Plowing the Dark
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Plowing the Dark

3.5 2
by Richard Powers

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In a digital laboratory on the shores of Puget Sound, a band of virtual reality researchers race to complete the Cavern, an empty white room that can become a jungle, a painting, or a vast Byzantine cathedral. In a war-torn Mediterranean city, an American is held hostage, chained to a radiator in another empty white room. What can possibly join two such remote


In a digital laboratory on the shores of Puget Sound, a band of virtual reality researchers race to complete the Cavern, an empty white room that can become a jungle, a painting, or a vast Byzantine cathedral. In a war-torn Mediterranean city, an American is held hostage, chained to a radiator in another empty white room. What can possibly join two such remote places? Only the shared imagination, a room that these people unwittingly build in common, where they are all about to meet, where the dual frames of this inventive novel to coalesce.

Adie Klarpol, a skilled but disillusioned artist, comes back to life, revived by the thrill of working with the Cavern's cutting-edge technology. Against the collapse of Cold War empires and the fall of the Berlin Wall, she retreats dangerously into the cyber-realities she has been hired to create. As her ex-husband lies dying and the outbreak of computerized war fills her with a sense of guilty complicity, Adie is thrown deeper into building a place of beauty and unknown power, were she might fend off the incursions of the real world gone wrong.

On the other side of the globe, Taimur Martin, an English teacher retreating from a failed love affair, is picked up off the streets in Beirut by Islamic fundamentalists and held in solitary captivity. Without distraction or hope of release, he must keep himself whole by the force of his memory alone. Each infinite, empty day moves him closer to insanity, and only the surprising arrival of sanctuary sustains him for the shattering conclusion. Plowing the Dark is fiction that explores the imagination's power to both destroy and save.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Superb . . . Powers pulls off one of the most astonishing feats I've ever seen in literature . . . daring, unpredictable, and emotionally powerful.” —Steven Moore, The Washington Post Book World

“A fiercely visual book . . . the effect is spectacular . . . The most visceral prose Powers has ever written.” —Daniel Zalewski, The New York Times Book Review

“America's most ambitious novelist . . . Plowing The Dark is virtual reality composed in a language that will never go obsolete. No one who becomes immersed in its poetry will walk out the way he or she came in.” —Kevin Berger, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

Plowing The Dark may be [Powers's] most finely executed story yet . . . Relentless and mesmerizing . . . a beautiful homage to the sine qua non of consciousness itself . . . the final triumph of art over pain.” —Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe

“Powers has an inventive, virtuosic writing style that reserves him a special category in today's fiction . . . I don't have the space to do justice to all the wonders of craftsmanship in Plowing The Dark . . . This is the first emblematic novel of the 21st century, a lesson and an inspiration.” —Judy Doenges, The Seattle Times

“[A] tour de force. It has overwhelming inventiveness and fun moments as well.” —Donald Newlove, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“This is, ultimately, a novel of ideas, but one with a soul . . . There is much to admire in this novel, particularly the ingenious way in which reality is captured.” —Scott Leibs, The San Diego Union-Tribune

“Full of intelligence, exacting analysis and supple prose . . . [a] magisterial storybook.” —Corey Mesler, The Commercial Appeal

“Powers' twin tales are rife with echoes and allusions that reinforce their shared concern with the ways in which we reinvent our worlds.” —Ralph Rugoff, LA Weekly

“Superb . . . perhaps [Powers'] greatest novel . . . Nearly every page of Powers' astonishing book has stunning ideas that will force you to re-evaluate everything you thought you knew about these subjects, and the implications you never imagined.” —Steven Moore, The Newark Star-Ledger

“Powers displays his trademark intellectual richness . . . His prose makes technology sing and music compute.” —Michael Harris, The Los Angeles Times
Plowing the Dark

It might seem odd to remark upon a novelist's intelligence, but after reading the work of Richard Powers it's impossible not to. Gain delved into the inner workings of American capitalism while Operation Wandering Soul used the Pied Piper myth as a central metaphor in a story about human creation. Powers's seventh novel, Plowing the Dark, is no less ambitious. Using two separate narratives and more techno-babble than a Philip K. Dick tale, it explores the optimism and deadly hubris of imagination.

