Skip to main content

Murder on the Einstein Express (SF) - 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.


Paperback:  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Measure - James Vincent *****

Although not all science is quantitative, most fundamental science is - and measurement is, in effect, the foundation of quantitative science. In this engaging exploration, James Vincent looks into both the historical origins of measurement and the development of standards, including the way that they have changed over the centuries. For those who regard metres and kilograms an evil imposition of the EU, he gives the heretical view that the introduction of the metric system in France was 'the single most significant event in the history of measurement' - and it's hard to imagine any scientist would argue with this. What's clever about Vincent's approach is that he combines the TV documentary style of visiting places and talking to people (arguably not strictly necessary for the topic, but making it more engaging) with far more depth than a TV show can ever cover. So, for example, to bring us into the early days of measurement in the Nile delta, he starts us off in a

The Matter of Everything - Suzie Sheehy ****

It's notable how many of the superstar physicists from Newton and Einstein through to Feynman have been theoreticians. Experimental physicists - utterly essential, apart from anything else to temper the imaginations of the theoreticians (which is probably why there are so many wild theories in cosmology) - rarely penetrate the popular imagination. Because Suzie Sheehy is covering the development of experimental particle physics here, she doesn't include arguably the greatest experimental physicist of all time, Michael Faraday - but as well as, for example, Rutherford and Thomson, there are plenty of names here that will be unfamiliar, making this an important book in uncovering the practical difficulties that particularly the early experimenters faced. Starting with the discoveries of X-rays and the electron using cathode ray tubes, we are taken through Rutherford's evidence for the atomic nucleus, cloud chambers and cosmic rays, particle accelerators, neutrinos, quarks and

Wormhole (SF) - Keith Brooke and Eric Brown *****

This is a cracker of a book (I did read it over Christmas), combining excellent science fiction with a very cold, cold case murder mystery. Medical doctor Rima Cagnac is suspected of murdering her husband 80 years previously. Soon after the crime, she left on a sublight ship heading to another star in suspended animation - the first manned trip to another star system. Thanks to a distinct MacGuffin, this ship (which has just arrived at Mu Arae) carries the necessary technology to establish a wormhole connection to Earth - technology that has finally become workable after the subsequent 80 years. Cold case detective DI Gordon Kemp is sent through the wormhole to arrest Cagnac, while his boss, DI Danni Bellini looks into the matter back in London. Keith Brooke and Eric Brown keep the plot bubbling nicely, with impressive twists and turns that ensure things are rarely how they first seemed. Kemp's worn-out character is nicely developed, as are some of those he meets on Mu Arae. It'