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Numbers Don't Lie
Terry Bisson
Tachyon, 163 pages

Numbers Don't Lie
Terry Bisson
Terry Bisson was born in Owensboro, Kentucky. He attended Grinnell College and the University of Louisville (1964). He teaches SF writing at The New School and occasionally Clarion and Odyssey. With Judy Jensen, Terry Bisson owned and operated a revolutionary mail-order book service, Jacobin Books, from 1985 to 1990. Bisson's many published titles include Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, the long-awaited posthumous sequel to A Canticle For Leibowitz, which he wrote for the estate of Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Terry Bisson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Numbers Don't Lie
SF Site Review: The Pickup Artist
SF Site Review: In The Upper Room and Other Likely Stories

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

In Numbers Don't Lie, Terry Bisson offers three tall tales underpinned by some suitably weird physics (which I assume is genuine, though it hardly matters). Irving, our narrator, has no head for science, so he can't understand how the Moon could be inside a mechanic's shed when it's clearly still in the sky; or why a previously deteriorating car seat cover is now improving by the day; or what's making planes and trains arrive on time all of a sudden. Luckily, his friend Wilson Wu is (amongst many other things) a mathematical genius, and he knows what's going on -- and he has the equations to back his ideas up.

Perhaps the key to writing a good tall tale is not to go too far, to maintain an air (however tenuous) of authenticity. Some of the funniest elements of Numbers Don't Lie are gloriously silly, yet strangely believable, such as a Heath Robinson-style, kerosene-fuelled fax machine. Surely, you think, that can't exist anywhere, let alone Alabama -- but then you wonder... That's the advantage of all the physics, of course: however daft things get, Wu is always there to reassure us that there's a logical explanation. But there the problems start.

For all I've said about tall tales needing to be grounded in reality, the tales in Numbers Don't Lie are somehow not tall enough. One problem is the character of Wu himself: despite having an impossibly full and varied curriculum vitae, he comes across as rather... mundane. A genius, yes, but not the larger-than-life presence he surely ought to be. He generally just spouts a bit of science and leaves Irv to carry the story.

Another problem is the central gag of the stories: Wu's equations, which are presented with the bare minimum of explanation. Bisson is, of course, poking fun at the grand SF tradition of infodumping -- but a little more info might have improved things. Bald equations are funny once, and only once. How about some humorous explanations of the terms in the equations? Okay, so that may also get tedious eventually, but it would be more involving.

It's quite hard to decide which is the best tale in the volume, because they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some of the jokes in the first novella fall flat, but it has perhaps the most satisfying plot. The second conveys the comedic setting effectively; but, in doing so, makes light of some pretty serious issues. The third story has funnier gags, but the plot gets too confusing. So I don't really know which part of Numbers Don't Lie to recommend in particular; but then, I don't really know how much to recommend the book as a whole: it's good, but it could be better, and I wish it were.

Copyright © 2006 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.

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