For obvious marketing reasons, the most recent edition of Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma labels itself as “the book that inspired the film The Imitation Game”, and yet the Alans contained within each of these two products couldn’t be more different if they tried. The film won the Academy award for Best Adapted Screenplay and its writer, Graham Moore, made headlines all over the world for delivering a heartwarming speech in which he invited people to be themselves and to fight the odds, “I felt weird, and I felt different, and I felt that I did not belong. And now I’m standing here, and I would like this moment to be for that kid out there who feels she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do… Stay different, and then when it’s your turn, and you’re standing on this stage, please pass the message to the next person that comes along” he said in a visibly emotional moment.
Perhaps Moore, overwhelmed by the experience of winning an Oscar, forgot that his screenplay contained no traces of the Turing who was so “weird” and “different”, that he committed suicide in 1954 allegedly by eating an apple filled with cyanide. Instead the screenplay deals with a man who was simply quirky and very much an antisocial, but charming, sourpuss. Like most Hollywood films about real life geniuses, the uglier aspects of Turing’s life were obviated in order to make him an appealing hero.
Hodges’ lengthy biography, however, details much more than one would ever expect to know about Turing, beginning with a chapter in which the author details the lives of his British parents and how they were brought up. His father, Julius Mathison Turing, an office at the Indian Civil Service, was a strict man, who had himself been raised by a man of the cloth. Turing’s mother, Ethel, was the daughter of a railway engineer who decided she didn’t want her children to be brought up in India, and preferred to leave her offspring with friends in England, rather than to have them travel back and forth with her and her husband.
From an early age, Turing’s parents noticed he was different, as they observed in the unusual way in which he interpreted the world around him. As a teenager, Turing was more interested in Newton and Einstein than he was in adolescent issues like sex (he possessed “dowdy, Spartan amateurism, in which possessions and consumption played a small role”), and while he was studying in Sherborne School he met Christopher Morcom, with whom he would develop a friendship that would have some think of Morcom as Turing’s first love. Hodges’ writing makes it clear that as Turing learned more about the world, he became more aware of his identity as a homosexual man, something that troubled him at first, but with which he would learn how to deal, thanks to his pragmatism.
More interested in solving the many mysteries of the world than in being a “hero”, Turing would become famous for his work in cryptanalysis, particularly his involvement in the Enigma Project ,which saw him develop a computer used to decipher codified Nazi messages and, most essentially, help the Allies win the Second World War. Turing’s life would end tragically after the war, when he was convicted for “gross indecency” and coerced into accepting hormonal treatment that turned him into “a different man”. His conviction also removed him from his work, which had been his one steady passion throughout his life.
Hodges never seems afraid to establish the fact that while his book is about Turing, it is also largely a love song to someone who is his personal hero. Hodges’ writing is approachable without being condescending, and he seems aware of the dryness that permeates passages dealing with mathematics and engineering, the chapters that cover the Enigma Project are within themselves worthy of study. Hodges, who is himself a mathematician, certainly makes a fuss about details that might otherwise seem too cryptic for people less versed in numbers, something that he balances beautifully by contrasting elements of Turing’s work with his personal story.
Most fascinating of all is how Hodges is able to pull off making Turing seem like a quite likable human being, without making us think less of him for his erratic personality. It’s easy to see how a screenwriter might detect only the “quirks” without being able to convey the beautiful humanity Hodges describes. For a book about a mathematician, written by a fellow mathematician, Alan Turing: The Enigma, is surprisingly spiritual in its epiphanies, with Hodges wondering if Turing’s “Enigma machine” was in any way connected to what civilizations think of as the human soul.
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