I received Galatea 2.2 as a birthday gift from my brother—previously, I had never heard of Powers, which now surprises me insofar as he seems the sort of enigmatic literary marvels that I seek desperately to find. I resolved to begin as soon as I had finished the books currently on my plate.
Let me be upfront about something: this novel is one of the damnedest things I’ve read in a long time, and I make no claim of understanding it. In short, the book is a mix of autobiography and fiction: Powers writes about a character named Richard Powers, who has written Richard Powers’ books—we can assume that the Powers qua character, at the time the novel begins, is a more or less historically accurate version of Powers qua author. It’s all very PoMo. On a year’s fellowship at a large state school, Powers gets involved with one Phillip Lentz, an arrogant, iconoclastic researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. By some machination of the plot involving a wager, Powers ends up working with him to create an AI that pass a Turing Test as a 22-year-old student of Lit Crit.
But this is merely one half of the plot. Interspersed is Power qua character’s (qua author?) flashbacks to his 10-year relationship with a Dutch girl known only as C., during which he writes the books that make him famous and ends up living for a short time in the Netherlands. This, I might add, is the strangest damn relationship I’ve ever read about, and the reader is not at all engendered to C.: she’s moody, prone to fits of lunacy, and never, it seems, happy.
The crux of the book is Powers’ involvement with the AI project. After several iterations, the longest-latest one is known as Implementation H, which Powers names Helen. Over the course of between 6 and 9 months, he teaches it literature while he writes a new book in fits and starts, lusting after a new woman called A. while becoming disconsolate over his failed relationship with C. One gets the feeling that he is more or less a failure at life, and he enacts this failure in his teaching of—and eventual emotional attachment to—Helen1. It’s a warped retelling of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, something which Powers qua author is quite well aware: at one point, he mentions ELIZA, an early “joke” AI. But Powers qua character more or less creates Helen’s personality, shapes it as Henry Higgins turned Eliza Doolittle into a passable English lady…. first under the auspices of a bet, but with greater and greater personal attachment. The only difference is that Henry Higgins didn’t regale the audience with an extra hour of wailing introspection.
Galatea 2.2 isn’t verbally dense in the way that, say, Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses are, requiring a semester of study just to wade through the mud-thick pool of rhetoric; still, it manages to be extraordinarily complex in the way that Powers spins his words into complicated webs. It’s not quite verbal masturbation, but a precise, intricate sort of narration that is both constantly self-referential and maddeningly allusory. He has a particular gift with language, I’ll give him that, though I call shenanigans when it comes to his technical writing. I understand that he was a programmer at one point, and I understand that this book was written in 1995, but I get the feeling that he tries very hard to make sure that his explanation of technical aspects is more complicated than it needs to be. Malapropistic, basically. Not in a “Ted ‘Series of Tubes’ Stevens” sort of way, but in a supercilious “I know that the technical standard for audio CDs is called ‘Red Book’ and I’m going to rub it in your face by using the term even though it’s meaningless to you” sort of way.
This book is exceedingly neat—it has enough talk about AI to keep geeks interested; it has enough literary allusions to keep the most daring of English students on his or her toes; furthermore, it raises some damn good questions about trying to create an associative entity like a brain, the sheer breadth and ability that is involved in such a task. It’s a subject that could have filled a book ten times it size. For all it’s quirks—and rest assured, Galatea 2.2 has them—it’s still an excellent book that will leave you thinking long after you’ve turned the last page.
- An interesting sidenote: the name Galatea comes from a Greek myth, and means something on the order of “she who is milk-white.”[↩]