Wednesday, March 26, 2014

read: A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel (3 stars)

A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical NovelA Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel by Gaurav Suri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another book I had high hopes for, based on the blurb and the recommendation of a friend. It has math. It has philosophy. Since those subjects both interest me, it sounded full of potential. But I wound up disappointed. I was so disappointed, I almost didn't finish the book.

My main disappointment is with the plot, which was paper-thin and obvious from the beginning. There's this guy and he, through a few quickly dispensed situations, winds up in college with graduation day approaching. A series of unconvincing events puts him in a class that is part math class, part philosophy discussion. He makes new friends. He meets a girl. Already you know that they will discuss math. They will discuss philosophy. He might get involved with the girl.

So they do all that. The author tries to make things more interesting by adding the sudden discovery that the guy's beloved grandfather spent time in jail and so he has to research that, too. But all that plot description makes it sound more interesting than it really is, because that takes up about 25% of the words in the book. The other 75% is taken up with endless dialogs about math and philosophy, either presented in the classroom, or a jail cell (while a judge and the grandfather work through the motivations for the grandfathers 'objectionable' behavior), or at various contrived situations around campus.

At various points the endless dialog, which is always in language far to lofty to come out of ordinary, human mouths, is broken up by fictionalized letters and journal entries from historical mathematicians and philosophers. These are also written in language either too lofty or too modern to be based in reality. The contrived and awkward situations, discussions and documents all kept me from connecting with the story and characters and really enjoying the ride.

This book would be improved by either ditching the 'novel' portion or making it stronger. As it is, the math exposition, while interesting and central to the theme, overwhelm the fiction.

The only reason this gets 3 stars, rather than 2, is because of the intriguing subjects. It did get me to thinking deep thoughts, which I believe was the point of it. But the lack of personal connection and the awkwardly scholarly language kept it from approaching 4 stars. Only recommended if you like math (or are unoffended by it) and are likewise unoffended by flowery dialog and thoughts that do not reflect the way real people behave.

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