12 Best Mathematical Science Fiction Books

If you have even a passing interest in math, i.e., if you see an equation and don’t recoil as if you just spotted a spider moseying up your thigh, then these books are for you.

 

12
Flatterland
by Ian Stewart – 2001

In 1884, Edwin A. Abbott published a brilliant novel about mathematics and philosophy that charmed and fascinated all of England. As both a witty satire of Victorian society and a means by which to explore the fourth dimension, Flatland remains a tour de force. (It’s also on this list.)

In this modern sequel to Abbott’s book, larger-than-life characters explore our present understanding of the shape and origins of the universe, the nature of space, time, and matter, as well as modern geometries and their applications. The journey begins when our heroine, Victoria Line, comes upon her great-great-grandfather A. Square’s diary, hidden in the attic. The writings help her to contact the Space Hopper, who becomes her guide and mentor through eleven dimensions. Along the way, we meet Schrödinger’s Cat, The Charming Construction Entity, The Mandelblot (who lives in Fractalia), and Moobius the one-sided cow.

“[E]njoyable, quirky and entertaining… communicates fundamental concepts of modern mathematics and physics to the general reader most effectively.”
—New Scientist

11
Fantasia Mathematica
Edited by Clifton Fadiman – 1958

This collection of mathematical stories, essays, and anecdotes ranges from the poignant to the comical to the surreal, and includes writing by Aldous Huxley, Martin Gardner, H.G. Wells, George Gamow, G.H. Hardy, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others.

10
Light
by M. John Harrison – 2002

On the barren surface of an asteroid, located deep in the galaxy beneath the unbearable light of the Kefahuchi Tract, lie three objects: an abandoned spacecraft, a pair of bone dice covered with strange symbols, and a human skeleton.

The narrative strikes some readers as disjointed and bleak, so don’t expect a lot of yuks with this one.

9
The Last Equation of Isaac Severy
by Nova Jacobs – 2018

Hazel Severy, the owner of a struggling Seattle bookstore, receives a letter from her adoptive grandfather, mathematician Isaac Severy, days after he dies in a suspected suicide. In his puzzling letter, Isaac alludes to a secretive organization that is after his final bombshell equation, and he charges Hazel with safely delivering it to a trusted colleague. But first, she must find where the equation is hidden.

While in Los Angeles for Isaac’s funeral, Hazel realizes she’s not the only one searching for his life’s work, and that the equation’s implications have potentially disastrous consequences for the extended Severy family, a group of dysfunctional geniuses unmoored by the sudden death of their patriarch.

As agents of an enigmatic company shadow Isaac’s favorite son (a theoretical physicist) and a long-lost cousin mysteriously reappears in Los Angeles, the equation slips further from Hazel’s grasp. She must unravel a series of confounding clues hidden inside one of her favorite novels, drawing her ever closer to his mathematical treasure. But when her efforts fall short, she is forced to enlist the help of those with questionable motives.

“A riveting narrative that… delivers all the page-turning suspense of a mystery novel laced with insights into modern mathematics and quantum physics, and into the dynamics of family relationships. A brilliant first novel.”
—Booklist, starred review

8
The Wild Numbers
by Philibert Schogt – 1998

When a mediocre mathematician solves a puzzle that has vexed savants for centuries, his moment of glory is spoiled by accusations that the solution did not originate with him.

“Quick, clever… Schogt is a welcome voice: a skillful and energetic storyteller.”
—Publishers Weekly

7
The Parrot's Theorem
by Denis Guedj – 1998

An immediate bestseller when first published in France.

Mr. Ruche, a Parisian bookseller, receives a bequest from a long lost friend in the Amazon of a vast library of math books, which propels him into a great exploration of the story of mathematics.

Meanwhile, Max, whose family lives with Mr. Ruche, takes in a voluble parrot that will discuss math with anyone. When Mr. Ruche learns of his friend’s mysterious death in a Brazilian rainforest, he decides that with the parrot’s help he will use these books to teach Max and his brother and sister the mysteries of Euclid’s Elements, Pythagoras’s Theorem, and the countless other mathematical wonders.

But soon it becomes clear that Mr. Ruche has inherited the library for reasons other than enlightenment, and before he knows it the household is racing to prevent the parrot and vital, new theorems from falling into the wrong hands.

6
Strange Attractors
by Rebecca Goldstein – 1993

In this short story collection, a mathematician studies the geometry of soap bubbles and responds to the rapture of infatuation by reciting Shakespeare in Yiddish. A group of Olympian intellects is made childlike by the appearance of a double rainbow. Becky Sharp steps out of the pages of Vanity Fair to confound a pretentious philosopher.

“Electric and compelling… Rebecca Goldstein brings a keen and specially informed vision to our world.”
—Newsday

5
Zero Sum Game
by S. L. Huang – 2014

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she’ll take any job for the right price.

As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower…until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Mobius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she’s involved. There’s only one problem…

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

“A fast-paced, darkly humorous read with a lot of heart for fans of action and urban fantasy, as well as lovers of Wolverine and other morally ambiguous, gritty superheroes with a mysterious past.”
―Booklist, starred review

4
A Certain Ambiguity
by Gaurav Suri & Hartosh Singh Bal – 2007

While taking a class on infinity at Stanford in the late 1980s, Ravi Kapoor discovers that he is confronting the same mathematical and philosophical dilemmas that his mathematician grandfather had faced many decades earlier, and that had landed him in jail.

