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Posts for July 7, 2021

Hinton by Mark Blacklock (Books 2021, 10)

The author is one of my MA supervisors, so take that under advisement, I guess.

This is a historical novel, based on the real life of Charles Howard Hinton, a Victorian mathematician who studied the idea of a fourth spatial dimension. In fact, at least from this I’d go further: he believed in the existence of such a dimension. He, I learned, was the originator of the term tesseract, which — as I’m sure you know — is the four-dimensional equivalent of a cube.

So much for that. What of the story? It’s interesting, a little odd, and slightly experimental, in terms of its telling. It makes use of letters, diagrams, and other documents from Hinton’s life. But a lot of the really interesting bits of Hinton’s life — his bigamous marriage and being convicted for the same, and subsequent departure for, and time in, Japan, for example — are told largely offscreen. Or second-hand and partially, via some of those letters.

Which is all fair enough, but I feel that we didn’t really get to know Hinton as a person. I could have done with more of that. In fact we get to know some other members of his family slightly better, as the story’s focus changes in the second half.

The book is split into sections called ‘Point,’ ‘Line,’ ‘Square,’ ‘Cube,’ ‘Tesseract,’ ‘Cube,’ ‘Square,’ ‘Line,’ ‘Point.’ Numbered chapters or subsections, 1 to 14, are included across the first ‘Line’ and ‘Square.’ But chapter 9 is missing, or skipped. I kept trying to find some mathematical reason for this — 9 is a square number, of course, but it’s not the only square number in the list, and there’s nothing special about 9 in the text, that I noticed. Nor is it one of the numbers we associate with a cube. Six faces, eight vertices, but not nine of anything. So I suspect it’s actually a mistake. I might email Mark and ask him.

I first came to know of Hinton through Rudy Rucker’s books. The fourth dimension is one of Rucker’s great interests, along with infinities, so Hinton was bound to come up. Apparently I’ve never mentioned Rucker on my site before. That’s a little surprising, but I suppose it’s a good few years since I read anything by him. I’m slightly surprised to find he’s still alive: I thought I remembered hearing of his death (and was surprised I hadn’t noted that here). Oh well, the Mandela effect, I suppose.

Lastly, I noticed it was on the list of eligible titles for this year’s Clarke Award (and my apologies for linking to Medium). Which is odd, as it’s not really a novel of the fantastic in any way (except maybe, the slightest hint of something towards the end). But it wouldn’t be the first novel the the Clarke Award has noticed for which that is true. And Hinton wrote some SF himself, and inspired various SF writers as well as Rucker, so it kind of sits near the genre.