on 26 November 2007
This year I discovered Richard Powers' writing. His books are extraordinary and ambitious in their scope and diversity. Galatea 2.2 is an exploration of the way thought and language construct a multi layered reality.It examines the way the brain talks to itself by trying to make a powerful computer imitate the uniquely human act of reading literature. Surprisingly, it is deeply engaging on an emotional level. He even made me empathise with the sufferings of an artificial intelligence!
The cover image is wonderfully apt. From the opening poem by Emily Dickinson to the final paragraphs I was satisfied at every level by his marvellous linguistic gifts and his ability to construct a tightly woven and constantly surprising tale. It was also interesting to encounter the fictionalised author as a character in his own text, not least because he reflects on what lay behind some of his earlier writings. This is an important book by a writer of exceptional gifts. Few novelists can match his erudition and originality. Best of all, his intellect does not detract from the humanity and emotional life of his characters.
on 17 May 2007
I discovered Richard Powers by accident. I found a copy of 'Gain' in a remaindered bookshop. It didn't look promising, with a picture of a tap and a bar of soap on the cover and a book description promising a corporate history of a soap-making company, but I vaguely remembered a faourable Updike reiew of 'Galatea 2.2' and thought it worth a shot. Later, I bought 'The Time of our singing', similarly reduced in price. Another rather lame title. Another over-literal cover design--black-and-white halves, with a black singer (too dark, in fact, for the character in the novel). The author's name also, on a subconscious level, put me off, with the dick-power associations of a pseudonymous author of macho thrillers. Both books languished on my shelves for months.
I now own all 9 Powers novels, and he has displaced Pynchon and Foster Wallace in my pantheon. His erudition is balanced by a powerful emotional punch that Pynchon never allows hiself, and the prose, though overwrought at times, constantly arrests, grabbing ones attention with startling similes, layered imagery and sudden changes of tone. Dialogue is contrived, mostly, but I'd rather read something that makes me think and wonder than something naturalistic. The themes are profound, I want to reread almost as soon as I've finished a Powers novel---quite simply, he's the greatest novelist I've read---and I've read a great many novels!
Any yet, when I mention his name to anyone, I just get a blank stare. What's the problem? I've alluded to some possibilities---his titles are often clunky and over-cute. 'Operation Wandering Soul', for example. 'Operation' because the protagonist (Richard Kraft---Power in German!) is a surgeon. 'The Gold Bug Variations'--punning, mildly embarrassing. The Time of our singing'---it's about singing, and it's about time! 'Gain', which sounds like the title of a boardroom blockbuster. Etcetera. When combined with the author's name (interestingly, in 'Galatea' he writes that he was advised to adopt a pseudonym--ironic, since his name already sounds like one) one feels disposed to misjudge the book by it's cover. The American covers I've seen, by the way, are far more tastefully designed than the British ones. Finally, all attempts to describe the plots (which, like the characters, are mostly vehicles for the ideas, and the virtuoso artistry of the prose) make the books sound awkward and contrived.
'Galatea 2.2' is a stunning book. I can't describe it. Just read it!
on 11 January 2012
My first impression on reading Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers is that he is an author who likes to challenge his readers. The novel is a reworking of Pygmalion/My fair Lady featuring a fictional novelist (also called Richard Powers) who has returned to the US following the collapse of his long term relationship with his ex girlfriend (referred to as C in the novel). Accepting a job at his old university as Humanist in Residence it is not long before Powers meets Philip Lentz a cognitive neurologist. As their uneasy relationship develops Powers accepts a challenge from Lentz that between them they can create a computer based machine capable of producing literary knowledge that could be equivalent to that of a human graduate under test conditions. One point to note here is that some of the information used between the two is of an esoteric nature but I did not feel that this affected the overall gist of the storyline. Apart from the narrative between Powers and Lentz as they attempt to create the neural network capable of imitating a human, the novel is also filled with extensive passages as Powers recounts his relationship with C in University, their life in Boston, and their time in Holland prior to the collapse of their relationship. For myself, I felt these sections were written with pathos, depth and feeling which portrayed a sense of regret and loss. Whether these passages are truth or fiction is a moot point but I did find them rather emotive. Overall I really enjoyed Galatea 2.2 and the fact that I may not have got all the technical terminology was not a hindrance. One final point, there was reference to the four novels Richard Powers wrote prior to Galatea 2.2 within the narrative so there is plenty of material to explore by this author.
