Numbers Don’t Lie: A cocktail of laughs and what-ifs

Numbers Don’t Lie by Terry BissonNumbers Don’t Lie by Terry Bisson

In 2005, Tachyon Press published three of Terry Bisson linked novellas in one volume, called Numbers Don’t Lie. This short, fun book follows Irving, a Brooklynite lawyer, and his genius best friend Wilson Wu on a series of adventures.

Wilson is a six-foot-tall Chinese American polymath; he is a math genius, he’s studied meteorology, botany, Chinese herbs, pastry-making, law and the care of camels at a caravansari in the Gobi. The three stories collected in Numbers Don’t Lie were published separately in Asimov’s. Bisson realized that, combined, the stories have a certain momentum, and by combining them, he also did something insidious — he programmed the reader. By the time you start reading “Get Me to the Church on Time” a story about, well, time, it’s impossible not to laugh.

But first things first. In “The Hole in the Hole,” Irv is in the midst of the worst divorce case he’s every handled — his own. Searching for brake parts for his beloved Volvo, he gets directions to a Volvo-only scrap yard in a part of town called The Hole. The scrap yard is amazing, and Irv finds something his friend Wilson Wu will want. He collects Wilson and they try to find the scrap yard again, but have to stop and ask for directions at a garage where Irv stopped the first time. The directions are different this time. I wish that conveyed just how hilarious the paragraphs describing Irv’s first and second drives to the place are. Once there, Wilson is distracted by a set of unusual tires. He tells Irv that the tires came off a LRV — a lunar roving vehicle. It turns out the vehicle they belong to are on the property, in a shed.

Before Wu could answer, Frankie was back. “Well, you can look at it” Frankie said. “But you got to hold your breath. It’s in the cave and there’s no air in there.”

“The cave?” I said, but they both ignored me.

The cave, which is in the shed, is not a cave. It’s the moon, where the lunar rover from the last moon mission sits. The “cave” in the shed is actually, Wu explains, “a neotopological metaeuclidian adjacency.” (I hate when those happen!) He provides a formula, included in the book, to prove his point. The rest of the story is a caper as Irv and Wilson buy the LRV and try to retrieve it from the moon, stopping only to borrow jumper cables and buy a couple of slices of pizza.

In short, Bisson creates a believable science fiction story about a couple of guys in Brooklyn trying to salvage a custom car.

In “The Edge of the Universe,” Irv has moved to Alabama to follow his new girlfriend and love of his life, Candy. Candy works for the Hunstville Parks Department and looks quite spiffy in her uniform. She is also the only child of “Whipper Will” Knoydart, a notorious landlord/petty criminal/curmudgeon who is currently in a nursing home. He has Alzheimer’s, which has transformed him from a gun-toting hair-trigger menace to a kindly, vacant man, “perpetually smoothing a paper napkin across his knee as if he were petting a little white dog.” Because Whipper Will retired under “a financial and legal cloud — a bank of clouds, actually,” various state and federal law-enforcement agencies have agreed that a non-conflicted, out of state lawyer is needed to maintain Knoydart’s office until he can be tried… and no one thinks it’s a conflict that Irv is in love with Knoydart’s only child. On his way to and from the gas station, whose restroom he uses, each morning, Irv crosses a vacant lot, and he’s started to study a beaded seat cushion someone has tossed into it. It seems to him that the seat cushion is getting less ragged, and beads are somehow getting added back to the broken strands. Just then his friend Wilson, now working at the observatory on Muana Kea in Hawaii, calls him with news that they have discovered the edge of the universe. The universe, having expanded as far as it can, is beginning to contract. This will take millions of years; except, it seems, in some places isolated bubbles of time have begun to run backwards already. Guess where one of those places is? If it were just the seat cushion, Irv might not be worried, but the “isolated anti-entropic bubble fields” also affect people, like Whipper Will in his nursing home. Wu faxes him a formula, well, several formulae, to demonstrate the effect.

This story has a mathematically elegant solution, but if nothing else, read it for the description of Whipper Will’s fax machine, “Huntsville’s — or maybe Alabama’s — first fax machine.” I can’t do justice to the description, or to the way Bisson uses certain exchanges of dialogue repeatedly to create both a sense of character and a sense of place. The weird, the romantic, the mathematical, the Southern and the urban whirl around, blending into a tangy cocktail of laughs and what-ifs.

By the time I reached “Get Me to the Church on Time,” I thought I was prepared for anything. Wrong. I was not prepared for a Nobel-prize-winning scientist creating a bubble universe powered by a 1960s vintage black-and-white TV, a garden hose and a cell phone, while hiding in the Brooklyn tree house Irv and his neighbor built while they were kids. I wasn’t expecting weather-controlling moths and an ice sculpture of Traveler, Robert E Lee’s horse. I was not expecting a love letter to New York City, or the ending I got for Candy and Irv. I did not know what to expect when I bought Numbers Don’t Lie and it still all surprised me.

I would say, if you like the quirky, the funny and the genuinely visionary, go order this book from Tachyon right now. Settle into your hammock or your lawn chair and get ready to laugh and wonder.

Publisher: Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction as the short stories “The Edge of the Universe,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “The Hole in the Hole,” this inventive and quirky novel combines the stories, featuring the inspired adventures of Wilson Wu, a jack-of-all-trades who uses his eclectic background to solve a variety of wacky futuristic dilemmas. An Ivy League graduate, Wu is a rock musician, a Volvo mechanic, a trial lawyer, a camel driver, an aeronautics engineer, an entomological meteorologist, and, most importantly, a math wizard with a formula for every occasion. A godsend for his friends and the universe, Wu uses his eclectic skill set to prevent the imminent collapse of the universe, guarantee good weather for an Alabama wedding, and tow an abandoned lunar rover from the surface of the moon to a junkyard in Brooklyn. Irreverent and inventive, these adventures exemplify Bisson’s smart, hilarious, and satirical style that has earned him Hugo and Nebula awards and comparisons to Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut.

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MARION DEEDS is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. I think this sounds like something I’d love. Putting it on my list.

  2. sandyg265 /

    I finally got this from the library and am enjoying it very much. Thanks – I’ve never read anything by Terry before.

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