Obviously number theory and mathematics in general plays a large role in the construction of “Reading by Numbers.” What was your relationship with number theory before writing this piece? Were you familiar with the discipline or did you need to do research?
I have a degree in computer science and took some cryptography and number theory classes at university. I’ve forgotten most of the material I learned in math classes, but I’ve always been interested in numbers. I remember reading about amicable numbers years ago and deciding that some day I wanted to use the concept in a story.
Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day served as an inspiration for some of the material. Tammet suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and has an extraordinary gift for numbers. He recited pi to 22514 places and claims he visualizes different numbers with distinct colors and shapes. He also learned how to speak Icelandic in less than a week.
This might display my own ignorance of math and number theory, but would you please expand a bit on the significance of some of the numbers directly mentioned in your piece, for those of us who might not immediately “get” some of the references? Going back to the beginning, it’s easy to see why Michael picks “1260” as the followup on his email address, but what about the fact that he is 5830 days old? Michael picks pi for his symbol in the number garden, what is his motivation for wanting that particular avatar? Pi is then conspicuously absent from his collection of “special” numbers at the end of the story. The moment when he picks 220 as his special integer seems to be a crucial moment in the story, does it have a significance beyond the “amicability” between that and 284, Kaori’s number?
Pi has an infinite number of digits and is one of those special numbers that has fascinated a lot of famous people over the centuries. There’s a sequence of digits starting at the 762nd decimal place that contains six 9s in a row. It’s known as the Feynman point after the physicist Richard Feynman said he wanted to recite pi up to that point so he could finish by saying “nine nine nine nine nine nine and so on.”
There’s a Darren Aronofsky movie called Pi (I have to admit I didn’t understand a lot of that movie) and Apu from The Simpsons claims he can recite pi to 40,000 places.
5830 is a “weird” number. According to Mathworld, weird numbers are numbers that “are abundant without being pseudoperfect.”
Michael wanted to choose 227 (pi represented as a fraction is 22/7) but another student had already taken it. So he chose a number close to 227 instead.
Hopefully our readers found a few of the “hidden messages” in “Reading by Numbers.” In one of those messages, Michael reveals that he did indeed deliberately kill Kaori’s mother. It’s not specified how he did this, did you have any idea about this bit of “behind the scenes” detail when you wrote in the story?
I wanted to write a story with another story hidden within in it. It’s the first story I’ve written where using a text editor with the ability to display line numbers proved very useful.
I worked out the broad details of the inner story. Michael used a pillow to smother Kaori’s mother in the hospital.
Did your time spent living in Japan affect your writing of “Reading by Numbers” at all? If so, how?
Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life is one of my all-time favorite stories. It examines how learning an alien language could affect your perception of time. I wanted to write a story dealing with how interacting with another culture could affect your perception of numbers.
Before I went to Japan, I was familiar with the stereotypical differences in Japanese culture (e.g. taking your shoes off inside) but I didn’t know how cultural differences could extend to numbers. People in Western countries count in units of thousands, but Japan has a number that signifies ten thousand. This means that when Japanese think of 100,000 they don’t think of it as 100 times 1000, instead it represents 10 times 10,000.
Although the word banzai is now more associated with the second World War, its literal meaning is “10,000 years.” It was used to wish the emperor a long life and became a rallying cry, similar to something like “long live the king.”
Japanese is a language with lots of examples of numbers given extra meaning beyond their numerical value. When a particular brand of pagers (with a limited ability to send long messages) became popular in Japan in the early 90s, high school girls used them to send short coded messages. For example 0840 meant good morning (ohayo in Japanese). 0=”o”, 8 (hachi in Japanese) =”ha”, 4 (yon) = “yo” and 0=”o” representing the extended vowel at the end of the word.
What’s next for you? Do you have any forthcoming projects or research interests right now?
I have another story coming up in Fantasy Magazine and one in an Australian anthology. I’m working on some more short stories plus a non-fiction book about strange things from Japan. I’m also a third of the way through a young adult novel set in an alternate world medieval Japan.