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As their experiment progresses, their brain-child absorbs more and more information, gradually becoming increasingly worldly. Soon, it demands to know its name, sex, race and reason for existing. Meanwhile, this literary crash course sparks in Powers a parallel awakening, and he begins a reconsideration of his chosen profession, his decade-long, failed relationship with a former pupil and his obsession with the master's candidate against whom his cybernetic pupil is slated to compete.
The author of The Gold Bug now offers the intriguing story of an outspoken neurologist intent upon modeling the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. Through repeated tutorials, the device grows gradually more worldly until it demands to know its own name, sex, race and reason for existing.
"A splendid intellectual adventure, a heartbreaking love story, a brief tutorial on cognitive science, and the autobiography of one of the most gifted writers of the younger generation." —The Washington Post Book World
"Terse and heartbreaking." —Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Brilliantly imaginative." —Time
"I love and admire this book...but I cannot give an adequate sense of its many marvels....One of the most beautiful and baffling dialogues in recent fiction." —The Boston Globe
It was like so, but wasn't.
I lost my thirty-fifth year. We got separated in the confusion of a foreign city where the language was strange and the authorities hostile. It was my own fault. I'd told it, "Wait here. I'm just going to change some money. Check on our papers. Don't move from this spot, no matter what." And chaos chose that moment to hit home.
My other years persist, like those strangers I still embrace in sleep, intimate in five minutes. Some years slip their chrysalis, leaving only a casing to hold their place in my sequence. Each year is a difficult love with whom I've played house, declaring, at each clock tick, what it will and won't put up with.
My thirty-fifth trusted no one. As soon as I said I'd only be a moment, it knew what would happen to us.
Thirty-five shamed me into seeing that I'd gotten everything until then hopelessly wrong. That I could not read even my own years.
At thirty-five, I slipped back into the States. I did not choose either move or destination. I was in no condition to choose anything. For lack of a plan, I took an offer in my old college haunt of U. The job was a plum, my premature reward for a portfolio that now seemed the work of someone else.
I thought the year a paid leave of absence. A visiting position, where I might start again with the recommended nothing. House, meals, office, expenses, and no responsibilities except to live. I clung to the offer without too much reflection.
In fact, I had nowhere else to go. I couldn't even improvise a fallback.
It had to be U. U. was the only town I could still bear, the one spot in the atlas I'd already absorbed head-on. I'd long ago developedall the needed antibodies. When you take too many of your critical hits in one place, that place can no longer hurt you.
Nothing else remotely resembled home. Time had turned my birthplace into an exotic theme park. I could not have gotten a visa to live where I'd grown up. And I'd just spent the last seven years in a country that seemed exile already, even while I'd lived there.
But U. I could slink back to, and it would always take me. We were like an old married pair, at exhausted peace with each other. I did school's home stretch here, learned to decline and differentiate, program and compose. U. was where I took Professor Taylor's lifechanging freshman seminar. Twelve years later, a stranger to the town, I passed through to watch Taylor die with horrific dignity.
U. was the place where I first saw how paint might encode politics, first heard how a sonata layered itself like a living hierarchy, first felt sentences cadence into engagement. I first put myself up inside the damp chamois of another person's body in U. First love smelted, sublimated, and vaporized here in four slight years.
I betrayed my beloved physics in this town, shacked up with literature. My little brother called me here to tell me Dad was dead. I tied my life to C.'s in U. We took off from U. together, blew the peanut stand to go browse the world and be each other's whole adulthood, an adventure that ended at thirty-five. The odds were against this backwater having anything left to throw at me.
Since my last trip back, I'd achieved minor celebrity status. Local Boy Makes Good. I'd never get my name on the city-limits sign. That honor was reserved for the native Olympic legend. But I now had the credentials to win a year's appointment to the enormous new Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. My official title was Visitor. Unofficially, I was the token humanist.
My third novel earned me the post. The book was a long, vicarious re-creation of the scientific career I never had. The Center saw me as a liaison with the outside community. It had resources to spare, the office cost them little, and I was good PR. And who knew? A professional eavesdropper with a track record might find no end of things to write about in an operation that size.
