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Doing our Babbage (1992)
Ira Slobodien

The mind of 19th century mathematician Charles Babbage is brought back to life in electronic/mechanical form, becomes involved in a kinky "love rectangle" with the three scientists responsible (two women and one man), and also part of a murder investigation in this novel by Ira Slobodien (1925-1998).

From the point of view of this Website, the mathematical content of the book is of the greatest importance. The book does acknowledge that Babbage was a mathematician and that his groundbreaking work on what we now call "computers" was at the time considered a form of mathematics. In a few very brief instances, the mathematics is even explicitly discussed. For example, in response to a query from a 20th century student about the origin of his interest in the subject, Babbage says:

(quoted from Doing our Babbage)

Let me think. I was about 27 or 28 years of age when a society that I helped found, The Astronomical Society, appointed a committee of two, consisting of Sir John Herschel and me, to prepare certain tables. We had decided on the formulae and had put them in the hands of two computers -- that was the term we used then to designate humans who did the calculating work.

We met one evening for the purpose of comparing the calculated results, and finding many discordances, I expressed to my friend the wish that we could calculate by steam, to which he assented as to a thing within the bounds of possibility.

... Wait! I seem to have an earlier memory. A friend kindly reminded me of it, and I related it [in?] my autobiography. I was still at Cambridge and sitting one evening in the rooms of The Analytical Society, with my head lolling in a dreamy mood toward a table of logarithms lying open before me, when another member entered the room and, seeing me half alseep called out as follows:

`Well, Babbage, what are you dreaming about?'

I replied: `I am thinking that all these tables (of logarithms) might be calculated by machinery.' Whereupon --

However, the book actually portrays Babbage not so much as a mathematician as a brilliant man who was good at many things, including several inventions for which he does not receive sufficient (according to the author) credit. Consequently, these mathematical references are few and far between.

Presumably, the book's raison d'ĂȘtre is that it gives the reader an opportunity to see one of the great minds of the early 19th century react to the world in the late 20th. Babbage is able to comment on nuclear war, TV advertisements, how artificial lighting leads us to be sleep deprived and cranky, etc. Along the way, he gets to toss out references to people he knew (from Ada Lovelace, whom the real Babbage of course knew, to Darwin and Napoleon, who I suspect he may not have.) I have to admit, that this was fun. However, the author was less successful in the overall quality of the writing and the other aspects of the book. The love story was, for me, hackneyed and dull. The criminal aspect was mostly interesting in as much as it forces one to consider the philosophical and legal implications of a crime committed by a robot controlled by the mind of a dead human.

The confused attempts to explain the science behind the resurrection of Babbage's mind were the worst thing about the book. First, one must accept that the brain that they just happen to find preserved in alcohol turns out to be that of Charles Babbage...I can suspend my disbelief that far. But, then he refers variously to the extraction of "brain DNA" (which, by the way, would be the same as the DNA in every other cell, and does not record memories), to the collection of "brain waves" (which are not generated by a pickled brain and again do not contain a person's memories), and (perhaps most reasonably) to the atomic structure of the brain. And, even if one did reproduce the "software" of the brain on a digital computer, it is silly to think that a person's voice (or a cat's purring, as occurs in their first experiment with a dead cat) would come out of it without the lungs, larynx, sinus, diaphragm and other anatomical features that create the sound. All of this nonsense, I'm afraid, did make it more difficult for me to enjoy this novel.

In trying to think of which works in the database "Doing our Babbage" is most similar to, I realize that it bears a remarkable resemblance to Turing (A Novel of Computation) in which Alan Turing's mind is found to be living in the Internet and becomes involved in a "love rectangle". In my opinion, however, "Turing" (2003) is far superior both as literature and as mathematical fiction.

This book is not easy to find (I'd been looking for it for many years before finally obtaining a cheap copy from an online used book dealer), and I am not certain it is worth the trouble. But, it was interesting enough and, for the right reader, perhaps one who likes the counter-culture vibe of Rudy Rucker's mathematical fiction, "Doing our Babbage" might be a treasured find.

[BTW I'm not sure what to make of the "foreward (sic)" (that is the way it is written in the book, including the "sic") by "Dr. Ken Terisschtnicht Sui" and dated 1999 which claims that one of the main characters is based on his life. I'm guessing that this is a joke, but if so I do not really get it. Can anyone shed any light on it?]

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(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Doing our Babbage
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Conceiving Ada by Lynn Hershman-Leeson
  2. Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
  3. Turing (A Novel About Computation) by Christos Papadimitriou
  4. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
  5. The Difference Engine by William Gibson / Bruce Sterling
  6. Forgotten Milestones in Computing No. 7: The Quenderghast Bullian Algebraic Calculator by Alex Stewart
  7. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  8. 1963 by Alan Moore
  9. The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
  10. Resistance is Futile by Jenny T. Colgan
Ratings for Doing our Babbage:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
2.5/5 (2 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
MotifReal Mathematicians, Romance,

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