Monday, 9 March 2015

Turing and Burroughs by Rudy Rucker

*Some Spoilers Below*

I was not a fan of this one. It's an interesting experiment, sure, but it didn't add up to a whole hell of a lot. (On the other hand, I've never read any Burroughs, so I don't know how well the sections that were supposed to be written by him stacked up to what he actually wrote, but they felt strained, like someone trying too hard to be hip.)

In this one, Alan Turing never committed suicide - instead he was the recipient of an assassination attempt, which killed his lover. He then used the theories of biocomputation he was working on (I did look it up, and yes, okay, fine), to make himself a replica of his lover's face, and a replica of his face to paste onto his dead lover, and headed for Tangiers.

While there, the replica of his lover's face starts to rot, and to make a backup, Turing accidentally creates a parasitical intelligence that he calls "skugs" - something slugs, and it may tell you something that I can't remember where the k comes from. He has a skug, he infests Burroughs with a skug, the skugs start to take over Tangiers, it moves to the States, and a secret army facility where they're trying to make an anti-skug bomb, and this is all very strange.

But I like strange. Where this falls down is that it just skirts the edge of strange. And worse, gives us such inconsistent characters. I have absolutely no trouble buying William S. Burroughs as an erratic character. I do have problems when everyone else in the book is just as erratic as Burroughs is. And I mean everyone. People change personalities between paragraphs, contradicting things they've just said, claiming things that are demonstrably untrue. Turing veers wildly between encouraging everyone to have all the sex, gay or otherwise, to being insanely jealous when someone looks at someone else sideways.

It's not that you can't have complexity, but this is not complexity. It feels like the author forgot who each character was between each page. You would need to explore it for it to be complexity. As it is, it's just characters shrieking wildly divergent viewpoints and it's not interesting.

More than that, it squanders an excellent SF question - what if there were a parasitical intelligence? Should we embrace it? Should we try to exterminate it?  How would you try to come to terms with the thing living in your body?

This doesn't happen. Instead, we get characters who one paragraph love their skugs, and the next paragraph hate their skugs, and there's no deeper examination of the issues raised.

Also, I have a huge nitpick with the skug vaccine. Somehow, 48 hours after the skugs arrive in America, the U.S. government has a vaccine. How, exactly? I mean, honestly, how? What is it? How does it work? This is never said. The very idea that you could take a new lifeform, which is not a bacteria and come up with a workable "vaccine" with no side effects in 48 hours beggars belief. It would beggar belief today. It particularly beggars belief in the 1950s. But this is just thrown off as something that happened, not explained.

And that's the problem with much of the book. It dances with interesting ideas, but doesn't engage with them. The characters are all so erratic that William S. Burroughs looks entirely rational. It takes less time to build a "V Bomb" (anti-skug) than it did the A-Bomb. Less than two weeks, I think. It would take two weeks just to get a base together to start studying the project.

It's too bad. I like experiments. I just don't think this one works.

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