"HE HAD A mind so fine no idea could violate it," T.S. Eliot once wrote in praise of Henry James. Nowadays this would be no compliment. Inwardness is out of fashion; formal purity has few admirers; aesthetic subtlety is not what our day demands. Instead, novelists are expected to be scouts of information, prophets of explanation; the serious novel attracts attention only insofar as it provides what Henry Luce liked to call Big Thoughts. In the latest novel by Richard Powers, for example, we can find riffs on architectural history, global economics, higher mathematics, and meteorology, and also on the caves of Lascaux, musical fugues, and the Gulf War. Here is a mind so dense no idea can go unmentioned.

Powers has been justly celebrated as one of our brainier novelists. His books ooze with cleverness. Elaborate thematic patterns structure the flow of the often esoteric data. Powers is never afraid to tackle material that others might deem inauspicious. The Gold Bug Variations compared the discovery of DNA's double helix and the music of Bach. Gain used the details of soap manufacturing to forge a story of capitalism and cancer. Galatea 2.2 grappled with artificial intelligence. And now Plowing the Dark takes place in a virtual-reality lab.

Scientific subjects are popular among postmodern literary types, who often get the details wrong. Powers, by contrast, appears to possess genuine scientific expertise. Mathematics and physics are not just gaudy abstractions for him; they are concrete experiences. At once enthusiastically familiar with science and scientists, a genuine insider, and yet as skeptical as any deconstructor, Powers neatly bridges the divide between the "two cultures" of intellectual life. The appeal of such a figure is easy to comprehend: an expert from the realm of hard facts arrived in the land of negative capability, uniquely positioned to explore the anxieties of the digital age. In terms of story and character, Powers's novels offer few delights; but what they do very skillfully is represent the flood of information in which we are all currently drowning. The question posed by his work is how, and whether, that delicate and vigorous genre, the novel, can survive such an inundation.

PLOWING THE DARK is a fine example of zeitgeist fiction: novels so intent on pinning down the spirit of the age that they generate no internal imaginative life. Powers has written a kind of historical novel of the late 1980s. It alternates between two stories, unrelated but characteristic of the decade. In Seattle, computer geeks and disillusioned artists construct a virtual-reality laboratory. In Beirut, a young American is held hostage by Islamic terrorists, blindfolded and isolated. Usually, when a novel has dual tracks, they intersect at some point, or at least they share some common terrain. In this case, the only connection is that both stories serve to illustrate the writer's apocalyptic vision of history.

Powers is often compared to Thomas Pynchon, but Pynchon is a fabulist, an allegorist, while Powers is a diligent realist, a faithful reporter. Powers has the slightly artificial tone of Pynchon without the rich vein of humor and fantasy. His characters seem to interest him only as vehicles for meditating on Big Ideas and Great Events. Nothing very exciting happens in Seattle, except that the assembled intellectuals pontificate on the dramatic events of 1989-1990. Optimists compare the fall of communism to "a fractal tendril" or "a self-extending experiment." One scientist describes the spread of democracy as "a long polypeptide growing itself out of side chains." Another dismisses it as "nothing more than a glorified product-promotional placement."

So much timeliness wears thin. We are told how "millennial developments began popping up in doses massive and frequent enough to string along any event addict." But the real event addict is the novelist, copping a fix whenever his own story seems inadequate. Clever commentaries on the fate of civilization pop up on every page of Powers's novel, but they have all the depth of a newspaper editorial. Powers is making a point about the information age, how our inner lives have become colonized by the unending spectacle of far-off news; but it is not an insight that provides a very satisfying premise for a novel. His cerebral characters are no more interesting than talking heads. The urgency of his narrative is not created by any drama belonging to the novel; it is borrowed from the glamour of external events.

And where the drama seems more distant, the prose compensates by becoming more self-important. When tanks roll through Tiananmen Square, for example, we are treated to this solemn bit of grandiosity: "A small, stunned congregation assembled... surrounded on all sides by planes of video.... She saw a scene that haunted her long after Tehran and Tiananmen faded to black: a dozen stunned lives, huddled in a picture-pitched tent, trapped in the rising information flood." Forget that little skirmish in China. The real horror was taking place back home: we were watching too much television.

