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Mathematicians Answer / Literature

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Mathematician's Answers in literature.

  • Spike Milligan put plenty of these in his war memoirs, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall:
    Waiter: Anything to drink?
    Spike: Yes, anything.
  • Iain Banks loved this trope. The most extensive example is in Against a Dark Background:
    Man: Hello?
    Zefla Hello. We're looking for a gentleman called Ivexton Travapeth.
    Man: Yes.
    Zefla (beat) You're not him, then?
    Man: No.
    Zefla Right. Do you know where we can find him?
    Man: Yes.
    Zefla Could you tell us where he is?
    Man: Yes.
    Zefla Where is he?
    Man: Oh, here.
    Zefla May we see him?
    Man: Oh, yes.
    Sharrow (quietly) Keep going, the passports only last a year.
    Zefla (trying not to laugh) Good. Thank you. We'd have phoned or screened but Mister Travapeth seems to discourage that sort of contact.
    Man: Yes.
    Zefla Yes. Could you let us in?
    Man: Yes, yes.
    Zefla Please come down and let us in.
    Man: Very well.
    Sharrow Wake me when the door opens or the universe ends, whichever's sooner.
    Man (opens door)
    Zefla Good morning.
    Man: Yes.
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  • This is, not surprisingly considering that the author was in fact a mathematician, one of the logical twists Lewis Carroll peppered throughout Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:
    "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
    "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
    "I don't much care where—" said Alice.
    "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
    "—so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
    "Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
  • In American Gods, Shadow gets one from Whiskey Jack, and then promptly calls him on it.
    Shadow: Where are we? Am I on the tree? Am I dead? Am I here? I thought everything was finished. What's real?
    Whiskey Jack: Yes.
    Shadow: Yes? What kind of an answer is Yes?
    Whiskey Jack: It's a good answer. True answer, too.
    • Shadow gets one from Sweeney as well
      Sweeney: (performs an elaborate coin vanishing trick)
      Shadow: We have to talk about that. I need to know how you did it.
      Sweeney: I did it with panache and style.
  • Animorphs: After being told by the resident friendly alien member of the team that they have all been dragged through a fracture in space-time continuum
    Jake: Did we go forward or back? Are we in the past or the future?
    Ax: Yes. It's definitely one of those two choices.
  • In Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers story "Truth to Tell" the monthly guest, a man who never tells a lie, is suspected of a crime which it seems only he could have committed, but he continually denies it, saying: "I didn't take the cash or the bonds." However the waiter, Henry, asks him: "Did you take the cash and the bonds?" The guest declines to answer and leaves.
    • This is using the word or differently than usual, but inversely compared to how this trope is normally played out. In normal speech, or is used as an exclusive or, unless in a negative sentence, such as here, which is normally an inclusive or. He's using it as an exclusive or, and as that excludes the possibility of taking both, he's technically telling the truth.
  • Catch-22 has Yossarian being interrogated in hospital. He is slightly delirious at the time, though.
    "Where were you born?"
    "In a hospital."
    "In what state were you born?"
    "A state of innocence."
  • From The Catcher in the Rye:
    "What are you reading?"
    "Goddamn book."
  • From Choosers of the Slain:
    "Be careful what she teaches her," Adams said, without looking up. "You might get a very nasty surprise."
    "Are you talking about Anastasia teaching Katya or the other way around?" Nielson asked, grinning.
  • Discworld:
    • From the novel Hogfather:
      Susan: Are those mountains real or some sort of shadows?
      Death: Yes.
    • Similarly, when the Senior Wrangler suggests that the mistletoe, while being genuinely symbolic, is only symbolic of mistletoe:
      Archchancellor: That statement is either so deep it would take a lifetime to fully comprehend every particle of its meaning, or it is a load of absolute tosh. Which is it, I wonder?
      Senior Wrangler: (desperately) It could be both.
      Archchancellor: And that comment is either very perceptive, or very trite.
      Senior Wrangler: It could be bo—
      Archchancellor: Don't push it, Senior Wrangler.
    • And earlier in Hogfather:
      Lord Downey: Can I offer you a drink?
