Taking its title from Charles Babbage, the nineteenth-century mathematician, who designed but did not complete what would have been the first mechanical programmable computer, Babbage’s Dream weaves together not only Victorian and contemporary anxieties about the spectacle and threat of new technology, but also offers us lyric redefinitions of computer programming terms and first-person perspectives of literary and historical artificially intelligent others.
In stunningly elegant couplets, Neil Aitken transposes the dreams of machines and humans into musical, sonically deft lyrics that sing songs of creation, vision, possibility, futurity. These beautifully crafted poems—evoking the designs of nineteenth-century mathematician Charles Babbage, who conceptualized the first mechanical programmable computer—explore the tautologies between mathematics and song, science and lyric, the rational and the passionate, dystopia and hope. In the infinite tape loop of memory and imagination, Babbage’s Dream posits a Turing Test in which the reader circles both anxiously and gloriously through aspects of making, maker, and the made.
—Lee Ann Roripaugh
In Neil Aitken’s exquisite poems, Charles Babbage, inventor and thinker comes to life in an array of stunning images. The poems spark and leap in exhilarating assemblages as we piece together the narrative behind the concept of the programmable computer but further beyond, Aitken invites us to ask questions about consciousness, thought, and who we are in our daily lives. The jolt of the past comes back as “the bit of code we’ve let loose in the dark” and the fractals return as a heart in mourning. This is a transfixing book on memory, the human mind, and the possibility of rebirth in unexpected but musical planes.
—Oliver de la Paz
Through Aitken’s long lyrical lines and guided by narrative threads, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of the polymath Charles Babbage, his 19th century world and his language: the language of science and engineering, a language that at once halts and captivates. Come inside the Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream for new perceptions of the world.
Much like the spark of genius that propelled the centuries’ subsequent scientific breakthroughs, Aitken’s poems are each a blazing testament to the elasticity of the human mind, the seamlessness through which various fields of study attribute within themselves, and an invaluable reminder that all people, thoughts, and ideas are each a crucial piece, solidifying a never-ending whole.
How can poetry make us curious about science and technology? What about the history of computers? Can words both seduce and mystify readers to such an extent that we will willingly Google expressions like “difference machine” while considering the affinities shared by the HAL 9000, the Mechanical Turk, Frankenstein’s Creature, and us? Neil Aitken’s mesmerizing, meticulously researched collection Babbage’s Dream manages this feat through specificity, lyricism, and a continual, heartfelt wonder at the creation and evolution of the computer.
From the book’s first poem appropriately titled “Begin” to its last, the essence of what Aitken set out to achieve in Babbage’s Dream comes full circle: to write a stunning, intelligent book of poems layered with movement—both historic and poetic—that defines the importance of duality and the creative process as that which “stirs each yes and no into a life / that will not be contained, that presses on, anxious— / always asking what is to be done, who will do it…?” (“Compile” 7-9). It is this “deep / reverie of making and unmaking” (“Begin” 7), the hearing “of an engine moving, … long before it appears” (11, 14-15) that underlies this collection. And throughout the book, Aitken guides his readers through a deep conversation with a creative, analytical mind that although so focused on machines, is truly human. “[T]he heavens opening wide their spiraling arms…while you [Babbage] stand on the threshold, believing” (28, 31), Aitken writes; and readers understand that Babbage himself, like so much of this book, goes beyond research, beyond numbers and logic, into belief.
Babbage lives in two worlds: one of the computer or mechanical and one of the human, who experiences love and suffers great despair at the loss of his wife and daughter within a year’s time. In essence, the poems underscore a human’s conflict between mind and heart and the dialectical movements we encounter within ourselves each moment of the day as we endure what is here and what is gone, what is made and what is destroyed, and between maker and the maker’s creation. The language in Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream is concise and specific as computer code and is rhythmically rigid, with the binary of iambs providing a steady backbeat.
At the heart of Babbage’s story is a tragic narrative of negatives that refuse to add up, a groping for something in the gray haze of after.
Aitken’s background as a former computer games programmer and poet puts him in a unique position to write about Babbage’s ambitious undertaking. Some of the added poems found in Babbage’s Dream riff on computer terminology, words such as “Array,” “Loop,” and “Short,” which function as titles and launching coordinates for Aitken’s imaginative exploration. Most of these poems include definitional epigraphs that, for me, a person with limited computer knowledge, felt cryptic at first, but through Aitken’s poetic work, I could read as if from a deliberately altered angle. The terms take on new meanings through the energy of the poems.
Other added poems in Babbage’s Dream meditate on the relationship between creator and creature, the fine line between machine and mind. In several, the created speak back, sometimes accusatorily (as in “Frankenstein’s Creature Bids Farewell to Its Maker”), sometimes with a mixture of menace and aching tenderness, as in the last poem, where the personified mind of Babbage’s mechanical computer, which he referred to as “Leviathan,” speaks to Babbage on his deathbed