Say the words “science fiction,” and the imagination conjures visions of breathtaking advances in physics and biotechnology that transform our world into a dystopia, a utopia or a little of both. As useful as they may be for those seeking tenure, cutting-edge developments in mathematics do not spring immediately to mind. Rudy Rucker’s Mathematicians in Love, therefore, benefits an underserved market. Pulling off a tale of two graduate students who change the world with their dissertations is a tall order for anyone, but the author’s rŽsumŽ suggests that he’s equal to the task. The result has serious promise, but it’s broken by one foolish misstep.
When discussing this book, perhaps “science fiction” isn’t the best label. Rucker himself invented “transrealism” – a genre that hybridizes sci-fi’s speculative nature with the human details of realistic fiction, simultaneously applying a liberal dose of metaphor in order to increase the material’s applicability to human life as we know it. Here, the protagonists find themselves in a place and time that resembles nothing so much as a slightly tweaked San Francisco Bay Area in a 21st century, where certain articles of golfing attire have entered mainstream fashion and the word vlog has caught on.
As in so many speculative novels shaped by a sturdy sense of futurism, creeping east Asian and eastern European influences color the backdrop. Bela Kis, the story’s Ph.D.-earning protagonist, is himself of both Chinese and Hungarian descent. In accidental collaboration with his amphetamine-fueled roommate and self-aggrandizing advisor, Kis develops the subfield of “universal dynamics,” through which real-world outcomes are predicted by modeling the motion of physical objects with similar properties. It just may be that, for example, a fish attached to a teapot and a rake can foresee tomorrow’s weather. By the same token, the pattern of frost on a windowpane might hold the outcome of a much more important event, such as an upcoming election.
Alas, this is the rub: It’s all fun and games while exploring outrŽ mathematical concepts of dubious origins, and it’s even more amusing when Kis and his colleague use the aforementioned concepts to win over the same girl. The clumsy political allegory that constitutes the book’s chief plot thread, however, deflates it. This alternate America is run by Joe Doakes – “the least intelligent and most repressive president ever,” a “party-animal draft dodger” bent on installing his cronies in every available position of power.
It cannot be stressed enough how much this weighs down the book. When the characters are not whining about Doakes, the evil cardboard cutout and the transgressions of his equally grotesque party, their adventures – spanning the spheres of academia, technology, rock music, surfing and inter-universe travel – maintain a great entertainment value. Sadly, the narrative is never far away from sinking back into its bitter political mire and the chronicle of Doakes’ comeuppance unfortunately supports most of the plot. The plot also slows down during an extended stay in a cartoon-like other dimension populated by giant bugs, lizards and flying snails that could have easily been trimmed back.
Luckily for Rucker, much of this genre’s fan base is apolitical in the extreme and thus will be able to ignore his book’s Achilles’ heel entirely. He should be warned, however, that these same people will aggressively attempt to find fault with his mathematics. When Mathematicians in Love succeeds, it succeeds as a light science fiction-flavored novel of ideas. As a relevant commentary on current events, it overstretches grossly. Unsurprisingly, it seems that mathematicians can discuss politics with all the subtlety and accuracy of politicians discussing mathematics – yes, literally – abolishing democracy. Rucker’s desperate, ham-fisted stabs at relevance, especially in contrast to his deftness with concepts both mathematical and philosophical, induce only a sustained cringe of embarrassment.