POWERS'S HEROINE IS a disenchanted artist named Adie Klarpol who is invited to work for the computer giant TetraSys. She will be the illustrator for the "prototype cavern: 'a second-generation, experimental, total immersion environment modeler.'" Initially hostile to technology, she becomes enthusiastic about virtual reality. Now, an artist who has lost faith in her art might well be a stirring character; but we never get to know Adie Klarpol well enough to care. Her inner life is indicated only by clichés. Long ago she had believed in "the pencil's ability to redraw the world," but after a successful show in SoHo, she burned all her artworks and became a commercial illustrator. What disillusioned her? The "art mafia," the commercialism of the art world, and so on. It is all rushed and formulaic: a few details of personal history, and bingo, a protagonist! Unfortunately, you cannot program a literary character as methodically as you can program a computer.

Adie is cynical, brilliant, cerebral, emotionally crippled. So is every other character in the novel. They can all discuss Mary Cassatt as fluently as they can discuss z-buffer algorithms. They all quote Yeats at will. The implausibility is not as much of a problem as the monotony. Needless to say, these people are also suitably multicultural--Korean, Italian, Irish, Armenian; but their ethnicity is only a crude marker to distinguish them. Their style of talking is all the same, whether they are speaking about Van Gogh, the Berlin Wall, or Euler angles. Since there is no depth of character, there is no subtext to their conversation. All the self-congratulatingly brilliant chatter becomes suffocating. The dialogue spools on, page after page, like a television sitcom for the over-educated with a built-in laugh track. ("All art is Euclid's baby." And then: "I can think of at least a couple of dubious paternity suits.")

Powers takes his brainy characters too seriously. He is too admiring of their knowingness. He does not ridicule them, and because they cannot be ridiculous, they cannot be free. They are politely intelligent, reasonable, a bit grumpy but basically tame. They have no significant folly. They are not outrageous or blind, not comic or tragic. But in truth, the characters in this novel are incidental to it. Plowing the Dark is not really a story about the fate of its people.

IT IS, RATHER, a story about the fate of a particular technology. Will it succeed? How will it be put to use? Will it change the world? At first the lab can manage only broad strokes and flat facades, but slowly the simulacra become more sophisticated and lifelike, until the flowers seem to shiver in the wind. Eager to explain how this imitation of life is accomplished, Powers dives into the technical details with relish. Here he is at his best and at his worst. He is utterly convincing in his knowledge: what the laboratory looks like, how the engineers dress, how they argue, how the machines work. But all this exposition tyrannizes his prose. The book begins to feel like a four-hundred-page magazine article.

Information may be the currency of our age, but it is a fool's gold. Powers has plenty to say about the world, but he does not turn his ideas into aesthetic experience. This is a Potemkin village of the mind, two-dimensional scenery without mystery or depth. The internal monologues do not capture the suppleness of consciousness or the irony of character. Here is what one scientist thinks about when he is alone
          Economic theory stopped too soon, reducing the world's mad exchange to mere Supply,
          Demand, and Price.... The classical economist's answer to his functions' functional
          impotence consisted of adding an infinite series of ever-smaller local factors to the mix,
          calculated to ever-higher levels of ex post facto multidimensional exactitude. And still the
          experts couldn't put the dart inside the bull's-eye any more often than your average
          Thursday night side-slinger down at the local.
The ostentatious technical jargon challenges and flatters the reader's intelligence. But even the most brilliant talker becomes boring if he never stops to listen. Powers barely bothers with the illusion that he is entering another character's thoughts. The reader eventually has a sense of being lectured at by a monologist, and bullied into silence.

Perhaps this is appropriate in a novel about solitude. Plowing the Dark is structured by a series of lonely rooms: the prisoner's cell, the virtual-reality cavern, Van Gogh's bedroom at Arles. Its human interactions are never anything but awkward and contrived; only its descriptions of the solitary life reach a lyrical intensity: "In the warm room, you are the doer of all acts, the receiver of all action, the glow that lights these sanctuary walls, the warmth these eager trappings radiate, the fading coal, the lone heat source in a world gone zero and random." The confinement of the hostage Taimur Martin is the central emblem of the novel's vision. What he undergoes physically, the other characters undergo emotionally: abandonment, imprisonment, isolation, the struggle to sustain the imagination in a "zero and random" world.

THE SECTIONS DESCRIBING Taimur Martin's captivity are the most interesting parts of the book. A teacher at a university in Beirut, Taimur Martin does not know why he has been abducted by the Sacred Conflict, a fundamentalist group, or if he will ever be released. He spends years chained to a bed, blindfolded, on a diet of gruel. He endures sickness, torture, isolation; and all the while he endeavors to preserve his sanity. He tries to remember songs and poems, to keep track of the date, to make sense of his absurd destiny. He begs his captors for something to read. He contemplates his past, and he reaches bleak conclusions about the human condition.

