Alan Turing in Context

Alan TuringIf you are reading this on a computer, and you almost certainly are, you owe a small debt to Alan Turing. He was the genius code breaker in WWII who theorized and created the first stored-memory computers. Winston Churchill credited him with providing the largest Allied advantage against the Nazis during the war, for which he was awarded the title, “Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (OBE). He even conceptualized the Turing Test which has led us down the road to investigating artificial intelligence. Everything else followed from that. If Turing had not done his work, or someone done so in parallel fashion, our world would be far different and steampunk might be an actual thing instead of delightful fantasy. If you add to this his work in mathematical biology and long distance running, he becomes a veritable wunderkind.

However, there is a dark side to Turing’s story. He was a closeted homosexual in the 1940s and 1950s. Ottaviani and Purvis treat this subject and its consequences fairly in their graphic novel, serialized for free on Tor’s website in four parts. Among other things, he was convicted of gross indecency in R. v. Turing and Murray in 1952. This led to his dismissal from virtually all work as a security risk. The social need to keep homosexuality a secret was believed to be an opening for Soviet blackmail, especially after the Cambridge Five scandal.

Turing entered a plea of guilty on the advice of his lawyers. The punishment was to be either imprisonment or chemical castration. The side effects of this are well known and include chronic depression. Because of this, his eventual death by cyanide poisoning in 1954 was initially ruled a suicide even though his chemical treatments had ended a year earlier. However, a later inquest called this into question. Through the efforts of Jack Copeland, it has been demonstrated that the cyanide was more likely inhaled from one of Turing’s experiments in electroplating, a point foreshadowed in the graphic novel (8). Though no official revision of the coroner’s report has been issued, this is now the generally accepted explanation. Further, in December 2013, Queen Elizabeth II issued a royal pardon. Though she did not order his record expunged, this was hailed in the GLBTQ community as a historical victory.

Only the first part is available as of this writing, so the following is necessarily abbreviated, but the work is so compelling that waiting seemed out of order. Ottaviani and Purvis tread into this dark territory with reserve and compassion, even if they start with the clichéd device of gay narrative of telling the story from his mother’s perspective and denial (inter alia, esp. 31). His friendship with Chris Morcom is neatly treated, and the ambiguity of the exact nature of the relationship is related well in the dialogue and images. To this day, historians still do not know the details. The work briefly, and accurately, touches on the work of mathematicians Hibbert and Gödel for those readers interested (31 – 32). This is an important point because examining those two luminaries led directly to his proposal of what he called M, the prototype of the Turing Machine concept. The following pages demonstrate Turing’s attempt to explain it all to his mother, but she does not understand. For young readers, this alone will be sufficient reason to read the book: Parents have never had any idea what their kids were talking about. This is made even more abundantly clear at the end of the first section as Mrs. Turing is shut out of her own house, and simultaneously of her son’s life, as the military took an interest in Turing’s work.

Pieces such as this are important not only for their historical content but also for their basic humanity. Ottaviani and Purvis’s work was a random find for me. Most of my reading is planned out, either from friends’ recommendations or because I follow a favored author. This one came to me via the Facebook group page for Comics at Columbia. As both a historian and a fan of Turing’s work, I still learned things about the man. I will be assigning this to my students in future semesters. Historical figures are not just names and dates on a page; they are flesh and blood beings with real passions and secrets. Though incomplete, the present work is already an illumination of a man who was difficult to understand on the best of days.

For more information, see below:

Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis, The Imitation Game (New York: Tor, 2014).

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J. Holder Bennett spends his time in the “real” world, whatever that means, as a history professor in North Texas. The rest of the time he focuses on his real love: fandom. For the past fifteen years he’s helped run A-Kon, an anime and manga convention in Dallas, and recently organized the Fandom and Neomedia Studies (FANS) association to bring together fans and academics for the better understanding of their mutual love. He has also done work on historical fiction and collaborated on analyses of science in cinema. Yes, he’s that guy.

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