Charged under an obscure blasphemy law in a small New Jersey town in 1919, Vijay Sahni is challenged by a skeptical judge to defend his belief that the certainty of mathematics can be extended to all human knowledge, including religion. Together, the two men discover the power—and the fallibility—of what has long been considered the pinnacle of human certainty, Euclidean geometry.

As grandfather and grandson struggle with the question of whether there can ever be absolute certainty in mathematics or life, they are forced to reconsider their fundamental beliefs and choices. Their stories hinge on their explorations of parallel developments in the study of geometry and infinity, and the mathematics throughout is as rigorous and fascinating as the narrative and characters are compelling and complex.

“[S]ucceeds both as a compelling novel and as an intellectual tour through some startling mathematical ideas… a brilliant and unusual novel.”
—New Scientist

3
Diaspora
by Greg Egan – 1997

If you like characters-are-talking-about-four-dimensional-topolgy-and-the-author-expects-me-to-get-it science fiction, then this book is for you.

It’s 2975, and humanity has driven down several different evolutionary paths. “Fleshers” are heavily genetically engineered human bodies, “gleisners” are human-shaped robots run by self-aware software, and the pure AI/human minds live in “polises.”

The orphan Yatima, a digital being grown from a mind seed, joins a group of citizens and flesher refugees in a search for the knowledge that will guarantee their safety—a search that puts them on the trail of the ancient and elusive Transmuters, who have the power to reshape subatomic particles, and to cross into the macrocosmos, where the universe we know is nothing but a speck in the higher-dimensional vacuum.

“[F]ans of hard SF that incorporates higher mathematics and provocative hypotheses about future evolution are sure to be fascinated by Egan’s speculations.”
—Publishers Weekly

2
Flatland
by Edwin A. Abbott – 1884

This satirical novel, written by an English schoolmaster, is dedicated to “The Inhabitants of Space in General.”

Flatland skewers Victorian culture by creating a rigid two-dimensional culture narrated by a square named A Square, who gets in trouble by experiencing and trying to describe a three-dimensional universe.

Flatland was mostly ignored when it was published, but after Einstein published his general theory of relativity, Flatland surged in popularity due to its treatment of multiple dimensions and time.

1
Cryptonomicon
by Neal Stephenson – 1999

In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse—mathematical genius and young Captain in the U.S. Navy—is assigned to detachment 2702. It is an outfit so secret that only a handful of people know it exists, and some of those people have names like Churchill and Roosevelt. The mission of Waterhouse and Detachment 2702—commanded by Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe—is to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the enemy’s fabled Enigma code. It is a game, a cryptographic chess match between Waterhouse and his German counterpart, translated into action by the gung-ho Shaftoe and his forces.

Fast-forward to the present, where Waterhouse’s crypto-hacker grandson, Randy, is attempting to create a “data haven” in Southeast Asia—a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny. As governments and multinationals attack the endeavor, Randy joins forces with Shaftoe’s tough-as-nails granddaughter, Amy, to secretly salvage a sunken Nazi submarine that holds the key to keeping the dream of a data haven afloat. But soon their scheme brings to light a massive conspiracy with its roots in Detachment 2702 linked to an unbreakable Nazi code called Arethusa. And it will represent the path to unimaginable riches and a future of personal and digital liberty… or to universal totalitarianism reborn.

“Electrifying…hilarious…a picaresque novel about code making and code breaking, set both during World War II and during the present day.”
—New York Times Book Review

12 thoughts on “12 Best Mathematical Science Fiction Books

  1. I have had (or possibly still have) that last two books listed- Flatland and Cryptonomicon.
    I don’t know what happened to them, except they got lost in all the moving my wife and I had to do both being in the Military. Wish I could find them again…

  2. Many thanks for this feature! I love the theme of mathematics in science fiction–I find it evocative, even poetic, like the themes of space travel, time travel, etc. I remember discovering Flatland at the age of ten or so, and hope to get to the other books mentioned here as well.

  3. What? No titles by Rudy Rucker? All of his books deal with higher dimensions and mathematical theory that twists space and time!

  4. Another terrific sequel to Flatland: Sphereland by Dionys Burger!

    And this one is a real mind blower: THE PLANIVERSE by A. K. Dewdney (AWESOME)

  5. How about H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual”? An abandoned Martian city has tons of artifacts, including what appear to be some type of books, but the language is utterly indecipherable. Shortly before the expedition is due to give up and go back to Earth, the final resting place of the last Martians is discovered. On the wall is a chart that is unmistakably a type of periodic table of the elements.

    The numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons in the elements is invariable (except for isotopes but a periodic table deals with the basics). That makes it possible to understand the Martian’s numbering system and the table also provides all the words for the names of the elements. That information would provide clues to translating any other information on the chart.

    Any alien species that creates a chart of the elements they know of is creating a “Rosetta Stone” for translating their language.

    The Rosetta Stone had the same text in three languages. Ancient Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphs. Almost the full text is on the stone in Demotic and Ancient Greek while much less of the hieroglyph portion is there. But it was enough to build a key for translating other hieroglyphic text.

    A periodic table likewise embodies three languages. The unknown language of the words included in the table, the numbers of the particles in the elements’ atoms, and the language of the translator who can cross reference from their language to the elemental information that is the same no matter the language.

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