Science Fiction | The Nation


Science Fiction

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Richard Powers has a lot of ideas: complex, articulate, deeply informed ideas about artificial intelligence, virtual reality, relativity, genetics, music and much more. But poems, as Mallarmé told Degas, are not made of ideas, and neither are novels. The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers's other novels, it won't tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like. And that, crudely put, is what novels are for.

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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This is hardly the standard view of Powers's work. Over the past two decades, Powers has established himself as one of our most praised as well as one of our most prolific writers of fiction. The Echo Maker makes nine novels since 1985, with an average page count of about 430. His paperbacks come garlanded with pages of superlatives from the most reputable journals and critics. According to one reviewer, he is perhaps "America's most ambitious novelist"; according to another, he is simply "America's greatest living novelist." The MacArthur Foundation honored him with a "genius" grant as far back as 1989, and the awards have been piling up ever since. Some of this acclaim is deserved. Powers is not only adept at crafting large-scale narrative and symbolic structures; he is also a remarkably gifted aphorist, a lyrical nature writer and a sharp observer of human situations.

But the extravagant praise that has been heaped on him mainly derives, I think, from our culture's skewed understanding of the nature of fiction, and of knowledge. It's not just that we don't understand the relationship between stories and ideas, it's that there's a particular realm of ideas to which we assign supreme value: science. Much of Powers's early training was in physics and computer science, and the ideas around which he builds his novels are mostly scientific ones. (The chief exception is music, but music, with its quasi-mathematical nature, has always been the art most attractive to the scientific mind, and Powers's treatment of it often focuses, precisely, on its mathematical aspects.) It is telling that Powers is typically praised for his intellect: his "vast intelligence," "intimidating brain," "high-wattage mentality"; his ability to "think in ink." His capacity to elucidate scientific ideas and speculate about their larger meanings is indeed impressive. But intellect and scientific acumen are not synonymous, though our culture seems to thinks so. "It's not rocket science," we say, or, "It's not brain surgery." So a novelist who understands science must be really smart, and a really smart novelist must be a really good one. (Was Hemingway "smart" in this sense? Was Austen, or Proust?) This confusion is no doubt compounded by the fact that, like most people, the typical book reviewer is unfamiliar with, and easily intimidated by, scientific concepts, and thus apt to defer to, if not genuflect before, those conversant with them. It is further compounded by our dimly understood but longstanding desire to "bridge the two cultures" of science and the arts (another phrase that crops up in Powers's reviews). From Matthew Arnold to C.P. Snow to today, there's been a vague feeling afloat that if only somehow those two modes of knowledge could be made to talk to each other, science would be humanized (whatever that means) and art made relevant to the scientific age (as if it weren't already).

I doubt this demand will ever be satisfied, for the simple reason that no one really knows what it means, least of all the people who make it. But certainly one way it won't be satisfied is by treating the novel as a container for scientific ideas. This is more or less what Powers does, for example, in The Gold Bug Variations, the most acclaimed of his early works. The novel intertwines the story of a young couple in the 1980s investigating the identity of a mysterious older friend with that friend's story from the 1950s, when he was a brilliant young scientist investigating the genetic code and making his first discoveries about love. As the title suggests, the novel also incorporates a lot of Bach, with a coloring of Poe. Indeed, the story turns out to be merely a pretext for Powers to develop a series of (admittedly fascinating) analogies between the genetic code and the Goldberg Variations: each based on just four units (the four bases of DNA, the four notes of the Goldberg bass figure), each combining and recombining these units at ever greater scales to create structures of unmatched complexity. The binary code of computer programming also comes in, as Powers elaborates his insights about bootstrapping, simulation, evolutionary adaptation, the emergence of intelligence through complexity and, especially, self-awareness--the fact that a scientist investigating the genetic code is really just the genetic code, after 4 billion years, coming into consciousness of itself.

Powers's feeling for this material is exhilarating, his sense of wonder infectious. But what's missing from the novel is, well, a novel. The characters are idealized, the love stories mawkish and clichéd, the emotions meant to ground the scientific speculations in lived experience announced rather than established. The thinnest of devices are introduced to allow Powers to suspend the plot for dozens of pages at a stretch while he lays out the genetic and musicological basics that will ultimately enable him to get to the interesting stuff. (Despite its paucity of narrative or psychological complication, the novel is more than 600 pages long.) One can't help but feel that Powers is more in love with his ideas than with his story. He has been compared, predictably, to Pynchon and DeLillo, but those writers embody their perceptions about technological civilization in narratives that, however obliquely, bring out their human meanings, their impact on individual lives. What is more, Pynchon and DeLillo introduce the complexity they find in both science and the civilization it has helped create into the texture of the narratives themselves--hence both the difficulty and the depth of their work. But Powers never seems to notice that novels, too, are complex systems, like genomes, musical compositions and computer programs, subject to similar principles and entraining similar possibilities. He has been called an experimental novelist for some reason, but aside from a predilection for double plots, his approach to narrative is quite conventional, even naïve. Rather than Pynchon and DeLillo, the writer he most reminds me of is Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach, and much of what Powers does is closer to science writing than to fiction.

The Time of Our Singing, Powers's last novel, represented something of a departure. The book, which follows a mixed-race, musically gifted New York family from the Marian Anderson concert to the Million Man March, says little about science (though the Jewish father is a physicist, so relativity comes in occasionally) and a great deal about music and race. The music, especially, is precisely imagined and deeply felt; Powers is an accomplished vocalist. Still, one rarely escapes the feeling that he is perpetually trying to prove something. When he isn't at the lectern, he's at the podium or the pulpit. His denunciations of racial prejudice, however just, are a little hard to take; at once pious and self-righteous, they make you feel as if you were being jabbed in the chest by someone on the verge of bursting into tears. Powers has been praised for his big heart as well as his big brain, but a bleeding heart isn't necessarily a big one, and if his intellectualism is really didacticism, his humanism is really sentimentalism. One mark of the sentimentalist, who glorifies his own emotions, is that he tends to be blind to their contradictions. Here Powers constructs an enormous novel to tell us, in part, that white people will never be able to understand or accept black people (so black people should stick to their own culture and their own kind). So what's a white Midwesterner doing writing a novel like this? The question is not merely churlish; Powers may know music inside and out, but he clearly knows black culture only out. (He's also pretty weak on Jews and New York.) Flesh them as he might with scene and story, the bones of his conception of black America are a bundle of familiar stereotypes: the tragic mulatto, the dignified striver, the hunted radical, the gutsy activist; gospel music, family warmth, home truths and home cooking.

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