quinara: Sheep on a hillside with a smiley face. (Rinoa Petals)
[personal profile] quinara posting in [community profile] queerlygen
I'm so excited about this community! Thanks, [personal profile] fiercelydreamed and the other mods for setting it up.

This is a prompt response for [personal profile] thene, who provided the quote: "We are trying to build a machine to do all kinds of different things simply by programming rather than by the addition of extra apparatus." I'm not sure if this is what you had in mind, but hopefully it's OK!

Title: Codifying the Sun
Author: [personal profile] quinara
Universe/Type of Work: RPF (Alan Turing + a couple of OCs)
Contains: A potentially too nostalgic view of 1930s Cambridge life in 2500(ish) words.
Summary and Notes: Turing spends an important afternoon in the sunshine. I would like to apologise to Dr. Turing's memory for creating him two friends whom he probably wouldn't have been able to stand. Sorry!

Codifying the Sun.

May was warm this year, this week especially. One could even call it hot. Or if not, well, that didn’t really matter, since Turing still felt perfectly justified in bringing a book down to the river, rather than remaining in his stuffy rooms. The library wasn’t even worth considering.

He sat on the grass in Bodley’s Court, just off the bank. His jacket had been left behind, he’d rolled his shirtsleeves up past his elbows and was a remarkably comfortable temperature, but still he couldn’t concentrate enough to read. A raucous picnic was being enjoyed to his right, over by the hedge, and it seemed the court was quite the thoroughfare in the sunshine. More than that though, it was the river distracting him. The river and the constant traffic of punts and people back and forth over the top of the pages in front of him.

Half an hour went by and, in the end, he found himself simply watching the Cam, book closed on the grass at his side.

Above him the sun shone with a piercing brightness, but in contrast the fascination that filled him was rather languid. He noted, casually, that the average number of persons in a punt would appear to be three and that the vast majority were male. Indeed, at first glance there seemed to be very little variation between the parties at all. They all seemed to consist of the same things: one boat; one man at the back with a pole, ducking or rising depending on whether he was coming to or from King’s Bridge; one or more reclining passengers. Yet despite this similarity in form each group was clearly different, with chaotic idiosyncrasies in the way they shared a bottle of wine or smoked their cigarettes or conducted their conversation.

Now, really, it couldn’t be chaos. Or could it? At this moment, on this sunny afternoon, Turing wasn’t sure he had an answer.

Luckily even further distraction was coming to take him from these pseudo-intellectual pursuits. For, not long after he had reached this conundrum, a boorish voice called out behind him, “Turing! Is that you?”

The picnic fell into silence. Turing turned anti-clockwise, not wanting, as he searched for the source of the voice, to see them stare.

Emerging from the passageway by S Staircase on the other side of the court was the rather imposing figure of David Horsley. His boater was askew on his head and as he came out into the open, punt pole held like a lance before him, he grinned broadly. Short, sandy-haired Ranulph Payes followed behind him, a hamper in his arms.

Ignoring the continued silence from those picnicking, Horsley strode down the paving to the edge of the lawn Turing was sitting on. “Get up, man,” he said, jerking his head to his right, towards the bridge and the punt-moorings. “We’re going to Grantchester!”

Turing considered this, the company and the prospect of whatever was hiding in that hamper. He considered the indignant silence of the picnic, the sun in the sky and the book on the grass. Yes, he realised, they were going to Grantchester.




One of the marvellous things about Cambridge was how quickly one could be out of it, or at least give oneself the illusion of being so. The Cam eased its weary travellers out of the university’s clutches, past St. Catherine’s and Queens’ and the Mathematical Bridge, landing them in the lap of the mill pond and The Granta. Then, yes, one had to get out and wrestle the punt up the rollers, but after that there was only the upper river, winding on to the meadows.

Turing sat back on his cushioned seat, Payes at his side. With shaded eyes he watched as Horsley boldly took them onwards, feet firmly planted on the stern, navigating to the right as they overtook another boat.

