Math: it either excites your mind or fills you with a boredom-tinged dread. For many, math is something to be survived through years of schooling, them promptly forgotten. For others, math is the secret programming language of the universe, a gateway to dimensions many will never perceive. It’s little wonder that a lot of science fiction (and even some fantasy) has a direct—if often hidden—link to mathematics and related disciplines. (Also unsurprising: many SFF authors are amateur or professional mathematicians.)
Sometimes the link is subtle, but sometimes it’s overt—as in the 10 books below, in which math isn’t just a spice, it’s the main course.
Mandelbrot the Magnificent, by Liz Ziemska
Ziemska manages to make math magical in this gorgeous novella, based on the real life of celebrated mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. A brilliant boy living first in Poland and then France just as the Nazis were plunging the planet in a second world war and gearing up the engine of the Holocaust, Mandelbrot is inspired to pursue math by his brilliant uncle. He blows his family’s chance at keeping a low profile in Vichy France when he tests first in his class, and a jealous classmate denounces him to the Nazis—just as Mandelbrot discovers his ability to tangibly perceive mathematical concepts translates into something powerful, and mystical—something that may save his family. Ziemska treats math like fantasy novels treat magic, and in the process, manages to make the science seem not just powerful, but essential.
Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee
This is one of those books that can’t be adequately described; better to silently hand it to someone and nod sagely, implying with your expression that this is the book that will change everything. Describing the universe Lee creates here isn’t easy, but here’s a go at it: it’s a consensus reality, shaped by the shared and very rigid belief of the inhabitants, belief is controlled by numbers, equations, and other mathematical processes. Reality itself is therefore governed by an accepted application of formula—but what happens if there’s a rebellion of thought? In our own world, cutting-edge math and physics are merely disturbing. In Lee’s, they upset the very fabric of reality.
Last Call, by Tim Powers
Math is part of the bubbling atmosphere of this book’s universe, which mixes tarot, the Fisher King, and a host of other legends alongside the deeply magical mathematics of poker. That games of chance aren’t games of chance so much as games of complex math shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in this lush story, which begins with Bugsy Siegel building the Flamingo Hotel as part of a ploy to become the literal Fisher King and eventually sits the reader at a poker game played with tarot cards where every aspect of the environment alters the odds—and raise the stakes. You don’t need a degree in math to appreciate this wonderful novel, but a glancing familiarity will definitely deepen the experience.
Light, by M. John Harrison
There’s a lot going on in Harrison’s fantastic novel, which bridges two timelines and three major narratives, and it’s all tied together by some pretty esoteric math, including a “naked singularity” with no event horizon. While a familiarity with those concepts will enhance your reading enjoyment, Harrison is a writer focused squarely on the human side of sci-fi, also filling the novel with allusions and references to down-to-earth, human-scale passions like music and rock-climbing. That these also happen to be areas of interest for Harrison himself brings a warmth and grounding to the story that will carry even the most math-averse reader over the hump.
Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott
This absolute classic of sci-fi was originally intended as a hilarious takedown of Victorian social castes, but the reason it has survived long after all the snobs have shuffled off to their reward is its clever examination of dimensions. Set in a two-dimensional world in which everyone is either a line or a polygon, the story is narrated by A Square, a gentleman who has visions of a one-dimensional world inhabited by points, and is then visited by a three-dimensional being: a Sphere. This is a math lesson in the form of a charming, often hilarious fable; you don’t have to be familiar with the social issues of the late 19th century to enjoy Flatland in the same way you don’t need to know much about the mid-19th century to enjoy Alice in Wonderland.
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
Entire sections of this doorstopper novel read like the coolest, most entertaining math or computer science textbook you’ll ever encounter. Considering the entire plot hinges on ideas involving cryptography, programming, chemistry, and physics—not to mention spycraft—that’s not too surprising. You don’t need to hold any advanced degrees to read and enjoy this modern classic, but you do need to pay attention as Stephenson breaks down these concepts in-between two timelines, one an espionage thriller set during World War II, and the other a conspiracy drama set in the 1990s; together they an epic story about codebreaking, spies, data havens, and technology that was pretty cutting-edge when the book was published and has dated little in the decades since.
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
There are no equations in Foundation, no lengthy lectures on mathematics or science—but there is Psychohistory, the concept of predicting the general thrust of the future by applying statistical analysis to incredibly large populations. Asimov was a scientist and mathematician himself, and wrote nonfiction books on a wide range of subjects, and math is all over the Foundation books like background radiation on the Nevada desert. The concept of Psychohistory is even paralleled in the real world by several branches of statistical science.
Diaspora, by Greg Egan
Egan’s flavor of hard sci-fi typically involves the casual implementation of incredibly advanced mathematical and scientific concepts, and, if not his mathiest book, Diaspora perhaps offers among his works the ideal balance of story, concepts, and, yes, math. What Egan also brings to this tale of a future humanity that has separated into three distinct groupings—one the physical descendants of the human gene pool, the others…not—all facing a cataclysmic galactic event, is a firm understanding of how math research and theory operate, how the mind of a math-inclined person views the world. This is a sci-fi book to get math geeks going.
Fantasia Mathematica, edited by Clifton Fadiman
Published in 1958, this classic anthology includes math-centric short fiction by a list of authors that reads like the SFF Hall-of-Fame: H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, Aldous Huxley, and Arthur C. Clarke, to name a few. Broken up into sections labeled “Odd Numbers,” “Imaginaries,” and “Fractions,” it’s the perfect collection for anyone who regularly Googles “math humor” or loves to see mathematical concepts forged into fascinating fiction. Ironically, since the stories were drawn from a wide range of history, part of the fun of reading them today is noting which ones revolve around concepts that have not aged well.
“The Library of Babel,” by Jorge Luis Borges
It’s only a short story, but as with everything Borges wrote, it’s pretty amazing one. It’s set in a universe that’s just a complex of adjacent rooms, each of which contains the basics of life and four walls of books. The books contain every possible arrangement of an alphabet comprised of 22 letters and a few basic punctuation marks, and while most of the books appear to be nonsensical, they theoretically contain all possible iterations of those letters—which means they must contain every possible piece of information in the universe. The math here is mind-blowing, but so is the philosophical rumination on the uselessness of information without context or accessibility. In other words, read it.