Saturday, August 08, 2015

Steampunk Surprise: "The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage", by Sydney Padua

I am so happy that my husband bought me a copy of this book!

I had been seeing it around, but I was really hesitant to pick it up.


Well, as a woman in software engineering, I'm painfully aware of what a controversial figure Ada Lovelace is. She's been hailed as the inventor of computer programming -- which has led to some incredibly virulent backlash, accusing her of having been some sort of hack who merely copied down other people's ideas without even really understanding them herself.

Now, let's not kid ourselves. If a man had written the article Lovelace wrote, There's no way we'd see the same sorts of ferocious efforts to prove him incompetent. OTOH, if it had been a man, we hardly would have heard about him at all. He'd probably be accepted as the "father of computer programming" by some... in kind of a footnotey, nobody-cares kinda way. But in my line of work, it's dangerous to talk about sexism unless you want a ton of it to rain down on your head, so I wasn't terribly interested in miring myself in this controversy. Thus a book that looked like it was probably a sunny-and-dry retelling of team Lovelace's side of the story didn't jump out at me as something that would be appealing.

Boy was I wrong!!

Surprisingly, the author used the oldest trick in the book for dealing with an acrimonious controversy: present the evidence. The primary sources. And then even-handedly discuss the controversy in light of the evidence.

Now, if that sounds more boring to you than "a sunny-and-dry retelling of team Lovelace's side of the story," here's the genius of it -- it's not boring at all -- it's wildly fun and entertaining!! Quite sincerely, I think the author of this book has invented a new genre, and a brilliant one at that. Here's how it works:

Padua took various primary sources (contemporaneous writings by or about Babbage and/or Lovelace and/or other famous people they met) and wrote fictional scenes around them (including some set in the author's invented alternate universe for them). Then Padua wrote footnotes that interact with the story by giving the rest of the (real) story.

This is an absolutely brilliant way of synergising the best parts of history and historical fiction. Plain history has a difficult relationship with objectivity, and is at its driest when striving to be objective. Historical fiction is fun and can leave objectivity aside -- but constantly leaves me curious about which bits are historical and which bits are fiction. The author of this work found the magic formula to combine them!

This work is at once great and truly pioneering. If there's a canon of graphic novels, this one deserves a top slot.