Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review of LOGICOMIX

I was in New York City yesterday visiting the French consulate, on a mission to obtain a scientific visa (my second attempt). The bus from Rochester got into Chinatown around 7:45am, so I made it to the consulate by 9am, got in line, handed in my documents, had a few pictures/fingerprints taken, and was told to come back at 3pm to pick up a visa. With a few hours to kill in the city, I set out on another mission: to find a copy of Logicomix!

LOGICOMIX: an Epic Search for Truth
Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou
art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna
http://www.logicomix.com/

First, a note on availability. This book was just released to the public in English, I believe a little over a week ago. The UK edition is currently sold out, and the US edition is only available for pre-order on Amazon. So the odds of my finding a copy were perhaps not so good. On the other hand, New York City has the Strand Bookstore. With a bit of luck and perserverance, I managed to track down their only copy, which they received two [sic!] days ago (they are ordering more). I finished reading it on the train ride back to Rochester.

Second, a disclaimer: I had ridiculously high expectations for this book. It has been at the top of my wishlist for years. Anticipation for Logicomix has been floating around the net since the first half of the decade, based on its basic premise: a comic book about logic and logicians. For example, you can find Philip Wadler drooling about the idea back in the summer of 2005. I don't remember when I first found out about Logicomix, but it was a while before that (looking back at old email archives, it seems to have been May 2004), sometime after I heard about Papadimitriou's first work of fiction, Turing: a novel about computation (which is a very fun book, by the way, basically a sci-fi thriller with some computer science lessons thrown in, and some pretty hot sex scenes).

Given all this anticipation built on the idea of Logicomix, reading the actual Logicomix was bound to be somewhat of a let-down. In a word, I was hoping for something impossibly EPIC. Let me say, though, that I still think Logicomix is a revolutionary book, with a brilliant premise that is very well executed but for a few flaws. The premise is basically this: to convey the drama of the late 19th-/early 20th-century upheavals in mathematics and logic, focusing on the people involved, but also giving a sense of their ideas, and of the passion behind the debate. The driving plot force is the life story of Bertrand Russell, and his (at times fictitious) interactions with some of logic's other major and minor figures.

Logicomix is epic in ambition. In some form or another, the book looks at topics including: Euclid's Elements, Cantor's set theory, Boolean algebra, Leibniz's calculus ratiocinator, the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians and Hilbert's problems, the Epimenides paradox and Russell's paradox, Frege's Begriffsschrift and the Foundations of Arithmetic, Principia Mathematica, simple and ramified type theory, Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the picture theory of language, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism, and the murder of Moritz Schlick, Godel's first incompleteness theorem, algorithms, atheism, World Wars I and II, pacifism, pedagogy, the connection between logic and madness, Aeschylus, street crime in Athens, and free love. And it tries to examine all this as a graphic novel, taking full advantage of the genre's literary/artistic conventions, such as flashbacks and self-reference. The latter fits in well with the subject matter (e.g., Papadamitriou's character asks in the book, "Suppose now you make a complete catalogue of all books that are *not* self-referential"...), but also, more significantly, gives rise to a parallel story relating the intellectual process of writing the book, showing how Logicomix grew through the authors' own debates and discoveries. Finally, a brief appendix at the end tries to fill in some of the historical/mathematical background for the story with a few traditional but well-written articles.

Now, please stop.

Go find a copy of Logicomix (don't worry, they're out there), and read it! You will enjoy it.

I do think the book has flaws, though. I was hoping for Logicomix to do more, but I think in reality it tries to do too much, leaving too much unresolved. There is no doubt something intentional here on the part of the authors, in reference to their subject matter. A chunk of the story revolves around the arduous task of writing the Principia, and how Whitehead after ten years finally convinces Russell to publish their manuscript, even in its unfinished, very imperfect state. Through the self-referential segments of Logicomix, it is strongly implied that the authors had similar discussions of their own. But of course that's not an excuse! I would have liked to have seen some of the historical characters fleshed out more, and could have used less of the "behind the scenes" with the writers. The latter had the feeling of unedited transcripts—again, this was certainly intentional, but I felt it took away from the intensity of the main story. Similarly, I didn't like the overall framing device of having Bertrand Russell relate his life story at a public lecture on "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs": again, because it dilutes the action through another level of indirection, and also because it is a completely implausible lecture. (There are a few other moments where the authors take artistic license with history, which can be a bit grating if you are familiar with the history.) Finally, it seems that the authors didn't know how to end the novel; Logicomix fades away in a highly unsatisfying way.

That said, I am very very happy that Logicomix is finally in print. I am waiting for the sequel.

2 comments:

e-purser said...

I got the book for Christmas and read it on boxing day. I love the idea of it, but found it a very disappointing read, mainly because it did not at all do what it claimed to do, namely, actually talk about, represent, the topics. All it offers is key words, not substance, which I thought was a huge shame, because the topics are so interesting. The narrative is further failed by the grotesquely stupid, sexist and utterly implausible characterisations - not one of the characters as constructed in the text is even remotely engaging or interesting, they just offend and bore. And there not being any actual discussion of the topics (just reference to the 'great ideas' that are supposed to be the subject of the text), the only redeeming feature was the graphics.
After thinking my disappointed thoughts, I went online to reflect on what I had perhaps missed, only to find endless but still unconvincing praise, no-one apparently noticing that the only substance offered in the book is in the appendix... yours is the only other disappointed voice I've found so far. I don't get that. I agree with you that the promise and potential of this attempt at something really terrific is not fulfilled, and I have read other much more engaging graphic novels dealing with historical and philosophical topics. Thanks for the skeptical note amongst the proliferating chorus of praise!

volton said...

and I have read other much more engaging graphic novels dealing with historical and philosophical topics

can you provide the titles to these novels?

thanks

rog