some complete gibberish about car chases, “Godsquad” hit mobs, etc. What could have shaped up as a truly transcendental exposition in the manner of Olaf Stapeldon’s “Star Maker”, with a fantastic vision of the complex reality embodied by the higher alephs and an encounter with some exalted divinity, “White Light” just crumples up into a very mediocre, nonsensical ending. Felix returns to his body on Earth and chases an idea given by Cantor - a physical proof of the Continuum Hypothesis (CH). He ends up creating “Hyper-matter” by capturing drifting soul-matter / “bloogs” and concentrating their essence. Felix just assumes that hyper-matter is uncountably infinitely finer than “aether”, which itself is infinitely finer than ordinary matter (and also assumed to be divisible to aleph-1 level). Therefore, hyper-matter must be at least aleph-2 divisible, thereby proving the Continuum Hypothesis to be false (in our universe) since the cardinality of space is that of real numbers. Complete non sequiter and a proof by assumption. There are further issues with this rushed ending. The hyper-matter ball has inertial mass but no gravitational mass and hence, just floats in the air because “gravitational field does not affect it at all”. And yet, the ball continues to swing around the sun along with earth in that room of Felix... The hyper-matter is supposed to be superconducting even though it consists of no electrons or any other normal matter. It also feels the electromagnetic force like an ordinary ball of matter, for it bounces off of a wall. Really, with no atoms?

By the end of it, the whole thing devolves into such nonsense that on the last few pages, where Felix casually describes meeting God and throwing out the hint that both God and His Creation are being powered by some higher energy drawn from a manhole, a valid reaction is, “Whatever!”.

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Works Similar to White Light, or What is Cantor's Continuum Problem?
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Jack and the Aktuals, or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory by Rudy Rucker
  2. Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
  3. The Infinite Assassin by Greg Egan
  4. Axiom of Dreams by Arula Ratnakar
  5. Signal to Noise by Eric S. Nylund
  6. Izzy at the Lucky Three by Eliot Fintushel
  7. Habitus by James Flint
  8. The Four-Color Problem by Barrington J. Bayley
  9. Sushi Never Sleeps by Clifford Pickover
  10. Stay Close, Little Ghost by Oliver Serang
Ratings for White Light, or What is Cantor's Continuum Problem?:
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:
4.75/5 (10 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.86/5 (10 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifAcademia, Aliens, Real Mathematicians, Religion,
TopicInfinity, Real Mathematics, Logic/Set Theory,

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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)