Sydney Padua – The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace & Babbage
Length: 315 pages
Genre: Part History, Part Steampunky Fiction
Started: 13 October 2015
Finished: 18 October 2015
Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I think this one was another recommendation from Pop Culture Happy Hour.
What would have happened
if the Victorians had
computers? Find out!
Summary: Charles Babbage is often regarded as the father of computing, having created in 1822 what he called The Difference Engine, a machine that could calculate polynomial functions automatically, and drawing up plans in the 1830s for (although never actually building, due to lack of funding, among other difficulties) The Analytical Engine, a more general purpose computational machine that was to be controlled by punch cards. Ada Lovelace’s contributions are typically less well known, but she provided annotations and elaborations on Babbage’s work, as well as writing programs from the Analytical Engine, making her in essence the first computer programmer. She was also the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, and her early interest in math was encouraged by her mother as an antidote to the poetical (and insane) influences of her father.
In reality, both Lovelace and Babbage died before the Analytical Engine could be built. In this book, however, Padua plays a bit loose with time and space and history, inventing a “pocket universe” in which Lovelace didn’t die young, the Analytical Engine was built and functional (mostly), and Lovelace and Babbage team up and use their invention to solve crimes, among other services to the realm.
Review: This graphic novel is not your standard graphic novel. Several of the actual comics that are included in the book can be found at Padua’s website. But in the book, they’re surrounded with text – introduction, footnotes, extensive endnotes, back matter, etc., which was way more than I was expecting – usually I can fly through a graphic novel in an hour or so… this one took me five days of serious concentration. So Padua does a lot of things with layout, and format, and the combinations of fiction and fact, and footnotes, and the ratio of graphic to actual text, that all felt very experimental to me. I don’t know that the experiment was entirely successful, at least for me, but I really appreciate the magnitude of what Padua was trying to tackle here, and the creative way she went about doing it. I did find the history very interesting – Lovelace and Babbage’s story was not one that I’d encountered before – and I liked the steampunk sensibility to the pocket universe scenes, and the funny (if exceptionally and awesomely nerdy) jokes sprinkled throughout. But because I have a pathological inability to just leave endnotes to the end, instead referencing them whenever they appear in the text, the format really broke up the flow for me, and I found it extremely difficult to just kick back and enjoy the fun steampunky story parts. But even in the denser, more technical parts of the book, the whole enterprise was saved by the author’s clear gleeful enthusiasm for her subject matter that comes bubbling through the thick Victorian quotations and the complicated mathematical explanations. This book was challenging for me, both in terms of material and in terms of format, but it was a good challenge, and I think it helps to keep expanding our boundaries around what graphic novels are and what they can do, even if this particular effort didn’t entirely work for me. 3 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: If you go into this looking for just comics, I’d stick to reading the ones that are available on Padua’s website. But if you’re interested in the history of science and mathematics, or like steampunk but want the real history behind some of the most steampunky things the actual Victorian era produced, this is an ambitious but still light-hearted way to approach some of that.
First Line: It was in a pub somewhere in London in the spring of 2009 that I undertook to draw a very short comic for the web, to illustrate the very brief life of Ada Lovelace.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 35: “(Note that the artist uses the exact same little highlights on his quiff as I do.)” – A tuft of hair, especially a forelock.
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