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Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers

Galatea 2.2 (1995)

by Richard Powers

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Having heard Richard Powers say in an old radio interview that the readers’ letters which mattered the most to him were from people who’d felt understood by a book - they identified; it reminded them of someone they knew – I’m now a whole lot more comfortable with my personal, ineloquent responses to his work. (Powers’ voice is lovely – vitally – and I so rarely like American accents… but he’s none of the things that annoy me about America/ns.) On the importance of books making one feel less alone, I’ll take any day the opinion of someone who has actually spent an entire year on his own, other than minor transactional interactions like buying groceries, over the criticism of those who’ve probably barely known spans a twentieth of the time lived that way. [By which I mean those who criticise identification as a means of appreciating a book - I suspect often out of not knowing what it’s like to have the sort of life where it’s badly needed. Whereas I agree that ‘I didn’t identify with any of the characters’ is a poor reason to dismiss something, and at any rate a way of reading that doesn’t interest me.]

The full extent to which the material in Galataea (in which a heartbroken novelist named Richard Powers, during a stint as writer-in-residence at his old university, is reluctantly enlisted in a project to teach an AI to pass an Eng Lit exam) is autobiographical, remains mysterious as suits a former recluse, but in this book, he paints his younger self as prone to ridiculous crushes – with feelings of a magnitude I’ve never personally experienced without clear romantic reciprocation. So I’ve less embarrassment too, about having ‘a bit of a thing’ for this author at the moment; I’m sensible and circumspect about it, especially by comparison with that episode. (And I can break it down so easily it takes away some of the sentiment: my own continuing rebounding; he ticks 3 basic & crucial boxes re. appearance; has talents in same fields as several exes – ones in which I can at least hold together a conversation – but all rolled up in one person; also au fait with fields more ‘ mine’ than ‘theirs’; displays a reflectiveness about modern culture and society I’d been searching for and despaired of ever finding again in a public figure. He started writing because of an epiphany from a photograph in an art gallery; I became vegetarian because of a Salvador Dali film in an art gallery, a despicable 2 minutes of killing a sea-urchin; part of me is still standing there looking at it too. Only major things lacking: could perhaps be funnier – though the quality of what he writes is such I don’t notice during; could modify haircut to suit age. Though I daresay his wife is happy with it as it is. …It’s so nice when people have partners who obviously sound worthy of them: she with higher degrees, decades of aid work, and, oh bless ‘em, they both had innuendo in their names too.)

Among readers online, I see, depressingly, more middling or negative opinions of Richard Powers than positive ones – so I find myself somewhat defensive, as about Nicola Barker (to whom the same applies) … This is one of those odd things I like, you probably won’t, though I wish a few more people did. They should, but I'm more than old enough to know that makes no difference, and that I'm unaligned with the major arbiters of 'should' I encounter on the internet. In this scattered landscape I miss the defiant tribalism of teenagers who proudly love an oft-rubbished band. Those who criticise Powers as too cold and cerebral must never have read Galatea. It’s wrenching and one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read (and is also ultimately wise rather than fanciful and impossible). Perhaps those people just don’t get something; they don’t see what they’ve already decided isn’t there. Characters not remotely like real people? You haven’t met the sort of geeks I have, then. Then there are those who criticise him for being too sentimental. Easy to imagine them as the trad cold scientist stereotype. I can’t remember when a book last made me cry once, let alone twice; Orfeo nearly did once too. His frisson-inducing sentences and fusion of movie-like scenes with realism work so terribly well on me. I’d bet Powers is another person who, in Baron-Cohen’s systematising and empathising tests would score very high on both alleged opposites. And he would then explain in calm and thoughtful terms how B-C’s schema was a blunt instrument. (In a way infinitely more reasonable than internet hysterics, and sounding even more reasonable for not needing to point out that he was being so, or even alluding, as I feel the need to, to the existence of the internet hysterics… He’s exactly the kind of writer and thinker I’ve been looking for. I never, never expected it to be an American.)

As for the exact moments when the scenes with [future] Helen the neural network flip between realism and SFF, I’d would have to enlist friends who knew 90s AI (one of the few occasions where I can actually see a non-academic use for those social book annotation programs / networks, the output of which, otherwise, I can’t imagine anyone bothering to read regularly unless the annotater is a great wit, or they are in love with them). Helen is, anyhow, obviously way ahead of 90s chatbots, but not so out of this world as a starship computer… this is the realist end of SF, and one place in which my knowledge of terminology from IT qualifications over a decade old is just fine as it is. Aside from the tech itself, there’s a timelessness to Powers’ books made by the relative isolation of his characters, away from the cacophony of ephemeral pop-culture references. Is he an author whose stock might increase in future? Or will the tech still make him too much of-his-time? He’s still too right to become retro-futuristic kitsch: there’s excitement around about the possibilities of computers and neuro imaging, but Powers’ eponymous lead character has a negativity about the online and computerised world more in tune with the jaded present than with 1995 (then promising, 1.0 from now seeming refreshingly minimalist). His depressing job several years past, programming smart appliances. Or The web: yet another total disorientation that became status quo without anyone realizing it. (p.11) a vast, silent stock exchange trading in ever more hostile penpals (p.14) – been lurking on Twitter circa 2014, have we?