At the center of this tale is Adie Karpol, a painter living in New York City's SoHo district in 1986 (ostensibly, before rents ballooned). For reasons both personal and economic, Adie has given up on art to freelance as a graphic designer. As the novel begins, a friend from Adie's bohemian college days calls in the middle of the night to beg her to join his budding virtual reality project in Seattle. "Just come see this thing, before you die," he pleads.

Like many West Coast start-ups, the company Adie visits hums with messianic zeal. The project is an empty room called the Cavern that, with the help of five massive computers running futuristic software, can become anything—a Byzantine cathedral, a famous painting, or even the deepest African jungle. The software firm that foots the bill (as an R & D write-off) has assembled world-class economists, mathematicians, and biologists to perfect its systems, yet without a graphics expert on board, the Cavern's virtual reality looks like the work of a third-grader. After taking the room for a spin, Adie—once a skeptical New Yorker—decides to join the project.

Only Neal Stephenson and David Foster Wallace have written this well about the intoxicating power and fictional possibilities of computer-based technology. Reading about liquid crystal imaging techniques, subroutines, and coding languages makes you want to stop and give someone a high-five. The energy of Powers's prose is that infectious.

Just as the novel threatens to overwhelm the lay reader with its barrage of techy language, the story skips to Beirut, where a young American named Taimur Martin has come to teach English. The mid-'80s were an inauspicious time for Americans to live and work in the Middle East, even those with an Iranian name. Within a week, Taimur is abducted, blindfolded, shoved into a car, and driven to the outskirts of town where he spends his days bound and shackled in total darkness with no human contact.

The jump from Seattle to Beirut is initially disorienting, but Powers's strategy works. Adie and Taimur's stories become metaphorically bound together. While Adie works through the night to light up the walls of the Cavern with splashy computer-generated images, Taimur wrestles with his own imagination, trying to to prevent himself from sliding into madness. By juxtaposing these two plots, Powers shows that no matter what we are wired into—computer hardware or the wetware of our own brains—imagination can be both our salvation and our destruction.

Powers adds a further twist to his study of imagination when Adie discovers that the Cavern is part of a project she cannot in good conscience continue to support. Do we need to put a limit on what we can imagine? How much is enough? And why do we as human beings continue to lend our imaginations to the powers of destruction? Through Powers's keen eye, we see the truth in one character's statement that "[e]very new machine—every line of code that we write—changes what we think of as realistic."

Plowing the Dark is unafraid to ask the big questions about what roles science, art, and technology should play in our lives. But it also celebrates the way technology can liberate some people from loneliness, showing how, even in an environment as sterile and cold as the Cavern, people need to tell each other their dreams. By channeling these stories into a narrative about the essential issues of modern life, Richard Powers has given us his boldest work yet.

