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Recent Atlantic Unbound interviews:

A Kinder, Gentler Overclass (June 15, 2000)
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More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

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Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

Two Geeks on Their Way to Byzantium

A conversation with Richard Powers

June 28, 2000

Plowing the Dark With his seventh novel, Plowing the Dark, Richard Powers again demonstrates -- as he did in Galatea 2.2 and Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance -- his rare ability to juggle technology, art, and politics, keeping them aloft in a complicated but highly coordinated pattern. Few other writers would care to toss around Van Gogh, Tiananmen Square, and computer languages, but in this new book Powers manages it so adroitly that the subjects begin to blur into one another, exposing connections that would ordinarily remain hidden.

In Plowing the Dark W. B. Yeats's great poem "Sailing to Byzantium" becomes an argument for virtual reality. That, at least, is what lines like the following signify to Stevie Spiegel and Adie Klarpol, the book's main characters:
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall....
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling.
Stevie is an ex-poet who discovers the essence of poetry in computer code, and Adie is a disillusioned painter who falls in love with art all over again by way of computer graphics. Stevie and Adie are holed up with other assorted geeks in Seattle, where they work for a Microsoft-like company called TeraSys on a VR platform called the Cavern, which they turn into a simulacrum of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, an American named Taimur Martin is kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists and isolated in another sort of cavern -- a small room where for months on end he has no contact with anyone other than his jailers. While Stevie and Adie orchestrate their digital sensorium, Taimur begs for reading material and considers himself fortunate to get a Koran rather than another beating. These two caverns briefly overlap at the book's end, when the digital magic of the virtual Hagia Sophia changes the life not only of Adie, its chief designer, but of Taimur also.

Plowing the Dark is a novel of ideas and of succinct, often arresting prose. Adie, for example, waxing lyrical about the potential of the Cavern, imagines it could "become the body's deep space telescope ... the zoom lens of the spirit ... a visualization lab as powerful as human fancy ... the storybook that once expelled us and now offered to take us back in." Richard Powers started as, and has really never stopped being, a poet. And before his current employ as a novelist, he worked as a computer programmer. In Plowing the Dark he draws on all his talents to demonstrate that virtual reality is the way our own era resumes Yeats's journey to Byzantium, but with one crucial difference: for the aging Yeats Byzantium was conceived as a refuge from ephemeral passions of youth, whereas in Plowing the Dark it is the young themselves who are setting sail.

Powers spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound contributing writer Harvey Blume.

Richard Powers
Richard Powers

Plowing the Dark is not the first novel you've set in the world of computers.

My first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, is set in a computer trade-press office. Out of grad school, I worked as a tech writer for a while before going into computer coding for a living. So writing my first book was both an act of personal recovery as well as an attempt to integrate my life's disparate interests. I think that if the novel's task is to describe where we find ourselves and how we live now, the novelist must take a good, hard look at the most central facts of contemporary life -- technology and science. The "information novel" shouldn't be a curiosity. It should be absolutely mainstream.

What's the relationship between writing code and writing English?

In describing Stevie's discovery that code combined action and meaning, I really was attempting to convey my own sense of discovery. I taught myself to program in the late seventies, while an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. There was a large precursor network system called PLATO that was used as a teaching system. I took my undergraduate chemistry, calculus, and physics courses on the PLATO system, but while I was working on the problem sets, I got even more intrigued by what was under the hood: all the human and mechanical apparatus needed to get the lessons up on the screen in the first place.

And that's the same kind of thing we learn when we learn how to read poetry -- the actual diction of words on the page is just the tip of the iceberg.

Do you still program?

Oh, yes, I do. But a lot of the empty areas of the map feel filled in now, so it's trickier to get the same recreational thrill. High-level visual programming languages let you do in three minutes what you used to do in three weeks.

In Plowing the Dark you describe the temptation of VR by saying that it is the "place that the brain had first mistaken the world for: the deep, accountable, pliant, original adventure."

The desire to live in our imagination is driven by this suspicion that we're disembodied sensibilities cobbled into our bodies. That idea has infused most of human thought since the very beginning. I strongly believe poetry has always explored that same split, needing the body and yet constantly on the verge of discarding it as irrelevant or debilitating. It's right at that same untenable split that I want to position the digital revolution and virtual reality.

