Read This: Richard Powers

richard-powers.jpgA few weeks ago, I noticed that the Richard Powers novel Generosity had been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, an annual prize for the best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom. I was surprised, because although Powers has always had a strong science fictional strain in his work, he’s generally been placed in the literary camp. I hadn’t read Generosity yet, so I picked it up, and wound up writing a short essay for about what makes it a science fiction novel. Then, because I was on a roll, I wrote a second post about Richard Powers, this time for Tor’s “Genre in the Mainstream” series, where I focused on an early novel, Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the 2006 National Book Award winner, The Echo Maker.

In an interview with The Believer, Powers said something I thought really spoke to the science fiction side of his writing:

“We often assume that novels of ideas and novels of character are mutually exclusive. My entire writing life, I’ve wanted to suggest that all novels are to some degree both and that some novels try to erase that artificial boundary in order to show the links between thinking and feeling. We’re all driven by hosts of urges, some chaotic and Dionysian, some formal and Apollonian. The need for knowledge is as passionate as any other human obsession. And the wildest of obsessions has its hidden structure. Our theories about the world are deeply emotional, to us. Voiced idea is character.”

This is something Powers has improved at exponentially over time—Prisoner’s Dilemma has some great ideas, for example, but its characters read like templates rather than people, while the emotional underpinnings of The Echo Maker and Generosity are just as strong as the intellectual underpinnings (although not everyone agrees with me; I can see where William Deresiewicz is coming from in that review, but I don’t agree with him on the later books). I also became intrigued, as I was doing the reading for these articles, how often Powers returns to the theme of a disillusioned writer, someone who begins to mistrust the fundamental nature of his art, grappling with the mysteries of consciousness; Galatea 2.2, Powers’ most explicitly SF novel, falls firmly into this category. Lately, I’ve come to see in Powers’ fiction a sort of parallel to the later work of Phliip K. Dick, especially the VALIS trilogy: thoughtful, and increasingly compelling, meditations on what it means to be human and, in the most recent work especially, how we experience that humanity.

6 May 2011 | read this |