Richard Powers: World's Fair Advisory Board Nominee #3

"When we don't know what we are after, we risk passing it over in the dark." -- Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance

Nominee #1: Karl Iagnemma
Nominee #2: Chris Ware
Nominee #3: Richard Powers

Richard Powers, like the other nominees, is a creative ambassador in the broadest and most noble sense. He goes beyond false distinctions between humanities, sciences, arts, culture, and whatever else. He transcends the need to be labeled as one or another. Stephen Burt at Slate notes the same thing: "After reading Powers, C.P. Snow's once-famous complaint about the "two cultures"--scientists and humanists, each unable to listen to the other--melts away."

Burt's article is subtitled, "Richard Powers' Scientific Humanism." An article at the New York Times about him (accessible to on-line subscribers), is titled "The Author as Science Guy." Clearly, Powers was the World's Fair before The World's Fair.


Powers was just awarded the National Book Award for his recent The Echo Maker. (Jonah had a nice post on this). He studied to be a physicist, but bagged that to write instead. A Paris Review interview (as a .pdf file here) begins by noting that, "Having consumed the great modernists--Joyce, Mann, Kafka, and Musil--he decided, in his spare time [and in 1979!], to teach himself computer programming." He then began a career in computer programming before quitting towrite his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. He has written predominantly - and always with accolades and respect from other great literary types (David Foster Wallace has called him one of the "greatest novelists working today" [so quoted in this Salon interview with Powers])- about science and knowledge, and always convincingly. He is a MacArthur "genius" grant winner too. Apparently he counts as part of the "Lab Lit" genre, along with ubiquitous cohorts Andrea Barrett, Margaret Atwood, and Alan Lightman (this per a post over at the prolific A Blog Around the Clock from a while back, in reference to Seed's fiction contest last winter).

Let's review the corpus, in oh-so-cursory a manner (many of these summaries are courtesy of the (unlinkable) JAR):

⢠Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Harpercollins (1st edn. 1985; Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award)
I like this wikipedia line on it: "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance attempts to balance the technological advancements that caused the large scale deaths in World War I with those that created art for the masses in the form of photography."

⢠Prisoner's Dilemma, McGraw Hill (1st edn. 1988)
I'm told by Publisher's Weekly that this one "takes on virtual reality, global migration, prolonged heartbreak, the end of the Cold War and the nature and purpose of art." (Haven't read it yet.)

⢠The Gold Bug Variations, Harpercollins (1st edn. 1991; Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award)
Inspired by Poe's "The Gold Bug," it's about the discovery of DNA and Bach's Goldberg Variations, at once.

⢠Operation Wandering Soul, Harpercollins (1st edn. 1993; Finalist, National Book Award)
The publisher summarizes it as a "novel about childhood innocence amid the nightmarish disease and deterioration at the heart of modern Los Angeles."

⢠Galatea 2.2, Farrar Straus & Giroux (1st edn. 1995; Finalist, 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award)
As summarized by

A guy, "Richard Powers," returns to the United States as Humanist-in-Residence at the enormous Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. There he runs afoul of Philip Lentz, an outspoken cognitive neurologist intent upon modeling the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. Lentz involves Powers in an outlandish and irresistible project: to train a neural net on a canonical list of Great Books. Through repeated tutorials, the device grows gradually more worldly, until it demands to know its own name, sex, race, and reason for exisiting.

Or, as summarized by the Unlinkable JAR:

An author returns from abroad after publishing three previous books, but his relationship is in shambles, and he's back where he began and he ends up with these cognitive science folks back at the school where he got his MA in Lit. He gets talked into taking part in a bet: the majority of the AI folks are arguing that in order to 'teach' a machine, you have to understand order and code and such. The rogue researcher is playing with neural networks, and he convinces the others that with the author's help in 1 year he can have a machine that can write a better Lit essay than a grad student in the program. So, Powers 'teaches' the machine literature. In the meantime, he's reconstructing himself, his life, what he's taken to be literature, and what he's learned that literature has become (feminist lit., etc.).

