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Galatea 2.2.

What distinguishes Richard Powers's new novel from other recent cyber-fictive responses to postmodern-deconstructive-life-as-text/world-as-web is the absence within it of science speculation, of theory, and of ideology. Galatea 2.2 is a deeply "felt" response to the cultural issues constellated around the question of humanity's relation to its own systems and machines, especially the "artificial intelligence" of computers. Richard Powers creates in his character "Ricky Powers" (aka Marcel, as in Proust) a persona for whom it is possible to respond to a disk error with hurt feelings.

Galatea 2.2's plot is frankly autobiographical. The main character, Powers, is the author of the selfsame four earlier books as the novel's author. Powers-the-character lives with a lover, C., in the Netherlands until the death of a former mentor, Taylor, and other circumstances send him packing back to the university town, U. (in this roman a clef, Urbana, Illinois) from which he had graduated some years before. The principal change in his most recent return is his temporary appointment to the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences at U. There he becomes involved with an experimental neurologist, Lentz, with whom Powers sets out to create a conscious being through the complex layering of networks modeled on the different pathways, functions, and interactions of the human brain. The goal of their final product, H., or Helen, is to pass a Master's exam in English literature. Unpredictably, Helen comes to seem as hypersensitive as an adoring daughter who only means to please.

For all its learning, Galatea 2.2 is a deeply personal novel. It is, at heart (and this is a book with immense heart; it insists on its human heart "in spite of the facts"), a novel about isolation. Loneliness. The problem is not one of inadequate tools for communication. The novel moves on a fluid, reflexive, richly aware current of language. Everything is present in its nuance. (Powers is one of those Jamesian types upon whom "nothing is lost.") The problem, as instance after instance both human and superhuman show, is that "nothing is enough," and surely language is not enough. The list of failures-in-communication is impressive: children with Down's syndrome, an older woman with senile dementia, scientists (because they think like scientists), and lovers (because they perversely insist on being something other than a subset of one's own romantic fantasies). Helen the artificial intelligence, then, is not an effort to create an ideal lover but simply to create an Other - any Other will do, thank you - with whom one shares something. Helen is auspicious because, after all, she has had Powers's own favorite books, experiences, and even love letters downloaded into her memory. What Powers seeks in Helen is not a convincing semblance of human cognition but the reality of intersubjectivity. He wants real mutuality. This remains, by the novel's end, for Powers author-and-character, an unfinished project.

Galatea 2.2 is chewy, consistently engaging fiction that makes no concessions to our conspicuous public anxiety about intelligence. (Let's face it, the age demands an accelerating stupidity.) This is also one of his best novels. Gone is the punning and forced moral outrage of Operation Wandering Soul. This novel is humble, frank, to the point, and beautiful. [Curtis White]
COPYRIGHT 1996 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:White, Curtis
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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