HIP READ: Murmur
By Will Eaves
Published by CB Editions, 2018
Review by Howard Colyer
“One day ladies will take their computers for walks in the park and tell each other, My little computer said such a funny thing this morning!”
So Alan Turing predicted in 1949, and perhaps now, seventy years later, he might have been excited by walking through a park where all eyes are on mobile phones. Though in other respects he might have been disappointed in the progress of computers. One of his great preoccupations was judging the intelligence of machines and their capacity for creativity.
“I do not think you can even draw the line at sonnets, though the comparison is perhaps a little bit unfair because a sonnet written by a machine will be better appreciated by another machine.”
Computers are still not writing poems for each other – not even discreetly and in the dark.
But computing and poetry gets to the crux of one of Turing’s dilemmas – how to test for a computer’s intelligence so as to distinguish it from a human’s. Is it possible to judge intelligence by output, by appearances? Could a sonnet written by a computer with a sophisticated program and a poetic database, be distinguished from a human poem? Certainly another computer could be used to judge the sonnet according to its adherence to poetic conventions. And then the second computer could reply with a sonnet of its own. Outwardly they would be exchanging sonnets, but they wouldn’t feel the poetry – I suspect – and they would only be resorting to poetry because of the instructions in their software. They wouldn’t be writing to each other as humans do – with the sensation of freedom. Computers writing to each other would be no different to pianolas playing a duet.
HIS DEATH WAS AMBIGUOUS
However, Alan Turing isn’t only known for his pioneering work on computing – and his Turing Test. Amongst other things he is famous for his war work at Bletchley Park breaking the German’s naval code and helping to win the Battle of the Atlantic. And he is also sadly famous for his prosecution under the law against homosexuality, the attempt to castrate him chemically, and his apparent suicide in 1954.
Yet like much of his life, his death was ambiguous. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed. And it was assumed that he’d eaten a poisoned apple, because some of it was left beside his bed marked by his teeth. But the apple wasn’t tested for cyanide, and he had turned his home into a laboratory where he’d tried to answer some of the questions of the origin of life – and hence intelligence. He experimented with powerful chemicals, and he worried his mother because he didn’t wash his hands properly. Until the end of her life she was convinced that his death was an accident caused by a lack of cleanliness, and his brother also doubted the coroner’s verdict, but he decided not to contest it, because he didn’t want journalists to trouble his mother and revive accounts of his brother’s trial and prosecution.
And Alan Turing left no suicide note. On the contrary he left a schedule of work at the University of Manchester – which had awarded him a Readership in the Theory of Computing. And despite the attempts by the law to neuter him, he had travelled to Norway, France and Greece in search of sex. His life hadn’t been closed down – to judge by appearances it was expanding.
HALLUCINATIONS, MEMORIES AND LETTERS
Turing’s biographer, Andrew Hodges, sub-titled his book, The Enigma – after the name of the German secret-code machine and because of most, if not all, of Turing’s life. And inspired by his enigmatic character, Will Eaves wrote Murmur – a novel which has won both the Wellcome Foundation’s Prize, and the Republic of Consciousness Prize for a book from an independent press.
But when I read it initially, I have to admit, that I was often lost beyond the comparatively straightforward opening. The novel slides from the first half of the twentieth century back to mammoth hunting and forward to The Council of the Machines, with many excerpts from the narrator’s hallucinations, memories and letters. Murmur is a kaleidoscope of images. “Are we aware we live inside your dream?” says one character within the thoughts of another – and this captures the spirit of the book.
However Murmur intrigued me, I felt it was worth the effort to understand it better, and so I read much about Turing, and the two previous books by Eaves – The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop. Then I returned to Murmur and read it a second time, and within the kaleidoscope of the novel I could pick out the various details and engage with the arguments about identity and intelligence, and about machines and minds.
In his biography, Hodges suggests that an ideal for Turing for much of his life would be to live alone in a room and communicate by teleprinter, “to deal with the outside world solely by rational argument”.
Eaves responds to that by showing a man who finally realises he needs a connection beyond himself – he must reach out in a way that can’t be tested by a comparison of inputs and outputs. But did Turing realise that before he died? Was he reaching out and did he die by accident? Who saw him correctly at the end, his mother or the coroner?
• Murmur by Will Eaves (£8.99) and Alan Turing – The Enigma by Andrew Hodges (£10.99) are available at the Printed Matter Bookshop, 185 Queens Road, Hastings.
Howard Colyer’s latest book is Haiku Diary 2018.
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