John Freeman

About the Author

Richard Powers is the author of seven novels, including The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, and, most recently, Gain, which won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A groundbreaking literary novelist and MacArthur "genius" grant winner, Powers (Galatea 2.2; Gain; The Gold Bug Variations) takes on virtual reality, global migration, prolonged heartbreak, the end of the Cold War and the nature and purpose of art in his ambitious and dazzling seventh book. Like most of Powers's previous works, this novel weaves together two sets of characters. One comprises artists and programmers at the Cavern, a pioneering virtual-reality project sponsored by a Microsoftesque company. As college students in the early 1970s, painter Adie Klarpol, writer Steve Spiegel and composer Ted Zimmerman shared a house, an art scene, a complex erotic entanglement and a sense of limitless potential. When the novel opens, it's the mid-'80s, and Steve is a programmer: he convinces Adie to flee New York City and commercial art for Washington State and the Cavern. We follow Adie as she learns about new media and about her new, multiethnic colleagues, each with his or her own emotional problems. As Adie and Steve rediscover high art and each other, both must return to the charismatic Ted and his painful fate. Powers's other plot concerns Taimur Martin, an American teacher taken hostage in Beirut. Taimur spends most of the novel in captivity, thrown back on memory and imagination: his harrowing second-person narration transforms outward monotony into inward drama, building up to some of Powers's best writing to date. Powers's fans love his gorgeous, allusive (if sometimes florid) prose, and his digressions into the sciences; both features, largely missing from Gain, re-emerge here to spectacular effect. Taimur's life and Adie's link up only thematically--they never meet; instead, Powers's dramatic prose and his intellectual reach makes their symbolic connection more than enough to propel the novel toward its moving close. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Grab your Janson's History of Art and a dictionary and prepare to be taken on one of the great rides of 21st-century fiction. Powers (Gain, Gold Bug Variations) confirms his standing at the forefront of contemporary literature with this, his seventh novel. Here, a disenchanted artist is recruited by a college friend to be part of a brilliant team at work on a virtual reality room, and, in a parallel tale, a half-Persian American ESL teacher in Beirut is taken hostage by Islamic militants. The first story line contains some of the best writing around regarding computers and their implications; the second is a tour de force of empathy. As always with Powers, the reader wonders how the two stories will come together, and, in the course of telling them, Powers tests our fundamental reasons for being. He looks at the ways in which art and religion reflect a basic conflict within human consciousness, exemplified by the Old Testament ban on graven images. In short, Powers asks (and ultimately answers) the question: What is consciousness for? Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/00.]--David Dodd, Marin Cty. Free Lib., San Rafael, CA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.95(d)

Read an Excerpt

Plowing the Dark


Years later, when she surfaced again, Adie Klarpol couldn't say just how she'd pictured the place. Couldn't even begin to draw what she'd imagined. Some subterranean confection of dripped stone, swarming with blind cave newts. A spelunker's scale model Carlsbad. Summer dacha of the Mountain King.

The Cavern, Stevie had called it. Stevie Spiegel, phoning her up out of nowhere, in the middle of the night, after years of their thinking one another dead, when they thought of each other at all. The Cavern. A name that formed every shape in her mind except its own.

She had not placed him on the phone. It's Steve, he said. And still, she was anywhere.

Adie fumbled with the handset in the dark. She struggled backward, upstream, toward a year when an a capella Steve might have meant something. Steve. You know: the twelfth most common name for American males between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-eight?

Steve Spiegel, he repeated, hurt by her confusion. Madison? Your housemate and collaborator? Mahler Haus? Don't tell me: you've torched your entire past.

A vision of herself at twenty-one congealed in front of her, like the Virgin come to taunt Slavic schoolchildren. Recollection swamped her carefully packed sandbags. Steve Spiegel. The three of them had planned to live the rest of their lives together, once. He, she, and the man who'd live long enough to become Adie's ex-husband.

Jesus! Stevie. Her voice skidded away from her, a gypsum imitation of pleasure's bronze. Stevie. What on earth have you been doing with yourself?

Doing ...? Adie, my love. You still make life sound like a summer camp craft project.

It isn't?

No, you decorative little dauber. It is not. Life is a double-blind, controlled placebo experiment. Has middle age taught you nothing?

Hah. I knew that at twenty. You were the one in denial.

Tag-team remembrance dissolved the years between them. OK, the gaps and rifts. OK, all the expended selves that would never again fit into the rag box of a single curriculum vitae.

Adie. Ade. You busy these days? I thought we might be able to hook up.

Outside her loft, the stink of singed oil and rotting vegetables settled. Car alarms clear down to the Battery sounded the predawn call to prayer. She cradled the phone under her chin, a fiddler between reels.

