Super-Nerd Benedict Cumberbatch, Who Already Has a Geek Hat-Trick, May Star in Alan Turing Biopic

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Days since the Centenary: 224

Days to the Bicentennial: 36,300

I was talking with my business partner Saul–who is the other half of–the other day and we were speculating about which existing Star Trek villain might get reprised in the new movie, Star Trek Into Darkness.

Saul ventured that it was probably the great Khan Noonien Singh, played with awesome dignity and dangerousness by Ricardo Montalbán in the original series episode “Space Seed” and in the second ST movie (he is also a character in several ST novels and doubtless in some of the famous slash fiction that notoriously emerged from the series).

Benedict Cumberbatch: Man or Script File?

Benedict Cumberbatch: Khan or Khan’t?

I said I hoped he was right, because they’re almost certain to bring back Khan at some point, and if anyone can do the character justice it will be Benedict Cumberbatch, who is known to play the villain in the next movie (though the identity of the villain is, as I write this, still under wraps).

Then, yesterday, came the news that Cumberbatch appears poised to play Turing in the biopic that caused such a fuss last year when the screenplay sold for a large (though undisclosed) sum on the strength of Leonardo DiCaprio wanting to star. Some time ago DiCaprio dropped out, now it seems Cumberbatch is likely to take over.

Which is good news for Turing fans, because Cumberbatch is an awesome actor (although the A.V. Club alleges that he’s not an actor, in fact not even a human being, but rather a “complex script file that allows users to produce the most British person possible”). And Cumberbatch’s star power can only help in terms of actually getting the film made.

I want to pause, though, to consider just what a geeky conquest this is for the actor. In the headline I referred to this as a hat trick, because:

  • Cumberbatch already plays Julian Assange in an upcoming biopic (see image below),
  • he’s in the Hobbit trilogy (he plays a role and also voices Smaug the dragon), and
  • he’s in the aforementioned Star Trek movie.

Now it appears he’ll play Turing, too. Maybe I should have said he’s scored a–well, whatever the hell the word is that’s like hat trick but means scoring four goals in one game instead of three (I am nerding out at the moment, so don’t ask me to recall sports things).

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in a still from The Fifth Estate

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in a still from The Fifth Estate

And, lest we forget, Cumberbatch already plays Sherlock Holmes, who is nothing if not the uber-nerd (though a coke-snorting nerd who’s good with his fists).

All of which is not even to mention that he’s signed on to star in the upcoming sort-of-Monty-Python movie, which involves four surviving Pythons. Nerd-gasm anyone?

This can only mean one thing: I look forward to his inevitable role as the newest character on The Big Bang Theory.

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The End of the Alan Turing Year–And the Beginning of the Bicentennial

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Days to the Bicentennial: 36,333

What an awesome year for Turing fans–which in the computer age is pretty much everyone, whether they know it or not.

Still, at long last the Alan Turing Year is drawing to a close. As of midnight tonight, it will officially all be over. But the Turing-verse has never been constrained by official notions.

I’ve written a number of times about the people I call Turing Elves–people who create works or undertake endeavors that honour, explore, memorialize, or otherwise focus upon Alan Turing and his work without any official sanction, without asking anyone’s permission.

I think Turing Elvery is an especially appropriate way to recall Turing. After all, this was a scientist who–despite having worked at the highest levels of officialdom during the war–began his enquiries on his own, and continued them after the world of officials had condemned and rejected him. And quite apart from his work as a scientist, this was a man who ignored social disapproval with regard to sexual preference, persisting in doing so even after he was convicted criminally for having had gay sex. Doing things for their own sake, and doing them whether or not others approved, was a key theme in his life. It might be too  recursive to call Turing the first Turing Elf, but he certainly set the ball rolling.

And long before the Alan Turing Year was a sparkle in anyone’s eye, Andrew Hodges  began work on his biography of Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma. It has recently been issued in an excellent new centennial edition and is now not only a  classic work within the Turing-verse but also in the world of scientific biography generally. Throughout the Alan Turing Year, Hodges has been a key member of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee–in other words, an official of sorts–but back then he was a Turing Elf. Maybe he was the first.

Not long after Hodges finished his biography, science fiction author Greg Bear wrote “Tangents,” a short story featuring a protagonist clearly based on Turing that was  first published in Omni magazine in January 1986. It went on to win the Hugo and Nebula awards and to be anthologized several times and it set the precedent for a whole lineage of fictional incarnations of Alan Turing. Bear, too, was a Turing Elf and remains enthusiastic about Turing Elvery in general.

The trend has continued, not only in written works, but in sculpture, street art and graffiti, painting, music, drama (on stage, film, and television), and in many other forms. (I’m still waiting for the Turing opera–apparently there’s one on the way.)

And the Turing Elvery will continue, I suspect even more energetically than before the centenary took place.

