Turing in Fiction — Greg Egan’s “Oracle”

Days to Centenary: 219

There is a small but not insignificant body of fiction which features Alan Turing as a character.  With great good luck it turns out that some very good examples of the oevre are available free online.

Greg Egan is a Hugo Award-winning Turing Elf, an Australian science fiction writer whom I have been aware of for a long time, but never quite got around to reading until now, which immediately made me realize that I should have been reading him for years.

The occasion for me to finally get around to sampling his work is a story of his from 2000 entitled Oracle that does several things at once.

First, it asks the question that is so often asked around the imaginary living room that this blog would have if it were in meatspace rather than cyberspace: what if Alan Turing had lived?

Second, it also — rather ambitiously, and I would say successfully — asks the question: how can one write a story based on the previous question  and make the manner in which he survived a real feature of the story rather than just a cheap device?

Finally, it asks the question: what would happen if you put Alan Turing and C.S. Lewis in a cage match battle over the reality or otherwise of the existence of the Christian God.

C.S. Lewis [This image is by Sigurdur Jonsson and can be found here]

C.S. Lewis

Now, not having read anything else that Egan has written (an oversight I intend to remedy as soon as possible), I can’t say whether he’s an extremely fine writer who can regularly pose difficult challenges for himself and then handle them with aplomb or if the day he wrote this was just a really, really good day.  I suspect it’s the former — I even have at least a little bit of C.S. Lewis-like faith that it is — but the Turing in me points out that as yet I have no evidence either way.

However that may be, this story rocks.  Egan’s reputation is as a writer of hard science fiction, and his use of science in the story — to my amateur’s eye, anyway — is persuasive enough to at least not interfere with the suspension of disbelief despite some unprecedented events.  He imbues both of the main characters with a genuine breath of life.  He captures and holds your attention from start to finish (or at least he did mine).  And he allows his characters to do real battle over an important question without making either one of them a dumbass straw man.

If you want to find out more about the story, see some reader reactions, and  browse some “if you liked that then you’ll probably also like this” recommendations, check out its entry on the excellent Mathematical Fiction.

But before you do that, read the story.  As Alex said in that charming/creepy voice of his in Clockwork Orange “You – are – invited!”  Greg Egan’s Oracle.

[The image of Lewis is by Sigurdur Jonsson and can be found here]

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