I’m sure that tagging this as fiction and non fiction seems confusing to anyone who has not read this book. It’s a strange one, but a damn good one. The first dozen or so pages are 100% non-fiction, devoted to the life of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron and the absolute last person in the world who should have married him, a woman who then raised Ada alone and kept her from following in her father’s “poetical” footsteps. We learn of her friendship with Charles Babbage, a well-known tinkerer of the day, and their collaboration on the “Analytical Engine” (and/or the “Difference Engine,” I’m not entirely sure of the distinction), a never-realized proto-computer. Sadly, Lovelace dies of cancer in her mid-thirties, and the project never comes to fruition.
But what if it did?
Padua writes this hypothetical meta-fictionally in a comic about a “pocket universe” where Lovelace survives and she and Babbage not only create a working computer but put it to use, meeting Victorian luminaries of the day like Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), George Eliot, and the queen herself, but Padua takes pains to actually make the connections plausible (well, you know; for an alternate universe) and the conversations drawn as much as possible from history. The multiple endnotes and footnotes show that Padua has only taken liberties with spacetime and not the personalities of her characters, and the clearly platonic affection that Lovelace and Babbage have for one another pops off of the page as they constantly hold one another back from their worst impulses (hers being vice – I died laughing at the author’s footnote about a dalliance with her tutor being stopped “before the point of ̶p̶e̶n̶e̶t̶r̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ connexion,” – as well as drugs and gambling, and his being ego).
Those footnotes and endnotes are sadly both the best and worst part of the book, though. It’s tough to follow what’s going on with all the page flipping and interrupted narrative, but they’re also entertaining and shed light on the characters. (To be honest, the text-heavy portions are what made me break my self-imposed comics restriction to review it here.) I wish the text had been more integrated, but it’s such a great book that I’m not exactly upset at having to re-read it.