on 7 December 2010
This is the sixth novel by Richard Powers that I have read and he has never failed to amaze me. In reviewing Galatea 2.2, I was torn between using one of two captions. The one that I settled on using suggests Powers in reflexive mood and is meant to capture the autobiographical drift of the novel but I could have equally used a more abstract caption, namely: "Language, Knowledge and Meaning" to reflect the fact that this is also a novel of ideas. This is just an indication of the complexity and richness of Galatea 2.2.
This is perhaps Richard Powers most autobiographical novel. In it Powers casts himself as the main character and first person narrator. The character, Powers, has broken from a relationship with someone he calls "C" and has returned to live in a place he calls "U". He obtains a post in an academic institution known as the Centre for the Study of Advance Sciences where he meets Philip Lentz, a computer and cognitive neurologist scientist, who is working on a project. Lentz aims to build a computer based neural network that will be able to read and comment on any text. To this aim Lentz recruits Powers to teach the computer network how to read, understand and interpret great literary texts. The development of the network takes various stages finally ending with it being called Helen. To intensify matters a bet is made with another academic that the project is unachievable. Meanwhile, whilst working on the project at the centre, Powers falls for a literary theorist, know as "A".
That mixture of issues would suggest that the novel is not an easy read - and so it is not. However, I found it a delight to read. The prose is lively and energetic; it bristles with metaphor, puns and allusions to other texts. In this novel Powers takes time to pay homage to great writers both past and present. Rather confusingly and cheekily the Powers character has a number of nicknames and in a nod to Marcel Proust he has the character Philip Lentz call him Marcel.
More important than aesthetic pleasures is the subject matter or themes pursued in the novel. One theme that emerges is that Powers addresses the issue about what it means to be a conscious human being from an interesting angle - namely what does it take to construct an artificial intelligent device. By flagging up the difficulties of teaching the computer network to think Powers highlight our unique special condition as human beings. Another example is that Galatea 2.2 is also an exploration of modern life in an age of high technology and rapid scientific development. Here is Powers take on one aspect of the impact of the world wide web: "The web was a neighborhood more efficiently lonely than the one it replaced. Its solitude was bigger and faster. When relentless intelligence completed it program, when the terminal drop box brought the last barefoot, abused child online and everyone could at last say anything instantly to anyone else in existence, it seemed to me we'd still have nothing to say to each other and many more ways not to say it."
Galatea 2.2 has weaknesses. One that stands out is that character development is sacrificed to Powers ambitions of getting across his ideas. The story is also over burdened with the language of computer science and this might have made it a mediocre novel were it not for the fact that there are passages that have profound emotional impact. One such passage is just after the middle of the novel where Lentz takes Powers to visit his wife who is in a nursing home for people suffering from dementia. The discussion about the home and the intellectual decline of once bright and active people is quite moving and provides an ironic contrast with the aim of developing a computer neural network that is conscious. The penny suddenly drops for Powers as he comes to realise that probably what lies behind Lentz's project is to find a cure for degenerative illness. The narrator sums up the whole project thus: "We could eliminate death. That was the long term idea. We might freeze the temperament of our choice. Suspend it painlessly above experience. Hold it forever at twenty two."
As in the Pygmalion myth at which the title and story alludes, Powers realises his Galatea through the computer network and in some of the conversations between Powers and the network the questions raised by the network is at once thought provoking and touching. Of the six novels I have read this is not my favourite nonetheless for the dazzling use of language in the novel that alone commands a 5 star rating.
on 6 January 2016
Richard Powers is one of my favourite writers, and I picked up this 1995 novel second hand. Like most of his stories, it brings science and humanity together. But this is an explicitly autobiographical work and despite brilliant writing, it seems to let both sides down.
Powers returns from Holland where he has been living with C. Despite his success as a novelist he is struggling as a human being. He takes refuge in his old university and gets caught up in a bet about whether an effort to create artificial intelligence can pass a Turing test - fool you into believing it is a human being (a 20 year old student). The scientific progress is intriguing, but you have to be a nerd to love this - way over the average reader's (and my) head. The failed romance is also hard to identify with.
