Trin's Reviews > A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
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Jun 04, 07

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bookshelves: science, fiction, queerlit, american-lit
Read in February, 2007

This is a novel, written by a physicist, about two early 20th century mathematicians, Kurt Gödel—most famous for his incompleteness theorems—and Alan Turing—best known for his World War II cryptology work and for the Turing Test. Both Gödel and Turing led fascinating and tragic lives, and Levin seizes on some of the interesting parallels between them (they never actually met—they kept just missing each other). Levin presents the main instances from their lives in a highly compelling way, and with a sort of dreamy madness, fitting to both men (Gödel went insane; Turing never really excelled at the basics of human interaction and was thought to have maybe been a high-functioning autistic). The stories themselves have a lot of power, with Gödel starving himself to death and Turing being basically tortured by his own government—even though he was a war hero!—because he was gay; he finally poisoned himself with a cyanide-laced apple. However, Levin never really draws any larger conclusion or brings the two threads of the story together in any way. She herself is something of a third shadow character in the story, and she says that she doesn’t know how to start or end the tale without being a liar—a sentiment I relate to, especially when I try to construct in my head ways to do a Muybridge novel, for example. But while I recognize that real life—that truth—doesn’t always make for the most satisfying narratives…well, this is a novel, and one in which other creative licenses are taken (Levin lists the major ones at the back of the book), and I can’t help but wish for it to be more satisfying. More cohesive. It’s still a fascinating, well-written book, but I think it would have made a better nonfiction work.
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