Richard Powers’ fictional hero (also titled Richard Powers) returns from years in the Netherlands to the University that gave him his love of Literature. The author of four novels, Powers is to be the Humanist in residence in the newly built cognitive science centre, a labyrinth of laboratories and computer networks. Powers does little new writing, fascinated as he is by the technological wizardry surrounding him.
Powers runs into the bullish Lentz, a cognitive neurologist who believes that the brain’s networks, and the connections between them, could theoretically be simulated by computer. Powers is fascinated by the idea; over the next ten moths the two men set about building a machine capable of passing a standard Literature exam. H., as the machine comes to be called, outstrips Powers’ expectations. It demands to know its own sex, race and raison d’être. What follows is a brilliant tour de force of speculative writing, in which the Powers collectively challenge our conceptions of the nature of consciousness, dramatising the problems which arise when the model begins to model the modeller.
Galatea 2.2 contains no extraneous material. Each character has a role to play, and each sheds light on the central ideas of tuition and stratas of linguistic uncertainity. An autistic child is less functional than the computer H., but is it of more ‘value’ as a living being? The laboratory monkeys cannot speak, but is lobotomising H., by cutting through her subsystems, crueller than dissecting the animals? Significantly, Powers recalls his time in Holland, and how his inability to speak the language left him powerless to perform even the simplest tasks. Powers (the author) continually brings more and more paradoxes into the picture, and each one pecks away at his themes. At the end the reader is left wondering whether perfect simulation of consciousness is consciousness. And further – whether the way we ourselves learn, hedged in by the crude marker system of language, means that we are just advanced simulations too.
Richard Powers has written the most thought-provoking book I have read since Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49. His intellect is dazzling but he never resorts to performing mental push-ups. The history of the hero’s failed ten year love affair with a former pupil is the sounding board which humanises his ideas, and would have made a fine novel on its own. I haven’t read any of Powers’ other four books but intend to rectify that very soon. If they approach Galatea 2.2 in their scope and ambition, then I am sure that Richard Powers will come to be seen as one of the great writers of the late twentieth century.