⢠Gain, Farrar Straus & Giroux (1st edn. 1998; New York Times Notable Book)
This review at Spike Magazine tells us: "The first of Gain's two interwoven plotlines concerns the birth, growth, and ultimate decline of the Clare Corporation, a soap and chemical manufacturing concern; the second, the story of the Bodey family, residents of the fictional Lacewood, Indiana - a quiet, comfortable midwestern company town, home to Clare's massive agricultural operations....Gain is the story of the decline and fall of a company, a family, and a nation rendered in quiet symbolism and graceful, elegant prose....In the end, Gain is about losses, fiscal, physical and spiritual: A woman who loses her health, a corporation that loses its soul, and an emerging democracy that loses its way en route to the promised land."

⢠Plowing the Dark, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1st edn. 2000; New York Times Notable Book)
It "conjures up the bygone days of virtual reality and the promise of the unreal world that might have been," so says Pam Rosenthal at Salon, in this review, which goes on to surmise thusly:

"Plowing the Dark" remains rooted in its historical moment and insistent on human perception as the measure of things. Although imbued with the horrors of war and the unholy technologies of unmaking the world, it feels almost optimistic in its resolution, refreshing in its evocation of a time less cyberselfish than our own. It's a chamber work, really, this meditation on rooms and other spaces, this smart, sweet, harrowing novel that reminds us how much the human prospect depends upon the homes -- virtual and otherwise -- that we build for ourselves on Earth.

⢠The Time of Our Singing, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1st edn. 2003; Finalist, National Book Critics' Circle Award, 2003; and a whole of others, I should add)
How about this (from this Slate article I already referenced above): "takes its central metaphor from the problem particle physicists call "symmetry," whose equations ask (roughly) whether time is real."

Or, as summarized by the Unlinkable JAR:

Musical theory meets quantum theory, meets race relations in American after WWII. An amazing synthesis of topics that explores the endless boundaries and in-betweens. A sad tale, but one that reminds [the Unlinkable JAR] that the sixties were not about peace and love and hippies and the war; instead they were about race and riot and rights - and nothing seems to have been resolved.

⢠The Echo Maker, Farrar Straus Giroux (1st edn. 2006; and aww yeah, he finally won the National Book Award)
The citation at the National Book Award page gives this blurb:

Set in Nebraska during the Platte River's massive spring migrations, this novel explores the power and limits of human intelligence.

I'll borrow from Jonah here:

The Echo Maker begins with a car crash, which is witnessed only by migrating cranes. Mark, the driver of the totaled pick-up truck, is plunged into a coma. When he awakes he is suffering from Capgras syndrome, a form of emotional amnesia where everything one loves suddenly seems unreal. Mark sees his sister, but says she is "pretend". He recognizes his dog, but says it isn't his dog. Even his trailer is just a phony replica of his "real" trailer, which has gone somewhere else. His whole world is just an ersatz copy of itself.

For other recent reviews, check out Colson Whitehead on Powers at the NYT, Margaret Atwood at the New York Review of Books, and this one at the Washington Post Book World.

And if that doesn't satisfy our dear review committee, then find Powers on the biggest idea of the last millenium, "Eyes Wide Open", check out the central repository I've been linking to above here, and check out, even more specifically, this list of theses and books about him.

Or, go to this Powell's interview, or this Salon interview, or just re-read the post here a few times, I mean, come on people, what's it gonna take?

More like this

What's it gonna take for what? Powers's books are fantastic. He's one of my favorite writers.

This advisory board gets more interesting all the time. I am looking forward to seeing what happens if you can get the entire advisory board in the same place at the same time. Assuming that such concepts as space and time exist in your reality.

By Peter B. Reiner (not verified) on 01 Dec 2006 #permalink