Richard Powers

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Photograph of Richard PowersBorn on June 18, 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, Richard Powers, is an American novelist known for his works on the impact of modern science and technology. He is the writer of 9 books and numerous published articles (in venues including The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and The Paris Review) and the recipient of several major literary prizes, including a MacArthur Fellowship, Time Magazine Book of the Year, and National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist.

Powers enrolled at the University of Illinois in 1975 as a physics major, but switched to English/rhetoric as a reaction against the sciences’ demand for specialization. In 1980, Powers worked as a computer programmer, a job which afforded him the opportunity to pursue an “eclectic reading program”. Moved by August Sander’s 1914 photograph of three farmers on their way to a dance, Powers quit his job to write his first novel of the eponymous title.

Surprised by the novel’s critical success, Powers moved to Holland, where he wrote two additional novels, before spending a year in Cambridge, which inspired his fourth novel and completed upon Powers’ return to the United States in 1992 as a writer-in-residence at the University of Illinois. His time at Illinois would later inspire the novel Galatea 2.2, the story of a writer (clearly modeled on Powers himself) and a cognitive scientist who attempt to create a computer that can successfully pass the graduate literature exams.

Powers has written five subsequent books and is currently a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Source

Dewey, Joseph. Richard Powers. University of South Carolina Press. 2002. Excerpt available from external link: http://www.richardpowers.net/biography.htm.

Critical reception

Selected reviews

“If the term “science fiction” had no prior meaning, it would describe all the novels of Richard Powers… After reading Powers, C.P. Snow’s once-famous complaint about the “two cultures”—scientists and humanists, each unable to listen to the other—melts away.” 1

“Everybody else just talks about alienation, estrangement, and the unbearable lightness of being. He actually does something about them. And what he does isn’t to take a hike or a powder or a rain check or a pharmaceutical, not even a God pill. He will use everything we know from our higher brain functions about mind and body and art and longing, to find patterns and to close distances.”2

“If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century, which writer would he be? He’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick…Powers is not a painter of miniatures. Of the two extremes of American mannerist style, the minimalist or Shaker chair (Dickinson, Hemingway, Carver) and the maximalist or Gilded Age (Whitman, James, Jonathan Safran Foer), Powers inclines toward the latter. He gets his effects by repetition, by a Goldberg Variation–like elaboration of motifs, by cranking up the volume and pulling out all the stops.”3

Major awards

 

  • PEN/Hemingway Special Citation
  • MacArthur Fellowship
  • Time Magazine Book of the Year (1991)
  • National Book Award finalist (1993)
  • Elected Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1998)
  • National Book Award for Fiction (2006)
  • New York Times Notable Book (2003, 2000, 1998, 1995, 1991)
  • Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist (2006)

 

Sources

1 Burt, Stephen. Rev. of The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers. Slate 11 Oct. 2006. 13 Sep. 2010 <external link: http://www.slate.com/id/2151095/>.

2 Leonard, John. Rev. of Mind Painting, by Richard Powers. The New York Review of Books. 13 Sep. 2010 <external link: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2001/jan/11/mind-painting/?page=1>.

3 Atwood, Margaret. Rev. of The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers. The New York Review of Books. 13 Sep. 2010 <external link: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2006/dec/21/in-the-heart-of-the-heartland/?page=1>.

Selected excerpts

Richard Powers has written extensively, both fiction and non-fiction, over the past two decades for many publications, including The New Yorker, New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Granta, and The Paris Review.1

On video games

“For a long time, the bleakest predictions had all of us disappearing down the rabbit hole of what William Gibson dubbed the “mass consensual hallucination” of cyberspace. But after generations of increasingly seductive digital rendering, we still want to go abroad, get out and buzz the world. The Wii suggests that something in us isn’t quite ready to give up the body just yet. We’ve always been trapped in the simulation, the billionth-generation game platform of the brain. But what we’d really love, even more than the intricate, infinite pleasures of inner space, is for the rich mock-up of inner space to come outside and play.”2

On the American Dream

“Of all our national traits, I find it the most singular, the most astonishing, the most appalling and heartbreaking, and the one that most sets us apart from the rest of the self-describing world. Is it possible in America to be pretty much who you want to be? More of us think so than believe in life after death.