As part of it, this page will continue. In theory it’s now counting down the days to the bicentennial–just as it counted down the days until the centenary began. Who knows if web pages, as such, will even exist in 2112, but the countdown signals the intention to keep this page going and the spirit of the Turing celebrations alive even after 2012 has ended.

And I will be continuing with other forms of Elvery. I am at work on Conjuring Turing: The Fictional Afterlife of Alan Turing, a book for the general reader about the sub-genre of fiction that started with Greg Bear’s story “Tangents” and now includes a wide variety of authors working in several different literary traditions.

The book will include, where possible, interviews with the authors of the works under discussion. So far I’ve found the authors I’ve contacted to be very enthusiastic, even Greg Bear, whose story first appeared almost 30 years ago.

Here’s an update:

  • I’ve already interviewed Rudy Rucker about his novel, published earlier this year, Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel. Turing & Burroughs is a potent surrealistic roller coaster ride that not only celebrates Turing, but also features Rucker’s note-perfect literary impersonation of Beat author William Burroughs. You can read the interview here.
  • I’m in the process of interviewing Christos Papadimitriou, the author of Turing (A Novel About Computation).
  • Recently Greg Bear himself has agreed to be part of the project, and that interview is underway. You can find the story “Tangents” in his short story collection of the same name.
  • Paul Morris, the author of the children’s book Time Traveller Danny and the Codebreaker (part of the Time Traveller Kids series) has also signed on. He very kindly sent me a copy of his book, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which I recommend for any kid who enjoys a great time travel yarn (as well as for any adult who likes a good story, especially anyone with a passing interest in our boy Alan).

So, for anyone who’s sad to see the Alan Turing Year go, take heart! The official year was great, but it was the icing on the cake–the official expression of an enterprise that started a long time ago and won’t be stopping any time soon.

And stay tuned to this page–it’s not going anywhere.

Posted in Alan Turing Year 2012, Conjuring Turing: The Fictional Afterlife of Alan Turing, Turing-elves | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Illuminating Alan Turing With The Caustic Effect

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Days since the Centenary: 144
Days to the Bicentennial: 36,380

The Turing Elves are at it again.

(Really? It’s almost the end of the Alan Turing Year and you haven’t encountered the term “Turing Elf” before? See the tab at the top or just click here.)

What have this band of Merry Mathematiphile Pranksters done today? Well, some folks over at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have been experimenting with the caustic effect, which Science Codex explains thusly:

This “caustic” effect is well known and easy to observe; a bit of sunlight shining on a pool of water produces patterns that dance on the surrounding tiles or walls. These undulating lines, apparently random, are generated by light that hits the moving surface of a pool or puddle. This effect, which is very mobile and dynamic in liquid, produces static patterns with solid transparent materials such as glass or transparent acrylic (better known as Plexiglass).

Their idea was to create a program that would allow them to shape a piece of glass or plexiglass or other material into a structure that would bend and focus light so that it would produce an image.

There’s nothing embedded in the material, and no image is imprinted upon it. Instead it is molded into a shape that will produce the desired effect when held in the correct relation to a light source and a target surface. That sounds all complex, and in fact it’s difficult to do, but once you see it, it’s easy to understand the theory.

Here’s an image of the caustic effect at work–and this is where the Elves make their appearance. Note whose portrait the folks at the Ecole chose to create.

The caustic effect, put to Turing Elf use.

The caustic effect, put to Turing Elf use.

If you want a more lucid explanation than I’ve given (and in a cool accent to boot), check out the video below.

I told you. Those fricken’ elves just never sleep.

[To find out more, see report from the Ecole here.]

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A Turing-less World

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Days since the Centenary: 136
Days to the Bicentennial: 36,388

In theory the Alan Turing Year is winding down–it has less than two months to go–but in fact it doesn’t seem to be slowing much.

Here’s one of the latest testaments to Turing’s place in history: a detailed speculation on whether the Second World War might have turned out very differently if he hadn’t existed.

Now, counterfactual speculation is always tricky, so whatever conclusion one reaches in an exercise like this will always be open to attack. Whatever your conclusion, someone can find traction to make an argument against it. There are simply too many variables.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about going through this exercise with Turing, then, is simply that you have to ask the question very seriously. Because it’s entirely realistic to say that without him the war might have ended very differently indeed, and there are not many people about whom you can say that.

In this case the person doing the speculating is Jack Copeland, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing.

Professor Jack Copeland

Professor Jack Copeland

We’ve seen Professor Copeland on this page before, most notably in Alan Turing & The Suicide Question. Copeland is conducting this historical exercise on the web page Big Questions Online.

Big Questions Online interrogates the possibility of history without Alan Turing.

Big Questions Online interrogates the possibility of history without Alan Turing.

For a Turing scholar, Copeland is admirably restrained in his assessment of the possible effect of not having had Turing’s contribution to the Allied war effort.

That restraint on Copeland’s part, that conservatism, gives his estimate of the difference between the world with Turing and the world without him even greater impact than a more free-wheeling scenario might have had.