The gripping prison narrative comes as a relief after so much idle verbosity. It turns out that when Powers has a story to tell, his prose can be vigorous and concise. And yet there is something hollow about even this story, even at its most successful. The research is, as always, impeccable; but the final result is not nearly as moving as Brian Keenan's An Evil Cradling, the extraordinary memoir by a former hostage from which Powers has evidently drawn details and incidents. There is nothing wrong with a writer of fiction drawing on research in order to tell a story, but there is something wrong when the research material is more intense and more imaginative than the fiction.

Taimur Martin has a few coordinates of identity (an ethnicity, an ex-girlfriend), but no particular individuality. His predicament makes him sympathetic, but it does not give him personality. While his thoughts are often interesting, they do not belong to him any more than Adie Klarpol's thoughts belong to her: they all emanate from the same brain, from the ventriloquist behind the curtain. Powers has a complicated mind and a gift for wordplay, but when it comes to narrative he suffers from a crushing lack of imagination. Plowing the Dark exhibits a dull fidelity to fact: all the details are in place, but there is no crazy fantasy, no unexpected compression, no interesting ambiguities. After reading An Evil Cradling, we care about Brian Keenan not because he has suffered, but because he has something to teach us: how at the extremity of pain and terror, he apprehended a moral value, an experience of love, what he calls "an enchantment of humanity." But Taimur Martin learns merely that "there is a truth only solitude reveals... the fact of our abandonment here in a far corner of sketched space." The language is fancier, but the notion is less interesting. There is nothing surprising in learning that a hostage feels abandoned and alone.

POWERS BELONGS TO a current in contemporary literature that might be called encyclopedic postmodernism: quantity over quality, information over insight. But perhaps it is really encyclopedic pre-modernism: the long technical passages of Plowing the Dark recall an age when the novel was a closer cousin to journalism, when the novelist might interrupt his story with a lecture on social conditions or scientific progress. Balzac begins Lost Illusions with a long explanation of the development of the printing press. But Balzac, even at his most discursive and "scientific," never loses sight of the human interest. We care about his character's poignant and comic attempt to discover a new way to manufacture paper in a way that we never care about Powers's virtual reality experiment, where nothing human is at stake.

Powers from has been praised for the virtuosity of his language. His verbal fireworks can be delightful. Yet too often his associations run amok, without any real purpose except self-display, and eloquence sours into Time magazine cliché. The Berlin Wall, for example, is "that forty-year-old scar on a continent's heart." The only passage describing Seattle sounds as if it might have come straight from a tourist brochure: we rush from the City Center to Woodland Park Zoo, the Asian Art Museum to the Frye. Followed by a list of streets: "Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca...." No perception about a particular place underlies this list; there is no freshness of observation. All the information seems to have arrived secondhand.

Like a child afflicted with an anxiety disorder, or a compulsion to dazzle and to impress, Powers is constantly making lists: the streets of Seattle, the terms of architecture, the names of painters. Even Powers's best novel, Galatea 2.2, suffers from the same know-it-all quality. In that book, the narrator, a novelist named Richard Powers attempts to teach a computer to master the Great Books. Galatea 2.2 has an interesting fantasy at its core: what would happen if a computer developed self-awareness? Powers envisions the computer as a modern-day Frankenstein creature, knowing its own monstrosity, burdened by the tragedy of consciousness. This is an imaginative story at least, and even a moving story, a story that is not immediately and entirely obvious.

When a writer provides meanings instead of stories, he is like a magician who reveals his tricks instead of performing them. In Plowing the Dark, the artfulness is all out in the open. There is nothing for the reader to discover; we are always conscious of the writer manipulating us. Near the end of the book, a poignant scene occurs when Adie Klarpol visits her ex-husband, who is dying from multiple sclerosis. But then we learn that the nursing home is located in Lebanon, Ohio, "a town whose chief industry had once been utopianism." Get it? In case the reader has not yet made the connection with the original Lebanon, where Taimur Martin is still a prisoner, one character cries out, at the sight of a maple tree: "The Cedars of Lebanon!" The comparison of the hostage in his cell to the ex-husband in his ruined body might have been effective if we had been left to figure it out for ourselves. Powers goes on to mention that there are thirty-two Lebanons in the United States. Future graduate students will thank him for the fact, but ordinary readers may find their capacity for enthrallment somewhat hindered by the excess of explanation.