Perhaps the novel presented Powers with some sort of catharsis, but not so for the reader. The characters are interesting but not compelling, the stories intertwine but not neatly. It is a lesser Powers, no way up with Echo Makers, Orfeo, The Time of Our Singing and a few others.
Not on full Power, but intelligent and absorbing up to a point.
on 6 April 2001
this novel by richard powers is very autobiographical, the narrator baring his name and his frequent references to past novels make this book very good reading for any powers fans. The novel is a double barreled story of his past love and his present work at a university (university of illinois - if anyone cares) concerning a computer program. the novel is very well constructed and has many great things to say about literature, love and technology. the only down side may be that some of the computer jargon may be a little much for some people... defiantely worth a read.
on 6 June 2009
With a MSc in artificial intelligence, I've always been interested in novels that deal with the subject. Much of those are bogus, running wild on expectations of technology. 'Galatea 2.2', on the other hand, is the best I've read on the subject.
Richard Powers walks the fine line between fact and fantasy, displaying a deep insight in computers, as well as the human mind. Het plays with the reader's expectations in a superb way. I was constantly aware something was wrong, couldn't put my finger on it, only to find out in the end in what a brilliant way I had been led into the thoughts of the protagonist. Very cleverly written.
For all of its rationalism, this is not Richard Powers best novel (that would be 'The time of our singing'), but it's a fine read, especially if you appreciate technology as a subject of fiction.
Richard Powers is a gifted writer, a rather unusual measure of that are the reviews that people write about his work. With the usual exception, those that read his work take what he has written, and integrate it in to their own ideas. His books are not just entertainment. Another reviewer suggested the Author allows for this ambiguity in his writing, he allows the reader the freedom of opinion on outcome, the ability to make a choice. The primary subject he presents in this work is one that will continue to grow from theory, until it forces fundamental beliefs to be questioned, and bring out the most Fundamentalist of Luddites, and with them debate that will carry the potential for disruption, or worse, violence.
Mr. Powers has a talent for writing about arcana and making the subjects accessible. Unlike many reviewers, my knowledge of the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence is strictly that of an amateur. I found that Mr. Powers brought credibility to a theme that has been little more than bad Science Fiction in the hands of other Authors. He included all the tech-talk, but he used language in its most basic forms to first make the project appear possible, to bringing the true enormity of what will be required before anything akin to sentience can be achieved/created.
The written words, when he collected them into novel form, also became the deciding factor in his initial carbon-based personal relationship. When silicon took the place of carbon the importance of language was increased exponentially. Neither relationship was fruitful.
One reviewer queried that when we finished the book did the experience stop or is it continuing even now. If you have never read this Author, what I write might suggest I have a form of dementia. I admit that before I read "Plowing The Dark" I thought other reviewers were there, way, way, out there.
Mr. Powers is the perfect novelist, for when you are immersed in his work he suspends disbelief faultlessly. He does not intrude, and he does not preach. Making the decision to read his work is a bit like what Neo faced the red pill, or the blue? Once you start with the first book, you cannot stop reading until he stops writing.
on 13 January 1998
I wanted to give this book a 2.2, but was limited by Amazon's rating system. This was a Christmas present, so I felt somewhat obligated to read it. What a bore! It was just like listening to your most self-absorbed professor in college drone on endlessly about his or her life at the cocktail party from hell. There are only three characters with any depth: Rick (AKA Marcel and Beauie), a writer with the same name as the author and who has written the same books; Lentz, the AI expert; and C., Rick's former common-law wife, with whom he's still obsessed. Powers uses first initials instead of names for some people and places, presumably out of his past. This is unoriginal and just annoying. The thinnest of plots involves Rick teaching a computer built by Lentz to read and interpret literature. But, this is just a premise for Rick to expound on his philosophy of life and place in the world. There are numerous self-serving references to the author's other books AND, incredibly, reviews of them. It reminded me of the rampant product placement in the last James Bond movie. Hey! That's an idea! Maybe Powers can cut a deal with Ritz Crackers for his next book. Anyway, I kept hoping Tom Clancy would fly by, drop a bomb on U., and end all this pretentious crap. No luck.