History records that the allied armies took roughly a year to fight their way from the beaches to Berlin. In a counterfactual scenario, in which Hitler had had more time to consolidate his preparations, this struggle might have taken much longer—twice as long maybe. That translates into a very large number of lives. At a conservative estimate, each year of fighting in Europe brought on average about seven million deaths… these colossal numbers of lives—7 million had the war continued for another year, 21 million if, owing to the Atlantic U-boats and a strengthened Fortress Europe, the war had toiled on for as long as another three years—do most certainly convey a sense of the magnitude of Turing’s contribution.

The number of lives at stake is so large that even if you cut them arbitrarily in half, or quarter them, they’re still vast.

The number of people who would have suffered and died rather than having lived out their lives is immense. The number of their descendents who would not have been born, millions of them alive today, is even greater. Maybe it even includes you.

Even putting aside Turing’s other achievements–his continuing legacy in computer science and artificial intelligence, not to mention his later work in biology–that’s one hell of a legacy.

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A Turing Halloween, the Sequel

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Days since the Centenary: 130
Days to the Bicentennial: 36,394

So I’ve been busy lately, as any regular visitors to this site can probably tell, in part with my new Turing book project (if you missed that announcement, see the post Interview: Rudy Rucker Brings Alan Turing Back From The Dead + A Surprise Announcement).

My schedule having been what it is, I didn’t prepare a Halloween post in advance this year. Last year I posted On Hallowe’en I Wore My Homo Sapiens Costume, which included photos of an Alan Turing jack-o-lantern. But this year I was busy and, as much as I love Halloween, it has no particular tie to Turing.

Or maybe it does — some deep, supernatural connection I’m not aware of — because the Turing-Elves weren’t content to let the day go by without connecting the day to the man.

Enter Oscar, a software engineer in San Mateo, California (home to actor Barry Bostwick who, on a Halloween note, so adeptly played the character of Brad in the movie version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Oscar was participating in an office pumpkin-carving event and settled on the idea of creating a jack-o-lantern honoring a luminary from computer history.

Clearly Oscar is a man of discerning taste (not to mention a fan of the classics and a celebrant of the Alan Turing Year), because rather than creating a portrait of another worthy contender (maybe Ada Lovelace or Steve Jobs) he decided to create his own version of a Turing pumpkin.

He was also good enough to send me a few photos, so here I am, creating another Turing/Halloween post. Looks like it’s turning into a tradition.

Here are Oscar’s pics. Happy Halloween everyone and I look forward to seeing you all again next year!

Transferring Turing''s likeness to the pumpkin.

Transferring Turing”s likeness to the pumpkin.

Turing takes shape.

Turing takes shape.

Voila! Finis!

Voila! Finis!

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Interview: Rudy Rucker Brings Alan Turing Back From The Dead + A Surprise Announcement

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Days since the Centenary: 87
Days to the Bicentennial: 36,437

It’s our birthday! Well, sort of.

This site will be one year old on October 3, but we’re celebrating early with two seriously cool announcements.

Announcement Number One

First, I’ve just conducted an interview with Rudy Rucker, computer scientist, science fiction writer, and two-time winner of the Philip K. Dick Award (for his books Software and Wetware, both part of the Ware Tetralogy).

Rucker is generally considered — along with  William GibsonBruce SterlingPat Cadigan, and others — to be one of the pioneers of the science fiction sub-genre that became known as cyberpunk.

The subject of the interview? Rucker’s new book, Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel, which has just gone on sale today.

Rudy Rucker

Rudy Rucker

This novel is a surreal romp through postwar England, Tangier, and America that combines the eerie black humor of William Burroughs, the garish carnival colors of a 1950s science fiction movie, and Rucker’s unique voice.

The Ware Tetralogy, flanked by Software and Wetware

The Ware Tetralogy, flanked by Software and Wetware

Here’s the jacket copy for Turing & Burroughs:

What if Alan Turing, founder of the modern computer age, escaped assassination by the secret service to become the lover of Beat author William Burroughs? What if they mutated into giant shapeshifting slugs, fled the FBI, raised Burroughs’s wife from the dead, and tweaked the H-bombs of Los Alamos? A wild beatnik adventure, compulsively readable, hysterically funny, with insane warps and twists—and a bad attitude throughout.

And that ain’t the half of it. This book has more inventive ideas per page (among other redeeming qualities) than you can shake a fricken’ stick at.

It digs deep and yet moves quickly, with a bouncy energy. It portrays real historical figures in note-perfect performances. And it just may contain a mild hallucinogen that’s absorbed through the fingertips as you flip the pages.

Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel

Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel

So, we’ll get to the interview itself in a moment, but first: the second announcement.

Announcement Number Two

Why was I interviewing Rudy Rucker?

Not just because he was about to publish a novel that featured Alan Turing, although that would have been reason enough.

Repeat readers of this page will know that I’m the author of a science fiction novel, Luck and Death at the Edge of the World, that also features Alan Turing, although in my case he doesn’t appear in person.