VIRTUAL REALITY, RETARDED by technical obstacles and overshadowed by the greater significance of the Internet, has faded from public attention. But in Powers's book the prospect of an immersible simulacrum represents nothing less than the renewal of civilization: "A place wide enough to house human restlessness. A device to defeat matter and turn dreams real." The rhetoric continues at a millenarian pitch: "Mankind's tenure here had come of age ... humanity's final victory over the tyranny of matter ... the most significant jump in human communication since the bulking up of the cerebellum." Powers conjures up a bizarre vision of the future: the mind unleashed from the bondage of the mortal body, the transcendence of spirit through technology.

But what most interests Powers about virtual reality is its application to art--more precisely, its challenge to art. At TetraSys, virtual reality seems to exist for one purpose only, the recreation of great works of art: Henri Rousseau's Dream, Van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles, the Hagia Sophia. This prompts questions about art in the age of the machine. What does it mean when the computer can outperform the artist, when "humming boxes" can capture the distinct brushstroke of every famous artist and convert the two-dimensional canvas into an interactive environment? Has science rendered art obsolete? Does this synthesis of art and science represent "the highest tide of everything that collective ingenuity had yet learned how to pull off"?

ANY READER OF science fiction can predict what comes next. Technology, despite its utopian promise, turns out to be a vehicle for capitalism, militarism and other evil things. TetraSys, it turns out, has not been paying Adie Klarpol to "make something beautiful" for Emersonian reasons. Adie comes to this shocking realization when the smart bombs of the Gulf War burst onto her television screen. She feels that their virtual-reality research is responsible: "The world machine had used her." The refuge of the imagination is over. She destroys her virtual reality programs just as she had burned her artwork long before. Both art and science have been fatally contaminated by commerce. Neither art nor science can offer transcendence.

This clunky disillusionment is as absurd as the buildup that preceded it. Is the commercial use of science necessarily a sin? Haven't artists always sold their work? Powers insists upon the artificial purity of the imagination so much that he ends up diminishing its significance. If we cannot become pure spirit, then we must be rotten flesh. At one point Powers describes "the imagination's room" as a place where "all things work out.... In this room, nothing bleeds. Nothing rots.... Lost children find their parents again.... All countries move steadily towards democratic free markets.... Art constantly refreshes itself...." But in the end this unreal room is ultimately a "room of no consequence in the least. Of making no difference in the whole known world." Powers reduces imagination to a mere fantasy, a faculty for delusion; only a means of escape, never a form of engagement.

The ending of Galatea 2.2 is very revealing. The computer, named Helen, absorbs the entire canon of Western literature in less than a year. Along the way, she struggles to understand deep and subtle complexities: jokes and sorrows, love and self-consciousness. But at the end Helen complains that something is missing, and so the narrator feeds her "leading weekly magazines" and television transcripts. "I could postpone no longer... She needed to know how little literature had, in fact, to do with the real." When Helen "reads" about a racial beating, she shuts down. Having learned the "falsehood" of literature and that life is actually "sick and random," she commits computer suicide. What is strange here is the presumption that "leading weekly magazines" tell her more about humanity than all of Western literature. Powers writes as though literature were only a sugar coating for the bitter pill of reality. But does Time really dramatize social injustice more effectively than Dickens? Is a newspaper story truly more tragic than King Lear? Isn't Euripides about as "sick and random" as you could possibly want?

Our age is saturated with information, and yet ever hungry for more. Somehow, despite the news programs and the "reality shows" that fill prime-time television, life seems to become less real. While science accelerates at an astounding pace, ordinary people are baffled by the machines upon which we all depend. This general panic about knowledge is the source of Richard Powers's appeal. He ties together bewildering developments and explains incomprehensible technologies. His linear associations and neat structures are reassuring to those seeking clarification and organization. Addicts of the information age, we begin to forget that there is another kind of literature possible, one in which we must uncover our own illuminations, in which saying less means knowing more. Such literature does not offer facts or theories; it offers experiences. Like the most daring science, it does not know its answers in advance, but re-imagines the world freshly. In a world in which facts become obsolete by the hour, this is the information we most urgently need.

Just the Facts
May 14 2001
The New Republic

By Richard Powers