A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I should like very much to thank the Facebook friend whose series of updates as she chortled her way through this book tempted me to buy it. Without that prompt I should never have considered it, so far was it from my usual fare. A graphic novel (though since reading Persepolis I’m a lot more open to that) in riotous comic-strip form, about Science and Maths (eeek!), and, the clincher, genre: Steampunk. Despite all that (as far as I am concerned), The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is a brilliant book. It’s erudite, makes difficult concepts easy, bursts with energy and invention, and is absolutely hilarious.
Sydney Padua’s background is in film, as an animator and story artist, and, in her own words ‘generally employed in making giant monsters attack people for the movies’. This is her first foray into the comic strip form, and it is a triumph. She is incredibly well-versed in the mathematics and science of the early Victorian age, and also its politics, literature and culture. All these elements are gloriously mixed up in a series of adventures for collaborators Ada, Countess of Lovelace and Charles Babbage the inventor of the Difference Engine (which did exist) and its theoretical successor the Analytical Engine.
The original comic strip told the story of the unlikely friendship between Lord Byron’s daughter Ada, shielded by her disappointed and vengeful mother from any taint of Poetry, and Charles Babbage, whose ideas and experiments we carry around everyday in our smartphones, who spent eye-watering sums of public money, and who never finished anything he started. Ada’s gifts were mathematical, and meeting Babbage led to a lifelong friendship and collaboration. In their writings, theoretical underpinnings of computer science can be found. In particular, Ada translated an Italian paper on the design of an Analytical Engine, and in footnotes that extended its length by about three times, outlined concepts such as loops and ‘if-then’ statements that foreshadow the concepts of computer programming. His Difference Engine, a pre-historic calculating machine, is all cogs and wheels and gears and flying arms. His next step, the steam-driven Analytical Engine, was never fully realised, but is an even greater gift to Steampunk. Babbage was the constructor of the machine (the Hardware), Ada’s theoretical work essentially imagined the Software – arguably inventing programming on the way. Ada lived a short, intense, unhappily-married, opium-eating and gambling-ruined life; Babbage flitted from project to project and died an elderly and disappointed man.
Having told us the life stories of Lovelace and Babbage, Sydney Padua imagines for them a mathematically plausible Pocket Universe, in which, thanks to the development of the Analytical Engine, they can Have Adventures, and Solve Mysteries. These adventures are replete with jokes – in-jokes and out-jokes. There are jewel-like treasures for lovers of literature – for example, the theory that the Person from Porlock was Ada Lovelace, the vengeful enemy of all poetry, brought up to despise her father and all that gave his wicked life meaning. There is wildly extended riff on the idea that George Eliot might have delivered a manuscript to the Analytical Engine as a primitive spell-checker, and followed it into the works herself; and a foray by Ada into Wonderland. The fearless pair also tackle an economic crisis and encounter Isambard Kingdom Brunel in their effort to power the Analytical Engine with steam. A personal favourite is the story of George Boole coming to tea, paralysed by indecision on being asked how he took it (this is a library in-joke as well as a computing one). The characterisation of the likes of Brunel, George Eliot, Queen Victoria and Coleridge is taken from contemporary portraits, and captures their personalities brilliantly.
These adventures are impeccably researched and fully referenced. Footnotes and endnotes contain the sources for the dialogue, and a commentary on the mathematics, science and history. At the end, there is a fully developed account of what the Analytical Engine might have been had it left the imaginary drawing-board of Babbage’s and Lovelace’s minds. The energy and hilarity of these adventures bound off the page. I am in no position to judge, but I am reliably informed that the science and mathematics are entirely sound and imaginatively realised.
Every generation seems to need to rediscover the story of Lord Byron’s doomed marriage to Annabella Milbanke, the ‘Princess of the Parallelograms’, and the life of their daughter Ada, mathematical genius and computer programming pioneer. Ada’s mathematical prowess was a bit of a curiosity when I first found out about her, over forty years ago, when a computer filled a whole house. But her life story has gained more and more resonance in the intervening years, as so many of us build our lives around carrying in our pocket more calculating power than that house-full of valves and relays did. This book is a wonderful tribute to her and her mentor and collaborator Charles Babbage – creative, erudite, affectionate and very, very funny. I can think of no better way for a reader who is daunted by the subject of mathematics and computing to feel very well-informed as well as vastly entertained.
Let me make it clear: I think you should buy the book (or borrow it from the library). It is a lovely piece of book production, apart from anything else. My one reservation is that those with varifocals (like me) might find the reading area of their specs are not quite up to reading the footnotes with ease (which is a tribute to how dense they are with information and commentary). To read at a stretch it can be exhausting in its energy, but to dip into, chapter by chapter, it is a wonderful tonic. However, it is possible to get a flavour of the amazing world of Lovelace and Babbage from Sydney Padua’s website, where these comics originated:
It seems I have come late to a cult following, but am delighted to have joined it.
Sydney Padua: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. London: Particular Books, 2015. 315pp.