Mathematicians in Love
by Rudy Rucker
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 076531584X
Date: 28 November, 2006 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
When I was in school I was something of a math-geek-wannabe. Unfortunately, I had certain challenges, especially regarding basic arithmetic and other skills that I was assured wouldn't be all that useful when I got to more advanced math. Ultimately I topped out in what real math geeks no doubt consider the sub-basement of math, in a course called Linear Algebra, where we had to solve endless tables of criss-crossed arithmetic operations. Despite the fact that I spent an entire semester without getting a single problem right, I'm neither bitter, nor sensitive when it comes to math. Well, maybe a little.
But still, the lure of understanding the nature of the universe through "first principles" is a seductive siren that draws me towards the dangerous shoals of mathematics. And a title like the one of SF writer, mathematician, computer scientist and officially cool Californian, Rudy Rucker's newest book, Mathematicians in Love, is pretty much irresistible. In point of fact, I snatched it out of a friend's hands while they were reading it and didn't give it back till I was done. And I'm not sorry.
Bela Kis is a math grad student closing in on his PhD., or he would be if he could get his thesis project, a proof of the Morphic Classification Theorem to come together. Unfortunately for him, he's oil and water with his thesis advisor, Roland Haut, though his best friend, roommate, collaborator and co-candidate Paul Bridges seems to get along fine with Haut. Since Rucker has been there and done that, I think we can assume we're seeing some real world academic politics in the struggle between the three, with Bela's intuitive/graphical approach annoying the orderly analytics of Paul and Haut. The proof they're out to find will let them code a program that uses simple systems to predict incredibly complex ones, like stock markets, elections or whether or not you've got a chance with your next pickup line. The branch of mathematics they're out on is called Universal Dynamics, and it stands to change the world.
Bela's not your typical math geek, or at least not mine. He's a half Chinese, half Hungarian rocker, surfer, and video blog star. The "vlog" part comes about after he meets Alma, a video reporter for the website "Buzz" who's looking for the inside story on Universal Dynamics, to find a place to crash for a few weeks, and maybe get into a relationship with a mathematician. She's also a head gaming bitch, but you didn't hear that from me. It comes out in the way she bounces between Bela and his friend Paul, and it's pretty easy to spot. Not that either of them have any objectivity when it comes to Alma. The title is after all, Mathematicians in Love, and all they can do is surf the wave onto the beach if they're lucky, or into the rocks if they're not.
The story starts out on an alternate Earth, though the narrative points out that it's being told here in our reality. This winds up being a very useful bit for the author, who gets to rename political parties to suit his whimsy (Heritagists v Common Grounders) as well as towns (Berkley becomes Humelocke) and skew the world in a way that's both unfamiliar and representative of it's fundamental reality and more resonance for this time of "truenames". The action jumps between Earth and "La Hampa" or "the underworld" and several successive Earths, though you're waiting for the protagonists to wind up on this one. It is, unsurprisingly, a long strange trip getting here, and I suspect a lot of it is spent inside the author's head as he imagines the underlying nature of the universe.
Something I found interesting about the technology in this story is that I'm seeing it pop up in other stories as well. I gather that reducing what we've been thinking of as a chaotic world to a more or less predictable one by using quantum computers or something, is on a lot of peoples minds. Just this September I reviewed David Louis Edelman's first novel Infoquake: The Jump 225 Trilogy which channels a similar concept, though to different ends.
The notion that the future might surrender to a sufficiently advanced intellect isn't new, of course, though it's an idea that chaos and quantum mechanics have had on the ropes from time to time. Way back in E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series we were treated to the visualization of the Cosmic All, which any sufficiently advanced mind could manage, or at least the combined intellect of a fusion of hyper-advanced intellects from Arisia. Then there was Larry Niven, whose "Protector's" had the unenviable position of being smart enough to understand the consequences of their actions long in advance, but driven by powerful instincts unable to turn away from their duty, futile though they might know it was. And no recap of prognostication in SF should be without Asimov's Foundation books, and the underlying mathematics of Harry Seldon's statistical projections of the course of humans on a planetary scale.
All these and more wind up resonating in Rucker's work, but, like Edelman's ideas, the author is looking forward into the not so distant future of computation to a singularity event that boggles the mind. Hmmm...I guess that was redundant, wasn't it?
After you've read the book, which I'm sure you're going to go do now, you should check out the exhaustive notes that he created before/while writing it. The first thing you're apt to notice is how the book's path strayed from his plan, which goes to show how little control over the process authors wind up having. Which is interesting when taken in context that this is a book about creating more or less predictable universes.
In Mathematicians in Love Rucker has created a love story wrapped up in a cross-cultural mystery tour that could only have happened inside the mind of a crazy mathemetician. Buy a ticket. It's well worth the price.