Turing and Burroughs, Rudy Rucker’s ‘‘Beatnik SF Novel,’’ deftly combines historic characters and wild flights of imagination, in a spin-off of our world’s history, 1954-55. Though I hadn’t quite reached grade school back then, I recognize (and dig!) its portrayal of mid-century America as a far from monolithic nation that extends beyond the suburbs where Boomers grew, to the hipster realm of Beats and the avant-garde, to the avid obsessions of young drivers besotted with their two-tone cars, gritty roadside ‘‘trailer trash’’ just managing to get by – all of it further weirded out by elements from period Sci-Fi, and the paranoid schemes of governments gearing up for the Cold War via spycraft and the latest things in weaponry.
That’s governments, plural. The book opens in Manchester, England, as scientist Alan Turing narrowly escapes assassination by minions of his old employers, now that he’s no longer ‘‘the brains of the British cryptography team at Bletchley Park, cracking the Nazi Enigma code and shortening the war by several years – little thanks that he’d ever gotten for that.’’ Embittered, preoccupied with his own strange new biological experiments, then forced into hiding, Turing finds temporary refuge in Tangiers, Algeria. Here the plot really thickens.
Beat writer William (Bill) Burroughs is avoiding a genuine US murder rap via self-exile to Tangiers. Though he claimed the shooting death of his wife was just a tragic mistake, Burroughs already hated the closeted life of America’s gay males and wanted out before he had to flee. Through some chapters in the form of letters sent to friends Stateside, we see a mind quite different from chatty, very British Turing, though both men are homosexuals (and way outside the norm in other ways). Bill tells fellow ‘‘queer’’ and Beatnik poet Alan Ginsberg, ‘‘I’ve settled back into Tangier, they got everything I want…. The local worthies presented me with a key to the city – a nicely broken-in kief pipe stamped with arabesques.’’
Life seems good, in a haze of hash. But when Turing shows up under an assumed identity, and becomes a new lover equally hot on sex and mad science, things really get weird. His new advance in biomorphism still needs some tinkering – the first facial disguise, using cells from the man who died in his stead back in Britain, starts to rot in near-tropical heat. But once he gets the hang of things, this bold experimenter flings himself into the shape-shifting, limited telepathy and apparently vast potential for further human advancement of the process that he calls skugging (after one mode of transformation: man into giant slug). Willy-nilly, Burroughs gets skugged as well – hard to avoid around the man who dreamed it up and first underwent the change.
Although the lovers part for a time, Burroughs staying put while Turing hares off to America in pursuit of his own wild plans, both must contend with pesky government agents drawn by rumors and some unexpected side-effects of skugging. Forced back into flight from agents greedy for his knowledge, Alan travels our country’s byways with an AWOL sailor. Along the way, he learns about its many idioms and cultures – including sci-fi, as everyone from pulp writers and directors to more serious speculators and gurus envisioned it at the midpoint of the 20th century. For most of this journey, he regards his discovery as the best way for humans to evolve. Skugging rules! Or does it?
Turing & Burroughs can be enjoyed as a mad romp, and celebration of gay sex, that brings together and transforms two characters from history in outrageous ways. Yet these men helped shape our world even without the fictional embellishments. Both were linked to ideas and hardware that would eventually spawn the Web, as well as new developments in science fiction. (Bill’s family made the calculating machine that went by their name, and one of his own most cherished notions involved something he called the Interzone.) And in the context of the book, skugging raises questions of its own, drawing so much interest from the military that its inventor starts to question his own enthusiasm. In less than 250 pages – room enough for a host of voices – Rudy Rucker has produced an SFnal tour de force.