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Surprising Powers

Richard Powers’ scientific humanism.

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The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

If the term “science fiction” had no prior meaning, it would describe all the novels of Richard Powers. The MacArthur “genius”-grant winner, whose ninth novel, The Echo Maker, comes out this fall (and is nominated for a National Book Award), does not just write about scientists, programmers, and engineers, though such professions populate most of his books. Nor does he write about made-up future worlds. Rather, Powers’ works depend on (often they pause to explain) how the sciences work. His best-crafted and most lyrical novel, Galatea 2.2 (1995), described a contest in which a computer program tries to pass for a human being. Plowing the Dark (2000) depicts the computerized studios where “virtual reality” came to be. And The Time of Our Singing (2003)—this very white novelist’s shockingly ambitious 600-page look at race in America—takes its central metaphor from the problem particle physicists call “symmetry,” whose equations ask (roughly) whether time is real. In his latest, The Echo Maker, half the plot concerns the ecology of a crane refuge in western Nebraska, and the other half delves into neuroscience via a character modeled on Oliver Sacks. 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. The novelist trained as a physicist himself. No wonder he gets celebrated as a cerebral novelist, as an explainer, as the smartest writer on the block. Yet the interest in Powers as a man of science misses what keeps his characters alive. All his information-rich protagonists—teachers, programmers, professors, singers, accompanists, homemakers, hostages—have to master a vast array of data: All of them make, from that data, refuges, new spaces, kinds of art. All of them (Powers argues) need both the arts and the sciences in order to share a household, a nation, or a world. The Echo Maker, like all of Powers’ novels, sets several interconnected plots in motion; each plot draws on some field of specialized knowledge—in this case neurology and ecology. Recovering from head wounds sustained in a crash, the formerly happy-go-lucky trucker Mark Schluter does not recognize his beleaguered sister Karin, who has moved home to western Nebraska to care for him. Convinced that she’s an impostor (a delusion clinically known as Capgras syndrome), Mark trusts only his new caregiver, the infinitely kind Barbara, who seems mysteriously overqualified for her job. Mark’s delusions bring him to the attention of Dr. Gerald Weber, who writes best-selling books about brains and minds. Meanwhile, the majestic sandhill cranes, whose migration brings the region its tourists each spring, face threats from real-estate developers. Daniel Siegel, once Mark’s closest friend and more recently Karin’s boyfriend, has devoted his adult life to their sanctuary, which he must try to save. Powers’ deepest theme here—as in most of his novels—has to do with the nature and purpose of art. Mark’s failure to recognize Karin—his failure to see her as his sister, as the person she has been—suggests both the failures of sympathy in our own lives, and any novelist’s project in making a character “the same person” from one chapter to the next. What does it mean to say an adult (Daniel, for example) is “the same person” as the 12-year-old he was? What does it mean to break up with a boyfriend (Daniel, for example) because he’s no longer the man you loved? Weber has written a book about patients who “had been changed so profoundly by illness of accident that each called into question the solidity of the self.” All of us need, he decides, “a story to link the shifting self back to the senseless facts.” The novelist’s art is an extreme emblem of all the acts of mental creation without which our husbands, wives, and colleagues would seem like strangers from one day to the next.

Before his accident, Mark spent his free time online: “It panicked [Karin], the number of hours he was willing to spend somewhere purely imaginary.” “I feel like I’ve been living in a video game,” Mark says. Part of the point of Mark’s delusion, and of Powers’ novel—of all Powers’ novels—is that all reality is virtual: The mind, like it or not, is its own world and can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of any flawed home. The arts, for Powers, are a special case of the general function we might call world-making, the maneuvers the brain undergoes in creating, out of a mass of facts, the terrain we navigate each day. What matters is not so much whether that world is the right one, but whether it can be shared: whether we can get other people to believe in our virtual realities, our family jokes, our hopeful life projects, and whether we can believe in theirs. Compassion, for Powers, is a form—the highest form—of imagination, since it involves imagined connections between our own and other people’s heads: “Of all the alien, damaged brain states” Weber’s books “described, none was a strange as care.”

Powers’ insistence that we make one another up, that our personalities coalesce from clouds of floating information, practically requires reviewers to call him  “Postmodern”; some would link him to Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, even William Gibson. Yet Powers is less these Postmodernistas’ companion than he is their opposite: warm where they are cold, lyrical where they are clinical or satirical, most involved where they would be most distant.  Powers wants to know not how and why we fall apart, amid paranoid systems, but how (with the help of the arts and the sciences) we might put one another together. His subject is not collapse but convalescence, and so reading Powers feels less like reading (say) Gravity’s Rainbow than it feels like reading Middlemarch.

In The Echo Maker—as in his most ambitious earlier novels—Powers (like the author of Middlemarch) asks whether we can extend this ethic of care beyond his usual interpersonal settings—one family, one research team, one vocal ensemble—into the larger, blood-soaked public world. The 21st-century novelist plainly fears that the answer is “no.” Helen, the computer program in Galatea, learns to love music and poetry, but retreats from the knowledge of lynchings and wars. “I lost heart,” she tells the narrator; “I see how things go.” Daniel turns to cranes in part because he can’t handle the hypocrisy of human beings.  From history, as from ailing and dying bodies, art serves not just as communion but as dignified escape. The father in Prisoner’s Dilemma, dying of a long-mysterious illness, remains “a secret fan of the possibility of another place, the other person’s story.”  

The Echo Maker makes a decent introduction to Powers, though Galatea and Prisoner’s Dilemma remain better places to start (the former if you enjoy “science fiction” in the conventional sense of the term, the latter if you do not). What is unusual in The EchoMaker, besides its intricate plot, is Powers’ interest in nonhuman nature, in the countless species of plants and animals that have no beliefs but that now depend on our care to keep them alive: Daniel “wanted people to be … as generous with other [species] as nature was with them.” (Fat chance.) The flocks of cranes, with their collective migrations, are like the sets of neurons in our heads; Mark’s failure to recognize his sister as his is like our failure to recognize endangered cranes, and coral reefs, and polar bears, as connected to us. Near the end of The Echo Maker, Karin decides that humanity “suffered from Capgras. Those birds danced like our next of kin … called and willed and parented and taught and navigated all just like our blood relations … Yet humans waved them off: impostors.” If we can’t share their world, Powers implies, we may share their fate.