The Fallen World Books so far: Luck & Death and Felon and the Judas Kiss and Los Angeles Honey.

The Fallen World Books so far: Luck & Death, Felon and the Judas Kiss, and Los Angeles Honey.

When I was researching and writing Luck & Death, I discovered that there were far more short stories and novels featuring Alan Turing as a character (or as a significant off-stage presence, as in Luck & Death) than I had ever imagined.

The flesh and blood Turing died decades ago, but he has recently acquired an impressive roster of fictional incarnations, from his star turn in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, to his less well-known performance in John L. Casti’s The Cambridge Quintet, to his role as a lurking off-screen influence in Charlie Stross’s The Atrocity Archives

Some of the other Turing fiction available.

Some of the other Turing fiction available.

So several months ago I began work on a new book — unannounced until now — called Conjuring Turing, The Fictional Afterlife of Alan Turing, which will take stock of this sub-genre in a way that I hope will be interesting for Turing geeks and Turing noobs alike.

Wherever possible, I will not just discuss a story or book, I’ll also interview the author, and the first of those interviews is the one with Rudy Rucker, which you’re about to read.

The next interview will be with Christos Papadimitriou, another computer scientist turned novelist, who is the author of Turing (A Novel About Computation).

Christos Papadimitriou, with the textbook he co-authored (with Turing on the cover) and his novel.

Christos Papadimitriou, with the textbook he co-authored (showing Turing on the cover) and his Turing novel.

The Rucker Interview

So there you have it, two books to enjoy.

Turing & Burroughs you can dig into immediately by way of instant download — details are available on Rucker’s page.

Conjuring Turing will give you something to look forward to.

And now, on to the interview. The unusual numbering of the questions and answers is to allow this interview to be added to Rucker’s ever-growing collection entitled All The Interviews.


Long May He Wave: Nas Hedron interviews Rudy Rucker about his book, Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel (September 13, 2012)

Appearing from Transreal Books, September 22, 2012

Q 363. I wonder if you can set the stage for us with reference to Alan Turing, you, and writing. Who was Alan Turing to you before you wrote Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel? And what gave you the impulse to write your novel about him?

A 363. In the course of getting my Ph.D. in mathematical logic, I learned the technical details of Turing’s theorems about the idealized computers that came to be called Turing machines. I read his epochal 1937 paper “On Computable Numbers numerous times, and I was struck by the clarity and the depth of his thought.

Being interested in the possibilities of intelligent machines, I also studied Turing’s 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” a non-technical paper in which he proposes the so-called Turing imitation game as a test for true AI: you might say that a program is intelligent if you can’t tell it from a human when you’re exchanging emails with it. It’s worth noting that Turing initially framed his “imitation game” in terms of someone trying to distinguish between a woman and a man.

Later I became interested in using so-called cellular automata programs to simulate the patterns that emerge in the tissues of plants and animals—patterns like the the spots on leopards, the markings­ on butterfly wings, the zigzags on South Pacific cone shells. This is what Turing was working on near the end of his life. In 1952 he published an amazing paper, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” In the morphogenesis paper he explains how, by dint of days of hand computation, he emulated a biological cellular automaton process to produce irregular black spots like you might see on the side of a brindle cow.

To me Turing is a heroic and inspiring figure. He worked on deeply fascinating things without getting lost in merely technical mathematics.

The other compelling aspect of the Turing story is that he was openly gay, he was persecuted for it, and that he had a strange and tragic death—which is usually described as a suicide.

Regarding Turing’s death by cyanide poisoning, I’ve always felt there’s a real possibility that he was in fact assassinated by agents of the British government. This seems even likelier now that we know Turing was involved in a top-secret code-breaking effort during World War II. In the 1950s, there was a collective hysteria over the possibility of homosexuals being a security risk.

Before I began contemplating my own novel, I’d read some stories and plays about Turing. But I didn’t feel that any of these works captured the vibrant image of Turing that I wanted to project. There can be a tendency to write about homosexuality in a lugubrious tone—as if a homosexual is a pathetic person who’s afflicted with a lethal disease. But Turing was anything but downcast about his predilections.

In the spring of 2007, I wrote a short story about Turing, “The Imitation Game.” And this story later came to be the first chapter of my novel. In the short story, Turing escapes being poisoned by British government agents. And to escape, he swaps appearances with his dead male lover. And here comes the science fiction: Turing grows two new faces by using principles that he described in that paper where he generates the shape of a spot on a black-and-white cow.

As sometimes happens to me, I had difficulty in selling my story. Maybe it wasn’t sufficiently solemn and lugubrious—and I was presenting Turing was a gay outsider, heedless of proprieties, and by no means a victim. In any case, in 2008 my story appeared in the British magazine Interzone and in 2010 in The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories, edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates.