      Auditor: Yes. [...] We judge you capable of performing that action.
    • Susan again, in Thief of Time:
      Susan: Are you Lobsang or are you Jeremy?
      Lobsang/Jeremy: Yes.
      Susan: Yes, I walked into that. Are you Lobsang and are you Jeremy?
      Lobsang/Jeremy: Much closer. Yes.
    • Rincewind and Eric, from Eric!
      Rincewind: There's a door.
      Eric: Where does it go?
      Rincewind: It stays where it is, I think.
    • Yet another one, sort of, from Carpe Jugulum (paraphrased, without spoiling too much):
      Granny Weatherwax: Am I dying?
      Death: Yes.
      Granny Weatherwax: But to you, everybody is dying, right? So you are not exactly being Mr. Helpful here.
      Death: Yes.
    • Death is fond of this. When Granny was presented a choice between the light and the darkness (long story) she asked him if he had any advice. He replied:
      Death: Choose right.
    • Another Death example.
    Mrs. Flitworth: You've got to be Bill or a Tom or a Bruce or one of those names.
    DEATH: Yes.
    • And another in Wyrd Sisters...
      Demons were like genies or philosophy professors — if you didn't word things exactly right, they delighted in giving you absolutely accurate [...] answers.
    • As mentioned in Hogfather, when questioned about the origins of life, the philosopher Didactylos set forth this theory:
      Didactylos: Things just happen. What the hell?
    • The real problem with Mathematician's Answers in Discworld is that they often AREN'T — they're very accurate statements of the fact that, in a world where symbolism, belief, and narrative causality are physical laws of the universe, it is possible for something to be two different and contradictory things simultaneously.
    • Moist's wonderful use of this trope in a Bavarian Fire Drill during Making Money:
      Guard: Why's there only one of you?
      Moist: I don't know. You'd have to ask my mum and dad.
    • In Feet of Clay Vimes becomes very angry and hits a table in the Rats Chamber with an axe. The next morning, when Vetinari asks him what it is, he says "It's an axe, sir." Of course, Vetinari then proceeds to snark about how quickly he figured that out and ask the real question, which is why it was stuck in the table.
    • Earlier in the same book, Vetinari asks Vimes why he punched the leader of the Assassin's Guild in the face, to receive the reply: "Couldn't find a dagger, sir." (Unusually for this trope, Vetinari's response is more Actually Pretty Funny in this instance.)
  • In the Doctor Who novel Forever Autumn, the 10th Doctor is asked how his sonic screwdriver works by a teenage boy. He responds that it works very well.
  • During Galaxy of Fear, the Arrandas and their uncle Hoole find a human where no humans should be. They ask him how he got there, he says "I walked."
  • In the Dragaera series, this is one of the things Hawklords are known for. It's also why Vlad would have killed Daymar out of sheer annoyance if it wasn't for his invaluable psychic skills.
  • An example where this is not played for laughs occurs in The Dresden Files novel Small Favor, when Harry brings the injured Valkyrie Gard to Michael Carpenter's house for treatment. Michael's fellow Knight Sanya is there and is examining Gard, noting that she is more than human. He asks "The woman. What is she?" to which Harry responds "Injured." Sanya understands the implied rebuke immediately and apologizes.
  • In Eragon (first book in the Inheritance Cycle), Brom and Eragon's first meeting with the witch Angela involves Mathematician answers as Brom successively asks her if she knows where the house of the person he is looking for is, and then would she tell him where it is, both her answers being in the affirmative. Brom and Eragon then stand there waiting until she looks up and tells them that, yes, she knows where the house is, and yes, she will tell them where it is, but they never directly asked her which house was the one they were looking for.
  • The "Experimental Epistemologist" in Smullyan's 5000BC is full of this. When the completely disoriented protagonist asks the epistemologist "What should I do?", the response is "I have no idea what you SHOULD do. However, I have a friend who is an excellent moralist."
  • Gaunt's Ghosts: Ghostmaker has a close variant when Colonel Corbec calls in an Orbital Bombardment against a daemon disrupting operations with a psychic storm. The captain of the frigate Navarre complains that this is against normal tacticsnote  and asks his XO for advice.
