Dramatis Personae: Ada Byron.

We meet Ada on Derby Day; she makes no more personal appearances until the very end of the novel. Seemingly either drugged or under much personal strain, she rambles about the mathematical predictability of harmony, and the creation of "marshaled regiments" which "shall ably serve the rulers of the earth." Then she runs off, impish little scamp that she is.

Her next speaking role is onstage in Paris, where her theory loses much of its majesty in being presented so formally. She tosses out a loose reference to Leibniz, who modelled a crank-operated calculator, and seems quite stoic in the face of her own achievements being unrealizable.

I'm unimpressed with the apparent disconnect between Ada's science-oriented mind and the gambling obsession everyone else credits her with. The Modus may very well have been for the purposes of gambling, but I think that, in her mind, being able to predict the movements of horses and dogs is secondary to the ability to predict, uh, everything. She hasn't been painted as a person with such self-awareness -- I think of the long-standing tradition of television characters with the ability to time-travel or see visions to hone in on winning lottery tickets before anything else. (Except in Early Edition. That guy was totally altruistic. He even fed the cat.)

Of course, seeing the entirety of organic movement represented in pure data would maybe "suck the life-blood from the mysteries of the universe," a crime for which she blames the Royal Society. Then again, maybe she means it as a compliment. It is rather hard to tell. Ada's passion seems quite single-minded, narrow of purpose -- I have as hard a time believing the gambling talk as I do the suggestion made by that prostitute of Mallory's that Ada sleeps with whomever she wants in the House of Lords. What I do wonder about is whether Ada's true-to-life mathematical obsession would have survived in this rewritten world.

To be a real stickler about the whole thing: Ada became an adept in the maths and sciences because her father was a philandering sissy, a poet and lover: in other words, an inadequate father figure -- with the added bonus of frustrating Ada's mother to the point of separation. Had Byron instead channeled those passions into politics and power, empowering as he does in the novel a generation of radical thinkers and change-affecters, what motivation would Ada's mother have had to push her daughter into such manly studies? Her unquestioned aptitude would more likely have sat dormant all her life, buried amidst the frills of a high-ranking socialite.

I mulled over this theory-breaker six months ago, when I flipped through a few Ada biographies, but was reminded of it from a trip through Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, trying to identify precisely where Byron and Shelley could've become so politically inflamed, so socially-minded, that they would've borne arms against each other -- or where Samuel Coleridge espoused a Fourierist approach to society -- or why Wordsworth would ever found a church, let alone join an existing one. No luck. As far as authorial "what ifs" go, I'm more unimpressed with Gibson and Sterling the more I think about it. So I'll stop thinking about it.

1 comment:

  1. One thing to remember is that in reality Byron died when Ada was still a young child. I don't think he had any kind of contact at all with her after she was about 1 month old and he and Lady Byron separated. For pretty much her entire youth Lady Byron forbade Ada learning any information about her father, for fear his influence, even from beyond the grave, would corrupt her. Ada never even saw a portrait of her father until she was something like 20 years old.

    Anne Milbanke, who became Lady Byron, was already an empirical, scientifically curious and mathematically inclined thinker before she ever met Byron. She convinced herself she was embarking on a project of reformation by marrying him.

    When that didn't work out she was determined that Ada would be raised in the light of mathematics, empiricism and enlightenment, to keep her away from the baleful poetic mysticism of her father's blood.

    I think even in this reimagined history, where it appears Anne Milbanke actually succeeded in taming Byron away from poetry and into her Radical Mechanical Politics (succeeded by staying, instead of separating, and defeating Byron's willfulness with her own, apparently), that a determination that her daughter be the embodiment of scientific truth and not fall into the filthy pit of hedonism she dragged her husband up out of is enough motivation for Ada's education.

    Anne Milbanke is actually a force that drives a lot of the intrigue under this novel. I think the historical break really is her refusal to separate from Byron. She is the hidden Victoria of this era.