I think I read this short story 20, 30 years ago. The story concerns two mathematicians in a dark dystopian future. The one is struggling with some project, and can't figure out how to get the thing done; his friend gives him some advice, involving the use of the forbidden "dark numbers", which include such concepts as zero. No fantasy, I thought is was C.J. Cherryh but I can't find any hits there.

It's driving me nuts, what story was this?

I'm reasonably certain I read this in a collection of short stories, most likely bought from a second-hand book store.

The point of the story was a commentary on the rulers (government? religious?) who forbade the use of mathematics that would allow people to solve significant problems (think engineering and the like) -- not individual people, but rather society at large.

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    Hi, welcome to SF&F! Any idea where you read it; a magazine or an anthology? Check out the other suggestions for story-id questions to see if they help you remember any other details you can edit into your question.
    – DavidW
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 20:44
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    When I saw your question's title I immediately thought of Greg Egan's Dark Integers, but that doesn't match the description you give. But your story is likely to be found somewhere in Alex Kasman's site...
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 20:53
  • @PM, sounds cool, but no, this one would be much older, and without parallel universes. Commented May 5, 2020 at 20:55
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    @PM2Ring "Dark Integers" is actually a sequel to another Greg Egan story which seems to match better.
    – Spencer
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 21:27
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    @Spencer I didn't bother mentioning Luminous, since it's linked on that Dark Integer page. I don't think it matches Philip's description. (FWIW, I have the Luminous collection sitting in my bookcase, as well as several other Egan books).
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 21:38

1 Answer 1


I wonder if this is "The Masters" collected in Ursula Le Guin's The Wind's Twelve Quarters?

  • There are no "dark numbers", but there are "black numbers" (i.e. numbers represented using Arabic numerals) and zero is explicitly one of them. The society they live in uses numbers of course, but they are Roman numerals, and are hobbled by a lack of zero, negative numbers, very large numbers, etc.

  • The dystopian nature of the setting is a post-apocalyptic anti-enlightenment agrarian non-industrial society.

  • The primary characters are a Kabbalistic group of quite illegal engineers and mathematicians rediscovering measurement, algebra, etc.

Le Guin remarked in a brief comment preceding the story in the anthology that "The Masters" had been her first actual science fiction story.


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