Mathematicians in Love, by Rudy Rucker, is a novel about love, math, and the mysteries of the universe. It is about politics and protest and dimensional hijinks. It is also deeply bizarre, which might be expected from the author of "Message Found in a Copy of Flatland"—possibly the best sick joke of all time in mathematics fiction—and Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension (as Rudolf v. B. Rucker), a charming and offbeat work of popular math and physics.
In a world very like ours, Bela Kis and his roommate, Paul Bridge, are mathematicians working on the same theorem. Their advisor, the brilliant and intermittently insane Roland Haut, is secretive about his results in universal dynamics, which promises a miraculous way of simulating events through structures called morphons. Seeking to impress a girl, Alma Ziff, Bela shows off one of Haut's simulations predicting the results of a local election. The prediction escapes onto Alma's roommate's vlog (video weblog), the would-be winner's rivals perform some judicious sabotage to change the results, and the dangers inherent in the predictive powers of universal dynamics become all too obvious. Worse, Alma leaves Bela for Paul. Bela's quest to regain Alma's heart leads him to political skulduggery, intelligent cone shell snails from another dimension, and the use of his reality as a mathematical experiment.
This book will not be to all tastes. If you are allergic to surfspeak, you should run away at high speed. At one point Bela tells Alma, "According to universal dynamics, you can emulate all these gnarly processes by snapping together a few standardized morphons in Minkowski sheaf hyperspace" (36). I thought Rucker was using gnarl throughout the novel to indicate chaos in the mathematical sense of the term, but "Seek the Gnarl," his Guest of Honor Address at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (March 27, 2005), indicates that he means "a level of complexity that lies in the zone between predictability and randomness." Other surferisms abound, however. On the other hand, Bela is a lively narrator, whose descriptions, whether of parties or music jamming sessions or synesthetically conceived mathematical systems, are vivid (and don't require a math degree for enjoyment). His enthusiasm for mathematics sings from the page, as in this description of modeling using universal dynamics:
Haut had matched plant growth to water splashes and election results to frost crystals, well and good, but now we were pairing ocean waves with trickling raindrops, mood swings with candle flames, food fads with fluttering leaves, city neighborhood distributions with the acoustics of church organ music, and the spread of rumors with milk swirls in coffee cups. Our conversation was like telepathy, with one plus one becoming more than two. (41)
Bela, Paul, Alma, and the numerous other people in Mathematicians in Love are colorfully portrayed, whether they are concocting a computer oracle from chemical goop or surfing—literally—into another dimension. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to feel sympathy for any of them. Alma in particular becomes little more than a piece in a game as her affections flit from one man to the other. The dimension-hopping nature of the narrative leads to a troubling dehumanization of alternate selves, who are treated by Bela as though they exist only for the convenience of the primary set of characters. Perhaps this was meant to be an ironic commentary on the nature of fictional narrative, but if so, the author overshot the mark.
The political commentary is more successful. Bela's world includes a terrorist attack, plus "the least intelligent and most repressive president ever" (19) and a dominant Heritagist party—clearly stand-ins for George W. Bush and the Republicans. As it turns out, math might hold the key to a successful grassroots campaign to oust the Heritagists. The Heritagists are not unaware of the potential of universal dynamics and move to seize that knowledge and its accompanying technology for themselves. Bela's narrow escapes from the powers that be, in whatever dimension, are tautly written and flavored with his cheeky attitude.
Perhaps the best reason to read Mathematicians in Love is its math-steeped world. Rucker has a gift for making exotic concepts accessible and interesting, and universal dynamics is deeply embedded in the structure of the narrative. Although the more plot-driven part of the story wraps up a little too quickly, a little too neatly, Bela's final revelations about the nature of the universe—ours and his—are breathtaking and beautiful.
Mathematicians in Love is a mixed reading experience. You'll know within a chapter or two whether it's to your taste. But if you're looking for a highly inventive tale of dueling minds in a world gone weird, this is a good place to start. And if you like the novel, check out Rucker's website, where he's provided even more fascinating (but spoilery) material in his "Notes for Mathematicians in Love."
Yoon Ha Lee's fiction has appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Sybil's Garage. She is a section editor at the Internet Review of Science Fiction. "Eating Hearts," a fantasy short story based loosely on Korean folklore, appeared in Year's Best Fantasy 6, edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. Yoon can be emailed at email@example.com.