Early on, I began wondering if there might be some way to expand my Turing story into a novel. At the end of my story, Turing escapes to Tangier, and I formed the notion that he ought to connect with the Beat writer William Burroughs, who was living there at that time. Two brilliant men, gay, outcast—perhaps they’d hit it off.

I’ve been a huge Burroughs fan ever since I first came across an excerpt of Naked Lunch in the beatnik magazine, The Evergreen Review—this would have been back in 1960, when I was fourteen. My big brother had a subscription to the magazine, and I’d leaf through it, looking for smut. Instead I found a literary career.

I particularly admire the irresponsible and laceratingly funny style of the letters Burroughs wrote to his friends from Tangier. And so I decided to write my second Turing story in the form of letters from Burroughs to Kerouac and Ginsberg.

This second story, “Tangier Routines,” was so gleefully scabrous that I didn’t bother sending it to any magazines, science-fictional or otherwise. Instead, in the fall of 2008, I printed it in a webzine Flurb that I’d managed to start. And then in 2010 and 2011, I ran two further Turing & Burroughs stories in Flurb.

I was still unsure about how to build my tales into a full novel, but in 2010 I finally read Alan Turing: The Enigma, the wonderful biography by Andrew Hodges, And here I learned that Turing was everything I could have hoped. Stubborn, unrepentant, impulsive, and with a very warm and human personality.

I discovered that, as part of some psychological therapy he was undergoing, Turing himself made a start at writing a transreal speculative novel late in his life—and this allayed any uneasiness I’d felt about dragging his name into the gutter of science-fiction.

So why did I write a beatnik SF novel about Alan Turing? In short, I’d come to think of him as my friend, and I wanted to give his character a cool place to live.

Q 364. What interested you about bringing the mathematician Alan Turing together with the Beat writer William Burroughs?

A 364. To some extent this was a matter of convenience. I needed Turing to flee England in 1954 to escape assassination by the secret service. Even though Turing has changed his face in my novel, it seemed like he’d feel safer taking trains and ferries than in trying to get on a plane.

From my familiarity with Burroughs, I knew that Tangier was an open city at this time, a good place to take refuge—Burroughs often referred to it as Interzone. And, checking my references, I realized that he was indeed living in Tangier at this time.

Having my two heroes meet seemed perfect. Having them connect also solved a problem I was having in figuring out how to write a gay male character in an effective way.

William Burroughs is a queer writer whom I’ve always found easy to identify with. He has an outspoken zest and a defiant rudeness that make it seem cool and reasonable and entirely desirable to be a homosexual heroin addict.

Even though I myself am merely a punk SF writer, I sometimes feel a certain social opprobrium regarding my esoteric interests, and, over the years, I’ve occasionally girded myself by adopting Burroughsian attitudes and mannerisms. Wearing the old master’s character armor.

One of the challenges in writing a William Burroughs character was that I had to deal with the fact that, a couple of years before the start of my novel, Burroughs had shot and killed his wife Joan in Mexico City. At first I felt like this was too explosive and difficult to write about directly. But then I realized that I had to face the killing.

So my Turing and Burroughs end up going to to Mexico City, resurrecting Joan, and letting her run a number on Burroughs. I wanted to give Joan a voice, and to give her a chance to get even.

I wrote the Mexico City chapter from the Burroughs point of view, writing very fast. It was like I was possessed—but in a good way. The experience was heavy and ecstatic. For months I’d been anxious about writing the chapter, and all at once it was done

I’m always happy when I’m being Bill Burroughs. He didn’t give a f*ck what people think. And neither did Alan Turing.

Q 365. Its impossible to read Turing & Burroughs without comparing and contrasting Turing’s real life with his life in your novel. Two of the simplest ways in which one might develop a story about an outsider’s relationship with the world are victory and defeat. In a victory story, the outsider transforms the world into something more congenial; in a defeat story, the world crushes the outsider.

In Turing’s real life, defeat was the way things played out. But throughout much of The Turing Chronicles, it looks as though Turing is headed for victory or at least for a rapprochement. He and his allies are turning everyone into shapeshifting mutants like themselves—what you call “skuggers.” But then, at the end of your novel, you return to something closer to Turing’s real life, something like defeat. Your Turing character saves the world, and he dies. Did you plan this in advance?

A 365. That’s a very interesting question, and I hadn’t thought about this so clearly before.

I’ve always been piqued and annoyed by the defeat aspect of Turing’s actual life. Either he was goaded into suicide or he was murdered outright. So, as I mentioned before, In writing Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel, I wanted to create a world in which Turing escapes his tragic fate and lives on to have wonderful adventures.

But I knew from the start of my novel that, even though my Turing character has escaped England, he’s a marked man. The pigs, the bullies, the scumbag straight-arrows—they’re unrelenting in their efforts to bring down our Alan. So my novel takes on the quality of a long chase.

It would have been possible, at least in principle, to write a novel in which Turing manages to convert everyone in the world into a shapeshifting skugger like himself. But fairly early on, we begin to understand that this wouldn’t be a pleasant endpoint to reach. We want to be ordinary humans, not skuggers.