    Captain Wysmark: Your assessment, Kreff? You've spent more time with these footsloggers since they've been aboard than anyone. Is this man mad, or should I grant his request?
    Executive Officer Kreff: Yes... and yes, sir.
    Wysmark: (grins) Let's see those coordinates.
  • In Halo: The Fall of Reach, Master Chief is testing the MJOLNIR armor with shields. His superior instructs him to count to ten after he leaves the room before leaving himself. During that time, Chief's AI partner Cortana senses the presence of a squad of ODST Marines, and asks the Master Chief what his plan is for dealing with them. He responds, "I'm going to finish counting to ten".
  • Harry Potter:
    • Early in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry asks Hagrid what the difference is between a stalactite and a stalagmite. Hagrid replies, "Stalagmite's got an 'M' in it". Admittedly, they were hurtling through the Gringotts minecart system at the time, and Hagrid was busy trying not to throw up.
    • Dumbledore gets in a straighter example later on in Philosopher's Stone:
      Harry: Can I ask you a question, Professor?
      Dumbledore: You just did. You may, however, ask me one more question.
    • Harry has one in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when Snape asks him about his copy of Advanced Potion-Making.
      Snape: Then why does it have the name ‘Roonil Wazlib’ written inside the front cover?
      Harry: That’s my nickname.
      Snape: Your nickname?
      Harry: Yeah... that’s what my friends call me.
    • After a particularly surreal portion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry asks if the previous discussion was real, or just in his head. His companion simply responds that being in his head wouldn't make their conversation any less real.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
    • When Zaphod learns that Marvin is waiting for them in the car park at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (and has been for several trillion years), he asks what he's doing there. Marvin's answer? Parking cars. What else would he be doing there?
    • "42". For those that don't know about this, an alien race constructs a massive supercomputer in order to learn "The answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything". The computer, after seven and a half million years of computation, comes back with "42". When asked about this, the computer responds that it is able to figure out the answer, but they need another computer to calculate what the question is. When this second computer is destroyed 15 minutes before its four-and-a-half-billion-year run to find the question completes, the programmers, afraid of the mob's reaction to this nonsense, just make up the question: "How many roads must a man walk down?"
    • Arthur has one in the first book as well:
    Arthur Dent: You know, it's at times like this, when I'm stuck in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, about to die of asphyxiation in deep space, that I really wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was young.
    Ford Prefect: Why? What did she tell you?
    Arthur Dent: I don't know. I didn't listen.
    • In Life, the Universe and Everything, there is the character Prak. In a court case, he was injected with too much truth serum, and then he was instructed to tell "the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth." He responds by telling them everything that is true about, well, Life, the Universe, and Everything. Everyone present had to flee, leaving him alone telling the Truth, however by the time the protagonists arrive he has finished, telling them that there's not as much to it as one might expect, that he has forgotten it all now, but some of the best bits involved frogs and Arthur Dent.
  • How Rude!, an etiquette book aimed at teenagers, contains an anecdote from the author. He attempted to call a friend of his and the friend's five-year-old son answered. When the author asked if his daddy was there, the boy replied, "Yes."
  • David Eddings' The Belgariad. One of the most memorable ones was when Durnik went to ask a fisherman about the situation on the other side of a river.
    Belgarath: Well?
    Durnik: The fish are biting.
    Belgarath: I meant on the other side.
    Durnik: I did not ask, but if the fish are biting on this side, it would only stand to reason they are biting over there too, doesn't it?
  • In The Last Watch, when Edgar uses a truth spell on Rustam, this exchange takes place:
    Edgar: How can I take the Crown of All Things?
    Rustam: With your hands.
    • Weirdly, this answer is wrong.
  • Jarlaxle the drow from R.A. Salvatore's series of Drizzt books is so fond of the Mathematician's Answer that "Yes" might as well be his catch phrase.
  • This is used to fight mind control in the Magic Kingdom of Landover, when someone is forced to answer questions.
    Ben: Where can I find the dragon?
    Nightshade: Everywhere.
  • In The Marvelous Land of Oz, Mombi tries this in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid Glinda's questions.