It was strange. No one believed that speed was a virtue in punting; it was the antithesis of rowing in that respect. Yet, be that as it may, one could hardly fault Horsley for applying himself to both efforts with the same strength and discipline that made him exemplary as an oarsman. This, it seemed to Turing, was their three-man-punt’s own particular idiosyncrasy, yet it was an idiosyncrasy not at all random in nature. Horsley was more inclined to poling than himself and certainly stronger than Payes, who had a lithe, cox’s build; it was natural that things were this way.

“I wonder,” he said out loud, “who was in this punt before us.” That sounded too declamatory, he was sure of it. Damn.

Payes didn’t seem to notice however, replying, “Has the water got in your shoes too?” He stretched his legs, bringing his Oxfords out of the sloshing bilge and into the sunshine. “It does make one question whether they were punting or paddling.”

“The problem is that they insist on letting the things out to anyone,” Horsley commented, leaning forward as he pushed the pole hard into the river bed. The movement produced was far smoother than the action implied, maintaining rather than altering their momentum. “Some of these chaps have never even been on the water.” He straightened, looking ahead as he worked the damp wood up through his hands. “It shouldn’t be allowed.”

“Yes...” Turing unhappily agreed, reminded of his own socks’ wet state. It was rather a counterbalance to his agreeably warm upper body and to his right leg, in contact with Payes’ left. “But no,” he continued abruptly, remembering that he had a serious point. “I, I meant more from a theoretical perspective.” Though, really, the water at their feet wasn’t pleasant. “Does it not seem odd to you that, that a punt is built for a specific purpose – that is to say, to allow its steersman to take its passengers to its intended destination – yet, depending on who is in possession of it, it produces an untold variety of actions?” He peered distractedly over the side of the boat, to the water rushing away from the wooden hull. “For us it provides speed –” Around them the river’s surface was a vivid sapphire blue, reflected from the sky; further away impressionistic foliage shuddered in ripples as it fled from them to the bank. “– whereas for those before us it must have provided something very different.”

He grew self-conscious as he finished, glancing back round. Payes was frowning. “As usual, Turing,” he said, “I fear I need to be considerably more inebriated before I understand a word of what you’re saying.” He shook his head, frown clearing as he shifted in his seat to rummage through the hamper sitting in the prow behind them. “But never mind,” he continued, passing back two wine glasses. “I should have an extremely nice bottle of Morgon...”

Turing accepted this, keeping silent as Payes found the wine and uncorked it, the bottle held firmly between his knees. A drink would make him feel less awkward, maybe allow him to forget this train of thought. Even though he was certain there was more to it.

They continued on, trees on either side of them lush with green leaves, apart from those few covered in small white flowers. Idly Turing watched the bank, raising his glass to his lips as he tried to spot the birds rustling through the woods. He was distracted then by the wine, warmed in the hamper, as it flowed into his mouth and gushed over his tongue, leaving dryness behind and a sense of richness deep enough to make him salivate for more. It was very good Morgon.

Really, he thought with a sigh, this was what proved he was peculiar as a human being. For who could think on afternoons such as this? Who would want to?

“Pity about bumps, wasn’t it?” Horsley commented eventually, as he’d been doing for a week now.

“Mmm,” Turing and Payes agreed, just as they always did.

These were the words of men not thinking. “We’ll do better next year.”

And yet it didn’t take long for them to clear the trees. The river turned sharply to Horsley’s left, at which point Payes refilled their glasses, speaking up as though he couldn’t maintain the silence either. “All right,” he said. “Explain to me again this grand observation of yours.”

“It was nothing overly insightful,” Turing replied, sitting up a little straighter. “Simply that, as much as punts are built for a certain purpose, the actions they effect are unpredictable, dependent on the people who use them. I find it noteworthy that man has such capacity.”