Steve, it's kind of late ... She hoisted the guillotine window above her futon, its counterweights long ago lost at the bottom of the sash's well. She crawled out onto her fire hazard of a fire escape, adopting her favorite phone crouch, rocking on her haunches, her lumbar pressed to the rose brick.

Jesus Christ, he said. I am so sorry. Entirely forgot the time difference. What is it out there: like after one?

I mean, it's a little late for reunions, isn't it?

Missing the whole point, the sole purpose of reunions, their sad celebration of perpetual too-lateness, the basic one-step-behindhood of existence.

Oh, I don't want a reunion, Ade. I just want you.

She laughed him off and they pressed on. They made the obligatory exchange of hostages, each giving over the short versions of their overland passage across the intervening decade.

Seattle, he told her. Can you believe it? Your doltish poet friend, the one who used to spout "Sunday Morning" until late Monday night. Supporting the computer industry's insidious plan for world domination.

Still lower Manhattan, she replied. Your washed-up watercolorist. Currently supporting the wall of my crumbling apartment building with the small of my back.

Surprised? he asked.

About ...?

About where we've landed?

Nobody lands, she said. So how is the world of software?

It's the oddest thing, Ade. Ade: as if they still knew each other. You know, I lied to get into this business in the first place. Told them I knew C++ when I didn't know it from B— —. But it turns out, I know this stuff in my sleep. Born to it. Code is everything I thought poetry was, back when we were in school. Clean, expressive, urgent, all-encompassing. Fourteen lines can open up to fill the available universe.

Different kind of sonnet, though, right? Different rhyme scheme?

I don't know. Sometimes you gotta wonder.

Wonder, in fact, was why he'd called. He'd come to rest in a moist den of pine on a twisty black macadam road looking out over Puget Sound. He was coding for a start-up called the Realization Lab, the latest tendril of that runaway high-tech success story TeraSys. But the RL was still experimental, more of a tax write-off than a source of any near-term revenue.

TeraSys? You mean you work for that little Boy Billionaire?

Indirectly, he laughed. And they're all boy billionaires out here.

What does your building look like?

What do you mean? My building, building? What does that have to do with anything?

I'm trying to visualize where you are. You're calling from work, aren't you?

I ... well, I guess I am.

William Butler Spiegel! The man who swore he'd never do anything more serious than wait on tables, so as not to compromise his muse. Still in his office in the middle of the night.

Middle ...? Out here, we're usually just getting started around 10 p.m.

Just tell me where you are. OK, look: I'll start. I'm squatting in my undershirt out on a black wrought-iron grille about twenty feet above the exhaust fan of the kitchen of a pasta dive ...

He played along, the stakes high. Khaki shorts and a green raglan T-shirt. Kicked back in a molded plastic office chair in the middle of a ... well ... redwood-and-cedar kind of thing. Lots of river stone. Local materials.

Very tasteful, they declared in unison. Old shtick, recovered from a dozen lost lives ago.

Geez, I don't know. What does my building look like? I've never really thought about it, Adie.

Come on, poet. Look around you. Walk me through the front door.

Hmm. Let's see. Maybe 10,000 square feet of usable floor, all on a single story. Lots of brick and earth tones. A maze of little cubicles made out of those tan-fabric-lined divider things. There's a nice little sunken atrium and such. A ton of vegetation per cubic liter. Big panoramic expanse of passive-solar smart window looking out at Rainier, on the ventral side.

I see. Kind of a futuristic forest ranger's roost.

Sure. Why not? You'll love it.

Hang on. You? As in me ...?

He slowed and unfolded. We're putting together a prototype immersion environment we're calling the Cavern. Computer-Assisted Virtual Environ—Look, Adie. I'm not going to describe this thing to you over the phone. You just have to come see it.

Sure, Steve. I'll be out in an hour.

How about a week from next Tuesday? For a no-obligations site visit. All expenses paid.

Oh. Oh God. You told them I knew C++?

