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The Janus Equation (1980)
Steven G. Spruill

In an alternate reality where John Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and replaced all national governments with five all-powerful corporations, an award-winning mathematician tries to invent a method of time travel for his employer while being subjected to intimidation from its competitors.

The author does not seem to know much mathematics. So, most of the mathematical references are vague and fleeting, such as:

(quoted from The Janus Equation)

Paul Essian was sitting at this desk avoiding the equation when the call came from Psychiatry Section. His flashboard, which took put the long wall of the office, was covered with a hash of mathematical symbols, but Essian's eyes focused through the unfinished equation to his reflection trapped behind the syrupy translucence of the board.


(quoted from The Janus Equation)

She shifted; crossed her legs and her arms. "Com on, Paul. What differene does it make what I or any of the other unit head think? We're on the Janus thing until it succeeds or gets canned. The problem is, this isn't the usual project - not in a lot of ways. If you slow down, there's not one to pick up the slack. The people in physics have been idle for a month; their mathematician jokes are taking on a nasty edge. I can't help you and neither can the other mathematicians. We didn't win the Prestman prize or a million dollar contract."

The most explicitly mathematical section occurs when he meets a woman at a gas bar (where one inhales rather than swallows a concoction of choice):

(quoted from The Janus Equation)

At the edge of his vision Essian saw the woman take something out of her purse -- a pocket flashboard. She began doing calculations and he craned his neck for a look at the display. She glanced at him and he relaized he must say something.

"Simultaneous equations?"

She laughed self-consciously. "It's hardly the place, I know, but I'm pushing a deadline. If I don't get this tonight, it'll mean a postponed vacation for me.

The bartender moved up and looked meaningfully at the two of them. "What'll it be tonight?"

The woman looked at Essian's nose cone, which was turning a rich pink as the vapors built up, trapped against the bar. "It's good," he volunteered. "Mild uppers; no primary process catalysts."


"One mint and quelamyne," the bartender said. "On the doc."

She looked a question and Essian made a wry face, but felt pleased. "I'm Paul Essian," he said.

"Jill Selby." Her hand seemed to fit his, returning the pressure of his fingers with perfect symmetry. "A doctor of what?"

"Theoretical mathematics."


"...would you like to have a try at this? She held the flashboard out to him. "I've been working on it all afternoon, but I can't seem to make it float."

Essian took the flashboard and stared at it, slowly submerging in the intricacies of the problem. The crowd noises, the music of the synthesizers and even the woman beside him slipped away as he felt his way through the trouble spots, checking and discarding dozens of routes to a solution. When he found the answer, the room around him snapped back into awareness with a suddenness that jolted him. the woman took the board, but studied his face.

"You really disappeared."

Essian realized that she was right. He had not reached such a pitch of concentration in months.

"This is it," Jill said. "Marvelous. I've never seen this proof before."

"It's in the new Esteroff text, page one-hundred twelve."

Like many authors with limited mathematical background, Spruill misuses and confuses words like "proof" and "equation". The theory itself is never explained aside from references to a "many-world" phenomenon, and even the reference to the god Janus in the name of the equation seems to have more to do with a sexual subplot than with the math or physics. However, the presentation of the mathematician is a positive one and there is definitely an indication that mathematics is a powerful and useful thing.

Unconventional sexuality is also a major theme of the book: homosexuality, transsexuality, prostitution, and one extremely unusual tryst that is (at least so far as I know) only possible in science fiction.

This novella was published as a double with Joan Vinge's "Legacy" by Dell as Binary Star #4 in 1980.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to The Janus Equation
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Writing on the Wall by Steve Stanton
  2. Ground Zero Man (The Peace Machine) by Bob Shaw
  3. Nanunculus by Ian Watson
  4. Drunkard's Walk by Frederik Pohl
  5. Four Brands of Impossible by Norman Kagan
  6. The Blind Geometer by Kim Stanley Robinson
  7. Bellwether by Connie Willis
  8. Catch the Lightning [Lightning Strikes Vols. I-II] by Catherine Asaro
  9. Eversion by Alastair Reynolds
  10. The Singularities by John Banville
Ratings for The Janus Equation:
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:
1.67/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (3 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifProving Theorems, Time Travel, Romance,

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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)