Readers unfamiliar with Richard Powers’ previous work should begin their reading of him with Galatea 2.2, the novel in which he provides the fullest insights into his life and what he sought to accomplish in earlier work. Certainly Galatea 2.2 is Powers’ most accessible work and the one in which his characterization skills are at their best. It is clearly among his most accomplished novels.
The book features two major story lines. One is a touching and tender—some will say mawkishly sentimental—account of Powers’ falling in love with one of his freshman composition students, C., with whom he eventually moves away from U., the university town (Urbana, Illinois) in which much of the story takes place and in which Powers has spent much of his life. He lives with C. for more than a decade, including a number of years in the Netherlands, where she has settled near her parents.
The second story line focuses on the period after the wrenching collapse of Powers’ relationship with C. Adrift and disoriented, he returns to U. with the title “Visitor” in the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences (the Beckman Center of the University of Illinois). As a token humanist—a savvy public relations gesture by the Center—he is allowed a small cubicle, given full access to the most sophisticated of computer networks, and assigned no specific duties.
Within the love story are embedded stories of Powers’ father’s life and death and of Taylor, the instructor in Powers’ freshman English seminar, whose grasp of literature and riveting presentation so captivate the young student that he changes his major from physics to English and eventually completes a master’s degree in that field. It is during Powers’ graduate studies that he teaches the freshman composition course in which C. is enrolled.
Although Galatea 2.2 is eminently autobiographical, one cannot accept it as a full and accurate account of the author’s life. Richard Powers the writer and Richard Powers the protagonist are different people, a fact that is sometimes difficult to remember as one becomes engrossed in the book. Powers as author quite appropriately tinkers with dates and other facts to meet his fictional objectives.
A major thread that unites the elements of this complicated story is communication. Powers’ work at the Center takes a curious turn when the sneering Philip Lentz comes into Powers’ life. Lentz has considerable curiosity about Powers but also disdain, real or feigned, for humanistic studies. Lentz quickly demonstrates that he knows Powers’ work and some of the secondary materials relating to it. He suggests his contempt by dubbing Powers “Marcel,” with all that name’s Proustian overtones.
The Lentz-Powers relationship involves considerable tension but is sufficiently interesting and challenging to both parties that it is bound to lead to something productive. This something emerges in a campus beer joint one night. Several of the Center staff—Keluga, Ram Gupta, Diana Hartrick, Hyun Chen, and Harold Plover—are crowded around a table at which Lentz is pontificating in his customary irritating manner. Hartrick spies Powers sipping his near-beer nearby and drags him into the fray.
Lentz lets the others know that Powers is a writer and has been living in the Netherlands. He asks him what one has to do to get a graduate degree in English. Upon learning that in Powers’ student days one had to become familiar with literary works on a six-page reading list and sit for two days of comprehensive tests, he announces that he can probably program a computer to absorb the necessary information to perform satisfactorily on such a test. He proposes that Powers assist him in doing just that within a ten-month time frame.
As the work proceeds, the experiment progresses from computer A to computer B and on to computer H, which eventually, like the robots in Karel Čapek’s R. U. R. (1921), is humanized. She gains a human name: Helen. The initial task facing Lentz and Powers is to program language into the computer in such a way that it can discern nuances and variant meanings of words that, like “bank,” can be nouns, verbs, or adjectives and that, within those categories, can have multiple meanings...
(The entire section is 1767 words.)