Review: The Imitation Game

Posted on February 26th, 2016 @ 13:42
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The Imitation Game: Alan Turing DecodedThe Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded by Jim Ottaviani

My rating:


English mathematician and scientist Alan Turing (1912–1954) is credited with many of the foundational principles of contemporary computer science. The Imitation Game presents a historically accurate graphic novel biography of Turing’s life, including his groundbreaking work on the fundamentals of cryptography and artificial intelligence. His code breaking efforts led to the cracking of the German Enigma during World War II, work that saved countless lives and accelerated the Allied defeat of the Nazis. While Turing’s achievements remain relevant decades after his death, the story of his life in post-war Europe continues to fascinate audiences today.
Award-winning duo Jim Ottaviani (the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Feynman and Primates) and artist Leland Purvis (an Eisner and Ignatz Award nominee and occasional reviewer for the Comics Journal) present a factually detailed account of Turing’s life and groundbreaking research—as an unconventional genius who was arrested, tried, convicted, and punished for his openly gay lifestyle, and whose innovative work still fuels the computing and communication systems that define our modern world. Computer science buffs, comics fans, and history aficionados will be captivated by this riveting and tragic story of one of the 20th century’s most unsung heroes.


[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A good general biography of Alan Turing. Not going into many details, as this wouldn’t be really convenient in graphic novel form anyway, but comprehensive enough to encompass the most important aspects of his work.

Sometimes this comics reminded me of “Breaking the Code”—I guess that was because of the different narrators, and possibly also the interrogator’s questions hinting at Turing’s homosexuality, although the focus was less on that here than it was in the play. Interestingly, those “hints” were most often dismissed by the people telling about Turing’s life: his mother (apparently naively) understanding this was about girls, Clarke and others basically shrugging it off (“he wasn’t the only one, and we didn’t care anyway because we were in Bletchley Park to work, not to worry about such things”), a colleague wondering why the hell Alan even broached the subject yet being his friend and working with him pretty fine all the same, etc. This aspect of Turing’s life is always difficult to deal with, IMHO: it shouldn’t matter so much, what matters is hius work, but since it was illegal in the UK at the time, it’s just not something one could overlook, as it impacted his life nonetheless.

Noteworthy is also how his work in Bletchley Park had to be downplayed, and how it had been the same for all the cryptanalystes, scientists, “wrens” and other people involved. Since it was classified information, none were allowed to tell, even after World War II was over, what kind of work exactly they had done. Some were finally allowed to reveal it decades later, after the classified bit was lifted, while others died without never having opened their mouths about it. I felt this was important, as Turing may have been more respected by his peers if he had been able to list his achievements in that regard (and the trial seems to reflect that, with those against him looking at him in belittling ways, as if he had just done “some work” and not been part of something bigger, something much more important—as if all that defined him was that “gross misconduct with another man”, and the rest wasn’t worth being mentioned).

The format is a bit strange, in that, as mentioned above, the story follows Alan’s voice as well as that of another person (his mother, his friends…) and an interrogator. It is disconcerting at first, however the use of different colours (Alan’s voice in yellow, his mother’s in pink, for instance) allows to differenciate between them. Obviously enough, this format follows that of the Imitation Game itself, where a man A has to convince an interrogator that he’s not a man, while a woman B has to convince the same interrogator A is lying and she’s telling the truth. (I say obviously, because I just can’t see how such a narrative set of voices would’ve been chosen at random.)

The drawing style, unfortunatey, didn’t do much for me, and often detracted from what the book was showing, and from some of the ways it went about exploring what may have been Turing’s thoughts: wandering in his own mind, following a trail of paper leading to other great minds like Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, all the while with Turing’s colleagues and friends trying to follow him, follow the trail, but clearly never managing to really catch up… I found it to be an interesting representation of what may otherwise have been tedious. (There’s some science in there, too, and it can easily become confusing to someone who’s not overly familiat with concepts behind Turing’s works.)

Drawing style not withstanding, this was a pretty interesting book, and a good introduction to Turing’s life. There are plenty of references at the end for those who’d like to read more (including Hodges’s “Alan Turing: The Enigma”). 4/5 stars.

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