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Logicomix: An epic search for truth Paperback – September 29, 2009
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This exceptional graphic novel recounts the spiritual odyssey of philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But his most ambitious goal--to establish unshakable logical foundations of mathematics--continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity.
Take a Look Inside
The creators of Logicomix introduce us to Bertrand Russell in 1939 during one of his public lectures. Russell explores the question, "What is logic?" by telling the story of "one of [logic’s] most ardent fans"--himself. The panels that follow (click each image to see the full page) reimagine the life of a brilliant young man with a passion for mathematics.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. An ambitious full-color exploration of the life and ideas of philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, the book meticulously interconnects Russell's life, the timelessness of his ideas and the process of creating the book. While a comic about the quest for the foundations of mathematics may seem arduous, it is engrossing on many levels; the story moves, despite heavy philosophical and technical information, as the images, dialogue and narration play off each other. Russell's story is framed within a speech he gave on the brink of America's entry into WWII, in which he expounds his life and philosophical journey. Russell's story is also framed by the creators working in Greece, as they discuss and mold his life into a narrative structure. One of the most prominent themes is the conflict and symbiosis between madness and logic. The fear of madness haunts Russell because of childhood trauma, as he neurotically pushes himself toward what he conceives of as its opposite, a system for certainty. Inventive, with both subtle and overt narrative techniques, the comic form organizes the complex ideas into a simpler system, combining to form a smart and engaging journey through the ambiguity of truth. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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First, and most successfully, it wants to be an introduction to the "foundations" of mathematics, the early-20th-century efforts by philosophers and mathematicians to provide a firm axiomatic ground on which to establish a base for the higher-flown efforts of mathematics, which resulted in the development of mathematical logic and thus eventually led to the digital computer. The book gives even a lay reader enough little nuggets of this field to pique their interest, though often it doesn't explain in much depth. And the exposition does sometimes come off a bit condescending, as if the authors didn't trust us to follow them into a truly complex field like set theory.
And, furthermore and far worse, the book often doesn't even try to take advantage of its format by developing the ideas in image form -- instead it gives page after solid page of hastily-drawn panels of Russell (or the authors themselves!) lecturing the reader in massive word balloons, wasting all the opportunities afforded by its comic-book form. Still, had the book remained on the level of a "Russell for Beginners"-type introductory comic, it would have been a fair piece of work.
Second, the book is an intellectual biography of Bertrand Russell, the story of his life and of the development of his ideas. The problem here is that the authors are not very good at either part of the biographer's project, as they are neither experienced storytellers nor historians. They have consciously fudged many historical details, but have also (apparently unconsciously) introduced many small but glaring anachronisms of tone, language, and thought, making it difficult to suspend disbelief and to find their evocation of Russell's historical moment credible. And their psychological portrait of Russell, as well as of the supporting characters, tends toward condescending simplicity rather than interesting complexity or ambiguity, vastly oversimplifying even when they momentarily allude to the complications of Russell's several marriages, his pacifist politics, or his troubled relationships with family and with colleagues. And, as soon as each of these issues is raised, the book quickly marches on, usually with a dismissive remark about its irrelevance to Russell's ideas. A bit more credit should have been given both to the reader's intelligence and to the complexity of the biographical material; as it is, this scattered story could not even be recommended as a children's biography of a man as complicated as Russell.
Third, the book is a nonfiction "graphic novel," a nouveau comic book for smart people. But it is on this level that it fails the most completely, failing to integrate word and image or to use its comic form to any advantage. Despite the competent simplicity of Alecos Papadatos's art, the book shows its origins as a committee product with page after page of drawn talking heads below mammoth word balloons. The images often distract from the material being covered more than they illustrate it. And the authors' frequent self-insertions -- we often cut away from Russell's life to inserted scenes of their discussions about writing the book and about Russell -- are ham-fisted and annoying despite the authors' apparent conviction that this is clever and self-reflexive. When Art Spiegelman wrote himself and his own writing process into Maus, the formal innovation answered a necessity in the content -- the need to represent the remembering of his father's story rather than assuming a deceptive immediacy and a false transparency in its telling. Here, instead, the narratorial interventions distract from the book's content rather than meditating on it, and the interpretive disagreements among the committee of authors simply emphasize the book's scrambled, unfinished nature. Instead of a worked-out, formally coherent narrative about Russell, we get a series of snatches of his life, punctuated by inconclusive discussions of where to go next; it's like reading a first draft punctuated by notes from its editor. (Speaking of editing, the book's words badly need help from a stronger English writer; they are rife with Unnecessary Capitalization, "scare quotes," ellipses... and other signs of amateur writing. And Russell himself often speaks in glaring Americanisms, puncturing any suspension of disbelief.)
The less said of the philosophical side of the book, the better; its "expert" author-character is a theoretical computer scientist rather than a philosopher, and this shows through everywhere in its account of the importance of Russell and his colleagues, particularly in its ridiculously trivializing treatment of Wittgenstein. (E.g. the book's endnote on Wittgenstein claims that his Tractatus was somehow "vindicated" by the emergence of the digital computer, a truly bizarre and philosophically illiterate remark.) There are biographical and conceptual notes in the back of the book, a mini-encyclopedia that would be more appropriate in a For Beginners/Dummies-style textbook than this ostensibly story-driven piece, and while they're often interesting they seem unedited, un-peer-reviewed, and sometimes goofy and idiosyncratic in their account of the material. This makes it hard to recommend this book as an introduction to the basics of logic or the foundations of mathematics.
In short, the book tries to be too many things at once, and succeeds as none of them. It is neither a strong introduction to Russell's ideas, nor a worthwhile biography in condensed form, nor a successful piece of historical comic art. It's a pleasant enough read, but considering its ambition ultimately a disappointing one.
Bottom Line”An Epic Search for the Truth is a legitimate and ambitious effort to teach and entertain. The story line is based on a supposed autobiographic lecture by the mid-20th Century Philosopher and Mathematician Lord Bertrand Russell and a parallel story told by the authors and some of the writers and staff at Logicomix. Between the two the reader is exposed to an effort to go beyond the mathematical axioms we were taught, and told to just accept. The people in this book, and they are all historical, were working to find an absolute logical bases for all of math. One that removes any unproven or un-provable assumption. My recommendation is that these folks attempt more than they can deliver. Space is given to personal dramatics and entertainment and the topic is obtuse as to resist this degree of simplification. This is a worthy effort and a promises a better graphic book series I will return to for other topics, but An Epic Search for Truth was a disappointment.
Were the choice available this would be a 3.5 star review. Good artwork and far more depth than any other graphic book I have so far read. The term graphic novel is inaccurate given how much of the material is historically and logically correct. I cannot round it up because in glossing over real depth or meaningful analysis the discussion tends to read as extended teasing rather than informing.
The authors deserve credit for attempting to include sufficient personal information about a large number of the leading thinkers with whom Lord Russell would have studied, with whom he interacted, or who would follow some aspect of his early research. Also well done are a series of brief biographical sketches for each of these people at the end of the book.
An Epic Search is an intelligent effort to render comprehensible a search for ultimate truth. For many of those named, this search either caused them to go mad, or was an expression of personalities so intense as to mimic madness. Those who escaped the worst of these symptoms suffered tragedies based on the event of two World Wars or vagaries of European politics. There are few happy endings.
Despite the weaknesses of this book, I will return for more form the studios of Logicomix. This book is not a failure and promises that the same folks can do better.
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