November 21, 2005

Testing Turing

by Nick Montfort · , 12:45 am

Turing book coverA Review of Turing (A Novel about Computation)
Christos H. Papadimitriou
MIT Press
2003/2005 paper
208 pp.
$32.00/$13.95 paper

I had been interested in Christos H. Papadimitriou’s Turing (A Novel about Computation) since I first learned about it – thanks to the book being published by MIT Press at about the same time that Twisty Little Passages came out. It was the only contemporary entry in MIT Press’s “fiction and literature” category, I believe, and had an alphabetically close title, so I kept noticing the book and wondering about it. When I found that Papadimitriou was coming to Penn, I used the excuse to finally get Turing and read it.

Upon mentioning Turing to people of all sorts (those in new media, other humanists, computer scientists), and explaining that I was reading this “novel about computation,” I was met with an almost uniform response: wailing, moaning, gnashing of teeth, and beating of breasts. The somewhat positive critical response to the book has an element of this reaction, too. One response to the book is telling: “As a teaching device, I think Turing succeeds spectacularly,” writes Darren Glass in the Mathematical Association of America Online. “As a novel … it is … not a horrible failure.”

I must say that I care about Turing as a novel, and I’m more interested what it bites off than in how well it chews everything. That is, is the novel an interesting project? Is there something it has to inform other novelists and writers? If the book is a successful spoonful of story to help the computation go down, it is not very interesting, particularly since I’ve already swallowed the unadulterated computation. It’s quite a different matter if it does something that provokes us to think about the novel in a new way. Having already spent plenty of time with this book (or the first edition of it, at least), I definitely wasn’t reading Turing to learn about or review the nature of computation. I wanted to see what I could learn about the nature of the novel.

Set in the near future, Turing is framed in a de-punked cyberpunk sort of way that offers some disappointments for both science fiction fans and readers of “literary” fiction, but which also tickles the imagination, suggesting a future course for computing and a more sedate vision of near-future politics. The political implications of such a future are explored mainly in a conversation between Ethel and her mother, but they seem to trouble the main characters (even the one who is an outlaw) very little.

At times, I found myself rushing through descriptions of steamy romantic encounters so that I could get on to the next part where a robot lectures about the theory of computation. (Whether this says more about me or Turing is another question.) But, I’d like to suggest that this may be because the parts where a robot lectures about the theory of computation are actually rather interesting. On the final page of the book, in the acknowledgments, Papadimitriou writes, “This is a book about love – and about the unique act of love that we call teaching.” Indeed, it is, and one of the reasons that its eponymous character is so compelling is that he does make a good teacher, one that is even plausible within the framework of a novel.

So, I would have to take issue with The Complete Review‘s assessment that Turing “is far too limited in its ambitions.” I found Turing awkward at times, certainly, but never lacking in ambition. It tries to show how a humanist might have to comprehend computation in order to progress in his work. And, Turing also tries to show how a computer character, a tutor, might love – not as a silly plot twist, but as an consequence of this entity’s mind and sense. I savor ambitious first novels, and I certainly wouldn’t turn away from one because it was written by one of the most accomplished computer scientists of this era. If you appreciate ambition and computation, and certainly if you are a humanist considering computation and trying to see how it might fit into your work, read Turing.

2 Responses to “Testing Turing

  1. mary Says:

    double that review. I ran out to acquire the book, then experienced the difficulty of the balance between personal and intellectual narrative… the intellectual one was far more engaging. Still have not finished it though…

  2. Grand Text Auto » Reversing Gears Says:

    […] gearing of the mechanism … Nature also has a news feature about the famous machine. Christos H. Papadimitriou’s novel Turing posited an alternate theory of how a fi […]

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