Friday, October 07, 2011

Truth, beauty, genius

Erasmus Valentine had a fondness for women of a certain age, and that age was at least sixty. He loved their soft, stretched flesh, hanging off their arms like wings, and the look of surprise in their eyes when he made love to them. He loved their stiff gray hairs, which stuck straight out from their scalp and were often dyed a strange false shade of lavender or orange, and he loved their long beaklike noses. If he was particularly lucky, their cries of passion would even sound like squawks.

He was often successful in his amorous quests. Though sometime surprised, or confused, Valentine had loved many, many women of London, none younger than fifty-seven — and that one looked quited ancient for her age. But one bird had escaped his net, and it was the bird he wanted to catch more than any other: Ada Byron, the Countess of Lovelace herself. She was a different sort of bird. Ada had been famous for being wild and brilliant in her youth, and age hadn't tempered her with caution — as it often did — but with confidence. She still smoked cigars, gambled, and wrote tracts on the future of analytical engines with just as much fervor as — if not more than — she had when she was in her twenties. When her husband died thirty years ago in an accident involving the steam presses he made to shape wooden ceilings into cathedral-like patterns, she hadn't sought a new husband. Not out of grieving, but because she didn't see the need for one. She was independent. She laughed at bawdy jokes, and drank with the men after supper. And she had rejected all of Valentine's advances. But she was coming to Illyria today, and Valentine was determined to persevere.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace contributed to Charles Babbage's analytical engine. She is widely held to have been the first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace also appears in All Men of Genius, first novel by Lev AC Rosen. But as should be clear from the excerpt above, it is not quite the same Ada Lovelace. This one is sixty-seven, a widow who smokes cigars and wins at poker.

But she is but a bit player in All Men of Genius.

This is steampunk. (And it's steampunk week at Tor.com.) Victorian London, horseless carriages that run on different principles than our own, mechanical prostheses, gears, a lot of clockwork, a kind of science that may resemble magic more than what has been borne out in our history.

Violet, age 17, wants to study science at Illyria College, but the school is (as the schools are in her day and age) male only. She applies under the name of her twin brother and gains entry. Now she has to go about in disguise.

All Men of Genius is said to be inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (or, What You Will) and Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest. I read Twelfth Night for grade 13 English — I remember I made some clever comment about "Illyria" sounding like "delirium" — so I can attest to there being commonalities. Clearly, character names and plot devices have been liberally borrowed. I have not read Earnest — but, oh look, there it is on my shelf, can it be that I really haven't read it? — but an Internet review of the synopsis makes the similarities to this play clear as well.

This is a charming novel, about science, about girls doing science, and about beauty.

"What's so funny?"

"That all you should see in flowers is scientific principles," he said, "even when a man tried to show you their beauty."

"But that is their beauty," Violet said, pursing her lips. "Really, I don't know what it is with your gender, that they must divide science and beauty into separate fields. As if the stars and planets themselves are lovely, but to map the way they turn takes that away from them. In my opinion, the way a planet spins only adds to its beauty."

And it's about love, too. Love is bound to gum up the works.

Cross-dressing, mistaken identities, killer automata, invisible cats. The pacing is perfect. All Men of Genius is sweet and funny and full of joy.

Excerpt.
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