Conceiving Ada (1997, Dir. by Lynn Hershman Leeson), starring Francesca Faridany, Tilda Swinton, J.D. Wolff and Karen Black. Appearances by John Perry Barlow, Bruce Sterling, Dr. Timothy Leary, and R. U. Sirius.
"Conceiving Ada" is a fantasy about a computer scientist who becomes obsessed with saving the life of Lady Ada Lovelace, Victorian mathematician and tragic muse of computer geeks.

Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of poet Lord Byron (1788-1824), never knew her father but inherited his genius and temperament. Ada's mother, the Lady Augusta, steered their daughter away from poetry toward mathematics in hopes the girl would not follow her father into scandal and an early death. Lady Byron failed; Ada died at the same age as her father, though somewhat less notoriously or avoidably (uterine cancer vs. fever). She was one of the few contemporaries of Charles Babbage who understood the implications of his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine (he never completed the latter). She wrote an algorithm that would calculate Fibonacci numbers and predicted that calculating machines would one day be used to write music and poetry and predict the future.

Emmy Coer (Francesca Faridany), a pregnant computer researcher, contacts Ada (Tilda Swinton) via an 1833(!) photograph of her and a "DNA-memory chip" of Emmy's own design. Handwaving is courtesy of Emmy's mentor, played by Timothy Leary, nine days before his death. Watch for cameo appearance of (the back of) Mondoid R.U. Sirius.

Emmy tries to implant Ada's memories and "essence"into her own quickening fetus, hoping that Ada can perhaps flourish in today's (somewhat) more enlightened society. This is done via a virtual image of a clockwork bird Ada owns (a symbolic fusion of Athena's owl and the Jovian/Jehovian dirty bird). The women race against time, for Ada is dying and Emmy will soon give birth. In the end, Ada surrenders her knowledge but not her soul, allowing chance and the baby's (it's a girl, of course) own personality to work things out.

The movie is essentially a vehicle for cyberfeminist theory, and it bends a few historical details in the service thereof. Ada is presented as a victim of Victorian oppression, though, according to one biography, she wasn't always miserable. Both Ada and Emmy are presented one-dimensionally--misunderstood geniuses with no personality. Ada's drive is explained as lively intelligence encouraged by individuals (like John Perry Barlow!) and frustrated by society (and Lady Byron). Ms. Swinton's tendency to talk directly to the camera--as she does in "Orlando"--reduces Ada to a walking cyberfeminist manifesto. Emmy has no personality at all. She has a boyfriend, but he just gets in the way of her work. Karen Black, playing the mothers of Ada and Emmy, exists only to frustrate the former and nag the latter. Lady Augusta may well have been this miserable, a proper Victorian woman married to a publicly bisexual poet who ran away to die fomenting rebellion in Turkish Greece.

Though the story is thin, the cyberfeminist theory behind it is well represented by commentary from "The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics," a CD-ROM by cyberfeminist theorist Sadie Plant. The occasional shots of meshing gears from a computer-modeled Analytical Engine bridge a remarkable episode in computing history with the present. Bruce Sterling, who wrote "The Difference Engine" with William Gibson, appears in a digital video clip, explaining how Ada inspired them. The Residents provide the gloomy soundtrack. Their CD-ROM, "Freakshow," appears briefly in one scene.

The movie is worth checking out, as an introduction to cyberfeminism and a look back at ideas raised in the days of Mondo2000 (1989-97) and ignored during the 1996-2000 Internet Gold Rush. Again, be warned that the movie is slow going.

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