Scientific Fiction

At a time when scientific discovery outpaces almost everyone's understanding of it, Richard Powers is perhaps the only novelist with the ability, and the desire, to bridge the two cultures. In his books he acts as docent, leading the reader through elaborate exhibitions of modern technology: genetics in The Gold Bug Variations (1991), artificial intelligence in Galatea 2.2 (1995), and now virtual reality, in Plowing the Dark. But although Powers brings progress reports on the sciences (and in doing so, performs an old-fashioned novelistic task -- explaining how the world works), they have more than a journalistic interest for him. The allure and danger of technology is his continuing theme, and he fertilizes his language with its special vocabularies and metaphors; the combination puts his fiction with the most ambitious of his generation, and has earned him comparison to writers as different as Thomas Pynchon and Saul Bellow.

Often in Powers's novels the main character stands in for the reader as pupil and researcher, bringing him or herself up to speed on the latest developments. In Plowing the Dark that surrogate is Adie Klarpol, a New York artist who has retreated into commercial design after years of disillusionment. As the novel opens, she gets an invitation from an old college friend to join him at TeraSys, a thinly disguised Microsoft, where a small team of programmers is taking the first steps toward virtual reality. Adie's job will be to paint the various worlds that they bring to life in their demonstration room, the Cavern.

Powers, whose basic mistrust of technology never overcomes his passionate curiosity about it, shows Adie not repelled but revived by this new application of her art. When the team starts turning the Cavern into a full-scale replica of the Hagia Sophia, Adie sees herself, with very little irony, as the genuine heir to the original church's master craftsmen, working on a project greater than herself, in which all her gifts have a use and a purpose.

Adie and her colleagues -- a gallery of techie misfits, from the young programmer who meets a bride by e-mail to the senior mathematician embittered by his demotion from pure to applied research -- are inspired to re-create the Hagia Sophia by Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium." This unlikely fusion of poetry and technology -- not only Adie but also her college friend and Ronan O'Reilly, an Irish programmer, are Yeats fanatics -- is one of many signs that Powers, though he seems to boast of research done and notes taken, is not a documentary realist. The poem has its central place in the novel as a symbol, a metaphor: as O'Reilly explains, perhaps too clearly, Yeats's imagined Byzantium and the Cavern are "all the same project.... The thing that's best in people, the thing that wants to be pure and whole and permanent, the thing that won't rest until it builds its eternal bird."

Virtual reality, in other words, is not just the next step in technology; it is the ultimate goal of all technology, of all symbolic thought since the cave paintings. For the first time, "Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing" is a genuine possibility; the TeraSys programmers are on the verge of "the fully deformable universe." And so Plowing the Dark allows the most complete treatment of the theme that has run through all of Powers's scientific fiction: the dream, or nightmare, of man's total power over nature. A fully deformable universe, after all, can be tragically deformed as well as magically transformed. The title of the novel is another name for the myth of the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

History and its victims kept their hands to the plow, broken, exhausted, like an old married couple trapped for life in love's death lock, unable to break through to that sunlit mutual upland. The future, under construction, leveraged to the hilt, could only press forward, hooked on its own possibility.

IT is possible that what mankind creates in its moral dark will only make the darkness permanent. Powers explores the threat lurking behind the Cavern's promise in the other half of the novel. (The twinning of stories is another regular feature of his fiction, as though he needs a separate, more nakedly emotional compartment to supplement his fact-crammed main plot.) At first the story of Taimur Martin, in Beirut, half a world away from TeraSys, seems totally unrelated to Adie Klarpol's. Drawing, as he acknowledges, on the accounts of Western hostages in Lebanon, Powers gives a terrifying account of Martin's kidnapping by Islamic guerrillas, which occupies the same five-year span as the TeraSys plot.

Powers describes Martin's physical tortures -- he is wrapped head to foot in packing tape, chained to a radiator twenty-four hours a day, fed only scraps and gristle -- with meticulous imagination. But the core of this story is psychological -- Martin's attempts to make his bare cell into a theater for his mind. And as Martin tries to bring a scene from Great Expectations, or the look of his Chicago neighborhood, to life, the link between the two plots becomes clear: he is trying to do unassisted what Adie does with advanced technology. As in the tale of John Henry, if Martin does as well as the machine, it is only at a terrible price.

As the novel progresses, Powers tightens the weave of these two strands, using the loom of politics. He sets Plowing the Dark in the years of great upheavals -- the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Gulf War. For Powers, the good in this list is weighed against the evil and found wanting. His fiction has always manifested a rather simple, even naive, hostility toward "politics," which he seems to take as equivalent to violence and ill will in general. (Helen, the artificial-intelligence computer in Galatea 2.2, shuts herself down in despair after being confronted with all the horrors in an ordinary newspaper.) Adie talks about the fall of the Berlin Wall with twice-shy hesitation, a lover about to be disappointed again: "What a win. What an astonishing win.... It is a win, isn't it?"

In this view, the terrorists who hold Taimur Martin are politics incarnate, mindlessly violent in the name of a cause. But the possibility that even Adie's own artistic and intellectual work is at the service of politics doesn't occur to her until late in the novel, when the Gulf War reveals the military applications of virtual reality. This is what may come, Powers suggests, of all that plowing -- not the "sunlit mutual upland" of Byzantium, of imagination's total freedom, but the ghostly green night vision of the smart bomb.

Of course, these concerns aren't original to Powers. It is both the achievement of and the problem with his fiction that he seems to reinvent philosophical wheels; he writes about the dehumanizing effects of technology, or the materialist premise that the universe can be fully described by physical laws, seemingly without awareness that many writers have treated them before. But the immediacy of these problems for the novelist makes his novels live. One feels that he has come to them directly through his own encounters with technology -- and with poetry; perhaps no living novelist makes more use of poetry, as quotation and as provocation, than Powers.

The other vital element is his prose, also idiosyncratic, stronger in invention than in judgment. Powers rubs language against the grain, constantly agitating it. When he succeeds, he achieves a rare energy. He perfectly captures the surprise of high political drama: "Event lumbered into sudden view, like some saurian kneecap swinging in front of a tenth-story window." Or the aging Adie's remorseful vision of herself at twenty-one, "like the Virgin come to taunt Slavic schoolchildren." Or the speech of a man paralyzed with multiple sclerosis: "The four syllables spread out over so long an astonishment that they lost themselves, like the word 'Asia' on a good-sized globe."

But Powers writes at top volume almost all of the time, and sometimes produces a tinny reverberation, a false note -- of melodrama, or caricature, or just repetition. From time to time he inserts static descriptions of the various "rooms" that the Cavern can become -- a therapy room, a bedroom from a Van Gogh painting -- which are too static, too much like display exercises. New story lines and life histories are introduced halfway through, and a surprise ending joins the twin narratives rather too forcibly. But this profusion of language, characters, and plot seems to be the price of Powers's energy and curiosity. It is a testament to his intelligence and imagination that one pays the price willingly, and in none of his novels is the reward greater than in Plowing the Dark.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and a critic. He writes regularly for The New Republic and other publications.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; Scientific Fiction - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 95-97.