Sunday, June 10, 2007

Interesting characters

I was struck over the weekend by a couple of interesting characters in books I'm reading.

Edmund McGowan, in The Gates of the Alamo, is a botanist in Texas on the eve of the Texas war of independence in the mid 1830's. He has devoted his life to seeking greatness that will set him apart from other men. Particularly, he has obtained a commission from the Mexican government to describe and catalog the plants of Texas. He has dedicated years to this task collecting specimens and travelling all over seeking out new plants. In dedication to his task he's forsworn most relationships with other people, especially women. On his way to Mexico City he meets and becomes friends with Mary Mott and her son teenaged son Terrell. Mary is an innkeeper in a coastal town and a widow. She is puzzled by Mr. McGowan and frustrated by the way he holds himself aloof from others but finds herself falling for him and he for her though he is very puzzled by the emotions. Several things lead to other things and Edmund, Mary, and Terrell find themselves in the Alamo. Despite the belief that his life's work has gone for nothing Edmund finds himself, because of long habit, unable to appropriately respond to Mary's interest or the new feelings he is encountering in himself, even on the edge of apparent death. In his sense of honour, duty, and his life's calling Edmund has numbed something in himself that he cannot reawaken. He reminds me of Lord Eddard Stark in George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones and Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove, two other characters I've found intriguing for their devotion to their sense of honor (though Ned Stark is much healthier emotionally than the other two).

Captain Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is one of the chief characters in The Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Waterhouse is a born mathematician. When he takes a placement exam for the Navy just before Pearl Harbor he is so intrigued by the first question that he spends the whole exam examining the underlying math of that question. In the process he develops a proof that is published in international academic math journals. On the other hand the navy sees that he has only answered one question in two hours and decides he's too dumb to trusted with anything useful on a ship. Because of his musical talent, music being a wonderful outlet for applied mathematics, he's made a glockenspiel player in the Pacific Fleet band. After Pearl Harbor the band members are assigned as typists in a cryptoanalysis station on Oahu. Waterhouse shows an obvious skill at code breaking and soon is one of the allies top code experts. Among the other interesting people Lawrence knows through the course of the war is Alan Turing (a real life British mathematician and one of the early computer pioneers). Lawrence thinks his way through the war and eventually ends up in Brisbane, Australia working on Japanese codes where he falls in love. Though not normally a church going man, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse begins to attend church in Brisbane because Mary Smith does. On his first visit he decides to fix the church pipe organ. He is an organ player from his childhood drawn to their inherent mathematics. As he works on the organ and powers his way through Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, transposed into C on the fly to make use of the particular organs characteristics, he has a brainstorm about a problem he and Turing have been working on in their attempt to develop an electronic computing machine. Forgetting his shoes he runs out of the church to write a letter to Turing explaining the plan, passing a young woman on the way. He is several blocks away before he remembers the shoes or realizes that the young woman was Mary Smith with whom he is in love. He'll go back later. The Cryptonomicon is a very long book that deals simutaneously with events during World War II and the present. One of the things that makes it enjoyable in addition to the intrigue and so forth is the way that Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse's mind works. He's a funny guy.