Mathematicians get little credit in the literary world. Go figure! But when the history of conceptual fiction is finally written, they may turn out to be the visionaries and pioneers.
The use of storytelling as a means of experimenting with our conceptions of reality—in essence the cult of the perversely anti-realistic novel—didn’t become an important force in literature until the twentieth century. Most of the agent provocateurs who made this happen came out of the blatantly commercial world of pulp fiction. Yet, in a strange turnabout, the innovations of the sci-fi writers eventually managed to influence “serious” fiction, and even a Philip K. Dick could posthumously be rehabilitated enough to join The Library of America.
But the mathematicians were there even earlier—especially Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), who you will know better as Lewis Carroll, and Edwin A. Abbott (1838-1926), author of the quirky cult classic Flatland. The term science fiction did not exist when these authors were active, and their attempts to invent and explore alternative universes built from their own vivid imagination were, to a great degree, an extension of their theoretical work with numbers.
Fast forward to the modern era, and you find that—once again—some of the most conceptually advanced writers of the contemporary era reveal an affinity with conceptual thinking of a non-literary nature. Recall, Thomas Pynchon applied to do graduate work in mathematics at Berkeley in 1964—and was turned down. David Foster Wallace’s senior thesis at Amherst was on the modal logic.
Most people today would struggle to see the connection between numbers and storytelling, yet from an anthropological point of view, the linkage is far from arbitrary. Calculations and stories both possess functional value as means of grappling with our surroundings, and securing our knowledge in a way that can be passed on to others. Before tales were recognized for their aesthetic dimensions, they had “survival value”—to use a Darwinian term—not dissimilar in this regard from quantitative skills.