Powers makes me understand others better. My first long-term relationship: he already knew from the start the secret Powers took years to discover with C., that looking after someone too much can be ruinous: I was encouraged or assumed to do things for myself whenever I wasn't too weak and ill to do so and I was not to do much for him, as I'm inclined to be that way myself when I'm up to it. Not many people can say an alcoholic taught them good things about boundaries, but this one did. Still, at that age I didn't understand the pain in wanting to look after, how much it hurt him to see my pain - there was one metaphor he once told me, an image from the film of Titus Andronicus we saw together; but Powers in Galatea explains something of how it must have felt day to day and over and over again. And gave me a new appreciation for the unobtrusive kindness of that man over certain others - more alluring, but more disordered - who came later.

The other week I fell into browsing some profiles of Goodreaders with opinions I consider extreme, and noticed that one-starring Alan Sokal was, as the kids say, ‘a thing’. (Further evidence supporting the article a friend sent, in which US academics complained it’s like it’s 1991 all over again.) The project at the centre of Galatea prefigures Sokal’s own satire (I initially thought satirised it, but Sokal published a year later); Powers takes a more compassionate middle ground and therefore, in a field of extremes, sound unusual and original. If only ‘deft’ weren’t a meaningless book reviewing cliché I strive to avoid, this would be just the place for it.

I knew the social science model, knew linguistic determinism. I could recite them in my sleep. I also knew them to be insufficient, a false split. And yet, they never sounded so good to me as they did coming from A.’s mouth. She convinced me at blood sugar level, deep down, below words. In the layer of body’s idea. (p.308) Too much in thrall even to try to argue properly.
Ah, you would understand exactly how I’ve fallen for a number of fundamentalist/Angry Atheists…
This is why 5* for God Is Not Great.
(I don't mean Hitchens himself, but because an admirer made me feel and see and thrill with the energy of that book, how it puts fire in the blood and the heart and bolsters the backbone for speaking out. Even if the text itself does go too far and is a little counterproductive.)

Powers makes fun of his own writing, and of tropes, so beautifully and solemnly and with such self-awareness. And has respectful room for race and gender based criticism of his type without ever ceasing to be himself or be twisted out of shape into Maoist self-criticism.
p.22 ’Oh please, Mr Powers. European class. The world, it may astonish you to learn, is predominantly black-haired. A plurality of those live without adequate shelter and would use The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, as a canvas roof pitch if they could.’ (Five years later, he writes a novel about racism.)
p.37 I asked myself who in their right mind would want to read an ornate, suffocating allegory about dying pedes at the end of history… He recommends to a character who might be upset by this book, that they don’t read it.
p.69 C. used to say that everything was always outset with me. She came to know me so uncomfortably well. How my mind collapsed everything back to Go. How I would end with a head full of opening lines. … So he knew all along how these declamatory, polished sentences can sound. Potentially introductory.
The above probably work best if you’ve read at least one other book of his – to see this revelation and relief of self-awareness in full colour.

Novels about authors: what a drag, what a cliché, as if we need any more of those. Every now and again, though, there’s one that’s just about perfect. ( )
  antonomasia | Feb 19, 2015 |
very clever. Autobiographical novel, main character is Richard Powers, working on a special grant, in a neuropsych/computer project, working to teach a computer to think, specifically to be able to pass a test at a English literature master's level ... also the heartbreaking story of his relationship (finished) with C... ( )
  DavidO1103 | Aug 23, 2014 |
I tried. I really did. But I just couldn't get into this book. It just seemed to be a bit muddled, while trying a bit too hard to be something like a Pynchon novel.
  tlockney | Feb 5, 2012 |
I read The Gold Bug Variations maybe 10-12 years ago and loved it, probably bought this book shortly afterward, but it has languished in a box through several moves. I loved this book not as much, couldn't say why because the other was so long ago. There are two interwoven strands: the life of character Richard Powers from his days as a student to his return to the same university as a successful novelist, especially his relationship with C, which began and ended during the same time period; and his encounter with a group of scientists studying consciousness, especially his immersion in a project to teach a neural net to read and interpret literature. To what extent is the machine conscious? To what extent is human behavior a repertoire of patterns and responses? Questions more played with than answered here. More significant for this novel is maybe to what extent are the people using this project, this relationship with a machine, to consider and resolve their relationships with other people? As possibly befits a novel about (stream of) consciousness, there are no chapter divisions.

(read 15 Feb 2009)
  qebo | Jul 16, 2011 |
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The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will contain
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, heft them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

-Emily Dickinson
First words
It was like so, but wasn't.
I told her that the Library of Congress contained 20 milion volumes. I told her that the number of new books published increased each year, and would soon reach a million, worldwide. That a person, through industry, leisure, and longevity, might manage to read, in one life, half as many books as are published in a day. (p.290)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312423136, Paperback)

Cognitive neurologist and well-known writer team up to produce a machine that can pass a comprehensive exam in English literature, with predictably unpredictable results. Like The Gold Bug Variations, this is another of Powers' wild, unforgettable novels encompassing science, philosophy, and the frailty of mankind.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:19 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A man's experiment in creating the ideal woman. He is Richard Powers, a professor with a taste for the cerebral. As no woman matches his expectations, he creates Helen, a talking intelligence which he programs with his favored books. The novel follows Richard and Helen's relationship to its sad and inevitable conclusion. By the author of The Gold Bug Variations.… (more)

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