Novelist Takes a Modern Chip at Ovid's 'Galatea'
Ron Fletcher. Ronald Fletcher is a freelance writer living ., The Christian Science Monitor
By Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
329 pp., $23
The ideas and imagination at work in the stories of the classical Roman poet Ovid have engaged readers and writers for close to two millennia. Allusions to tales told in Ovid's "Metamorphoses" appear throughout the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, and Shaw.
In "Galatea 2.2," Richard Powers continues to draw on the poet's works. His novel echoes Ovid's best-known myth, "Pygmalion and Galatea," with a modern twist, substituting computer software for a statue.
The original myth has the sculptor Pygmalion frustrated with the uncertainty of marriage. The risk of love compels him to forsake all women and commit himself to sculpting an ideal woman - one eventually brought to life by Aphrodite and called Galatea. Powers's computer creation, the "2.2" of the title, creates the perfect woman, in this case called Helen.
The book's plot melds fiction with autobiography (with the emphasis on the former). Powers introduces us to his main character, himself, the fictional Richard Powers, a novelist of note who returns to the Midwestern town of his undergraduate escapades to accept a one-year position as the humanist-in-residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences.
Stuck between novels - and personae - Richard is jarred from his writer's block by Philip Lentz, an eccentric cognitive neurologist determined to wrest consciousness from a computer, a computer the fictional Powers is fated to fall in love with. Lentz enlists Richard to meet a challenge put forth by his colleagues: to develop a machine capable of passing a Master's exam in English literature.
"In ten months we'll have a neural net that can interpret any passage on the Master's list," boasts Lentz, referring to the list of great works of literature. "And its commentary will be at least as smooth as that of a twenty-two-year-old human."
The joint venture gives rise to dialogue between Lentz and Richard that allows Powers to blur the line between the sciences and the humanities. Moving between repartee and true conversation, Lentz and Richard examine our myriad attempts to wring meaning from chaos, or at least express the apparent disorder in eloquent terms. Consider Lentz's cynical take on the interpretation of poetry and knowledge in general:
"We humans are winging it, improvising," he tells Richard. "Input pattern r sets of associative matrix y, which bears only the slightest relevance to the stimulus and is often worthless. Conscious intelligence is smoke and mirrors. Almost free-associative. No one really responds to anyone else, per se. We all spout our canned and thumbnailed scripts, with the barest minimum of polite segues. Granted, we're remarkably fast at indexing and retrieval. …