So I needed for Turing to somehow undo the mutations—but without killing off all the people who’d become skuggers. And this wasn’t going to be easy, with the cops and feds breathing down his neck. So before long, Turing was heading towards a world-redeeming self-sacrifice. But this felt like the most dramatic way to go. Turing as Savior. It’s a big, strong ending.

I think one can argue that Turing doesn’t truly suffer defeat here. He transcends. As the Beat writer Jack Kerouac would put it, Alan ends up safe in heaven dead. And in the context of my novel’s world, heaven is a real place.

Q 366. In Turing & Burroughs, Turing experiments with what one might call computational human flesh. This bears a certain family resemblance to “flickercladding,” the soft robot flesh you imagined in the Ware Tetralogy, in which each grain of the cladding acts as a processing unit. This particular feature of your work puts me in mind of the effects that director David Cronenberg uses in his movie version of Naked Lunch—I’m thinking of his Burroughs character’s soft, genitalia-like typewriters. Are you conscious of a reason why you like conflating computation and flesh?

A 366. I’ve always been bored by the idea of rigid, clunky, machine-like robots. I wanted robots to be funky and wiggly and sexy. I think it’s likely that if we ever have really useful and intelligent robots, they’re going to be more like tentacled octopi than like brittle ants. Of course thirty years ago, when I started writing about flickercladding and piezoplastic “moldie” robots in my Ware novels, this wasn’t at all a familiar idea.

Having gotten used to the idea of soft machines, it became natural for me to turn things around—and to have the cellular structure of human flesh become as malleable as the material of a computer display.

In my Ware novels there’s a drug called “merge” that lets people melt together inside a tub called a love puddle. And in Turing & Burroughs, a person who’s a skugger can turn into something like giant slug. There’s a scene where Turing and another skugger have sex by twisting themselves around each other while hanging from a rafter at Burroughs’s parents’ house. Mrs. Burroughs throws them out.

Reading a draft of Turing & Burroughs, my wife said, “Oh, you’re always doing this, having people merge together, it’s so icky.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s sex, isn’t it? That’s how it is.”

We’re biological organisms—we’re not computers, and we’re not machines.

Q 367. In your free downloadable book-length Notes forthe Turing & Burroughs novel, you mentioned the possibility of having J. Edgar Hoover be a character. I’m a little disappointed that he didn’t make it into the book. I had a hankering to see Turing and Hoover go head to head. What kinds of considerations are important in making decisions about what to leave out and what to put in?

A 367. My sense was that I didn’t want to put too many famous people into my book. If you overdo that, then you’re name-checking, and it gets to be like a bus tour of the homes of the stars. And the stars dazzle away the reality of the characters whose lives you want to delve into.

If I am going to recreate a historical character, I want it to be an interesting person whom I like. And for sure that’s not J. Edgar Hoover! He’s a dead horse. Just because I write something in my notes for my novels, doesn’t mean I’m really serious about using it. Often in my notes I’m just killing time and goofing around. Waiting for the Muse.

Given that I had Burroughs and Turing in my novel, I did feel that I ought to bring in some other Beats and at least one other scientist. I went for Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam.

Ulam isn’t too well known, but he did a lot of fascinating things. He helped invent the hydrogen bomb, he wrote some of the first interesting computer programs, and he worked with lava-lamp-like continuous cellular automata. His friends thought he was too scattered, too much of a playboy. My kind of guy.

I was happy to have Ginsberg and Cassady show up in a Cadillac. My friend Gregory Gibson read a draft of the novel and he said that scene was like in a circus when you see the wild clowns getting out of a car.

I held back from putting Kerouac into Turing & Burroughs, as Jack would have been too much. He would have taken over. Remember that the main Beat I wanted to write about was William Burroughs.

When I was in the middle of writing the novel, I happened to see some video footage of Burroughs at his house in Lawrence, Kansas, taken a year or two before he died. And I knew right away I could use this scenario for the last chapter of my book. So the last chapter is set as a transcript of Burroughs talking to a video camera.

“And now I’m turning off the machine.”

That’s the book’s last sentence, with Burroughs talking. I like that ending. You might say that it captures the theme of the book.

You can turn off the machines and get wiggly. Even if you’re Alan Turing. Long may he wave.

Posted in Conjuring Turing: The Fictional Afterlife of Alan Turing, Luck & Death, Rudy Rucker, Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel, William Burroughs | 1 Comment

Alan Turing in Israel

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Days since the Centenary: 75
Days to the Bicentennial: 36,449

One thing that the international Alan Turing Year has made evident as events, gathering, talks, and creative works have been unveiled, launched, or convened: even 58 years after Turing’s death there are still a lot of ideas to be mined from his work.

This becomes apparent all over again if you review some of the presentations at the Turing Centenary Conference in Israel (April 4, 2012).

