Manil Suri: The City of Devi was a mathematically impossible novel


City of DeviThat was what math professor Manil Suri concluded after looking over his charts and notes in the midst of writing his new novel, The City of Devi. But then he realized that, with all logical possibilities exhausted, he was free, writes Manil Suri in The Daily Beast.

In September, 2009, while on a four-week writing retreat at the Ucross Colony in Clearmont, Wyoming, I came to a startling realization. The novel, The City of Devi, that I’d started nine years ago was hopeless—I needed to abandon it. No matter how I proceeded, I would not be able to tie up its myriad strands. I even had a mathematical proof of this fact!

Mathematicians all over the world will denounce this outrageous claim, so before facing math excommunication, let me qualify. What I mean is that I used a mathematical construct, a possibility tree, to arrive at my conclusion. Starting from any juncture of a novel, there are many paths along which an author can choose to take the plot, just like a player has several moves available at any turn in a chess game. To proceed, you have to think of not only these moves, but also the steps that might come immediately after, to envision the different ways the story (or chess game) might unfold. This leads to the tree-like structure shown in the figure—each sequence of connected branches (one per level) then represents a distinct storyline (or way in which the play might progress). Computer chess programs use such trees to algorithmically decide on the best strategy, while seasoned players might learn to proceed with such searches intuitively.

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