Division by Zero by Ted Chiang

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

“Division by Zero”, another story from the collection “Stories of Your Life Others” explicates on the relationship between a married couple, Renee and Carl. It is a story about belief and disbelief, depression, uncertainty, negation of existential inquiries and integration of mathematics (or any scientific field) into personal lives. Renee is a gifted mathematician who proves arithmetic to be inconsistent: a theory that has potential to invalidate all acquired knowledge of humans. This discovery causes her great emotional stress to the point of attempting suicide. Her husband, Carl, remains supportive throughout the ordeal but eventually finds it difficult to extend any amount of sympathy or empathy towards her. He realizes that he has fallen out of love with her and resolves to end the relationship.

The story is divided into nine chapters, each with sub-part a and b. Sub-parts a are from Renee’s perspective and sub-parts b are from Carl’s point of view. The mathematical analogy of 1=2 is used as a subtext to Renee and Carl’s relationship. Throughout Renee’s tribulations, Carl makes incredible effort to understand her suffering and reconcile their broken relations. After Renee is rehabilitated, Carl no longer desires to be with her. Renee believed in the field of mathematics without any reservations or considerations. But the theory disapproved all that she previously held to be true. Similarly, Carl trusted himself completely to stick with his wife through thick and thin, yet he realizes that he will abandon her in due time. Renee’s cataclysmic discovery which shatters her whole existence runs parallel to Carl finding out he no longer loves his wife. One character experiences outward chaos, while the other experiences internal turmoil.

As a reader, “Division by Zero” proves more appealing as a narrative work rather than sci-fi. Most mathematical references went over my head. Distancing from the science of understanding and proving theorems, going into details of Euclidean geometry and mathematicians’ work and solely concentrating on a rapidly deteriorating relationship between two central characters seems adequate enough.

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