I had no desire to write about science. My third novel exhausted me for the topic. I was just then finishing a fourth book, a reaction against cool reason. This new book was fast becoming a bleak, baroque fairy tale about wandering and disappearing children.
Even I could not fail to see the irony. Here I was, crawling back to the setting I had fictionalized in my sprawling science travelogue. The University put me up in a house, the seventies equivalent of the barracks where the hero of my book had lived on his arrival in town. Beyond a lone bed and desk, I left my rooms unfurnished, in my character's honor.
I bought a secondhand bike, perfect for the stretch from my house to the Center. The research complex had sprung up since my last visit. A block-long building in a town the size of U. cannot help but make a statement. The Center's architecture laid irony upon irony. It was a postmodern rehash of Flemish Renaissance. In the Low Countries, I'd lived in postwar poured concrete.
The Center had been built by an ancient donor couple, two people archaic enough to get through life still married to each other. They reached, the end of that shared existence with nothing better to do with the odd fifty million than to advance advanced science. I don't know if they had children, or what the kids were slated to get when the folks passed away.
U. got a warren of offices, computer facilities, conference areas, wet and dry labs, and an auditorium and cafeteria, all under that jumble of Flemish gables. The small city housed several hundred scientists from assorted disciplines. Thankless Ph.D. candidates did the bulk of the experimental drudge work, supervised to various degrees by senior researchers from all over the world. Galatea 2.2. Copyright © by Richard Powers. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
This autobiographical/fictional story relies heavily on computerese and multiple plotting. I am a Powers fan, so that helps. There is a love affair that ends sadly, but that is countered by the protagonist's challenge to make a computer respond to literature. Characters are well drawn. Typical of Powers is the amount of research that has gone into it. His style is engrossing. This was followwed by THE ECHO MAKER, which is his best novel to date.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 13, 2003
I understand the reception this book has received from other reveiwers and I should state from the beginning that I am not the world's biggest fan of Powers. I think that of the big three--Powers, Wallace and Vollman that William T. Vollman is the most gifted of the novelists (even though I wonder with some of his most recent works if he is not wasting his gifts). This book is a wonder though and while Powers would seem to be making a fiction out of science and could be judged quickly in his ability as a writer, I think that this is his best work. By fleshing out some of the ideas that started filtering their way into popular conscience in the mid-1990s, namely cognitive theory, Powers would seem to be simply riding a trend. But the work resonates still and having not read it in about 7 years, I recently picked it up for a second run. I was astounded to discover subtleties I had not noticed before. While this book owes quite a bit to the works of Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstader, these observations do not take away from what is the true genious of Powers when he is on his game--that he can take the mundane or the scientific and make each look spectacular or simple with relative ease. Before picking this novel up, though, I would suggest at least glancing at a few of the texts I have listed in related titles.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 21, 2002
I was waiting for it to get good the whole time. It was a good story and I think it was kind of over my head. I had to read this for a Summer Reading Assignment and if I didn't have to read it, I wouldn't. As I got closer to the end of the book, the harder it was to finish.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 22, 2001
This novel has a great premise and starts with great promise, but ultimately falls short. It is the story of a novelist, Powers himself, who is enticed into helping train a neural network, eventually named Helen, to learn enough literature to be able to mimic a graduate student. The story of Helen is paralleled by the story of Powers' troubled relationship with his love C, and by his own story of becoming a novelist. The two threads eventually merge into a lovely parable of love gained and love lost. This is the strength of the novel. The novel, however, suffers from weak characterizations, dull self-centeredness, and, most troubling, insufficient science. Powers paints many characters as stereotypes, with dialog that is often stilted and unnatural. Powers' own story of becoming a novelist is dull and uninvolving. But most serious, Powers fails to bring the science to life. He manages to work in references to terms such as neural networks, training, back propagation, Hebbsian, synapses, but the science is never really explored. It serves largely as a backdrop. This is a shame as Powers truly has an original idea and the science is at the heart of it. But give the book a try; the originality of the premise is worth it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.