In effect, there's been an eternal longing to give up atoms for bits.

Which, of course, we can't do. And finally, in both frames of the book, the protagonists have the real world thrust back upon them.

At the end it's as if a digital Byzantium has somehow crossed over into the real world.

That is my metaphor for reading; that's what reading does. In the end, the book becomes an apology for the virtuality of fiction, fiction not as a replacement for the real world, but as a hybrid place where the real world is suspended and reconstituted into something more survivable.

Would you agree, though, that today it's not just a Yeats trying to get beyond the body, but the whole mass of people we call computer geeks?

I think the project of technology has always been driven by this dream of breaking the bounds of time and space, and the constraint of the body.
Religious faiths have often maintained that the soul or spirit exists apart from the body. So are technology and religion closer to each other than we usually assume?

I don't think they're all that separated. They become separated in their execution. But we are now witnessing a huge influx of people who are being bitten by the urge to get out of their bodies, somehow. On the one hand, Hollywood turns out VR fantasies such as Virtuosity and The Matrix, while on the other, legitimate computer scientists such as Hans Moravec think openly about downloading human brains into silicon. In the middle, vast numbers of ordinary people take on alter egos in AOL chat rooms. As technology makes disembodiment possible in more modes and registers, it titillates our desire to free our souls from the "dying animals" they find themselves fastened to.

As Stevie puts it when extolling VR, "All those old dead-end ontological undergrad conundrums? They've now become questions of engineering."

Of course, I have my characters say that. I want to be able to deploy the possible connections in the broadest way, so my technique is the dialogical novel, where there are different moral centers, each of which has its own plausibility. In a sense, my trepidation about giving interviews is that I risk intruding upon that dialogue. I think it's less interesting to resolve this issue from the author's point of view than to set up these positions and allow the reader to test them out.

How do you define "geek?"

As the bearer of a kind of idealism, in the classic, philosophical sense. The geek is a Platonist, forever looking for ways to reify the imagination, to make our interior visions more real than mundane materiality ever lets them be.

I think the history I'm describing in the novel is the apotheosis of the geek. Geeks had been banished to the outer reaches of the playground, and had made themselves a passable world in that far corner. Then, suddenly, everyone else in the playground realizes that's where it's all happening. That moment when the geek goes from quintessential outsider to the bearer of power and the arbiter of the future is also the moment where the geek -- or the scientist, or the player in the field of ideas -- comes belatedly to realize that genies do not get released from bottles without consequences.

A key motif of your work is the conflict between innocence and experience. A lot of your characters are thin-skinned and super-sensitive. And not only the human characters. In Galatea 2.2 the artificial-intelligence program, Helen, researches the horrors of human history when she fully emerges from the circuitry and decides to delete herself.

In a sense, Adie Klarpol is very much that way. Her whole life has been a series of steps in which she says, I don't want to play anymore, and then removes herself from those arenas where she was most temperamentally suited to play. She is lured back by a technology she finds too seductive to forgo. Then, when the Gulf War breaks out, her impulse is to turn into an iconoclast, and to say, I'm going to take my crayons and go home; I'm going to tear down what I've made.

Including the new digital Byzantium.

Right, which would go the way of the old Byzantium -- brought down by the waves of iconoclasm. But she pushes through that moment of iconoclasm. I feel the narrative has a kind of guarded optimism about the ways in which innocence can counter experience, or set up some terms other than capitulation.

You create a thematic opposition in the novel between virtual reality and Islamic fundamentalism. On the one hand there's the graven image in modern digital dress, and on the other, the ban on graven images put forward in the Koran.

That's one way to see it. We could also say there's an opposition between the program of Hezbollah, which is to arrest time at a point when not everything has been commodified, and the program of the American market economy, which is to commodify everything.

Would I be correct in saying there's a good bit of Don DeLillo in Plowing the Dark?

I've been asked whether I was influenced by Mao II, which also has a Lebanese hostage. I have to say it's one of the few DeLillo books I haven't read. DeLillo's been an enormous influence on me, but not in the direct sense coming from that book. If I had to reduce to one sentence what I've taken from him, it is the awareness of the deadening of our own intelligibility to ourselves in the face of political and market forces.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Harvey Blume is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound and The Boston Book Review. His most recent Unbound interview was with Susan Sontag.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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