Friday, May 28, 2010

Greg Egan's Mathematical Stories - Phillip Leonard Keller

"One of the most exciting subgenres of science fiction are mathematical science fiction stories. The popularization of mathematics in the last decade has given this field new impetus. Unfortunately often the mathematics was only half-understood by the author and many times also quite trivial and so we were (and still are) treated ad nauseum with stories about the butterfly effect, and fractals and Mandelbrot sets pop up without point or reason. But when the author knows what he is writing about, mathematical sf stories can be very rewarding and indeed, some of the very best sf stories belong to this subgenre, for example "And he Built a Crooked House" by R.A. Heinlein, "Tangents", by Greg Bear or Neverness by David Zindell.
Often mathematical sf stories are written so that the plot revolves around a surprising mathematical property. They can be much fun but they are essentially gimmick stories. The most famous example is probably the already mentioned "And he Built a Crooked House". But the most successful stories are those where the mathematics is an integral part of a wider plot. Although I am no author I assume that these stories are much more difficult to write than the former. Famous examples are William F. Orr's "Euclid Alone" and Greg Bear's "Tangents".
The mathematical sf stories of Greg Egan belong to the very best yet written in this subgenre, ranging in topic from the moral dilemma of double blind testing in "Blood Sisters" to arcane properties of the Cantor set in "The Infinite Assassin". The mathematics is never the raison d'etre of the plot but rather an important part in the background."

4 out of 5

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