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Thursday, September 27, 2012
Reading List: Turing & Burroughs
- Rucker, Rudy.
Turing & Burroughs.
Los Gatos, CA: Transreal Books, 2012.
The enigmatic death of
has long haunted those
who inquire into the life of this pioneer of computer
science. Forensic tests established cyanide poisoning
as the cause of his death, and the inquest ruled it
suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple. But the
partially-eaten apple was never tested for cyanide, and
Turing's mother, among other people close to him, believed the death an
accident, due to ingestion of cyanide fumes from an
experiment in gold plating he was known to be conducting.
Still others pointed out that Turing, from his wartime
knew all the deepest secrets
of Britain's wartime work in cryptanalysis, and having been
shamefully persecuted by the government for his
homosexuality, might have been considered a security risk and
targeted to be silenced by dark forces of the state.
This is the point of departure for this delightful
alternative history romp set in the middle of the 1950s. In the novel,
Turing is presumed to have gotten much further with his work
than history records. So far,
in fact, that when agents from Her Majesty's spook shop
botch an assassination attempt and kill his lover instead,
he is able to swap faces with him and flee the country
to the anything-goes international zone of Tangier.
There, he pursues his biological research, hoping to create
a perfect undifferentiated tissue which can transform itself
into any structure or form. He makes the acquaintance of
William S. Burroughs,
who found in Tangier's
demimonde a refuge from the scandal of the death of his wife
in Mexico and his drug addiction. Turing eventually succeeds,
creating a lifeform dubbed the “skug”, and
merges with it, becoming a skugger. He
quickly discovers that his endosymbiont has not only
dramatically increased his intelligence, but also made him
a shape-shifter—given the slightest bit of DNA, a
skugger can perfectly imitate its source.
And not just that…. As Turing discovers when he
recruits Burroughs to skugdom, skuggers are able to enskug
others by transferring a fragment of skug tissue
to them; they can conjugate, exchanging
(memories and acquired characteristics); and they are telepathic among
one another, albeit with limited range. Burroughs, whose explorations
of pharmaceutical enlightenment had been in part motivated by a search
for telepathy (which he called TP), found he rather liked being a
skugger and viewed it as the next step in his personal journey.
But Turing's escape from Britain failed to completely
cover his tracks, and indiscretions in Tangier brought
him back into the crosshairs of the silencers.
Shape-shifting into another identity, he boards a tramp
steamer to America, where he embarks upon a series of
adventures, eventually joined by Burroughs and
on the road
from Florida to Los Alamos,
New Mexico, Burroughs's childhood stomping grounds,
co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb and,
like Turing, fascinated with how simple computational
systems such as
can mimic the gnarly
processes of biology, has been enlisted to put an end to
the “skugger menace”—perhaps a greater
threat than the international communist conspiracy.
Using his skugger wiles, Turing infiltrates Los Alamos
and makes contact, both physically and intellectually,
with Ulam, and learns the details of the planned assault on
the skugs and vows to do something about it—but
what? His human part pulls him one way and his skug
The 1950s are often thought of as a sterile decade,
characterised by conformity and paranoia. And yet,
if you look beneath the surface, the seeds of everything
that happened in the sixties were sown in those years.
They may have initially fallen upon barren ground, but like the
skug, they were preternaturally fertile and, once
germinated, spread at a prodigious rate.
In the fifties, the consensus culture bifurcated into
straights and beats, the latter of which Burroughs and Ginsberg
were harbingers and rôle models for the emerging dissident
subculture. The straights must have viewed the beats as
alien—almost possessed: why else would they reject
the bounty of the most prosperous society in human
history which had, just a decade before, definitively
defeated evil incarnate? And certainly the beats must
have seen the grey uniformity surrounding them as also
a kind of possession, negating the human potential in
favour of a cookie-cutter existence, where mindless
consumption tried to numb the anomie of a barren suburban
life. This mutual distrust and paranoia was to fuel
such dystopian visions as
Invasion of the Body
with each subculture seeing the other as pod people.
In this novel, Rucker immerses the reader in the beat
milieu, with the added twist that here they really are
pod people, and loving it. No doubt the beats considered
themselves superior to the straights. But what if they
actually were? How would the straights react,
and how would a shape-shifting, telepathic, field-upgradable
Among the many treats awaiting the reader is the author's
meticulous use of British idioms when describing Turing's
thoughts and Burroughs's idiosyncratic grammar in the
letters in his hand which appear here.
This novel engages the reader to such an extent that it's
easy to overlook the extensive research that went into
making it authentic, not just superficially, but in depth.
Readers interested in what goes into a book like this
will find the author's
background notes (PDF)
fascinating—they are almost as long as the novel.
I wouldn't, however, read them before finishing
the book, as spoilers lurk therein.
A Kindle edition is available either from Amazon
or directly from the publisher,
where an EPUB edition is also available (with other formats forthcoming).
I don't do “process” in book reviews, but here
at Fourmilog we're all about sources and methods. The
above review was written and edited entirely on an iPad
with Apple's Pages application. I found this a
wonderful way to occupy the time during an
airline and train journey. Yes, the iPad on-screen
keyboard can be irritating, yet even so I find
researching and writing makes the time pass ever more quickly
than just reading.