Red Queen versus White King: Alan Touring Through the Looking Glass

Alan Turing: The Enigma | [Andrew Hodges]

Unless you too just finished The Enigma: Alan Touringyou’re probably scratching your head right now at the title of today’s post. I did read it, and I’m still scratching my head over it. Before I attempt to make some sense out of this, because I will lose my mind if I don’t, I need to get one thing off my chest:

If I die after having done something world-changing or just plain cool, do not compare me to a fairy tale character. Please, just don’t. I don’t care of I make some offhand remark  ONE time in my life and you so happen to have it on record. Just don’t do it. I understand literary novels need to use literary devices to make them interesting, but a line needs to be drawn, and I am drawing it.

If you STILL must write a biography about me, and yes I am speaking directly to you, future biographer, please don’t bother writing about my childhood. It was boring, middle class, suburban and just plain vanilla blah. It can be summed up in two paragraphs. Don’t waste readers’ time explicating the uninteresting for EIGHT HOURS. Really, 80K words are way more than anyone needs to read about my childhood and the opinions of the FIVE people you interviewed.

If you, future biographer disregard these helpful hints, I will POLTERGEIST your ass. I will make it my personal afterlife mission to turn your life into a living hell. You will have not a single moment of peace. And yes, I am well aware ‘Poltergeist’ is a noun. When I’m done with you, you’ll run screaming to Merriam-Webster and DEMAND they make it into a verb. No other word will suffice for my particular attentions.

You have been warned.

Okay onto my ranting review. The audio book was 30 hours and 40 minutes, which is why it took me three days to finish it. And I did finish it. I was in it for the development of Alan Touring’s theories and his cryptography work during WWII. Both of those items I was promised in the book’s premise.

I should pause here and mention I  haven’t read many biographies. This might be the only one so far. It didn’t sell me on the genre as a whole, but if I run across another one on an interesting historical or scientific figure, I won’t disregard it on general principle.

Back to the audiobook, the first hour treated the listener to a long winded bible-esque walk down the Touring family tree. I knew nothing about his family relations, so this confused the hell out of me since names repeat across generations. At one point, I wasn’t certain which Alan we were talking about. I swear I wasn’t multitasking. Driving and listening to audio books doesn’t count.

Afterward, we moved onto Alan’s upbringing, schooling and PURE speculation about what went through his mind during his formative years. (Dear Biographer take note, add “speculation about my thoughts or motives” to your list of no-nos.) The author was also obsessed with Alan’s homosexuality. I don’t mind hearing about that. I am a chick after all.

I understand homosexuality was a big no-no then, but that side of Alan fascinated the author a little too much. The author fixated on the mentality supporting such a lifestyle and that fascination carried over to a creepiness in his prose.  The narrator did his level best, but even he felt unnerved by the fixation. You could hear it in his voice.

By hour 11ish, we had finally gotten to the meat of the matter. Alan had written his seminal paper, which didn’t garner the respect it deserved. WWII was ramping up, and he’d involved himself in Britain’s cryptography scene. This part of the narrative was well done. It had everything from a description of the enciphering machines to how they cracked the codes in detail. I was in heaven.

Then the author got all whimsical because Alan Touring made a throwaway remark to a friend about feeling like he viewed the world through a looking-glass. From that ONE comment, the author then launched into all kinds of allusions to Lewis Carroll’s characters. He didn’t stop there, oh no dear Reader, he added in allusions to Humpty-Dumpty, Snow White, and the Seven Dwarves as well. Then he kept repeating them every few chapters for 20 hours. Arghhh…..

At one point, the author likened Stalin to the ‘Red Queen.’ My mind cut out Stalin’s face and pasted it onto Disney’s animated Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. I laughed so hard I had to disconnect my headphones and pause the audio book. I doubt that was the author’s intent, but I did survive the Age of Disney. I can’t help it if my mind automatically goes there.

The author kept flinging those allusions at the reader every other chapter. My psyche has shrapnel wounds from them. A little repetition is good. Twenty hours of it is not. By the way, you can stop listening at the one hour, fifty-one minutes left mark. Those last 112 minutes are just allusion piled upon allusion, peppered with speculation and an occasional mention of other prominent homosexual cases, and the author’s romantic notions of what closeted gay men go through as they lead dual lives. Something Alan Touring didn’t do. He lived life his way; he didn’t care what society dictated or thought, and I applaud him. He was a scientific rebel, not a sexual deviant. Yo, biographer, get your labels right!

The book did finally get around to tracing the theoretical underpinnings and mechanical parts of the first attempts at computers. It also detailed the origins of computer programming. Reports about Alan Touring’s competitors and other similar projects underway at the same time were also discussed. That part I really enjoyed. It was the other reason I bought the book, and it delivered on its promise.

For those two sections alone–the rise of computers and wartime cryptography–I must recommend the book. They were expertly researched and presented in a clear, chronological order allowing the reader to understand how each evolved. That made up about half of the audiobook. Those sections, as well as listening to Alan Touring’s theories about machine intelligence and learning, made it worth my time and credit. I could have lived a long and happy life without the rest of the book.