The Gold Bug Variations must be read within the context of the time in which it is set. Although Powers does not deal directly with such matters as race riots and the hippie movement, much in the novel evokes reminiscences of a time when American society, rent asunder by the Vietnam War, was closely examined and drastically reformulated by many of its members.
Both Stuart Ressler and Franklin Todd are products of this era, which was a time of great scientific and technological advancement but was also a time when many Americans lost themselves in drugs, lived in communal situations, and generally questioned the status quo, to the extent that American society was ripped apart and finally reconstituted.
Powers’s male characters are neither drug addicts nor hippies, but they share some of the characteristics of those groups. Like the hippies, they have ceased to see meaning in life as middle-class Americans lived it. They retreat into themselves, trading middle-class security and recognition for privacy and for the solitude that might earn them the opportunity to pursue, unostentatiously and alone, the Socratic imperative of knowing oneself.