Reading Diary: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua

Sydney Padua's The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is one of the most flat-out entertaining books I have read in a very long time.

You should buy this book. Your library should buy this book. Buy a copy of this book for all your friends.

What's all the fuss?

TTAoLaB is a graphic novelization of the lives of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, those wacky pioneers of computers and programming. But TTAoLaB isn't really just a novelization of their lives -- really only the first chapter or so pretends at any kind of historical accuracy. What it is is an imagineering of what their lives could have been like if Lovelace had lived longer and her and Babbage had actually been able to build and program their Analytical/Difference Engine. And used it to fight crime. In a wacky humourous absurdist sort of way. Kind of Terry Pratchett crossed with steampunk and a little Gibson and Sterling thrown in.

Like I said, only the first chapter really deals with the historical details of Lovelace and Babbage's lives but there is a fair bit more historical and technical details in the Appendices to round up more detail about especially Babbage's work on his various Engines.

The bulk of the book are the crime fighting graphic novel adventures of Lovelace and Babbage and their interactions with various real characters in Victorian England (including Victoria herself, natch). Padua's story telling style, both graphically and textually, is light-hearted and fun. She really paints a vivid picture of Lovelace and Babbage as oddball geniuses, headstrong and a bit full of themselves but full of contradictions. They are definitely better realized in fiction than any factual account I've read.

Padua laces her tale with footnotes and endnotes and footnotes for the endnotes. This serves two main purposes. Three really. First of all, the various notes are hilarious. They also provide a lot of historical and technical detail that would bog down the main narrative if she tried to jam it all in there. And perhaps most fittingly, in the way this note-iness echoes the conventions of Victorian writings, it brings some of the digressive, detail obsession of the Victorians recursively back around to the story about them.

A bit unusually among the science-themed graphic novels I review, TTAoLaB is much more fiction than fact. And that's a good thing in this particular case. Padua takes advantage of her storytelling talents to give us the bare bones of Lovelace and Babbage's lives via the notes and the appendices while using the narrative drive of the graphic stories to make us interested in learning about them. This is a great strategy, one that many science-themed graphic novels take advantage of, but that I've rarely seen done so well as in TTAoLaB. Perhaps this is a lesson for non-fiction graphic novel creators -- use a little more fiction to make your non-fiction go down easier!

I recommend this book without hesitation for any library that collects graphic novels. This would be a perfect fit for any high school or middle school library as well as public libraries of any size. Academic libraries that collect graphic novels (science-themed or not) or that have leisure reading collections would find an enthusiastic audience for TTAoLaB.

Padua, Syndey. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer. New York: Pantheon, 2015. 320pp. ISBN-13: 978-0307908278

(Review copy provided by publisher.)


Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:

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