Saturday, 24 December 2016

Murder on the Einstein Express - Harun Siljak **

I've seen a fair number of books that try to combine science fact with fiction, but fewer in the world of mathematics. This extremely slim collection of just four short stories attempts the maths/fiction crossover, and is one of the strangest collection of stories I have ever read. I am honestly not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

The collection begins with a conceit that can in some ways be compared to Edwin Abbott's Flatland. That book had geometric shapes as its main characters. In the first of Harun Siljak's stories it is equations and mathematical concepts that take the leading roles. But where Abbott uses mathematical concepts in a story that any reader can follow (if few can honestly enjoy, in one of the dullest pieces of fiction known to man), Siljak produces a story that only a mathematician can love (or for that matter understand). It's a bold move. And for most of us, that leaves just three readable stories.

These are certainly more interesting. We meet a collection of computers that write mathematical theorems, a confusing Arabian Nights-ish storytelling story and the title story, which as you might imagine by now is not so much a murder mystery as a series of nine mini-lectures that might be thought as a good way to put across physics concepts (we've definitely strayed into physics here), but are fairly impenetrable. It may seem that the later stories are more conventional than the one based on equations, but in practice it's difficult to get any feeling of identification with the characters and the plots seem very much designed to get the point across without necessarily giving a lot of thought to how the narrative should develop.

In the end, the biggest problem throughout is the quality of writing. It's very much at high school level, and even there, the author clearly hasn't grasped the English use of articles. The likes of Isaac Asimov have shown that you don't have to be a sophisticated writer to be a great science fiction writer, as sheer weight of ideas can carry the reader past cardboard characterisation and so on. And it's true that Siljak has some genuinely interesting ideas, particularly computers taking over the generation of mathematical proofs, but working on a flawed basis and so getting it wrong. However, the author clearly needs considerably more practice before his writing is publishable, so it's slightly strange that it appears in print.

In summary, interesting ideas, but dire fiction, and at over £3 a story, it's a no from me.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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