Book review: ‘Murmur’ by Will Eaves
Image credit: Dreamstime
An exploration of the mind of Alan Turing during his final months is ambitious, but does the brilliant man justice.
Alan Turing was one of those very rare people who can unquestionably be described as a genius. In 41 years, he played a leading role in cracking the Nazi Enigma code – likely shortening the Second World War by years – founded the fields of theoretical computing and artificial intelligence, and wrote early influential papers on mathematical biology.
There is hardly an aspect of Turing’s story that is not deeply thrilling, fascinating or moving. As such, many depictions of Turing’s life are forced to narrow their focus in order to fully explore that aspect of him. The 2014 Hollywood film 'The Imitation Game', for instance, moulded its narrative around the efforts to break the Enigma code at Bletchley Park, while setting aside Turing’s – arguably far more interesting – theoretical work.
Will Eaves’ 'Murmur' (CB Editions, £8.99, ISBN 9781909585263) is ambitious, setting out to explore numerous aspects of Turing’s life and work in the space of a short novel. The book is narrated by an Alan Turing analogue ('Alec Pryor') nearing his death, following a prosecution for gross indecency that resulted in him being forced to undergo chemical castration via a year of regular hormone injections.
Turing/Pryor begins by reflecting on the events leading to his arrest and how his life has changed since then. In the space of just 176 pages, we are whisked on a dizzying trip through his musings on mathematics, machines, consciousness, desire, sexuality, transformation and loss, as well as on his own past. Glancing inside this mind is like flickering between a hundred radio channels, all of which are broadcasting a great scientist or philosopher speaking intimately about their work.
Much of the novel is an exploration of Turing/Pryor’s subconscious. As the drugs begin to tamper with his mind as well as his body, he enters a series of dreams populated by figures from the past (most movingly his first love, who died of tuberculosis as a teenager) and ideas inspired by Schrödinger, Orpheus, Ovid, Escher and Disney’s Snow White. These dreamlike sequences are punctuated with present-day correspondence between Turing/Pryor and his once-fiancée.
Turing/Pryor contemplates his cruel sentence with wit and scientific curiosity. He compares himself and others to observable particles and to thinking machines; to this man, the personal and the scientific are inseparable. One page in, and he is regaling a new lover on the nature of ‘learning machines’. He compares the events leading to his arrest to tessellation. He addresses the computers of the future as though they were his children or students: “You are my afterlife, my work, and I need you to go on after me […] You will, perhaps, be lonelier than us, because you will accomplish everything so fast and time will seem pointlessly long.”
'Murmur' is not a lightweight yarn, but perhaps - given Turing's brilliant, eclectic genius - that would not do him justice. No-one can be sure of what went through Turing’s mind in the final months before his suicide, but 'Murmur' – a weaving, witty text packed with insight about the future – feels entirely believable.