TURING by Christos H. Papadimitriou


(A Novel About Computation)
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The sort of thing you might expect from MIT: a computer science professor’s attempt to turn his specialty into fiction.

Papadimitriou (Computer Science/Berkeley) sets his story in the near future and tells it in the present tense. It features three main human characters and one nonhuman. Ethel is the inventor of the relevance engine Exegesis, a program that determines what value objects turned up by a Web search have to the individual user. Alexandros is a Greek archaeologist working with a computerlike artifact recovered from a ship that sank some two thousand years earlier. And Ian is an outlaw programmer, a charismatic hacker with whom Ethel takes up residence after the affair with Alexandros that opens the story. The nonhuman character is Turing, an advanced interactive program (named for Alan Turing, a pioneer of computing) that comes to Alexandros’ screen to instruct him (and occasionally his teenaged daughter) in the history and philosophical implications of computer science. The effect of all this depends largely on what the reader comes looking for. Judged as fiction, Turing is distinctly short on plot and not much fuller in its people. On a visit to a Greek island, Ethel falls in love with Alexandros, gets pregnant, leaves him, visits an advanced virtual-reality scenario where she meets Ian, falls in love with him, then he comes to join her in America . . . and so on. Papadimitriou seems only vaguely interested in the effect of these events on the characters; in fact, the narrative is most alive when Turing is online with Alexandros, feeding him computer science, math, and philosophy in a breezy, not entirely reverent tone. The final thirty-odd pages are comments—often quite funny—on the text by readers of an imaginary newsgroup.

Still, as with other instructional novels, this odd hybrid is likely to annoy as many as it entertains.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-262-16218-0
Page count: 292pp
Publisher: MIT
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2003