Last year I added Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations to my favorites list (a set of roughly 100 novels and stories that I consider the best things to have passed my way) and stated then that I would have to find out if his other novels had the same appeal for me. When scouring the used bookstore shelves, his name is often the one I start with, hoping to find a copy of his rare first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. Instead, I often saw copies of his fourth–Operation Wandering Soul–which I have decided to pass for the moment. Then I discovered this one. Powers again on science, this time artificial consciousness. Sounded like a winner to me.
I knew it wouldn’t be the same as The Gold Bug Variations. That novel had a sine qua none aspect of perfection that I doubted could be matched even by its author. What I had not expected was a meditation on that book–a reflection or introspection of his career as a novelist to date. The main character in Galatea 2.2 is a man named Richard Powers, a man who has written three novels and is just finishing his fourth as the book opens. The novels have the same titles and subjects as those of the author of this book, but can we assume that the protagonist and the author are the same? (One branch of literary theory says that no author is the same between books. That as soon as any single work is finished, that author is unattainable–dead, so to speak, to the world. I was surreptitiously referring to this above.) Why is it an issue? Because the Powers displayed herein is so flawed that you don’t want to believe it is the same person. Yes, I still have that silly illusion that authors can somehow be better than the rest of us, to be above spite and greed and depression. But one has only to look at oneself to see the problem with that belief. How Powers comes across in his novels (the implied narrator) is different than how he is in “real life.” I also suspect that it is different than how he sees himself as well.
The self-examination is only half of this book (an extremely interesting half, to be sure, as we come to learn the “reality” behind his “meteoric” publishing career). Interspersed with that story is a year that the protagonist spends as Humanist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. He first finds himself at odds, spending his days as a hermit before this new thing called the Internet that allows him to travel the world from his desktop. One night, while in his armchair travels, he hears a repeated strain of music from down the hall. Investigating, he meets Lentz, an acerbic researcher into neural nets. A chance encounter between the two at an university bar the next week, and Powers is drawn into a wager in which he must learn the limits of machine intelligence and reveal his soul to Lentz, who strangely has become his friend and antagonist.
I can’t tell you if the science is any good–it is way beyond my Liberal Arts comprehension–but the characters are great, even if some of them aren’t the kind of people you would want to share research with. Powers captures the pure upmanship of science perfectly; the arrogance, the exaggeration, the doubt, the disinclination. When he says that he was a failed physics student, we can take him at his word, but, contrary to his stated belief here, he is not a failed observer of the human condition.
This may have been a therapeutic exercise for the author. It is if we believe the character of Richard Powers shares some of the same emotions with the author. For the rest of us, it has some benefit as well, a view of success that questions itself and a glimpse into one of the most important things in life: balance.
[Finished July 1999]