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Will Eaves: Murmur

In 1967 The Sexual Offences Act was passed which decriminalised homosexual acts between males over the age of twenty-one in England and Wales. (Homosexual acts between women were never criminalised, apparently, thanks to Queen Victoria). Many men had had their reputations, careers and lives ruined by the criminalisation of homosexuality though perhaps the most famous was code-breaker and computer scientist Alan Turing.

Turing was arrested in 1952 for indecent behaviour when he confessed to a homosexual act and, when found guilty, given the choice between prison or probation, along with treatment with diethylstilbestrol (DES) (then known as stilbestrol), which reduced libido. The Wikipedia article linked states DES also has the potential to cause a variety of significant adverse medical complications during the lifetimes of those exposed. Sadly, there are still people who feel that homosexuality is a disease than can be cured.

Turing was found dead of cyanide poisoning and the coroner ruled that it was suicide though this has been disputed.

Eaves’ novel is about Turing and, specifically, the period after he was undergoing the DES treatment. However, apart from a few quotes from his work as chapter heads, Turing does not appear in this novel. It is about a man who is clearly based on Turing but who is called Alec Pryor. What we learn of Pryor’s life is very similar to Turing’s life but the names of the main characters have been changed, as have a few details. More particularly, this enables Eaves to discuss Pryor’s thoughts, dreams, relationships, conversations and his reaction to the DES treatment, without either being accused of traducing Turing or of getting carried away in his depiction of, in particular, his dreams.

Though a relatively short novel, Eaves superbly covers a wide-ranging investigation of Turing, both before and after his chemical castration. Soon after this novel was published, another British novel came out, specifically about Turing. This was Ian McEwan‘s Machines Like Me. In this novel, McEwan delves into alternative history and has Turing not dying in 1952 but carrying on into a ripe old age, including inventing the Internet and getting heavily involved in robotics.

In Eaves’ novel, Turing is shown as being very much involved in artificial intelligent, robotics and the issue of whether machines will be able to think. If a machine appears to think, why should we go on insisting it does not? he comments. Throughout the book (as in McEwan’s book) he thinks about and discusses this issue. I am much more interested in machines that do not quite realize they are already persons than I am in all that Amazing Tales nonsense about machines faking human life and taking over the world. Why, for heaven’s sake, would they bother? he adds.

Turing was, of course a scientist and this very much comes through in this book. He damns pseudo-scientists, those people who talk about science as though they know what they are talking but, in fact, do not know what they are talking about. He regularly uses scientific terms to describe situations where we non-scientists would use everyday words. My favourite in this book is I don’t have any kind of social life. It’s topologically invariant under many deformations.

But, of course, Turing was a human and other things in this book are important in his his non-scientific life. Firstly, there is his homosexuality. At school he was friendly with a boy called of Chris Molyneaux (based on the real life Christopher Morcom). For Molyneaux, this was simply a friendship, albeit an intellectual friendship. For Pryor, it was more as he fell in love with Molyneaux. Molyneaux died of tuberculosis soon after school and shortly before the two boys were due to go up to Cambridge University. In his feverish dreams and, indeed generally, Pryor will continue to have fond memories of Molyneaux and his unrequited love for him.

Pryor/Turing did have a relationship with a woman. In real life she was Joan Clarke, in this book June Wilson. They met as both were working at Bletchley on code-breaking during the war. They get engaged but, because of his homosexuality, Turing/Pryor broke off the relationship and, by the beginning of this book, she has married someone else. During this book, they will write letters to each other (and have phone call, which is bugged by the intelligence services, who are somewhat mocked by Eaves and Turing). There is some indication that the letters are figment of his imagination but whatever the case, it enables him both to have a a detailed intellectual discussion with someone who is no longer an immediate colleague and also to pour out his heart to, which he does.

This and many other instances show that Turing was lonely. At school, till be met Molyneaux, he felt that way and feels it particularly after his arrest. The few people who have supported me after my conviction must be very strong-minded. I do not think most people are equipped to associate with pariahs and I am reckoning with a deliberate retreat from the world, a passing out of sight into, well, invisibility. What lesson might that passage have for me? It is an extension of my preference for anonymity, I suppose.. However, he will mention his solitude being something he felt before his arrest. Freaks live in pain, as do most sporting types and ballet dancers. So much of real life is invisible he says.

He is not surprisingly bitter about his chemical castration. For I feel that I am a man stripped of manhood, a being but not a body. He is highly critical of the nurse who gives him the injection and of the psychiatrist, Dr. Stallbrook in this book, Dr. Greenbaum in real life. They are simply just doing as they are told, and feel that because they are doing what they are told to do, it is all right. She doubtless thinks of herself as a freely choosing agent. She likes to think she does her job well, but at the same time she is just doing her job…you must never underestimate how fearful and weak most people in a large body, like a government, or a university, or even an office, actually are. Once you have been isolated in this way, you can be dismissed.

Much of the book is about the effect the treatment has on him. He changes physically – grows breasts, his skin become more sensitive. He faints on more than one occasion. But the key aspect of the story is whether it is changing him as a person. June reassures him in her letters that he is still the same Alec Pryor she had always known but he is not s sure. Above all, he has vivid dreams which Eaves describes in some detail. He sees himself as the man in the mirror, controlled. by the Council of Machines. He goes back to his schooldays, only with Stallbrook, the psychiatrist as the headmaster. My dreams are candid with me: they say I am chemically altered and I am afraid of becoming something else. A hybrid. The fear is not the change, it is the loss of, well, one’s personal past. It is quite like the fear of becoming a machine, in fact.

As well as the dreams and the physical alteration, the whole procedure makes him bitter. We have seen his bitterness towards the nurse and the psychiatrist. However, there is a general bitterness towards the world. Hasn’t it struck most of us at one time or another that much of life is a pointless algorithm, an evolutionary process without an interpreter?

Eaves’ great skill in this book is to show both the human Alan Turing and the great thinker. He thinks about robotics and artificial intelligence but also about other aspects of science, such as biology, and, of course, about life, relationships, people. At the same time, not only is he a human being with all the problems that life brings, particularly for someone who is homosexual at a period when it was illegal and a somewhat solitary person, his human nature is being artificially changed by people who think that they are doing the right thing and this is having a devastating effect on him.

We learn a lot – a whole lot – about Turing’s intellectual ideas on artificial intelligence about the relationship between the mind and the body, about thinking, both thinking by humans and thinking by machines and about how the man of intellect must struggle with living in a world that does not understand him or appreciate him.

I very much enjoyed the McEwan book but I consider this a far superior work as Eaves has really got under the skin of Turing. If you had any doubts about what a great loss Turing’s death was to the world, and how awful it is that there are people who think that homosexuality can be cured or that homosexuals should be stoned.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by CB Editions