a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|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:
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'Ãªtre 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.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)