Turing Centenary Conference (Israel) Agenda

Turing Centenary Conference (Israel) Agenda

The good folks who put on the event have posted a number of the lectures on Youtube for the benefit of those of us who just couldn’t make it to Israel this April.

I’m posting three of them here that are in English. Naturally some of them are in Hebrew, which is an impediment for me but for those who speak the language you can find a complete set of the videos here.

The first comes from Alfred Spector, who is Vice President of Research at Google, and who puts Turing’s work in an historical perspective in what is probably the most accessible of the three talks posted here, “From Turing to Contemporary Systems and Beyond.”

Next up is Professor Michael Rabin, with a presentation called “Turing, Church, Gödel, Computability, Complexity, and Randomization.” As a long-time proponent of aleatoric art — that is, art that embodies an element of randomness, like William Burroughs’ cut up writing — I can enjoy a lecture touching on randomization even when there are parts of it that are beyond me.

Finally, we have Professor Jacob Ziv, with his “A Non-probabilistic Approach to Classification of Individual Sequences.”

Fortunately for the non-mathematicians among us he leads with a joke.

Okay, I need to do something physical now before my brain implodes. I’m going to walk to the beach, sit under a palm tree, and watch the waves roll in off the Atlantic for a while.

Of course after this I’ll probably see the waves as disturbances travelling through spacetime accompanied by a transfer of energy, but that’s okay — science only adds awe to life.


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A Bouquet of Turing Audio Offerings

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Days since the Centenary: 69
Days to the Bicentennial: 36,455

Not surprisingly there’s been a spate of podcasts focussed on Alan Turing in the lead-up to his June 23 centenary and in its wake since then.

Here are some of the better ones. These are fundamental enough for Turing noobs while still providing something new and diverting for afficionados.

To The Best of Our Knowledge (August 19)

To the Best of Our Knowledge

To the Best of Our Knowledge on Turing

Wisconsin Public Radio produces an excellent program called To the Best of Our Knowledge (iTunes link, home page) — known to habitual listeners by the acronym TTBook — which I’ve been listening to for years.

NPR describes TTBook in this way:

Each week To the Best of Our Knowledge delivers in-depth interviews with nationally and internationally-known guests whose passion for new ideas will challenge and engage. Hosted by Jim Fleming, this interview magazine is thoughtful and penetrating, and features fascinating topics and guests.

TTBook produced a podcast composed largely of interviews called Getting to Know Turing. You can find it on iTunes or listen to it online in several sections:

BBC Discovery (June 18 & 25)

BBC's Discover on Turing

BBC’s Discover on Turing

BBC’s Discovery is another podcast I rarely miss. It launched a two-part show on Turing’s legacy that draws extensively on the BBC’s archive of historic recordings.

As with TTBook, you can find Discovery on iTunes or you can listen to the episodes online at the following links:

So, as Timothy Leary might say if he were haunting us, drop what you’re doing, tune in, and turn on the Turing.

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DiCaprio Won’t Play Turing — Who Will?

“A Great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

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Days since the Centenary: 58
Days to the Bicentennial: 36,466

News outlets are reporting (for instance here and here) that Leonardo DiCaprio is not going to play Alan Turing after all, and as a result Warner Brothers has allowed its option on the script of the Turing biopic The Imitation Game to lapse despite the fact that they paid a seven-figure sum for the option in October of last year.

See our previous post Turing Goes to Hollywood! to get background on the movie.

That doesn’t mean the project’s dead, though. J Blakeson, whose directorial  debut was the highly-regarded twisty thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed (trailer below), is still attached to direct and will reportedly be shopping the feature to other studios.

Alan Turing adjusts to life in Hollywood after learning of a biopic to be based on his life.

Alan Turing adjusts to life in Hollywood after learning of a biopic to be based on his life.

Now, I like Leonardo DiCaprio, and certainly the possibility that he would star might have helped ensure that the film got made, but his departure may not be a bad thing.

As long as The Imitation Game still hits the screen, not having DiCaprio may be a plus. I don’t doubt that he’d have done a good job, but I do worry that people (including me) might have had difficulty forgetting that that guy up there on the screen was DiCaprio and just being absorbed in the story.

For a biopic — especially of a figure who doesn’t have a strong, pre-established presence in the public mind — it may well be better to use an actor whose fame won’t intrude on the film’s main subject. Suggestions anyone? Email me at or post your nomination in the comments, below.

So will the movie get made now that it’s lost DiCaprio’s star power?

It can’t hurt to have a strong script, and The Imitation Game screenplay was at the top of  last year’s Black List, the annual collection of best un-produced screenplays. The Black List site is here and you can see a PDF of the 2011 list here.

On the other hand, in Hollywood a great script is no guarantee. We’ll post more news as it becomes available.


As we noted in our previous post about the upcoming biopic, there is already a film short related to Turing called The Imitation Game. You can watch it below.

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Pardon? MPs Take Another Shot At Clearing Turing’s Name

“A Great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

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Days since the Centenary: 32
Days to the Bicentennial: 36,492

It’s déjà vu all over again.