“But of course,” Horsley said. Again he was leaning down, the paint on the end of the punt pole almost aligned with the band of his boater: purple and white meeting purple and white. “It’s perfectly simple. After all –” Unexpectedly then his voice rose in volume; standing tall he declaimed to the river, to the fields opening around them and to the bright blue sky, “What a piece of work is man!” He held the pole like a staff in front of him, left hand held out for rhetorical emphasis; Turing hoped the river was empty ahead. “How noble in reason! How infinite in – ”

“No, Horsley!” groaned Payes, squeezing his eyes shut. He looked pained. “The Bard is not on this punt with us; for one glorious afternoon let me escape his grasping hands.”

Clearly satisfied, Horsley tossed the pole ever so slightly upwards in his hand, spinning it. Then he shrugged, turning to take them on further. “I was merely pointing out,” he said in his normal speaking voice, not that that was much quieter, “the myriad possibilities a shapely piece of wood like this has to offer.” He continued, working up the pole once more, “A man, in his infinity, can make of it what he will.”

Turing shook his head, wondering not for the first time why, out of everyone in the boat club, he was friends with these two. A classicist and a student of English. Heaven help him, they were both too enamoured with words and not at all accurate when they used them. “Not quite,” he countered, after another sip of wine. “Man is not infinite. True infinity rarely exists outside the theoretical.” Payes was staring up at the sky, but he seemed to be listening. “We are all constrained by our natures, our physical limitations – and strengths.” Turing’s gaze wandered; he found himself watching the muscles of Horsley’s forearms, corded and flexing. “Our thoughts are governed by our experiences, our – desires governed by our hunger or thirst or...” Another drink, yes, and it was best to look back to Payes. “We are each provided with our programming. Inescapably.” He couldn’t help but end on a sigh.

Still looking at the sky, Payes brought his glass up to the sunlight, so the wine glowed ruby red. “Is that Freud?” he asked at last. “Because I hate to say it, old chap, but I would rather return to Hamlet’s Todestrieb.”

“Yes,” Horsley concurred. “I’m not sure I agree with the distinct lack of free will you propose.”

The disagreement no longer made Turing feel uncomfortable, but still he shrugged. “Well, I don’t mean to discuss ontology.”

“Oh, come on now,” Payes responded, meeting his eyes again. “You do, surely? You have this conceit of the punt, yes, but you are asking what is the nature of man such that he can produce from it different results. You are asking what is the nature of our interaction.”

“It doesn’t have to be man,” Turing insisted. As Payes smirked he sighed; he’d rather fallen into that one. “No, nor woman neither...” There were some lines he did remember, after all.

Silence fell and he tried to formulate his thoughts, looking past Payes to the great green fields of East Anglia. Eventually he decided, “In this context, man – man is simply a system, the punt interpreting his intentions.”

That didn’t seem to make things any clearer, until Horsley eventually and not without hesitation offered, “As with pianole?”

Payes chuckled, humour never lacking. “Ah,” he said, bringing up the Morgon to fill their glasses once more. “What is man if not a piano roll...”

But Turing wasn’t happy with this. “No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “A system, not a simple command. A piano roll provides specific direction, it tells the pianola when and in what order it should perform a series of actions it was specifically designed to do.” He was growing far too earnest now, especially for such a pleasant afternoon, but he couldn’t help it. He leaned forward, rocking them slightly as he stared at the other seat, at Horsley’s feet above it. “When the punt was built the builder could not have anticipated every single action it would perform – the variety of very specific velocities at which it would travel, the amount of water it would let in, the ripples it would send to the bank.” One more sip. “We provide not only the command to perform the action, but the type of action itself. Do you not see? If we could reproduce this...” The realisation came over him with something like a shock. If they could reproduce this phenomenon in conditions they could better control, the applications would be endless. Or, if not endless, then surely unprecedented in number.

Neither of his companions said anything; the only sounds were those of the water, sloshing at their feet and running from the punt pole back to into the Cam, which flowed around them, lapping at their sides. Then Payes turned around again, back to the hamper, adding the sound of tins and paper.

