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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reading List: Turing & Burroughs

Rucker, Rudy. Turing & Burroughs. Los Gatos, CA: Transreal Books, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9858272-3-6.
The enigmatic death of Alan Turing 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 work at Bletchley Park, 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 on biological morphogenesis 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 novelist 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 “wetware” (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 Allen Ginsberg, on the road from Florida to Los Alamos, New Mexico, Burroughs's childhood stomping grounds, where Stanislaw Ulam, co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb and, like Turing, fascinated with how simple computational systems such as cellular automata 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 another.

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 Snatchers, 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 counterculture respond?

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).

Fourmilog epilogue. 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.

Posted at September 27, 2012 00:46