Mathematicians in Love
Mathematicians in Love is an utterly mad book. Hal Duncan only wishes he was this crazy. I haven’t read any other Rudy Rucker, but if this book is any indication, he is pretty bonkers. This is a good thing too, nestled between the deathly serious fantasy I’ve been reading lately; I need some madcap shenanigans to lighten the mood on my way to work each morning. (All the moreso when people are being laid off around me. Stern Vikings and emo deities are just not the way to go when the company turns south.) First of all, some background.
Math, though it turns out to be not the least bit cyberpunk, is part of my ongoing campaign to educate myself in the standard works of the subgenre. Rucker’s name is spoken with the same kind of reverence as Gibson and Sterling; my choice at the library was between a lengthy omnibus and a short romp. Considering the recent size of my library pile, I went with the short romp. The cover is pretty straight up about what to expect, so there was no shock when I found the book to be a story about two Berkley math Ph.D students rather than leather-clad hackers with mirror shades. I was, in fact, slightly apprehensive of the insanity promised within.
I needn’t have worried. Yes, the narrator and his friend are exceedingly nerdy, as most math Ph.D students probably are, but we are spared most of the coming of age angst that books about college seem to ooze with. Instead, there is wild, abstract math, dysfunctional families and friends, commentary about the banality of life in the Internet age, sidelong digs at Republicans, alien math nerds, and Scandinavian heavy metal. There is also a brilliant scene involving a common household appliance, some punks, and a precipice.
All of this is taking place in a parallel California, in the Bay area city of Humelock. UC-Humelock is the flagship UC campus, a prestigious university, and the deadly rival of Stanford. (It probably also has an underachieving football team and a reputation for crazy liberals and/or naked students.) Our hero is Bela Kiss, a Chinese-Hungarian mathematician who is struggling with his Ph.D. He teams up with his roommate Paul and their hostile advisor to create a system that predicts the future accurately. Bela’s girlfriend Alma introduces an element of entropy into their lives that, paired with inter-dimensional alien mathematicians, lead Bela and Paul to warp the fabric of space time. In his spare time, Bela is a video blogger and rock guitarist, the latter providing the vector for the aforementioned Scandinavian metal bands to invade the story.
Explaining much further would ruin the fun of the story, but there are a couple of observations I can safely make. First, this is kind of a companion piece to Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End. They don’t share much in tone, but each is a look at near future California. (San Diego in Vinge’s case, and the Bay Area for Rucker.) Math is almost a cyberyuppie story, but ends up spending more time on math or rock music than the interwebs. Second, Rucker is surprisingly optimistic. I don’t know how this compares to his other books, but I didn’t expect the more or less content tone of the story. He mocks people quite freely, but in the end remains upbeat about life. This is a feel-good book, even though it’s a very quirky good feeling. Finally, I have to give him credit for the music bits. Bela’s road to stardom is a little too easy, but Rucker has a handle on the chaotic nirvana that is a good gig. (Even my most explosive bands fall far short of the rock lifestyle, but I can easily extrapolate.)
To sum up, Math is a quick, fun read, with enough below the surface to please the dour end of SF fandom. It might not be the ideal commute read, because one is likely to get weird looks from fellow passengers for various stifled snorts and guffaws.
Rating: Anytime Monty Python plays football.