Author(s): Will Eaves
"[Murmur will] grip your mind in the very first pages, break your heart halfway through, and in the end, strangely, unexpectedly, restore your faith in human beings and their endless capacity for resilience." --Wellcome Book Prize chair of judges Elif Shafak in the Guardian
"Eaves' playful, fiercely intelligent interpretation of aspects of the life of a character who closely resembles the brilliant, multifaceted Alan Turing is a dreamlike wonder of memory and consciousness. Its ways are mysterious, its effect deepens with every reading." --Republic of Consciousness Prize judge Catherine Taylor in the Guardian
In Murmur, a hallucinatory masterwork, Will Eaves invites us into the brilliant mind of Alec Pryor, a character inspired by Alan Turing. Turing, father of artificial intelligence and pioneer of radical new techniques to break the Nazi Enigma cipher during World War II, was later persecuted by the British state for "gross indecency with another male" and forced to undergo chemical castration. Set during the devastating period before Turing's suicide, Murmur evokes an extraordinary life, the beauty and sorrows of love, and the nature of consciousness.
Will Eaves is the author of two poetry collections and five novels, including Murmur, the first of his novels to be published in the United States. His work has appeared in the Guardian, New Yorker, and Yale Review, and has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and Encore Award. Murmur, winner of Republic of Consciousness Prize, has also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, Wellcome Book Prize, and James Tait Black Prize, and longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. Its first chapter was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. Previously the arts editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Eaves now co-hosts The Neuromantics podcast, teaches writing at the University of Warwick, and lives in London.
No algorithm can entertain a proposition as being both true and not true at the same time. This necessary computational allergy to contradiction enabled Alan Turing during his time at Bletchley Park in World War 2 to significantly decrease the time it took to break the German codes (“from a contradiction you can deduce everything,” he wrote), thus saving many lives. It would also provide a good test for ‘thought’ as opposed to ‘computation’ in artificial intelligence, and have implications for the eventual ‘personhood’ or otherwise of machines. “Machines do nothing by halves,” writes Will Eaves in Murmur, a beautifully written, sad and thoughtful novel based on Turing. Machines cannot but incline towards explication, whereas it is our inability to access the mind of another that verifies its existence as a mind.* “It isn’t knowing what another person thinks or feels that makes us who we are. It’s the respect for not knowing,” writes Eaves. In 1952 an English court found Alan Turing guilty of ‘Gross Indecency’ for admitted homosexual activity (then a crime in Britain), and he submitted to a year-long regime of chemical castration via weekly injections of Stilboestrol rather than imprisonment. Turing’s chemical reprogramming, speculates Eaves, struck at the core of his identity, his mind at first barricading itself within the changing body and then seemingly inhabiting it once more, but resourceless and compliant. Is personhood always thus imposed from without, or does personhood lie in the resistance to such an imposition? What conformity to expectations must be achieved or eschewed to accomplish personhood? The murmur in Murmur is an insistent voice that rises from Alec Prior’s (i.e. Alan Turing’s) sub-computational mind as it reacts to, and reconfigures itself on the basis of, its chemical reorientation. A narrator in the third person, waiting in ambush in mirrors and other reflective surfaces, Prior’s reflection, assails and supplants Prior’s first-person narrative, breaches the functional boundaries of his identity, describes Prior as “a man in distress, a prisoner of some description?”, unpicking his autonomy, and acting as a catalyst for the emergence of material (memories, voices, impulses) from the deep strata of Prior’s mind, much of it foundational (such as Prior’s formative relationship with a fellow student at high school), atemporal or, increasingly, counterfactual (a series of imagined letters between Prior and his friend and colleague June, with whom he was briefly engaged (parallelling Turing’s relationship with Joan Clarke, June was unconcerned by Prior’s homosexuality but he decided not to go through with the marriage) veers towards a confused and non-existent future in which a child of theirs remarks to Prior, “You’re changing. You’re lots of different people, lots of things, and all at once.”). What is the relationship between memory and fantasy, and what is the pivot or fulcrum between the two? When the first-person narration restabilises it is a new first person, one constructed from without (“There was another me, speaking for me.”). Consciousness is detached from what it contains, but made of it. “I am the body in the bed. I’m what sees him. I am the room.” But it is consciousness’s detachment from its object, its resistance to connection (a machine cannot help but connect), its yearning for what it is not and what is not (“yearning is a sort of proof of liberty”), its inaccessibility, its ability to see itself from the couch of its exclusion (“a shared mind has no self-knowledge,” writes Eaves-as-Prior-as-Turing), its cognisance of the limitations of narrative, its capacity to suspend disbelief in fictions, its ability to use a contradiction as a stimulant to thought rather than a nullification, its fragility and tentativeness that distinguishes thinking from computation. Artificial intelligence will not achieve personhood through mimesis, learning or algorithmic excellence, but only, if ever, through qualities that eschew such virtues: “We won’t know what machines are thinking once they start to think.”