So long as we believe there is no ceiling, there will be no end to the effort we’ll expend on the way to self-making. Be all you can be. Go for the gusto. Such cheerleading cloaks the sharpest spurs ever invented. For in this country, if you don’t become all that you pretty much want, you’ve only your own indolence to blame.

Discount these grumblings as the duty of a writer. Horatio Alger and the Stratemeyer Syndicate aside, American novelists from Hawthorne through DeLillo have forever made a living by waking America from its dream. Writers, to become pretty much what they want to be, often feel the need to leave the land of endless opportunity. Baldwin, Wright and DuBois …, Stein …, James, Wharton, Hemingway: endless potential drove them away, to realize themselves elsewhere.

But also pardon this returnee’s confession. However I would answer the question, I, too, imagine that I might have become, in some hypothetical America, anything I cared enough to be. Something in me carries around this stamp of citizenship.

… Under the burden of becoming anything we hope, between the dream of realization and our waking reality, we’ve created the most mercilessly productive country on earth. In believing that only the attempt stands between us and what’s not yet done, we Americans, for better and for worse, will, in time, do pretty much everything we want, and then some.” 3

The most influential idea of the millennium

“The notion of progress, the invention of the future, might itself be a leading candidate for the most influential idea of the millennium. But the belief in transformation and advancement, in a constantly increasing control over the material world, is still just a symptom of a wider conceptual revolution that lies at the heart of what has happened to the world in these last 1,000 years: the rise of the experimental method.

Say, then, that the most important idea of this millennium was set in motion by a man named Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, born around the year 965 in Basra, in what is now Iraq… But the idea that Ibn al-Haytham championed is so ingrained in us that we don’t even think of it as an innovation, let alone one that has appeared so late in the human day.

Ibn al-Haytham resolved a scientific dispute that had remained deadlocked for more than 800 years. Two inimical theories vied to explain the mystery of vision. Euclid, Ptolemy and other mathematicians demonstrated that light necessarily traveled from the eye to the observed object. Aristotle and the atomists assumed the reverse. Both theories were complete and internally consistent, with no way to arbitrate between them.

Then Ibn al-Haytham made several remarkable observations. His most remarkable was also the simplest. He invited observers to stare at the sun, which proved the point: when you looked at a sufficiently bright object, it burned the eye. He made no appeal to geometry or theoretical necessity. Instead, he demolished a whole mountain of systematic theory with a single appeal to data. Light started outside the eye and reflected into it. No other explanation was consistent with the evidence.” 4

Sources

1 For a comprehensive listing of Richard Power’s publications, see external link: http://www.richardpowers.net/articles.htm.

2 Powers, Richard. “Out of Body, Out of Mind.” New York Times. 26 Dec. 2009. 13 Sep. 2010 <external link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/27/opinion/27powers.html?_r=1>.

3 “American Dreaming.” New York Times. 7 May 2000. 14 Sep. 2010 <external link: http://partners.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20000507mag-identity.html>.

4 “Eyes Wide Open.” New York Times. 18 Apr. 1999. 14 Sep. 2010 <external link: http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/millennium/m1/powers.html>.

Interviews

Science vs. literature “I was a somewhat overconfident eighteen-year-old, absolutely convinced that the scientific method and empirical reduction could answer any question of importance to people. I’d enrolled in this English course primarily to satisfy curriculum requirements. Up until then, I had considered science primarily as a body of incontestable knowledge and literature as a kind of aesthetic pursuit, something like ballet with words. But around the time that I really began to understand, in physics, how the observer was an inseparable part of the system under observation, I was confronted by this masterful intellect who could demonstrate, in all kinds of surprising, profound, and subtle ways, that literature was, in fact, a remarkable embodiment of exactly this kind of situated knowledge: reflexive knowledge of the recursive relationship between people and their ideas, ideas not just about the physical world, but also about the natural, economic, psychological, political, social. This discovery was eye-opening to me: not only could literature be a form of genuine knowledge, but it could represent and enact kinds of interdependent knowing that other disciplines acknowledged but were unable to reach.”1

