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Richard Powers Biography

Nationality: American. Born: 1957. Career: Has been a computer professional. Currently a full-time writer. Awards: MacArthur grant, 1990-94; Lannan Literary award, 1999.



Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. New York, Morrow, 1985;London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.

Prisoner's Dilemma New York, Morrow, 1988; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.

Gold-Bug Variations. New York, Morrow, 1991; London, Scribner, 1992.

Operation Wandering Soul. New York, Morrow, 1993; London, Abacus, 1994.

Galatea 2.2. New York, Farrar Straus, 1995.

Gain. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.

Plowing the Dark. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

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Recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant" in his mid-thirties, Richard Powers published five widely praised novels before the age of forty. Because of his historical subjects, including twentieth-century wars, and his scientific orientations, including cybernetics and biology, Powers has been most frequently compared to Thomas Pynchon, prodigy of an earlier generation. In his output and accessibility, Powers is more like Don DeLillo, with whom he shares interests in neurology and cognition, media such as photography and film, and the disasters of contemporary American life. Using autobiography to examine the sources and values of fictions, Powers also resembles John Barth and his invented doubles. "Crackpot realism"—a phrase from Powers's second novel—represents his combination of these older writers' postmodern methods and materials. What distinguishes Powers's work is his imaginative earnestness, this prodigy's premodern urge to impart his knowledge to readers.

To understand the mind of Powers, readers should begin with his later work and move backward. Like Barth's Chimera and DeLillo's Mao II, Galatea 2.2 works close to the author's life: a novelist named Powers returns to the university where he learned to read literature and attempts to teach a computer the same skill. While exploring the nature of literary processing Powers comments on his novels, recalls his motives for writing, and remembers his first reader, his former lover. Synthesizing extremes of abstract intelligence and intimate revelation, Galatea 2.2 is an excellent introduction to earlier generations of Powers's wordprocessing program.

Operation Wandering Soul, like Pynchon's Vineland and Barth's Sabbatical, is a moving story about recovery of health and a collection of stories about moving, the forced wandering of refugees. The novel's main characters are a resident and nurse in a Los Angeles children's ward, a collection point for the horrors of urban violence. As the doctor attempts to save bodies, the nurse comforts souls with fictions. Cut into the text are children's tales, such as the Pied Piper and Peter Pan, and anecdotes from the protagonists' childhoods. In the Age of Abuse, Powers asks, what stories should be told to children and what stories can the novelist tell to readers desensitized by daytime and nighttime television?

The Gold-Bug Variations is Powers's Gravity's Rainbow and Ratner's Star, an encyclopedic novel that twists together the recursive science of genetics and the recursive art of Bach. In this book about four-part variation, there are two love stories: genetics researchers in the l950s, a librarian and art historian in the 1980s. As the contemporary characters investigate the earlier lives, Gold-Bug becomes a Poe-like tale of detection for the characters and a treasure hunt for readers, who learn only at book's end that it, like an offspring, has been spliced from the contemporary lovers' independent narrations. The literal and conceptual center of the novel is a section called "The Natural Kingdom," which celebrates life itself as a prodigy, unlikely as genius, both artfully regular and imaginatively accidental. In its understanding of sexual combination and cognitive mutation, The Gold-Bug Variations is, in my opinion, the most profound novel published in America since Joseph McElroy's Women and Men in 1987.

In Operation Wandering Soul, Powers treated the war in Vietnam and in city streets. In Prisoner's Dilemma, members of a Midwestern family of the l980s are victims of the husband's and father's radiation exposure in World War II. Physically and perhaps mentally ill, Eddie Hobson, a high school history teacher, both imprisons and frees his four children with paradoxical mind games and an unreliable autobiography, a taped journal called "Hobstow" that mixes personal facts, Japanese internment, and Disney films. Told through the family members' six points of view, the novel authoritatively records domestic double binds and inventively recounts prewar and postwar history.

In Prisoner's Dilemma, Powers refers to the butterfly effect of chaos theory: "a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking … alter[s] tomorrow's weather in Duluth." This unpredictable relation between small and large—personal and historical, mutation and code, biography and story, book and readership—coils through all of Powers's fiction. Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance imagines the lives of the Europeans shown in August Sander's photo and connects the farmers to both World War I and a young computer journalist in Boston. Although Three Farmers has the intellectual range and global concern of Powers's later novels, it lacks their artistic ingenuity, their formal butterfly effects. For most contemporary writers, this first novel would have been an Invisible Man or Catch-22. But for Richard Powers, Three Farmers was just the beginning of his prodigious fiction.

Again like Pynchon and others, Powers explored the idea of environmental retribution—of Nature quite literally taking revenge on humankind for polluting it—in Gain, the story of a soap company, a woman's cancer, and 170 years of American life. An ambitious and intriguing, if not always successful, effort, it could only be topped by another novel, Powers's seventh, Plowing the Dark. This time the parallel stories are closer together, involving young prodigies at a virtual-reality software company on the one hand and a hostage in Beirut on the other. At least they are living in the same time period, yet the book provides Powers with a sufficiently large venue in which to examine issues as varied as the meaning of art, the end of the Cold War, and the implications of virtual-reality technology.

Tom LeClair,

updated by Judson Knight

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