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Review: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

a madman dreams of turing machines Review: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

The lessons of'A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines are hinted at by its name, which is titularly reminiscent of Philip K Dick's'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: before even opening the book, the reader is challenged to query certainty, completeness, and agency. And from there on in, it is a haunting, poignant read, and one that poses all manner of epistemological questions, as well as those relating to free will and reality. Having finished the novel at around midnight last night, I prodded my poor boyfriend awake perhaps to discuss with him its contents, but perhaps also to prove to myself our combined existence (or, at least, belief in our existence).

Physicist Janna Levin's first novel is a fictionalised biography of the lives of noted mid-twentieth century mathematicians Kurt Godel and Alan Turing. It is a book that, like the theoretical conceptions of the two geniuses whose lives it discusses, challenges borders and boundaries: its very definition as either a novel or a biography is hazy, something alluded to by the occasional intrusion into the text by the novel's narrator, who may well be the author, although given the nature of this book, it is impossible to be sure.

Despite the fact that they never quite manage to meet in person, there is a reciprocal interaction between the work of these two mathematicians, with Godel challenging the work of Wittgenstein with his theory of incompleteness, and Turing drawing on this notion with his ideas of truth and 'undecidability', both of which draw on the paradox of the liar. Similarly, Levin draws parallels between the lived realities of the two, likening them in attitude and approach: both struggle with social interactions, Godel suffering from delusions and paranoia, and Turing's Asperger-like syndrome causing him to struggle with empathy and understanding; both, too, suffer from food-related issues that whilst stemming from separate causes, ultimately result in the death of both men, Godel from self-induced starvation designed to prove the existence of free will, and Turing from a cyanide-laced apple that is the final answer in his struggle with undecidability.

Levin carefully and beautifully recreates the lives of her protagonists, her boisterous and effusive language creating a sort of echo chamber of words and experiences. The cringing desperation with which each man, scarcely more than a child, struggles to survive, is palpable, and it is almost with relief that the reader watches them give themselves over in totality to mathematics, which to each is the only constant in their painfully fragmented, stunted lives. The extent of each man's genius is staggering, sobering, and the narrator carefully follows their strange whims and self-destructive eccentricities as they seek solace in the purity of mathematics.

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines is a book that resonates on a number of levels, much as its characters do; indeed, at times it seems to be a meta-book, representing the representations contained within. I found myself breathlessly lost within its pages, seduced into the confusing morass of the tragic lives of Godel and Turing, only to emerge on the last excruciating pages with a hundred questions about truth, reality, and the existence or otherwise of both.

Highly recommended.

5 stars Review: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

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  1. r. michael johnson /

    I enjoyed this review immensely. Thanks!

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