a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Lions in the Desert (1993)
David Langford
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for hardcore fans of science fiction.

Two men are hired to guard a mysterious treasure. One of them is a math grad student, and so their discussions to pass the time take on a mathematical flavor. Of particular interest are the references to the old "how to catch a lion" jokes that have become standard fare in mathematical humor. (See, for example, here and here.) The story concludes with additional mathematical references, to the idea of reducing a new problem to one that has already been solve and to the mathematical notion of an existence proof. (An "existence proof" is one that demonstrates that something exists without actually presenting it or even a method for obtaining it. A real example is that the existence of a well-ordering on the real numbers is a consequence of the Axiom of Choice, but nobody has actually been able to produce one.) However, unlike the humorous references to the lions, these latter story element take a sharp turn into the horrific, which is why this story was reprinted in Year's Best Horror Stories XXII. (It originally appeared in Weerde II, a collection of stories all involving the idea of shape-shifters.)

Thanks to Vijay Fafat for discovering this wonderful little story and bringing it to our attention.

Jean-Pierre Zurru has written to let me know that an early source of the mathematical lion hunting method jokes (at least in English) is the article The mathematical theory of big game hunting written pseudonymously by "Hector Petard of Princeton University" and published in the American Mathematical Monthly in the August-September issue of 1938. There seem to be a few copies available for free on the internet, such as this PDF.

Contributed by peter

Without reservation, one of my favorite short stories. I was conservative on the mathematical content rating, since I am not a mathematician and these themes might have struck me with more impact than someone who was more familiar with them.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to The Lions in the Desert
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Ghosts by Lord Dunsany
  2. Grigori’s Solution by Isobelle Carmody
  3. Erasthones' Map by Damon Nomad
  4. Asymmetrical Dreams by Josh Snider
  5. Danny’s Inferno by Albert Cowdrey
  6. Solve for X by Wil Forbis
  7. Necroscope (Series) by Brian Lumley
  8. A Logical Magician by Robert Weinberg
  9. Geometria by Guillermo del Toro (Writer and Director)
  10. Vampire World (Trilogy) by Brian Lumley
Ratings for The Lions in the Desert:
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 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (2 votes)

GenreFantasy, Horror,
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)