Historical fiction normally gazes backward, posing the big
“what ifs,” asking how things might have turned out had the wind blown a little
differently lo those many years ago. Because one can only trudge through so
many accounts of an alternate universe’s Civil War, it’s refreshing that Janna
Levin’s A Madman Dreams of Turing
Machines skirts that sort of
revisionism altogether. Though she’s woven a story from documented fact involving
several well-known figures, the author evidently feels no need to ponder what hijinks
might have ensued had logician Kurt Gödel and early computer scientist Alan
Turing joined forces to form the world’s foremost alliance of superintelligence.
The two never met, nor does Levin force them into a union; she takes the
creative high road, drawing parallels from two experiences between which much
was indirectly shared, highlighting the two misfits’ fascinating if
now-familiar notions in a sometimes rough but exceedingly well-paced novel of
That both Gödel and Turing’s theories are now well-known even to students outside the fields of mathematics, science and philosophy is a testament to the two men’s importance. Less recognized are their respective neuroses: the former entertained paranoid delusions about poisoning whose resultant food avoidance led to death by starvation, while the latter’s shaky-to-nonexistent grasp of human nature sank into isolation and, ultimately, suicide. Levin’s book reads as two biographical novels in parallel: Gödel’s presentation of his famous incompleteness theorem dominating the first half and Turing’s hand in the breaking of the German Enigma code in World War II constitutes much of the second. Both protagonists possess perhaps unsurpassed brilliance in their fields, and both have trouble coming to grips with the implications of that. As Gödel wrestles with the idea of incompleteness in the abstract and his incomplete life in the real world, Turing’s conception of the human brain as a machine, an entity without free will, overshadows his own existence.
Narrating these lives, as the cover and the cover alone explicitly tells us, is a modern-day female scientist “obsessed” with them. Levin herself happens to be a modern-day female scientist – specifically, a theoretical cosmologist – and she details many elements of the dual histories so lovingly that one suspects the resemblance runs a bit deeper than that. Levin has clearly steeped herself in all things Turing and even more things Gödel, pausing along the way to immerse herself in things Wittgenstein; the Austrian philosopher’s work constitutes one of the precious few tangible links between the stories of the two visionaries. Gödel’s ventures into the
Like most labors of love, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines is not without its blemishes. Clumsy phrasing – men who “pin hats to their heads with hands gloved by wind-worn skin,” a “flurry of crosshatched streams that pixilated the scene” – keeps the prose from running as smoothly as it should, and some conversations sound painfully contrived, as when Vienna Circle leader Moritz Schlick nervously foreshadows to Gödel that “mathematics must be complete.” Strangely given Levin’s educational pedigree, Gödel’s discoveries about incomplete systems and Turing’s about artificial intelligence aren’t explored to a satisfactory degree: though her level of interest hints that she grasps both of them strongly, she never quite conveys it explicitly.
The novel is nevertheless a quick, solid read, one that gives a mix of fascinating conjectures and conclusions room to roil just below the surface. Levin has, with A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, built something of a ship in a bottle. It’s crafted with the degree of care and precision requiring intense devotion, but it lacks a certain functionality. Despite the imperfections, it’s kind of beautiful, in its own way. Some would say the same about Gödel and Turing themselves.