a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Cryptonomicon (1998)
Neal Stephenson
(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) and hardcore fans of science fiction.

This "cult" novel of mathematics, computer science, espionage and warfare follows a mathematician through World War II and his grandson through the creation of a (less than ordinary) silicon valley start-up company. For more information (and more of my comments) you may look at my review which appeared in the AMS Notices. To sum it up: Not only did I really enjoy reading this book, but I think it makes a good "advertisement" for mathematics because it portrays math as interesting and useful. The book includes a clever introduction to modular arithmetic and its role in cryptography, bits of information theory, also some stuff on Riemann's zeta function and Gödel's theorem. However, there are a number of glaring mathematical errors, including a several references to factoring large primes.

Contributed by "Anonymous"

"While math is not the central focus of the book, indeed many of the segments are completely devoid of any math whatsoever, it permeates the thinking of at least two of the main characters and that thinking is described in some detail. As a programmer/computer scientist/someone who thinks math is neat I found this to be quite enticing. Walking thru London becames a graph, executing a will becomes a two- dimensional sort in physical space. Read the book for the excellent quality of Stephenson's writing and story telling but enjoy the book for Stephenson's love of math and engineering. Then read The Diamond Age for a refresher course in elementary computer science. :O)"

Contributed by Dan Radovsky

Actually, I would rate this book somewhere between "excellent" and "amazing". I am not a mathematician. Indeed, though I seem to have been attracted to books with math themes in them ever since I can remember (such as the Clifton Fadiman books), I never did especially well in math, and even had a real fear of fractions in elementary school. Nevertheless, my reading of Cryptonomicon was the motivation for me -- at the age of 50 -- to go back to school for a second undergraduate degree, this time in Computer Science (my first is in Communications). Obviously, Professor Kasman's closing comment in his review of Cryptonomicon about not being surprised in the future to hear people refer to this novel as an inspiration for them in choosing a career in mathematics is not farfetched at all.

Contributed by Anonymous

Tragic, comic, and totally memorable.

Contributed by jo

history repeating itself exponentially. wicked!

Contributed by Dan

Absolutely superb. The 'Turing's Cycle Chain' section is astonishing in Stephenson's ability to explain a complex idea in an engaging and understandable way. I loved this book; it's in the bibliography to my degree in computing. Quite possibly my most favourite book ever, at this point in time...

Contributed by Anonymous

Having previously read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and enjoyed it, I was looking forward to Cryptonomicon. To say I was disappointed would be a huge understatement. Yes, it does a good job of explaining some math and making it interesting, and there are also some really exciting action passages. However, the way Stephenson chose to tell his story is just plain bad. There are so many story lines that are introduced and then never developed that it becomes hard to really care about what's happening because you know it's not going to lead anywhere anyway. And while some story lines do get resolved, many do not. It's sad to say but I started hating this book and finished it only to see just how bad it could get. Ultimately, I got the feeling that the author had decided to write a 1000 page book and then tried to figure out how to fill the pages.

Contributed by Jimbo

Intricate story lines, good math, fascinating history, complex and entertaining characters, some very hilarious scenes. I loved it!

Contributed by Anonymous

There is a section in this book where one of the characters writes a function for his own horniness, based upon various variables (such as the presence of his landlady's cute daughter). It is very clever and very funny indeed. It is also quite a neat illustration that can be used in teaching people how to conceptualize writing a function of a novel phenomenon.

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Works Similar to Cryptonomicon
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle Volume 1 by Neal Stephenson
  2. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  3. Enigma by Robert Harris / Tom Stoppard
  4. Sebastian by David Greene (director)
  5. Sekret Enigmy by Roman Wionczek
  6. The Company of Strangers by Robert Wilson
  7. Doctor Who: The Turing Test by Paul Leonard
  8. PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
  9. Turing's Delirium by Edmundo Paz Soldan
  10. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
Ratings for Cryptonomicon:
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:
3.78/5 (27 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.52/5 (27 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Humorous, Science Fiction, Adventure/Espionage,
MotifReal Mathematicians, War, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics,

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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)