    Glinda: Why did the Wizard pay you three visits?
    Mombi: Because I would not come to him.
  • In Scott Meyer's Master of Formalities, the entire palace of House Jakabitus is coated with a layer of nanites which perform various functions. If someone is injured, all he has to do is to put the wound against a wall or the floor, as the nanites are programmed to eliminate germs and seal wounds as a first-aid measure until the medical staff arrives, which usually happens within minutes. Everyone notes that the nanites work well with the medical staff, but any questions on how they do it is always met with the answer "Seamlessly."
  • Momo is leaning hard into the direction of being a smart ass.
    "As far as I can remember... I've always been around."
  • From Phule's Paradise, Phule's butler pulls one of these on a hotel manager:
    Bombest: How do you do it?
    Beeker: Sir?
    Bombest: You're a fairly ordinary guy, not at all like Mr. Phule or the uniformed fanatics he's associating with. How do you do your job?
    Beeker: Very well, sir.
    Bombest: Excuse me?
  • In Psy Changeling, being emotionless and thus ruled by logic, most Silent Psys tend to give those.
  • In The Sack, the titular character is big on these when not asked specific questions:
    Committee Member: Where would you find an individual capable of conversing intelligently with so wise a creature as you?
    The Sack: Here.
  • In David Weber's Safehold series, Nimue/Merlin's AI assistant Owl persists in responding to her/his questions with literal answers, despite the manufacturer's assertion that it's supposed to learn to reply colloquially. It finally begins to show some improvements in the fourth book, A Mighty Fortress.
  • The Angel, a character in Mike Resnick's Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future does it several times:
    "How are you going to ...?"

    "What did you cut him with?"
    "Something sharp."
  • Skulduggery Pleasant has this exchange:
    Fletcher: How did you beat them?
    Skulduggery: With unimaginable skill.
    • This seems to be Skulduggery's preferred form of answer.
    Valkyrie: What is it?
    Skulduggery: It's a box.
    Valkyrie: What kind of box?
    Skulduggery: A wooden one.
    Valkyrie: OK, I'll try this. Why are we hiding from a box?
    Skulduggery: We're not. We're hiding from what's inside the box.
  • Raymond Smullyan collected these:
    • General asks computer a two-part question: "1. Will the rocket reach the moon? 2. Will the rocket return to Earth?" Computer answers "Yes." General asks, "Yes what?" Computer answers "Yes, sir."
    • "Where does this road go?" "It isn't going anywhere. It's just staying put."
    • One Vermont farmer approaches another. "My horse is sick. What did you give your horse when it was sick?" "Hay and molasses." Two weeks later: "I gave my horse hay and molasses, and it died." "Yep, so did mine."
  • Yet another of Peter David's favorite literature tricks to tweak the nose of higher-class people (especially Vulcans in his Star Trek novels): The high-class person asks, "May I ask where you're going?" The person answers, "Yes". It takes the Vulcan a second to comprehend.
    • Fridge Brilliance: if there's anyone you'd expect to understand the Mathematician's Answer trope, it would be a Vulcan. But the Vulcan is speaking what is, for him, a second language, and probably thinks of that particular construction as an idiom with only a loose connection to its literal meaning.
  • This exchange from A Storm of Swords:
    Bran: Maybe we shouldn't stay here.
    Meera: By the well? Or in the Nightfort?
    Bran: Yes.
    • Another example from the same book. Jamie Lannister, being interrogated by Catelyn Stark about the circumstances of an attempt made on Brann Stark's life after he witnessed something incriminating, uses this to avoid giving away any of his true reasons.
    Catelyn: You pushed my son out a window. Why?
    Jamie: I hoped the fall would kill him.
  • In Warlocks of the Sigil, Kole writes "yes" for age and gender in her extremely lack-luster information packet.
  • In the book The Westing Game, Jake Wexler lists his position as "standing or sitting when not lying down."
  • Used in Simon R. Green's Wolf in the Fold, when Hawk and Fisher question suspects about the two murders under a truthspell. All the suspects can correctly answer "No" when asked if they murdered Victim #1 and Victim #2, because the two deaths were the handiwork of different killers.


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