My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Imagine a history book that examines the philosophical foundations of mathematics, specifically the quest that culminated in the years leading up to the First World War to establish all mathematical reasoning on a firm logical basis. That book would have a lot of ground to cover. It would have to disentangle some complex mathematics to present to the non-specialist in a meaningful way, as well as shed light on the manic, driven, fascinating characters behind this story, people like Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, David Hilbert, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Finally, it would need to give at least some light to the background historic scaffolding upon which this drama played out: the turn of the century, the First World War, the rise of Nazism, and interwar Vienna. At tall order for any book, let alone a comic book.
So now imagine that book as a graphic novel—moreover, as a graphic novel that succeeds at all these tasks. That’s what you’ve got with Logicomix, a complex, stirring, well-executed, multi-layer work that brings to life one of the most compelling chapters of mathematical and philosophical history. In a general sense, the graphic novel (which is hefty, weighing in at over 300 pages not counting the reference material at the end) could be considered a stylized biography of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), 3rd Earl Russell, the British logician and grandson of the Prime Minister, who began his career with an attempt to bring logical rigor to all mathematical reasoning.
Beyond Russell’s stylized biography (stylized because the historical interactions in the graphic novel are artfully fudged for better dramatic effect), the narrative of Logicomix plays out on three levels. Level one is the primary chronological narrative, but level two is the fact that this primary narrative is presented as a lecture delivered by the aging Russell in America near the end of his career. Hecklers in the audience want to know whether Russell, who was famous for his conscientious objections during the First World War, will join them in protesting America’s entry into the Second. Russell promises them their answer in the lecture, and these interactions, as Russell summarizes his career and offers insights on the role of logic in human affairs, bookend the first level narrative and interrupt it occasionally as audience members get rowdy or impatient.
This first narrative—the series of chronological flashbacks forming Russell’s lecture—is the main medium of the story telling in Logicomix. We see Russell as a young, troubled child in an authoritarian home finding the basis of truth and certainty in mathematics. As a student in Cambridge, Russell becomes obsessed with the logical foundations of mathematics, catalyzed by the 1900 challenge of David Hilbert and using the new logical formalism of Gottlob Frege to establish mathematics on completely rigorous, firm foundations. This is the work he spends the first decades of his career on, collaborating with Alfred North Whitehead to produce their Principia Mathematica, which—as Russell recounts wryly—took over 200 pages to prove that 1 plus 1 equals 2.
If this sounds like the stuff of esoteric mathematics, it is. But the success of Logicomix is making the story—which depends on the mathematics—both accessible and engaging. It provides enough of the technical details for the reader to get a conceptual notion of set theory, upon which Russell’s work rested, and the damning implications of Russell’s paradox, which undermined these very foundations. The narrative continues, always through Russell’s eyes though his own work leaves the center stage, to explore Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the rise and fall of the Vienna Circle on the eve of the Second World War.
It’s not quite history (as the authors admit they’ve altered the timeline a bit to make Russell have meetings with characters that he likely never met), but it is a sweeping and effective story of people and their ideas. It’s not quite philosophy or mathematics either, but there’s enough of both to make Logicomix intellectually rich and rewarding—from the logical puzzles themselves (boiled down to their conceptual themes) to exploration of philosophical approaches to mathematics, contrasting Gödel’s Platonic to Poincare’s inductive to Wittgenstein’s linguistic approach to the true meaning of mathematics and its relation to the physical world or the human mind. It’s a story with meat on its bones, executed in bright, clean, understated art that brings the characters and the locales to life without overshadowing the concepts it explores.
As with history of thought done well, the book is as much about the people as the ideas with which they wrestled. One of the primary themes in is the question of the sort of mind or personality it takes to devote a life to wrestling with the basics of logic. We see this most with Russell and the background of madness he worked and fought against, as well as in the periphery characters of Cantor, Frege, Gödel, and Hilbert. The close relationship between madness and logic—as well as questions of the place of logic in life—are explored by Russell himself in the course of his lecture and by the authors and artists of the book as they make their appearance (and interact with the reader) throughout in the third “meta” level of the narrative.
It is this third level of narrative—and the balance it takes to run an additional narrative overtop of Russell’s lecture and his chronological flashbacks—that pushes Logicomix in some of its most interesting directions. This meta narrative represents the self-referential nature of the book itself (nicely complimenting the theme of paradox in logic arising through self-reference, as in the case of Russell’s set theory paradox and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem): the authors and artists are characters in their own book, working in modern Athens to write about Russell and the logical foundations of mathematics. We are invited into their studio to witness the discussions between them as they work. In this way, we simultaneously receive additional background to what happens before and after the events of the novel, the rational behind their specific approaches, and what we as readers are supposed to take from the story. As a bonus, we learn a lot about ancient Greek tragedy as well, which, tied elegantly to the discussion of logic and madness at the book’s conclusion, brings the work to its poignant conclusion.
Self-reference does not work well in logic and mathematical proof, but it does quite nicely in literature (The Neverending Story, Gene Wolfe’s Peace, and The Princess Bride immediately spring to mind). There are other parallels to draw between the axiomatic formalism of mathematics and the rules and consistency that govern storytelling, but that is a post for another time. Suffice it to say, Logicomix is incredibly rewarding and opens to door to a host of further readings in history, mathematics, philosophy, and logic, aided and abetted by the helpful reference section at the end. Not many books I read merit the creation of an entire new shelf of “to read” books on Goodreads, but this one did.