Thursday, 9 July 2015

Sydney Padua and the computer that almost existed

Full title: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer
Author: Sydney Padua
Genre: Graphic novel
Attributes: 320 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Pantheon (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The book’s a jaunt through Victorian pretty-much-everything. To be more specific (…ish…): 1. Fashion (a lot of it, to keep the reader well immersed in the ‘spirit of the era’; btw, you’ve got to see the drawings to understand); 2. Technology (the book’s concerned primarily with this, since it’s set out to contemplate a possible alternative reality centered on a technological near-miss: the invention of the computer); 3. Historical facts (tons of them, every page explaining details about the era through copious references to primary sources, citations, encyclopedic blowing up of minute biographical details, etc. etc. etc.); 4. Mores and thereabouts (from literary salons to scientific soirées, a lot is being covered and presented with gusto).
Of course, as they say in Germany, Victorian times call for Victorian measures. Meaning: being so steeped in these times of ours when we take delight in all manner of reenactments, we might as well take pleasure in contemplating some Steampunk vogue (itself a conglomerate of fashion, mores, and all things Victorian). Which makes the Babbage case (see below for clarifications), with the addition of characters such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his crazy plans for the employment of the steam engine, pretty spot-on, since they’re prime material for the exploration of all of the above.
So Charles Babbage. A man who went down in history as the first who had an inkling of what a computer (called by him a “difference engine,” for a better-made philosophical case) might have looked like. Also, on the less fortunate side of his destiny, as one who proposed measures for the replacement of human workers by automated operations and/or machines. It’s said in the book:
“As I outlined in Machinery and Manufactures (6s. bound in cloth), true savings in labor costs arise from de-skilling complex tasks, so they may be done by any easily replaceable ignorant menial!”
In which by the menial is meant (symbolically first, actually later) an apparatus devoid of soul; in other words, a machine.
Good material for the Luddites to exercise their counter-arguments in their revolts. There are pages in the book that capture the protests of the masses, and they must be taken into consideration as well. At least for historical color.
Ada Lovelace, the other name in the title, has a story of her own too. Daughter of Byron (yes, the Byron), she was trained in sciences rather than the poetic reverberations of her father, who seems to have advised her strongly against his own profession. Or that’s what some letter fragments say. So she became a quite astute mathematician, met Babbage, worked with him for a while (some saying she was behind his calculations, as a do-all high priestess of the Difference Engine), but then their relationship broke, Lovelace died at the age of 36 (the same as her father’s! damn destiny!), while Babbage lived on to die a poor, bitter man, with none of his dreams fulfilled.

Sydney Padua. Source: Forbidden Planet
These are the facts. But Sydney Padua builds a parallel story. Of course, her art permits such escapades. And so we see Lovelace and Babbage succeeding in building that proto-computer that never got built in reality. And once they see it working they put it to use. More precisely, they sort out a financial crisis, get to work on manuscript corrections, go nuts about mathematical possibilities, and more, and more. As it’s easy to see, a lot of fictional stuff. Yet isn’t fiction, as they say in Magna Germania, the meat and bone of progress?
But to get back to Lovelace. Padua suggests she was powerless against the Byronic legacy (and she may not be the only one to suggest so); powerless in the sense of unable to avoid the fictional aspect of mathematics, the storytelling inherent in numbers, the narrative lure of formulae and theorems. Ada soliloquizes at some point:
“Nonsense! The most advanced mathematicians accept unquantified symbols in their realm! In any event, I am a historical figure, and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Humanities!”
We appreciate the joke, but that’s exactly the point, madam la comtesse. Being made into a comic character, you’ve been moved away from the fact factory of overly-exact historicism and dropped into the melting pot of fiction.
Sydney Padua, it has to be said, does a very good job at balancing the two.
The book as a whole is a series of complexities. On the one hand, it reads like a straight-up comic book: panels following panels, the narrative organized in a mostly linear way (in the serialized fashion to boot), the drawings telling the story when the words aren’t that capable.
But wait, there’s more. Almost every page has footnotes, containing mostly true facts. In addition, these footnotes have their own notes, at the end of each chapter/installment, which bring about more information, more story, more insight. And just to complete the picture, the book ends with a thick section (almost sixty pages) containing two appendices: one made up of cutouts from primary documents (mostly mid-19th century newspaper articles and “trivial yet amusing snippets”) and the other one offering a comic’s explanation (with illustrations, of course) of the Difference Engine, its operations, its logics, its many-many cogs and wheels. The first representation, it seems, in a long, long, long, long, long time.
But wait, there’s even more.

A page from the book, outlining the early-childhood destiny of Ada Lovelace.
There are special appearances by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Jane Austen, and other Victorian celebrities I’m likely to have forgotten, depicted in their attire and typical gestures; and also some more cameos by Karl Marx and a bunch of Russian-looking revolutionaries (not sure if I spotted Lenin there or if it was just an illusion), who witness the crushing of ideology under the weight of progress. Chronological mismatches don’t matter, of course, because this is a multiverse, where time and space often coincide in the best ways possible, so as to generate an outcome equal to the input of fair judgment plus conceptual match-making.
There’s a meeting between Ada Lovelace and George Eliot I am tempted to draw attention to (and I will), when something I’d like to call “poetics of data” is brought up. The way Lovelace explains to a desperate Eliot that the words she’d thought destroyed by the machine are safe and well confers upon the topic an elegant lure, if tinged here and there with well-intended pretentiousnesses (yes, my plural is well intended too, if slightly odd):
“Despair not! Your words are not destroyed! On the contrary, they are shedding their earthly form! They have become transcendent! They have become… Data! Liberated from the static shell of the material, transliterated to the purely symbological, sublimated into a state entirely new! It can be filed, indexed, converted, replicated, searched, shared, shuffled, linked, remixed, recombined, archived, analyticated… resurrected!”
And to complete the picture in the same avant-la-lettre fashion, here’s what might sound even more familiar to a contemporary (i.e. of 21st-century descent) reader:
“Imagine… with the eventual integration of Wheatstone’s telegraph, the difference engine will convey, transcribe, analyze, and store forever the deepest thoughts, the most profound conversations of our greatest philosophers!”
Sounds familiar? That’s because Lovelace is endowed by Padua (her favorite of the two characters, you can tell) with this special foresight that enables her to see the computer materialized when it was nothing but a technological dream, and even that a failing one.
So here’s to a multimodal book, where the weighing of historical accuracy takes place not in terms of a contradiction between True and False, but as an exchange of energies between truth and fiction. May the game (not a contest!) be won by both sides!