Math geniuses in fiction

So, reading the Master Able Six series by Carla Kelly has made me try to think of other math geniuses in fiction. I can think of just a handful.

a) Archimedes, in The Sand Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw.

You aren’t going to beat Archimedes as a math genius, period. The amazing thing is that Bradshaw turned Archimedes into such a great protagonist. You can really relate to him as he drifts off into reflections about how many grains of sand it would take to fill the universe or pays people compliments by comparing them to parabolas, or whatever. This is one of my favorite of Bradshaw’s historicals. Not my absolute favorite — probably — but it’s up there.

b) Cora in The Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler.

Cora is not one of the protagonists, but she is important nevertheless. She’s Raesinia’s secret weapon: a financial genius perfectly capable of destabilizing the economy of a nation in order to help Raesinia negotiate from a position of strength.

c) Lady Tehre in The Griffin Mage series

Tehre is not exactly a mathematical genius, but materials science is close enough.

That’s three — four, counting Able Six. Is there another fictional math (or finance, or materials science, or physics) genius anyone can think of? It’s a more exclusive club than the political or tactical geniuses we see scattered here and there in fiction.

By the way, I notice the Griffin Mage omnibus is $1.99 today in ebook form. I have no idea how long that will last, but if you want it in ebook form, now would be a good time to pick it up.

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16 thoughts on “Math geniuses in fiction”

  1. I got thee from Goodreads which has–you guessed it–a list of fictional characters who are good at math. I don’t know remotely all of them, let alone agree on those I know.
    The Calculating Stars, by Marie Robinette Kowal.
    Protector of the Small, by Tamora Pierce. Sort of. Keladry enjoys math class, and is sometimes seen doing it for logistics.
    I thought of this one
    Aelliana Caelon, aka “Math Teacher”
    Korval series. Her step-daughter is good, too. (So, implicitly, are other good pilots, but these are the only ones actually *seen* doing math.)

  2. Fantasy and historicals are the wrong genres to look for math geniuses. SF is *filled* with scientific geniuses. So are comic books, although genius at pure math is relatively unusual compared to physics or engineering.


    Heinlein’s Andrew Jackson Libby just has super-calculation powers when he first shows up, but his FTL drive is clearly based on breakthrough mathematics. He happens to be the first FTL inventor that sprang to mind.

    Gilgram Zinder in Chalker’s Well World books (had to look up the name) figured out the code that underlies the structure of the cosmos and eventually started processing it in his own brain.

    Hari Seldon’s mathematical genius underlies the Foundation series.

  3. Well, true, I should have thought of SF, but to be fair, I absolutely do not believe in magic sociological math like Seldon’s.

    One difference is that some math geniuses, like Zinder, are just declared to be geniuses by the author. The reader isn’t shown the person doing anything or thinking about anything the way Archimedes thinks about grains of sand and builds catapults. Being a genius counts as a plot element, but doesn’t really come through as part of the character — as far as I can remember from the way Zinder is presented in the Well World, anyway. Andrew Jackson Libby might be different; I don’t honestly remember.

    Thanks, Jeanine — a math genius/mercenary sounds like fun! I just edited your answer to correct the typo, although really, I think EVERYONE makes zillions of typos, so I, at least, barely even notice them.

  4. Temeraire, and also Capt Aubrey, when he was a little older. He was computing celestial mechanics for longitude–and enjoying it.

  5. The Newton’s Cannon series by Keyes features, guess who and the first two don’t count. I believe Ben Franklin gets to show up too. Only read (some) of them once, and don’t remember well, but Isaac Newton certainly was there. There are a handful of fantasies with Tesla, too, like Alma Alexander’s Wordweavers series.

    On the subject of Newton, there’s the reads like a novel Newton and the Counterfeiter , too.

    Aelliana of Korval certainly counts, we even see her sort of working math.

    There was a book supposedly containing a mathematical genius which really brought home the problem of trying to write someone smarter than you – which I know because the author had a dedication/thank you to so-and-so who made the Math Genius Character smart enough. (didn’t work.)

    Lots of atevi probably would count given their numbers obsessions, but I’m way behind on that series and don’t recall names. (certainly not to spell them correctly.)

    Dunnett has the historical Richard Chancellor, who apparently was a whiz at navigation-type math, and both her series protaganists are said to be excellent with it. We don’t see them use it much, though, not on the page as opposed to references in passing.

  6. Surprised no one has mentioned Shevek from _The Dispossessed_, one of the truly great SF novels.

    _Neverness_ by David Zindell is a mostly wonderful novel about mathematicians trying to prove a theorem (well, and doing many other interesting things).

  7. Quite a few books I’ve never read and/or heard of. Elaine, I haven’t read The Wrong Reflection, and wow, its entry at Amazon is weird. It seems to say it was published in 1723? I mean, that’s what it sure seems to say? And the hardcover is $920.99. It’s the extra 99c that gets me. I mean, you wouldn’t want to buy it if it were $921, right?

    Anyway, there’s no Kindle version available, apparently, but the paperback is a sensible price. Since I wound up really liking her Magic’s Poison trilogy, I’ll try this SF one too.

    The one I should definitely have remembered was Aelliana of Korval — we do indeed get to see her doing genius things in those books.

  8. Lord Kelvin’s Machine by Blaylock? For that matter, it’s almost de rigueur in steampunk to have a genius of some stripe.

  9. I have no idea what the person behind Amazon entry for that Bradshaw was thinking. It was published in 2000, and there are 3 hardcovers on ABEbooks for less than $20.00.

    I remember Neverness sort of. I didn’t bounce off it, so much as drift away and never pick it up again. Couldn’t have told you it featured a mathematician. And got even less far with Shevek in The Dispossessed. LeGuin’s always been hit or miss for me.

  10. Rachel, you are quite right: actually seeing inside the head of math genius characters is quite rare. (Probably lets out all the comic-book superminds.)

    Doesn’t happen with Libby in his first appearance at all, and there’s just a touch in “Methusaleh’s Children.” NEVERNESS does have more of that, I think, although I admired the book more than I liked it, and don’t recall much of it any more.

    I did think of probably the weirdest example: on the Discworld, all the greatest mathematicians are camels, and we do see into their heads a little, here and there.

  11. Craig … … … camels? That is a detail I never encountered. I am certain I would remember.

  12. Hanneke, I guess I haven’t read Pyramids. Now I’m going to have to, if only for a look at the camels!

    Maria, I’ve just met Pheris — I’m 18% of the way through Return of the Thief — and given that nearly the first thing we see him do is draw a sequence of numbers, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right.

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