We’ve previously covered the question of whether or not Alan Turing should, or can, receive a pardon for his gross indecency conviction. Several times:

The Debate — Yes, Debate — Over A Pardon for Alan Turing

Grossly Indecent: Blackbeard The Pirate Gets a Pardon, Alan Turing Doesn’t

The Turing Pardon: Why Lord McNally Was Right, But Is Still Entirely Wrong

If you’re not familiar with Turing’s situation, he was convicted of gross indecency simply for having had consensual gay sex with another man. No lack of consent, no one underage, nothing like that. In the 1950s that was the law:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour

Most people now see the old law as having been the result of an irrational prejudice that we no longer embody in our legislation.

And since 2012 is Turing’s centenary and is the international Alan Turing Year, this seems like an opportune moment to clear his name.

Alan Turing dances in the midst of a ticker tape parade, with fireworks, marking the Alan Turing Year.

Alan Turing dances in the midst of a ticker tape parade, with fireworks, marking the Alan Turing Year.

After all, Turing is now scheduled to get the star treatment in a Hollywood biopic, possibly starring Leonardo DiCaprio, so why not a pardon?

Alan Turing adjusts to life in Hollywood after learning of a biopic to be based on his life.

Alan Turing adjusts to life in Hollywood after learning of a biopic to be based on his life.

The hurdle to getting Turing a pardon is a policy in the UK that requires pardons to be used exclusively in cases where there was a wrongful conviction. In Turing’s case this doesn’t apply.

The consensus now is that the law at the time was wrong and immoral, but it was the law and Turing did break it. There is case law that pretty conclusively rules out a pardon in a case such as Turing’s.

Lord Mcnally, Minister of Justice, who previously invoked the policy to deny a pardon

Lord Mcnally, Minister of Justice, from his Parliamentary web page

I previously took the position that none of this this should be a bar to a pardon. The entire hurdle is based on a policy — even the case law is an interpretation and application of the policy — and policies can be changed, usually more easily than laws can.

Getting rid of the policy wouldn’t create havoc — pardons are regularly granted in other common law jurisdictions in a variety of circumstances, including but certainly not limited to wrongful convictions, including my native Canada.

The absence of a similar policy in these places doesn’t suddenly open the floodgates to chaos as pardons are granted willy nilly without principle. Quite the opposite — pardons in these place proceed in an orderly, principled fashion.

I stand by that position, but there’s another debate .

Behind the whole issue of whether or not a pardon is available is the question of whether Turing should get one when other gay men don’t. Some people believe that Turing’s contributions to science and to the Allied victory in World War II justify his receiving an exceptional pardon.

Others — me included — believe that any pardon for Turing should come as part of a package that provides a similar pardon for everyone who was convicted of nothing more than having gay sex. It’s worth noting that there are men still alive today who have to live with a criminal record for no reason other than that they had sex with another man, something that today wouldn’t merit passing mention much less all the trouble that comes with a conviction.

Now there’s a new private members bill that might allow us to circumvent the policy and get Turing a pardon after all, but it wouldn’t actually get rid of the policy, it would just create an exception to it for one man.

Here’s the text of the bill in its entirety.

A Bill to give a statutory pardon to Alan Mathison Turing for offences under section 11 of the Criminal Amendment Act 1885 of which he was convicted on 31 March 1952.
BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—
1 Statutory Pardon of Alan Mathison Turing
(1) Alan Mathison Turing, who was born on 23 June 1912 and died on 8 June 1954, and who was convicted of offences under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (gross indecency between men) at the Quarter Sessions at Knutsford in Cheshire on 31 March 1952, is to be taken to be pardoned for those offences.
(2) This Act does not affect any conviction or sentence or give rise to any right, entitlement or liability, and does not affect the prerogative of mercy.
2 Short title
(1) This Act may be cited as the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Act 2012.
(2) This Act extends to England and Wales.

John Leech, a Liberal Democrat MP says:

This man was hero. It’s a simple as that. And no one should treat heroes like this.

That’s true, but it’s not enough. I believe John Leech’s heart is in the right place, but the fact is that no one should be treated like this — no one, not the lowliest of us, not the most obscure, not ever.

I’ve been willing to see Turing get an exceptional pardon if it might help apply pressure to the government for the granting of a blanket pardon to everyone in his position. The question now is: will this bill — which clearly creates an exception for Turing alone — contribute to that kind of pressure?

That’s a judgment call and frankly I’m not sure of the answer. My guess is that it won’t. On the other hand, if it doesn’t then the men who have so far shared Turing’s fate aren’t any worse off, whereas if the law is never passed it will never have a chance to create any pressure and then it’s definite that nothing will change.

I’ve concluded, reluctantly, that I support the bill, but I’d love to hear from others out there. What do you think? Post a comment on this page or write me at

Posted in Alan Turing Year 2012, Centenary, homosexuality, pardon | Leave a comment