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).