Worse. I told them I knew the greatest illustrator since representational art self-destructed.

Illustrator, Stevie? How tasteful. Haven't lost your knack for words, I see.

Nothing had changed in him. He was still that kid of twenty, compelled to round up and protect everything he thought he loved. A mini-Moses, still shepherding around the dream of starting an artist's colony where he could gather all those who needed a hideout from the real world. His voice alone was proof, if Adie ever needed it: no one abandons his first survival kit. The most we ever do is upgrade the splints.

You're exactly what the project is looking for, Adie. We can make these incredible digital circus animals, and we can get them to jump through any hoop imaginable. We just need someone who can draw the hoops.

I don't get it, Stevie. Don't get it at all.

We're all coders and chrome monkeys. A bunch of logic monsters, trying to make walk-in, graphical worlds. We need someone who can see.

Know how I picture it out there? Open-toe sandals made out of silicon. Fuzzy-faced, bicycling Boeing executives. Tofu-eating knowledge engineers and multiply-pierced, purple-frosted meth heads waiting next to each other on the curb for the Walk light.

See? You know what the place looks like before you've even seen it. I told the team how you used to do those Draw-the-Pirate tests as a kid and fix all the original's errors. I showed them that ARTFORUM sidebar. The reviews of your SoHo show in '79 ...

Oh God, Stevie. That's ancient history.

Oh, I went further back than that. I showed them my color slide of your huge acrylic group portrait of us. The one that won the university painting prize ...?

How dare you. I hate you.

I told them about the award controversy. How one of the judges thought you were using projection? How he refused to believe that you'd actually freehanded ...

Steven. We were children then. You don't have to fly a stranger across the continent just to find someone who can draw. Courtroom portraitists are a dollar ninety-eight a square yard. Besides, I already have a life.

You're not a stranger, Ade. He sounded hurt. That's what's so perfect about this. You don't have to stop painting. Just come out here and do what you—

Steve. You have the wrong person. I don't do ... I'm not painting anymore.

Silence pinged off the far coast, full duplex.

Did something happen? he asked.

Tons happened. Oh, all my parts are still intact, if that's what you mean. It's just that painting's over. No great loss, I assure you.

Loss? Adie! How can you say that? What ... what are you doing, then?

About what? Oh. You mean for work? I freelance. Commercial stuff. Fliers and the like. Book jackets.

You'll do a book jacket but you won't ...?

Won't do original work. I have no problem with designing for a living. Copy and paste. All the pastel coffee mugs and cartoon cars that you want. But Art's done.

Adie. If you can still make ... Do you see? This would be a chance to do something completely ...

Sounds like you're looking for somebody else, Stevie. For the greatest illustrator since representation self-destructed.

Well, have it your way. Something in his voice said: You always did. But do me a favor, Adie? Just make sure that you see this thing once before you die.

The sentence jumped out at her, from a place she could not make out. The sound of the words, their roll, their order. See this thing once, before you die. The strange familiarity of the invitation caught her ear, if not yet her eyes.

Put it that way, she heard herself mouth, I wouldn't mind.

Sure, he said. He'd never asked for anything but the chance to save her. Whenever you like. Preferably after 10 p.m.

The hard rose building brick pressed up against the small of her back. From a flight and a half up above night's fire escape where she sat, she watched herself say, How about a week from next Tuesday, then? On you.

Copyright © 2000 by Richard Powers

Meet the Author

Richard Powers is a MacArthur Fellow and the author of Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance, Prisoner's Dilemma, The Gold Bug Variations, the National Book Award-nominated Operation Wandering Soul, Galatea 2.2, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Plowing the Dark, and, most recently, The Time of Our Singing. He lives in Illinois.

Brief Biography

Urbana, Illinois
Date of Birth:
June 18, 1957
Place of Birth:
Evanston, Illinois
M.A., University of Illinois, 1979

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Plowing the Dark 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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