Alan Turing in Context, Part 2

Since my last writing, Tor has finished posting the graphic novel of Alan Turing’s life, The Imitation Game, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis. You can find my comments on the first part here. What follows is my response to parts two through four, and they live up to the promise of the first installment in all but one respect.

The second section opens with a joint exposition, both of how Turing worked at code breaking and his relationships with the women, called Wrens, who worked under his direction (60). Much as the first portion is told from his mother’s perspective, the second is told from Joan Clarke’s viewpoint, the woman to whom he would eventually propose (94). She and many others worked under him on the Bombes project, the actual mechanical attempts at deciphering German codes. Throughout, it seems that everyone knew his orientation and that he was far from alone at the Bletchley facility. Clarke accepted his proposal because she “liked Alan. And it’s not like homosexuality was the strangest of behaviors, relatively speaking” (95). She felt somewhat the outsider as the only woman in Hut 8 but she liked working with the boffins, mostly homosexual, at “Station X” even if she did break off the engagement (98). For all that, she was treated in gentlemanly fashion during a visit by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who, upon addressing the crew before he left, said of the younger than expected group that “youth is a minor vice and madness appears to be a virtue” (107). Churchill saw to it personally that Turing and company got all they wanted as a matter of “extreme priority” (109).

This last point is important. Leaders of both the Axis and Allied nations had spent most of the inter-war years ignoring technological advances. Even the mighty tank that would make so many generals famous in WWII languished in development as a waste of money both during the Roaring 20s and the Depression 30s. David Johnson perhaps says it best when he writes “internal barriers to change and the myopic vision of single-issue constituencies contributed significantly to the [US] Army’s unpreparedness for World War II” (Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the US Army, 1917 – 1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 2). The European Allies were no less short sighted. Even those who saw value in innovations, whether on the field or on the home front, treated them as mere adjuncts to existing weapons and techniques. Churchill was one notable, and fortunate, exception. In America, even the slight public support for innovation from George S. Patton and Dwight Eisenhower was met with open Congressional disdain and quiet notice that if they continued along these lines, they would be asked to retire. In Britain itself, the situation was compounded by Neville Chamberlain’s firm belief of “Peace in our time” after his meeting with Hitler in Munich. Chamberlain seemed to be the only British leader who did not see the sentiment for the farce it was, but again Churchill was the only one who actively supported innovation from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty before becoming Prime Minister. On the Axis side, even Hitler was late to adopt new technologies and tactics, partly because he did not understand them and partly because he believed traditional industries would be sufficient to keep the German people employed. In America at least, he has an unearned reputation as some sort of military genius when that is rather the opposite of the historical record (a topic for another article as we must press ever onward). For now, suffice it to say, that Turing’s work was only valued by one man and he was fortunate that the man in question was also the one man whose opinion mattered. This perseverance on Churchill and Turing’s part paid off when, after sinking U-559 in the eastern Mediterranean, a complete Enigma machine and almost a full set of code books was recovered.

The third section begins with the shift in Turing’s work away from code breaking to computing machines (117). He insisted that he only worked on the methodology of computation, not the underlying engineering of vacuum tubes and such. This is also the first instance of Turing self-identifying as homosexual, but does so in a context rather less understanding than that at Bletchley (121). He told his new superior, one Mr. Bailey, whose perspective partly informs this installment. Back at the old installation, however, as the war ended in Europe, the Wrens were ordered to destroy the machinery they had spent so much time and energy maintaining for six years. They hated it. Turing hated returning to civilian work, especially after von Neumann so viciously stole his best work for the new EDVAC project (137). He almost did not get a post at Manchester University because he was unable to speak on his wartime work and the administration there was unimpressed even by his OBE award (147). This was the era in which Turing placed fifth as a qualifier for the 1948 British Olympic marathon team (154). In one respect, though, Turing was wrong. He believed that no machine in the near future would ever be able to think or write a sonnet (157 – 158) but not that it was entirely impossible (164). The analytics one finds in Facebook or Google come near to the former and the Vogon poetry generator has for years provided the worse the internet has to offer on the topic. As fascinating as I find the idea of artificial intelligence, from R. Daneel Olivaw to Caprica 6, I highly doubt that non-natural sentients of any sort are on the horizon. Further, I am glad of it. For every Optimus Prime out there, the universe of necessity provides a Megatron. Even the Cylons of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica universe and their nuanced, ambiguous position still produced serious dangers for themselves and everyone around them. Turing has been right on almost everything else, but here I hope he is in error. His argument on the possibility of machine sentience hinges on the fact that we assume humans are sentient without ever truly proving it (165). In this, his accuracy is uncomfortable.

The man with whom Turing was convicted for indecency, Arnold Murray, is introduced as the third section ends and the fourth begins (167 – 168). He is the final narrator and the tone instantly becomes one of bitterness and distance. The title of the present graphic novel, The Imitation Game, was Turing’s initial name for what is today known as the Turing Test. He explained it to Murray as they first met outside a theater in Manchester (168). The parasitic nature of Murray’s intentions toward Turing starts with a loan of three quid and quickly proceeds downhill from there (170). But, for all that, the very different backgrounds of the two men introduce the electroplating experiment and attendant cyanide that would later prove so tragic (173). The relationship led to connections to bad elements of society, a break in, and the eventual self incrimination of Turing as he gave the circumstances of the robbery to police (178).

The conclusion of the story is the troubling part. The rest of the story is told with compassion and historical accuracy but here the authors fail. It has been known for some time that accidental exposure rather than intentional suicide was the most probable cause of poisoning. Ottaviani and Purvis seem unaware of this as they tell of Turing’s final night (190 – 197). I stand by my previous statement: I will have my students read this in future semesters. But I will not tell them the real cause of death until after they have read this graphic novel. As drama, the version presented by the authors makes for high tragedy in a Western mode. However, an accident would be a better example not only of historical accuracy but of what the Japanese call mono no aware, sensitivity to the ephemeral nature of life. They tell a good story but it is not THE story. As such, I find myself a bit torn between my two great loves: stories and histories. After conferring with Ottaviani, it seems that the original version of the story, which left Turing’s death a bit of a mystery, the final artwork was done before the new evidence came to light. Indeed, he “still prefer[s] that earlier version, which is why [he] wrote it that way, but in addition to being confusing it muted both the injustice Turing suffered at the hands of the state and his own agency.” He has promised to provide a discussion on this very topic in the final print version of the story, and frankly that is good enough for this historian.

For further information, see: 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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