(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Repeat readers of Richard Powers’s novels know that they are in for some serious mental gymnastics when they read his work. Powers continually increases the height of the intellectual hurdles over which his readers are expected to catapult as they attempt to position themselves in the fictional worlds he creates.

Plowing the Dark, although perhaps not so intellectually demanding as the author’s earlier tour de force, The Gold Bug Variations (1991), demands that readers suspend a great deal of their disbelief and enter into a Lewis-Carroll-like world that is on the other side of the looking glass or down the rabbit hole. In this novel, Powers transports his readers to a room belonging to TeraSys in which a computer crew, assisted by artist Adie Klarpol, works in quite undirected ways to create virtually real worlds.

Adie does not quite know why she has been encouraged to quit her job as a commercial artist in Manhattan and come to Seattle to do whatever it is she ends up doing. She has no job description to guide her. No one forces her to punch a time clock, although she and her colleagues in the Realization Lab (RL) work ungodly hours (of their own volition), often existing for days on end eating only Doritos and pizzas delivered to the lab’s door. These people appear to have no lives outside the workplace. They routinely log hundred-hour weeks.

Adie is brought here by Stevie Spiegel, who once shared college quarters with her and Ted Zimmerman, whom Adie eventually married. In Mahler House, where they all lived, they had created a space resembling virtual reality in the large attic that topped the run-down dwelling.

Shortly after college, Stevie entered the cyberworld in an all-consuming way. Now, more than twenty years later, he reestablishes contact with Adie and convinces her to come to Seattle to work on the TeraSys project, which creates vast virtual worlds in one small, white room into which people come and, through the use of tracking “stereospectacles,” experience worlds distant in time and space.

Some of the RL people—Jackdaw Acquerelli, Sue Logue, Spider Lim, Michael Vulgamott, Ari Kaladjian, Karl Ebesen—create economics rooms or food rooms or weather rooms. Adie, ever interested in art history, creates rooms related to it, including Vincent van Gogh’s room in the asylum at Arles. She has the luxury of filling her virtual rooms with artifacts from the whole span of history and can even intermix periods and places if it tweaks her fancy. She, like any advanced programmer, is a virtual god in the virtual world.

Plowing the Dark is structurally reminiscent of Powers’s Galatea 2.2(1995), in which a cadre of computer experts works feverishly to create a computer capable of passing the master’s comprehensive examination in English literature; intertwined with that story is the highly biographical parallel story of a protagonist named, not surprisingly, Richard Powers.Plowing the Dark intertwines another story with Powers’s tale of how Adie and her colleagues develop virtual worlds in the RL. This second story is about Taimur Martin, a thirty-three-year-old English teacher, who impregnates his girlfriend, Gwen Devins, shortly before heading to the Middle East for a teaching post in Beirut.

Barely settled into his digs, Taimur is abducted from a busy Beirut street by Muslim fundamentalists and whisked off to a dank, dark room where he lies chained to a radiator, permitted only twenty minutes a day (and eventually only five or ten minutes) out of his chains while he attends to such personal matters as defecating and bathing. He is held in absolute isolation in this prison for well over two years before being moved to another location from which, after several more months, he is ultimately released, concluding some three grisly years of incarceration.

In this novel, Powers deals fundamentally with the Platonic question of what constitutes reality. Taimur is much like Plato’s figures in the “Allegory of the Cave,” chained in such a way that they can see only the wall before them. The shadows they observe on that wall constitute their perceptions of reality. Taimur must construct his own reality from the faint clues he can garner: sounds, smells, reminiscences, a brief, camera-eye’s view of the outside when a bullet penetrates the steel sheeting of his cell’s window.

As his confinement drags on, Taimur continually loses hope and comes close to mental...

(The entire section is 1834 words.)