Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney PaduaThe Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: computer history, graphic novel, history, steampunk, technology
Pages: 320
Published by Pantheon on April 21st 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

. . . in which Sydney Padua transforms one of the most compelling scientific collaborations into a hilarious series of adventures.
Meet Victorian London’s most dynamic duo: Charles Babbage, the unrealized inventor of the computer, and his accomplice, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the peculiar protoprogrammer and daughter of Lord Byron. When Lovelace translated a description of Babbage’s plans for an enormous mechanical calculating machine in 1842, she added annotations three times longer than the original work. Her footnotes contained the first appearance of the general computing theory, a hundred years before an actual computer was built. Sadly, Lovelace died of cancer a decade after publishing the paper, and Babbage never built any of his machines.
But do not despair! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage presents a rollicking alternate reality in which Lovelace and Babbage do build the Difference Engine and then use it to build runaway economic models, battle the scourge of spelling errors, explore the wilder realms of mathematics, and, of course, fight crime—for the sake of both London and science. Complete with extensive footnotes that rival those penned by Lovelace herself, historical curiosities, and never-before-seen diagrams of Babbage’s mechanical, steam-powered computer, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is wonderfully whimsical, utterly unusual, and, above all, entirely irresistible.
(With black-and-white illustrations throughout.) 

My Review:

I finished this last night and it is great fun! I’m not totally sure what it is, but I had a terrific time reading it.

When I say that I don’t know what it is, I’m referring to the ratio between fact and fiction. It certainly is a graphic novel, but with surprising points as both graphic and novel. Although it certainly feels novel, I’m not totally certain that it IS a novel, if you catch my drift.

And if you like the kind of book where authors include lots of asides that induce laughter and add information while being both tongue-in-cheek and also true, you will love this book.

It purports to be a graphic novel that started as a webcomic about the fictional adventures of an alternate Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, where they actually managed to build Babbage’s famous Analytical Machine and Lovelace wrote programs for it that were able to be input, instead of the real world where Babbage started lots of inventions but never finished them, and Lovelace died of cancer in her mid-30s, after having written a seminal article on computer programming that she never got to see put into use.

This fictional world is much more fun. But in detailing the fictional adventures of our intrepid hero and heroine, the author manages to insert an incredible amount of real information, often in the form of footnotes and asides, that is taken verbatim from contemporary accounts of Lovelace and Babbage.

And there are LOTS of surviving documents. The Victorians were very prolific (or profligate) writers, and Babbage and Lovelace were both quasi-celebrities. Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and Babbage, was, well, Babbage. He held a mathematics professorship at Cambridge that had been formerly held by Isaac Newton. Babbage was also infamous for misplacing government grant money, including a large grant for his Difference Engine. Babbage held large, well-attended parties, and famously argued with lots of people, many of them influential, about lots of things. In public and in writing.

Both Lovelace and Babbage were well-known mathematics geniuses, and they were good friends. The exact nature of that friendship is subject to debate, but they wrote to each other voluminously.

In other words, the author of this book had oodles of material to work with.

While the story that emerges in the webcomic is definitely fictional, the underpinning facts are relayed in a way that makes readers laugh out loud, and provides a surprising amount of understanding about two figures who did so much to create the computer revolution that we now live in – even though they hadn’t a clue at the time.

Escape/Reality Rating A-: I am still not sure whether to call this fiction or nonfiction, hence the combination rating for both escapism and reality.

The depiction of Babbage and Lovelace as somewhat mad inventors whose invention has definitely gotten out of hand is hilariously funny. Seeing them both as quintessential steampunk engineers, while not factually correct, rings surprisingly true. This is an alternate future that would have been so much fun!

At the same time, that these two figures have become posthumously associated with a movement as full of beautiful design and style as steampunk is its own kind of funny. In real life, neither of them was exactly known for their sartorial elegance. Or even their sartorial tidyness.

The individual stories are both funny and have that sense of feeling true without actually having been true. The chapter where George Eliot submits her manuscript to the Difference Engine for analysis has a lot of true things to say about Victorian writers in general, George Eliot in particular, and the nature of computers and computing capabilities, all in one swell foop. And I do mean swell foop – this is all fiction but it all still feels true.

Ironically, I also feel like I learned more about the real Ada Lovelace from this fictionalized, cartoonish version of her life and works than I did from a less fictionalized, and also less fun, biography, Ada’s Algorithm. That felt like gossip for the sake of gossip, where in Thrilling Adventures every seemingly silly aside is both grounded in fact and makes a point about its subject.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is a terrific, and terrifically funny book for anyone who wants to learn a little about the birth of computing and the outsize personalities of the Victorian era, while having a good chuckle.

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