A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

Too often the books I review are mysteries (or novels in related genres, such as psychological thrillers). But not this time (and not next time either). Today we’re talking about a straight, mainstream novel — more or less.

As you can guess from its offbeat title, physics professor Janna Levin’s A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines is not exactly a typical work of fiction. Maybe it would be appropriately labeled historical fiction — well, again, more or less. On the surface it’s a slightly fictionalized version of the lives of two of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century: the Englishman Alan Turing and the Austrian Kurt Gödel. In a slender 230 pages it is of necessity very selective, and of course the novelist’s purposes make it even more so. What’s most interesting is the interplay between the contrasting worldviews of Turing and Gödel — mechanization vs. uncertainty. Levin’s style is also quite interesting and will not be everyone’s cup of tea. She writes in a rather non-traditional manner, which you will like if it captures you. Otherwise you may just agree with the Cambridge reviewer (our Cambridge, not Turing’s) who thinks that Levin just doesn’t know how to write and that her editors just don’t know how to edit. He’s wrong, but I can see why he thinks that “the prose is unbearable.” If you can’t jump into the spirit of this book, you will indeed find the prose unbearable. But give it a try, without any preconceptions of a prose style that you want to impose on the author, and you may find it a rewarding experience. I did.

Categories: Books, Math