Science Fiction

Science Fiction

Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker speaks volumes about neuroscience, nature and environmental degradation. But it says little about what it means to be alive.


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.

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.

The Echo Maker marks both a further departure in promising directions and the return of old problems. Powers’s characters are newly individualized, complex and flawed, their stories closer than before to the emotional bone. But the science is back, and the textbookery with it. The novel is set in Kearney, Nebraska, by the vast, shallow Platte, in the midst of the soul-crushing emptiness of the Great Plains. Mark Schluter, 27-year-old slaughterhouse mechanic, screw-up and fun-loving good old boy, flips his pickup on a desolate road one frozen night, putting himself into a coma and bringing his older sister Karin back from Sioux City, which, despite longer flights to bigger places, is as far as she’s managed to land from Kearney’s slow collapse and the get-rich-quick futility and save-me-Jesus fanaticism of, respectively, their father and mother (both now dead). Mark has a couple of drinking buddies and a girlfriend of convenience. Karin has two old flames: Robert, now a developer, and Daniel, now an environmental activist. But when Mark starts to wake up, it becomes clear that he’s suffering from Capgras’ syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which one recognizes loved ones but feels nothing for them, becoming convinced that they’re impostors. Mark’s “doubling” begins with a distraught Karin but eventually spreads to his dog, his buddies and even the town itself. Enter, at Karin’s desperate request, Gerald Weber, celebrated neurologist and author and a dead ringer for Oliver Sacks; a stranger mistakes him, at one point, for the author of The Man Who Mistook His Life for a…. Weber’s books are actually called Wider Than the Sky, The Three-Pound Infinity and, just coming out as the novel opens, The Country of Surprise. But the unexpectedly harsh reception that greets this last one, together with Weber’s unaccountable attraction for Mark’s unaccountably sophisticated and eerily familiar health aide, sends Weber into a downward spiral that turns Nebraska into a true country of surprise and ends up making him wonder what indeed he has mistaken his life for.

There is much here that’s quite good. Powers’s characters tend to be paragons, intellectual or ethical, but Mark, in particular, is convincingly imagined, with a fine ear for his verbal and mental rhythms: “But no, the university chick tells him, with a mouth like two little bait worms doing it. Useful little mouth, probably, in a pinch.” This is a vividly interesting sound, and it gives us Mark in all his moral grossness and keen if untutored wit. Earlier, as Mark’s brain struggles to reassemble itself into full consciousness, Powers improvises some striking wordplay: “He says nothing. Some things say him. What’s on his mind hops off”; “Words click through his head, an endless freight. Sometimes he runs alongside, peering in. Sometimes these words peer out, finding him.” In its free-associative sense of discovery, this is well above the self-conscious groan-making of Powers’s usual wordplay (e.g., Goldberg/Gold Bug). And Powers’s eye for social detail remains as sharp as ever, whether we’re in a motel–“He went up to a room that pretended it had never been inhabited by anyone”–or a rehabilitation center–“Two papery women with walkers slid past her, a foot race in suspended animation.”

The range and magnitude of Powers’s talents are not in question. What’s in question is the kind of work he uses them to produce. I probably don’t need to tell you at this point that Weber enters the story smuggling a large load of neurological learning that takes much of the rest of the novel to unpack: the mind’s profound strangeness, which it is the mind’s own duty to conceal; the fragility, even fictitiousness, of the self; the distributed nature of consciousness among a plethora of neurocognitive modules. Powers’s deepest interests recur in new forms: signals and symbols, and the capacity to make them; the way organisms, and especially their brains, are shaped by–are, in a sense, solutions to–the world in which they live. Neuroscience passes here into environmentalism, another longstanding object of Powers’s ethical fervor. The story is set against the annual migrations of the sandhill crane through the Platte valley (the cranes are the “Echo Makers” of the title, in Anishinaabe lore, though of course the phrase develops an extremely wide resonance). Powers’s descriptions of the spectacle are sublime, as is his vision, woven into the novel’s metaphorical texture, of the human species as but another evanescent episode in life’s vast flow. The cycling of time, the interconnectedness of all living things, the mind-blowing–indeed, mind-creating–magnificence of nature, the obligation to live humbly and responsibly: All of Powers’s great themes return here.

And once again, they bury the story that’s meant to bear them. However individual Mark sounds, other characters, especially Karin, often sound like Powers’s mouthpiece: “The brain is a mind-boggling redesign,” a doctor says with his creator’s folksy pedantry, and, with a whiff of Powers’s glutinous sentimentality, “a record of the long way here.” “We pushed through the paper recycling plant,” Robert boasts in self-defense, “I call it Mea Pulpa.” Powers also tries to keep too many balls in the air. Neuroscience and environmentalism may be braided together thematically, but not on the level of the plot, which finally frays altogether. Weber’s identity crisis, meant to parallel Mark’s and Karin’s, is unconvincing. (I’m honor bound to note that it’s precipitated by a bad review, one that Weber rationalizes by telling himself, “In the field of public reviewing, one scored zero for appreciating an already appreciated figure. With a target as large as Gerald Weber, one earned points only for a kill.” However uncomfortable the irony here, I see no reason for a mea pulpa.) And the resolutions of the novel’s tensions and mysteries–will Mark recover? what happened the night of the accident? just who is that health aide?–feel perfunctory or contrived, failed frissons and muffed epiphanies.

The problem, of course, is that Powers’s mind is elsewhere, with the wonders of the brain and the interconnectedness of all living things. Instead of letting the story speak, he is the only one who speaks. Instead of locating meaning in experience, he locates it in ideas. But novels should test ideas, not surrender to them. The same is true of beliefs. Powers’s pious self-righteousness is expressed here through Daniel, the Christ-like environmentalist who lives on couscous and currants, turns his heat off at night and finally flees the all-too-human world. Powers is as ethically coercive as he is intellectually pedantic. One is no more inclined to argue with his environmentalism here than with his condemnation of racial injustice in The Time of Our Singing. But the novelist who refuses to grant his readers imaginative and moral freedom–the two are the same, and connected to the characters’ own autonomy–is serving neither the cause of art nor of justice.

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