While I had always been generally curious about the life and work of Alan Turing the 2014 movie The Imitation Game piqued my interest and so I sought out the apparent source of that film, Andrew Hodges extensive biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma.
Like Turing, Hodges is a mathematician and that is obvious throughout the book as this is as much about Turing’s work, as it is about his life, something that as it goes on, seems very appropriate given Turing’s apparent approach to life.
Of course the now most famous section of Turing’s life and work is dealt with extensively as he spent the Second World War working at Bletchley Park on various form of code breaking.
Most famously the Enigma but various other things besides, including working on the foundation of what has become the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and USA, albeit in a technical rather than diplomatic capacity – throughout we get the impression diplomacy wasn’t one his strong points.
Beyond this Hodges goes into quite some detail on his work in the field of pure mathematics and logic before and after the war, his involvement in the first computers, and more work on fields combining mathematics with biology.
I will be the first to admit much of the detail of this went somewhat over my head, but my ignorance only served to demonstrate quite how impressive the work Turing was undertaking was.
There is much here for those willing to delve deeper or with a deeper knowledge of the subjects discussed, though Hodges does a good job of at least making it vaguely understandable to the layman.
The other side of Turing’s life is dealt with in similar detail from an upper middle class upbringing, his experiences at public school, to his romantic life and the problems this lead to later in his life.
All of this dealt with in something of a logical fashion and, while that may say something about the author, I was left with the impression that it said much about the subject and his view of the world as well. Towards the book’s climax this is expanded upon greatly as his homosexuality is explored around the subject of his surprisingly low-key trial and punishment for his activities (for which he has since been posthumously pardoned).
Along with the war-time work and post war work on computers this is the most interesting section of the book, as it explores the notion of homosexuality in a wider context of the period and the genuinely devastating (and hugely scary) effects it had on many men, not just Turing, though it seems he treated the whole thing in a rather matter of fact way.
In this he was probably not alone but is something of a high-profile pioneer as, throughout the book, from his early relationship with school friend Christopher to his more problematic later encounters he is clearly unapologetic about his sexuality and astonishingly open about it considering the fact it was illegal at the time.
While he never seemed to explicitly ‘campaign’ for gay rights (I had the sense such an idea wouldn’t have occurred to him) by his very actions his entire life seemed to push the boundaries of society’s view, whether it had an expressed effect during his lifetime or not.
The story of course culminates with Turing’s death by suicide in 1954 and, unlike the film, makes him out to be the same unconventional genius he always was right to the end.
Hodges never paints him as a direct victim of his situation in society, suggesting his suicide was a very conscious decision, potentially based on a collection of factors in his life which are explored in fascinating detail, particularly with regard as to why homosexuals were suddenly so clamped down upon in the early and mid-1950s compared to the periods before and after, although there are some fairly laboured 1984 comparisons here.
Throughout, its fair to say the book is a heavy piece to read thanks to the detail but it never feels unnecessary as it becomes clear Turing lead an astonishingly complex life thanks largely to his position within society combined with his mathematical and scientific expertise and Hodges does an astonishing job of painting this in a way that, now I’ve read The Enigma, I can’t help but feel The Imitation Game almost entirely missed.
And in a nice post script moment it’s pleasing to know that despite what the book says a memorial to Turing does now exist near both Manchester University (where he worked in his final years) and the city’s ‘gay village’ which seems the perfect location as well as being something of an understated kind of memorial that suits the man described in this work.