Turing looked up to Horsley, who looked like he at least wanted to reply and who ultimately supposed, “So... You are suggesting something like a piano roll, but rather than only having the power to play music it would also have the power to command that music be played? On an object that might not necessarily have been built as a musical instrument?” He let the punt carry on unaided for a moment, holding the pole out of the water.

“I am, yes,” Turing confirmed with a nod, momentarily distracted by the tin of biscuits Payes retrieved. “I don’t think it is beyond the limits of automation; it hardly requires anything like infinite faculty.”

Shrugging, Horsley took them on again. Payes popped a piece of shortbread between his teeth and offered over the biscuit tin, glass of wine still in the other hand. When Turing had taken something for himself Payes put the box back on his lap, delicately returning the shortbread to his fingers. “Sounds like an interesting novelty,” he said at last when his mouth was free. “Do let us know when you manage it.”

Turing took the hint to relax back into the seat. It was only polite, on an afternoon such as this, to let the matter drop.

At least for now.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-09-24 12:54 am (UTC)
lady_ganesh: Conrad, looking dorkily awesome (conrad is awesome (KKM))
From: [personal profile] lady_ganesh
YES!!

Thank you SO MUCH for taking this prompt. Awesome.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-09-24 11:48 am (UTC)
lady_ganesh: Conrad, looking dorkily awesome (conrad is awesome (KKM))
From: [personal profile] lady_ganesh
It was a great prompt, and I love what you did with it!

(no subject)

Date: 2009-09-24 01:40 am (UTC)
stultiloquentia: Campbells condensed primordial soup (Default)
From: [personal profile] stultiloquentia
\o/ This is great! I read Cryptonomicon for the first time not too long ago, so I've been hungry for more Alan Turing. Yay Turing. Yay boat. Yay Hamlet. Your OCs are hilarious.

God, I love your style.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-09-24 09:47 am (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
Awwwww! It's sweet! And accurate punting/Cambridge! Win.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-09-24 01:48 pm (UTC)
thene: Happy Ponyo looking up from the seabed (Default)
From: [personal profile] thene
:O This is lovely.

Idly Turing watched the bank, raising his glass to his lips as he tried to spot the birds rustling through the woods.

I'm just pulling out this line because it's so wonderfully lyrical and full of sensation. <3 I love Turing's thoughtfulness; you've made him so observant and his emotions are apparent but filtered through that detachment. And here:

Turing’s gaze wandered; he found himself watching the muscles of Horsley’s forearms, corded and flexing. “Our thoughts are governed by our experiences, our – desires governed by our hunger or thirst or...” Another drink, yes, and it was best to look back to Payes.

- there's that queerish guardedness, and it's subtle but it's so in tune with the rest of the fic. Bravo, and thank you very much.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-09-24 05:15 pm (UTC)
bruttimabuoni: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bruttimabuoni
I really, really enjoyed this. The contrast of utter dumb undergrad life (“Pity about bumps, wasn’t it?” Horsley commented eventually, as he’d been doing for a week now. “Mmm,” Turing and Payes agreed, just as they always did.) with the ways in which Turing's brain works, seeing through and beyond the present towards the possible.

Not incidentally, it's a nice arts-grad-friendly way of getting into the brain of a maths genius. For which many thanks.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-09-25 05:10 am (UTC)
fiercelydreamed: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fiercelydreamed
This was completely splendid. The theorizing! The homosociality! The quiet desire! The "three men in a boat"-ness! I'm so charmed right now. <3

(no subject)

Date: 2011-10-22 10:54 am (UTC)
copracat: Paul Weller reclining in a boat in a scene from the music video for 'Long Hot Summer' (summery boy)
From: [personal profile] copracat
I loved this story so much when you posted it and it is clear I never gave you feedback. You write such a great sense of place and time. It delights me and it breaks my heart a little.

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