machines dream electricity and other predictabilities

Imaginary Numbers: An Anthology of Marvelous Mathematical Stories, Diversions, Poems, and MusingsImaginary Numbers: An Anthology of Marvelous Mathematical Stories, Diversions, Poems, and Musings by William Frucht
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first picked up this book at my brilliant local library when I was about thirteen, and I was totally inspired. This is my third reading, and I found it dispiritingly male and pale (not a single non-white character or author as far as I can tell)

The Form of Space by Italo Calvino This sexist little piece is very eloquently, gracefully written, but repulsive in content. Rape culture is not Calvino’s fault, but there is really no need to enthusiastically pitch in.

A New Golden Age by Rudy Rucker
This is pure intellectual snobbery, but apart from that is hugely likeable. It doesn’t start off well and the dialogue feels lumpy, with too many characters for a short short story, but the idea of a math-player that you can plug into your brain to experience math directly is just too cool to resist, and Rucker’s description illustrates it perfectly. I hope someone invents it.

A Serpent with Corners by Lewis Carroll This will amuse folks who pick this up hoping for logic puzzles to chew on. Abner Shimony’s piece Resolution of the Paradox: A Philosophical Puppet Play, which features a lion who defies Zeno’s logic, is in the same vein

How Kazir Won His Wife by Raymond Smulyan
This is about the ‘Goodman principle’ which tells you how to find things out in a situation where some people always lie and others always tell the truth, (geek moment: Sarah uses it in The Labyrinth!), but there is much talk around the topic. This tale is a good example of what the book is like in general: math-inspired subversive whimsical realism (has someone coined this genre?)

An extract from Einstein’s Dreams made me really want to read the whole book – here Lightman imagines what the universe would be like if the arrow of time pointed in the opposite direction: the one in which disorder DECREASES. Another extract, from Hofstadter’s GDB, about preludes to fugues, reminds me that I want to re-read that book as well

The Golden Man by Philip K Dick A longer piece that as always demonstrates Dick’s genius-level talent for writing hauntingly believeable scifi. There is, I think, a critique here of illiberal institutional controls, yet its tension with fear is fully fleshed out, to the point where the terror takes over. I’m not buying the woman-blaming though…

The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck by Hilbert Schenk is a unique piece, less whimsical realism than math-magical realism. It’s protagonist reads as a typical lifeboat man, hardy and deeply experienced, to the point where his professional intuition seems like a preternatural ability, except in his case it actually is. I enjoyed the framing of the story from the point of view of ‘time-users’ watching Keeper Chase, an energy-user, doing his godlike tricks.

The Third Sally, or The Dragons of Probability by Stanislaw Lem bored me somewhat after the first few pages, but I think I was just being impatient – it is quite funny in a Terry Pratchett way. The same goes for the other Lem story in here, The Extraordinary Hotel, which is about set theory, and is more technical.

An extract from Flatland: Concerning Irregular Figures is extremely disturbing. I wonder if anyone has written a feminist analysis of Flatland, where all women are lines while men have different shapes depending on social class/occupation. In itself this is a kind of feminist comment on Victorian society… I’ve never been tempted to read Flatland but maybe I should. Clearly only men could be ‘irregular’ and therefore subject to the murderous eugenic policy here illustrated…

On Fiddib Har by A K Dewdney is an extract from The Planiverse, which imagines contact with a two-dimensional world through a youth who lives there, and is extremely clever and interesting to me. The illustrations are particularly delightful. It is quite technical and book length would probably bore, but a small dose is delicious.

The Church of the Fourth Dimension by Martin Gardner feels more real than fiction. I’m sort of surprised that Gardner imagined the whole thing – it makes sense! Nice that it has some knot tricks at the end. Fun.

Burning Chrome by William Gibson Most of these stories have no women in them at all. Where we do feature, we are invariably objects of the action and description rather than subjects. Here hacker Bobby, for whom women are ‘talismans’, is observed by his partner in crime Jack. Rikki, Bobby’s current sexual partner, is the driving force of the story, yet she has no character, other than a desire to become a ‘simstim’ star, for which she will need to have her lovely brown eyes replaced with new ones able to literally film life from her point of view. The eyes she wants are blue, but Gibson offers no material for an analysis of why. Jack is in love with Rikki and thus resents Bobby’s objectifying relationship to her, but his intervention in her favour consists of buying her a flight to Hollywood to pursue her dreams

While I’m on the feminist line of attack, Fritz Leiber’s story Gonna Roll the Bones is particularly grotesquely sexist. Oppressed by his mother and abused (by him) wife, the protagonist heads out to gamble, where slim, naked young women serve and are delighted to be groped. Sample: “The Big Gambler had just taken into his arms his prettiest evilest sporting girl and was running an aristocratic hand across her haunch with perfect gentility, when the poet chap, green-eyed from jealousy and lovesickness, came leaping forward like a wild cat and aimed a long gleaming dagger at the black satin back.”

The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges was my favourite story on first reading and it retains its ponderous and ponderable pleasure, but by this point I am wondering why none of the authors yet featured have been women (with the possible exception of Wislawa Szymborska who contributed a poem – must check gender!) and can’t help but notice that the Library contains no women at all. Presumably the men spring fully formed from the bookshelves without the messy business of birthing…

Ah here we are! Connie Willis’ tale Schwarzchild Radius breaks the mold with a very literary reflection on the weirdness of war and relativistic physics. Now my favourite piece in the collection. I must find more of Willis’ work.

Siv Cedering’s poem Letter from Caroline Herschel is great – I think I saw it before in Dark Matter? Anyway, it’s a tribute to ‘my long, lost sisters, forgotten/in the books that record/our science – Agnice of Thessaly, Hyptia, Hildegard, Catherina Hervelius, Maria Agnesi…

Then there is an extract from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin which is a very good book in my opinion, and finally a J G Ballard story The Garden of Time which as Frucht writes in his introduction, is very evocative, reeking of nostalgia for decadent days. The final description of the approaching army is painfully vivid. But isn’t this fear of barbarian hoards from whom one cannot protect one’s charming, frail wife a sort of… elitist white supremacist parable?

View all my reviews


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s