It isn't easy to characterize Richard Powers in a single sentence. The MacArthur grant recipient and award-winning novelist suffers from what Powers himself, in a Salon interview, called "a restlessness of theme" -- his books feature everything from molecular genetics and neural networks to soap manufacturers and singers. What they have in common is something Powers refers to as "the aerial view": a perspective that sees humankind as one small element in a complex universe.
As a child in Chicago's northern suburbs, and later as a teenager in Thailand, Powers had no thoughts of becoming a writer. He believed he was destined to be a scientist and explored paleontology, archaeology, and oceanography before he finally enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois. But an honors literature seminar helped inspire him to change fields, and he ended up earning his M.A. in English. Powers then moved to Boston, where he found work as a technical writer and computer programmer. He embarked on an omnivorous, self-directed reading program and spent his Saturdays at the Museum of Fine Arts, where he came across a photograph titled "Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914."
"The words [of the title] went right up my spine," he later told an interviewer for Cultural Logic. "I knew instantly not only that they were on their way to a different dance than they thought they were, but that I was on the way to a dance that I hadn't anticipated until then. All of my previous year's random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to be the birth photograph of the twentieth century."
The photograph also engendered Powers's career as a novelist. His first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was followed by Prisoner's Dilemma and The Gold Bug Variations, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and as Time magazine's Book of the Year for 1991. Gerald Howard, writing in The Nation, called Powers "one of the few younger American writers who can stake a claim to the legacy of Pynchon, Gaddis, and DeLillo." The Gold Bug Variations, which includes the story of a Bach-obsessed scientist who abandons his quest to crack the genetic code, established Powers as a writer who could articulate questions about science and technology -- which emerge again in novels like Galatea 2.2, about a writer trying to teach literature to an artificial-intelligence program named Helen, and Plowing the Dark, which explores virtual reality and the human imagination as different means (or possibly the same means) of escaping the physical limitations of life.
Powers's works are packed with puns, parallels, and allusions; as Daniel Mendelsohn noted in The New York Times Book Review, each novel is "a kind of literary installation in which art objects, theoretical musings, plots and subplots, disquisitions on intellectual and literary history, histories of countries and corporations" illuminate an underlying theme. For some critics, Powers's brand of literary gamesmanship can be too much of a good thing: "He is quite capable of fluent sequential narrative, and readers will be relieved when he lapses into it after all the self-conscious brilliance and endlessly impressive allusion," noted a Publishers Weekly review of Operation Wandering Soul. But for his fans, part of the pleasure of a Powers novel comes from its dazzling and unexpected fusions of intellect and imagination. "It's instruct and delight, right?" Powers asked in the Salon interview. "You gotta give both."
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Powers holds the Swanlund Chair in English at the University of Illinois, where he has taught classes in multimedia authoring and the mechanics of narrative.
On the Internet, he has been the subject of several hypertext essays, along with a hypertext vignette titled "Richard Powers Eats Peanut Butter Sandwich."
Several of Powers's novels have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, including Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, The Gold Bug Variations, and Galatea 2.2. Operation Wandering Soul was a National Book Award finalist.
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