Mandelbrot the Magnificent: An almost-mystical origin story

Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz ZiemskaMandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska fantasy book reviewsMandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska

Prior to reading this novella, what I knew about the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot would have fit into an embarrassingly small thimble (with plenty of room to spare). I identified fractal shapes simply as “tessellations on steroids” and my only reference point for a “mandelbrot” was a delicious cookie.

But thanks to Liz Ziemska, I have a much greater appreciation for Mandelbrot’s work in his field, as well as the passion and determination that sustained him through his years in Nazi-occupied France. Mandelbrot the Magnificent (2017) blends real and imagined history with high-level mathematical equations and principles, and the result is a lovely little “psuedobiography.”

In his own memoir, The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick, Mandelbrot wrote of his family’s terror of being discovered by the Nazis:

Our constant fear was that a sufficiently determined foe might report us to an authority and we would be sent to our deaths. … We escaped this fate. Who knows why?

Ziemska provides one possible answer to that question, showing readers how the intricate formulae of Hausdorff and Archimedes were a window into another world for Benoît, whose family had moved first from Warsaw to Paris to the French village of Tulle in ever more desperate attempts to flee persecution. For the most part, they’re able to blend in with the community, but when Benoît’s genius for mathematics becomes impossible to ignore, his loved ones are put at risk — unless he can protect them. Can this gentle young man find a way to turn hidden dimensions and ancient mysticism into real safety?

Mandelbrot the Magnificent is filled with the maths that rule Benoît’s days, and thankfully there are diagrams and examples so that those of us who aren’t mathematically-inclined can still understand what’s being discussed. But it’s also a very human story, filled with tiny kindnesses that echo through a lifetime alongside terrible hurts and unnecessary betrayals. Ziemska has taken a seemingly forbidding subject that could have been impossible to navigate and made it entirely accessible and, dare I say it, enjoyable. I look forward to reading more of her work, especially if it’s as informative and sensitive as Mandelbrot the Magnificent.

Published November 14, 2017. Mandelbrot the Magnificent is a stunning, magical pseudo-biography of Benoit Mandelbrot as he flees into deep mathematics to escape the rise of Hitler. Born in the Warsaw ghetto and growing up in France during the rise of Hitler, Benoit Mandelbrot found escape from the cruelties of the world around him through mathematics. Logic sometimes makes monsters, and Mandelbrot began hunting monsters at an early age. Drawn into the infinite promulgations of formulae, he sinks into secret dimensions and unknown wonders. His gifts do not make his life easier, however. As the Nazis give up the pretense of puppet government in Vichy France, the jealousy of Mandelbrot’s classmates leads to denunciation and disaster. The young mathematician must save his family with the secret spaces he’s discovered, or his genius will destroy them.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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