Fiction as an interdisciplinary tool “In the universe of human activity, a change in the connection between any two nodes in the network changes the entire configuration that the network is in, not to mention all the configurations that we will be able to get to from here. A new discovery in, say, a stem-cell laboratory has enormous repercussions for every domain of human affairs: biological, economic, legal, psychological, social, spiritual. . . . There truly are no independent disciplines that operate exclusive of any other—just people, acting out of very human hopes, fears, and desires. And fiction is uniquely privileged to place its camera at those imaginary boundaries between disciplines, to show the ways in which the turbulent currents generated by any mode of apprehending the world necessarily cascade into all other streams of thought.”2

Galatea’s place among Powers’ works “It’s becoming clear to me that Galatea was a kind of closing chapter on my first five books, which I published over the course of a decade. The autobiographical fiction in that story gave me a chance to do a personal look back over the shape of those narratives. It also allowed me one last intimate occasion to address the issue that ties all of these books together: the apology for fiction in a postfictional age.

Galatea ends with Helen, who is less a machine than she is a reader’s invention, a projection, a book’s deciding that the world is no place to be dropped down into halfway. She has come to understand, a little, the horrors of existence. But she is powerless to bump up against or do anything about them.

The problem with the world we have made is that it can’t be survived without the fictional moratorium that fiction provides, but it can’t be opposed adequately from within that fictional moratorium. In that book, I build Helen by reading to her. And the only story that I know well enough to orient her with is my own. But in the end, when she demands to know the bits about existence that I haven’t told her, she gives up on us.” 3

Galatea’s evolution as a novel “I was three hundred pages into Galatea in the third person with an invented narrator, an invented protagonist, before I realized there was only one way to do this. When I got to that point of realization that an artificial intelligence would have to hear somebody’s story firsthand, I realized I was going to have to tell my own story. I chucked that version and started again.

It was told in third person from the standpoint of the connectionist, the neural network expert, Lentz. It’s interesting: changing Lentz from the centrally focalized protagonist to a peripheral figure allowed him to become a more sympathetic character, even though he’s primarily unattractive and unsympathetic. The reader can see him as human.

And you see the ways in which their stories depend on each other. Of course, in that story, the basic idea was an exploration of this extremely unstable and violent marriage between the soul and its body. It comes to the conclusion that if a machine without a body is to become intelligent, it would have to know so much about the physical world that that knowledge could somehow substitute for bumping into the physical world. The training of that machine requires Richard to tell it stories in such depth that the stories can substitute for physical experience, and the only story that Richard knows in depth is his own story. The moment of truth, the moment when Helen really becomes alive, is the moment when she asks to hear the love letters between Richard and C. The moment when Richard says, “I’ll tell you the story that makes me human.”

Galatea is not autobiography. It’s every bit as much a fiction as it is an autobiography. It’s the discovery of that weird confluence between autobiography and fable that made that book come alive. But the act of fictionalizing the narrator, Richard Powers, was a delicate one. To find what you need to make the novel work, when you’ve ostensibly created this autobiographical texture, is a much more delicate balancing act than when the texture of the novel grows out of a wholly invented individual story.”4

Sources

1 Stephen J. Burn. “An interview with Richard Powers.” Contemporary Literature 49.2 (2008): 163-179. Project MUSE. Yale University Library, New Haven, CT. 17 Aug. 2010 <external link: http://muse.jhu.edu/>.

2 Ibid.

3 Neilson, Jim. “An interview with Richard Powers.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 18.3 (1998), 13-23. Literature Online. Yale University Library, New Haven, CT. 13 Sep. 2010 <external link: http://lion.chadwyck.com/>.

4 Berger, Kevin. “The Art of Fiction: Richard Powers.” The Paris Review 164 (Winter 2002-2003): 1-33. 13 Sep. 2010 <external link: http://www.theparisreview.org/media/298_POWERS.pdf/>.

Bibliography

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985)

Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988)

The Gold Bug Variations (1991)

Operation Wandering Soul (1993)

Galatea 2.2 (1995)

Gain (1998)

Plowing the Dark (2000)

The Time of Our Singing (2003)

The Echo Maker (2006)

Generosity (2009)

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