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From Barnes & NoblePlowing 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.
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.