Comics · History · Sci-Fi

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage reviewWhat an intriguing work of public history!

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer is a 2015 graphic novel by Sydney Padua. It’s a kind of historical fiction about two mathematicians of the 1800s, but it carries on their lives into a steampunk pocket universe beyond the point of Ada Lovelace’s real-world death. Much of the book is available online, since it started as a webcomic.

I’ve mentioned three genres already, maybe four depending on how you count, but everyone should note that the comic is heavily footnoted. Even the clearly-made-up parts are, in my public-historian view, “historical interpretation.” She takes not only opinions but the historical figures’ actual words and actions, just moving them to new contexts for laughs, and she continues to footnote extensively. (Not to mention appending about sixty pages of primary documents and explanation). That’s why I classify it as public history, albeit a new breed. It’s history for the public, achieving both entertainment and education, not “disguising” either as the other but actually, really, truly offering something the public WANTS in both ways.

Padua also clearly delineates what was possible from what was probable, a crucial but underappreciated skill in public history. I don’t want to detract from that skill, but I must point out that when such material is presented properly like this, the public is perfectly capable of understanding the difference between reality and fantasy and embracing them both at the same time. Honestly, that’s the fun part. I firmly believe that people think history is boring because we, as historians and “adults,” ignore the ways in which history actually signifies things to people.

Ada Lovelace by Sydney Padua
Ada Lovelace as drawn by Sydney Padua

Anyway. The footnotes are new for the book. The webcomic version has short historical notes after each part, but no footnotes, and I’m going to keep talking about those because I found the to be the most delightful and most challenging aspect of the work as published. I mean, how often do you read a historical book or watch a film and think “Did that really happen?” Quite often, I’d guess, even if you don’t actually go look it up. Padua lays it all out for you to find.

That’s the challenge, though… you have to find it. Reading the footnotes along with the comic is distracting and kills the jokes by explaining them. I’m a big enough nerd that I actually got a decent number of the jokes, but many (if not most) are so obscure that I need the explanation to get it at all. The book was crazy popular, on the New York Times bestseller list and nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award among other honors, so I’d be interested to hear others’ reading methods. Did you read footnotes as they came up, skip them, skip the pictures, or what? What were you learning and why?

I ended up with sort of a staggered reading style, going through each comic section and glancing down if I didn’t get something, then going back through to read the footnotes and endnotes before continuing to the next section. (Note, however, that the final story’s footnotes should be read simultaneously. It’s a brilliant little piece in which the comic and the footnotes interact to address the question of just who Ada Lovelace was and how much mathematical history can be credited to her. Can I say “brilliant” again? I was already impressed with Sydney Padua’s research chops and artistic talent, but this sequence won the book five stars from me).

I could pick this footnote thing apart all day, because I think it says something about the modern public and how public historians should be working, and it also raises questions about reader/visitor behavior that I find terribly relevant. But if nothing else, you should read the comic book parts, because Ada Lovelace was a badass and I love her.

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

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