You Should Read This: The Birthday Problem by Caren Gussoff

Cover of the Birthday Problem by Caren Gussoff

Ever wondered what it would be like to wander through plague-ridden Seattle in the future? This book’s a good approximation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that Caren’s a close friend. But beyond that The Birthday Problem is terrific SF, and a great example of interweaving narratives that is a) highly enjoyable to read and b) highly instructive to take a look at.

The Birthday Problem of the title is a common mathematical puzzle: find the probability that, in a group of N people, there is at least one pair of people who have the same birthday. (Hint: it’s a much lower number than you think. You can find out more about it on Wikipedia if you want to understand why.) The book is about odd ties and coincidences, set in a crumbling Seattle in a world plagued by nanobots that make people crazy.

Why’s it instructive to take a look at? Because Gussoff confronts two problems that speculative writers often face. The first is a complicated scientific or mathematical concept, like the birthday problem, which the reader needs to understand. Gussoff manages to convey it to the reader with no “As you know, Bob” or overly pedantic moments.

The second is that it’s constructed in a way that is incredibly hard to do: overlapping points of view, and plenty of them. When you switch POVs, you bounce the reader out of the story just a little, and Gussoff does it in a way that swiftly gathers the reader back in.

I like to include a beginning chunk of the book I’m discussing to show you what the author’s prose style as well as what they set. Here’s the first three paragraphs from The Birthday Problem:

Chaaya wasn’t surprised when she woke up and saw lips aimed directly over her face. It was beginning. It’d been just a matter of time.

It begins with one, good solid hallucination.

That was how it had happened to her Nani.This is how it would happen to her.

Gussoff also makes the most of her setting in a way that will delight Seattleites. There’s a joy to imagining Pike Place Market as a post-apocalytic trading post or the SF Museum hosting a cadre led by an aging rock musician.

If you’re interested in more of Gussoff’s work, she’s got a novella appearing this January from Aqueduct Press, Three Songs for Roxy. Its main character is an alien raised by Romany, and Gussoff draws on her own heritage to create a realistic, unromantic, and absolutely appealing narrative.


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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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