Book Review: Murmur

Murmur, by Will Eaves, is a stunningly original imagining of how the mathematician Alan Turing may have responded to the punishment imposed on him by the state – chemical castration – following his conviction for gross indecency. It is a mingling of self-awareness and dreams, both fascinating and heart-breaking. It is a study of what it means to be conscious within a world where understanding of another’s inner being remains out of reach.

Alan Turing was more than just a member of the team that cracked the wartime Enigma code using a machine akin to an early computer, impressive though this achievement may be. He was a mathematician and theoretical biologist who pioneered ideas on artificial intelligence.

Murmur opens with the events that led to his trial. His punishment was administered over the course of a year during which he attended a hospital for weekly injections and met fortnightly with a sympathetic psychoanalyst.

“Dr Stallbrook often asks me how I feel. I reply that I do not know. How does one feel? It is one of the imponderables. I am better equipped to say what it is that I feel, and that is mysterious enough. For I feel that I am a man stripped of manhood, a being but not a body. Like the Invisible Man, I put on clothes to give myself a stable form. I’m at some point of disclosure between the real and the abstract – changing and shifting, trying to stay close to the transformation, not to flee it.”

“much of life is a pointless algorithm, an evolutionary process without an interpreter.”

The narrator muses on the kindly nurse doing her job to the best of her ability whilst taking no responsibility for the effects of the drugs on her patient – the suffering and wasted potential.

“Soldiers are permitted to kill each other and are maddened, sooner or later, by the realisation that someone else, somewhere relatively comfortable, thinks this is the right thing for them to do.”

The author names his protagonist Alec Pryce – he has stated that he did not wish to put imagined words into the mouth of a genius who in reality existed.

In the second and longest section of the book, Alec exchanges letters with June (the author’s name for the real Joan Clarke), a trusted friend he was once engaged to. They discuss Alec’s changing condition during his treatment with mutual fondness and candour. Between these letters are details of vivid dreams Alec suffers – a mixing of events from his past, present and future.

Alec is exploring his reactions to the changes wrought on his body – the shrivelling and burning away, the growth of fatty deposits on hips and breasts. The harrowing pain he suffers is both physical and mental. In one exchange he describes what he is becoming as a freak. He remains curious and stoic but fears that what he is losing is his sense of self – that his mind will be irrevocably changed.

“Somehow it is the case that the mind arises from a biology and a physics to which it may not return. That is what I mean when I say that we won’t know what machines are thinking once they start to think. We won’t know because once consciousness has come about, it looks out of different eyes.”

The narrative is devastatingly effective at conveying the pain of losing what one is and values about one’s self. Those responsible for Alec’s care show more prosaic concerns, failing to understand the essence of what their patient is going through.

“It’s all about the “how” they get you stable […] “How would you cope? How would you pay for that?” Nothing about the who – the who is left. To deal with this. […] What will be left of you.”

“they’re treating me as if I’ve gone away or been exchanged and will not ever really understand again.”

Alec dreams of futures now lost. He has been tortured, altered. As others congratulate themselves and each other on what they have made, what is left of the old finds they do not wish to live in the new. It is not them.

“When I began to look better, like my old self, after the changing treatment stopped, I seemed to disappear from the inside. I felt as if I’d been replaced.”

I pondered the wider message of how society continues to demand that all conform, encouraging rejection of those who resist.

Alec imagines his essence as an inner room that he furnishes with memories and objects he is free to choose. This freedom exists because the room will never be seen by others. Ultimately each person lives alone, something that parents struggle with in their desire to help and guide offspring.

“nothing is guaranteed by education; nothing is assured; of how I am, and always was”

The work Alec has done with machines, his belief that one day they will achieve consciousness, relies on the development of algorithms for thought as well as behaviour.

“Therein lies a conundrum for thinking machines. They can do nothing by halves. In theory, they will be made to remember everything, and with such a lot to remember they might not grasp how important it is, sometimes, for persons to forget.”

This is an exceptional novel that gets to the core of what it means to be a conscious member of a conformist society. Piercing yet beautifully written, it is an intelligent and recommended read.

Murmur is published by CB Editions

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Gig Review: Will Eaves in Bath

It is rare for me to attend an author event when I haven’t yet read the book being discussed. However, when I spotted that Will Eaves was to visit Toppings in Bath I couldn’t resist. His latest book, Murmur, has garnered many rave reviews on a wide variety of sites. Also, it is published by CB Editions. If Charles Boyle is willing to get behind an author then they must be worth checking out.

On the day of the event I was caught somewhat on the hop. Due to a clash with a popular sports broadcast the start time was changed, a message I received only a couple of hours before. It was worth the rush to get there. Will proved to be a friendly, patient and considerate speaker, attributes that were needed given some of the persistent questioning he encountered from one particular member of his audience.

Murmur was inspired by Alan Turing and is written from the point of view of an avatar based on the famous mathematician, biologist and philosopher. Will did not wish to cover Turing’s role at Bletchley Park as this has been much written about already. Instead he was interested in how such a genius would cope with the state sponsored torture of chemical castration, his barbaric punishment, having being charged with gross indecency. The book is about the experience of taking the drugs prescribed – the pain, stress and humiliation. It is about intelligence and secrets, trying to to decode a biological response.

Will imagined that Turing would study his own reaction, attempting to strip away the personal yet never being able to get away from this. Any experience is only ever fully felt by the person involved. Will’s Turing wishes to discover where his pain lies, emotional as well as physical.

The central section of the book is a series of dreams that are relayed as they occur. The importance of each dream isn’t what happens – other people’s dreams are rarely of interest to any other than them – but rather how they felt. These dreams are book-ended by letters between Turing and his fiancée in which he tries to work out what is happening to him. The dreams are at times surreal. They are written with a pulsing beat, a structure that sometimes constrained the author but also provided discipline.

Turing was administered the prescribed drugs at the Royal Infirmary. He was also required to meet with a psychoanalyst who proved more sympathetic to Turing’s predicament than expected. What he had been, a past self, would remain irretrievable. Will believed Turing would wish to understand what he had become, to uncover any pattern formation.

Two readings provided a flavour of the book. The audience were then invited to ask questions.

Will was asked if he understood the maths.

He talked of wanting to solve a puzzle, of Turing’s theory of consciousness, of artificial intelligence. He mentioned that in any system there are aspects that will never be proved. He consulted with a mathematician and physicist, not from the university where he works.

He was asked if he thought that Turing had committed suicide (this seemed to be veering even further away from the subject under discussion but the questioner was proving persistent). Will didn’t know, and the event chair intervened to bring things back on line.

Will told us that the book had taken six years to write. To gain background information about dreams he read Freud and Jung but wouldn’t describe this as research.

He was asked why he changed Turing’s name.

This was to avoid the sticky situation of putting words into the mouth of a genius. None of Turing’s dreams were written down so these were entirely invented. The pivotal sexual encounter occurred in London rather than Manchester as Will is unfamiliar with the latter city.

He was asked what started him on his journey to write the book

Will couldn’t remember. Perhaps it was the centenary of Turing’s birth, reading essays he had written. Will had just started a new job and was looking for a fresh project. Turing’s voice was asking to be heard.

The evening was drawn to a close with time to have books signed. I enjoyed a conversation with one of Will’s former students who was most complementary of his teaching. I then made my way to the front with my purchase. By this time the persistent questioner had once again commandeered Will’s attention so I did not have the opportunity to talk further. Whilst I regret the missed opportunity it did not spoil my evening. I now look forward to reading what sounds like a fascinating book.

 

Murmur is published by CB Editions. Signed copies are currently available at Toppings in Bath.