This edition of Cult Fiction was going to be about The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes, till my friend Sanjoy Narayan sent me a link to a wonderful and quirky graphic novel called Strange Attractors.

The name evoked memories of many things mathematical I thought I had safely left behind me when I decided to become a hack, but a comic about chaos theory (which is where you would, if you were into math and the like, encounter things called strange attractors) sounded promising and I bought it.

It wasn’t about chaos theory but about complexity theory, which, depending on who you believe and what you read, is either a subset of or just another name for the former. And I knew I was in for a good read when I noticed this among the credits: Robert Saywitz, Complexity Maps.

Indeed, the book is replete with complexity maps, seeking to visually depict complex systems. I know I am taking some liberty with math here—and I also know that Lounge’s eclectic readership could well include some mathematicians—but a complex system is one involving several constituents that are extremely sensitive to changes in each other. The original complex system, for the benefit of the uninitiated, or the original example of chaos theory, is the one about the butterfly in Brazil causing a tornado in Texas (to borrow from the work of mathematician Edward Lorenz). Lorenz created a computer simulation of this using a model called (yes!) strange attractor.

It is quite likely the good Mr Narayan, who knows of my interest in math and obsession with comic books, thought I would find Strange Attractors interesting. I did.

The plot itself is incidental (although it is good enough to be made into a movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt one of these days): Math student interested in complexity theory comes across disgraced and reclusive professor; he discovers complex systems, such as cities, can be manipulated and that they indeed need minor adjustments from time to time to keep running; he learns that the old professor spends his time doing just such adjustments (which may sometimes just involve setting a rat free in a café, prompting its closure by the department of health); things come to a head with the city they live in needing a major adjustment; the professor dies; and the young mathematician and his girlfriend save the day.

The city, of course, is New York, and the original link Mr Narayan sent me speaks of the 19th century New York city surveyor and planner John Randel Jr and his role in laying out New York, from streets to subway, gas and electricity lines and the allusions to his work in Saywitz’s drawings. You don’t have to know New York to appreciate Strange Attractors, but if you do know the city, the book will likely appeal just a bit more to you.

Strange Attractors is written by Charles Soule and competently illustrated by Greg Scott. And I wonder just what events have been triggered by my reading of the book.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.

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