Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

The Gender of Genius: Scientific Experts and Literary Amateurs in the Fiction of Richard Powers

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

The Gender of Genius: Scientific Experts and Literary Amateurs in the Fiction of Richard Powers

Article excerpt

I told her how specialization left me parochial.

--the character "Richard Powers" in Galatea 2.2(1)

To ask the question of gender in the fiction of science usually results in two possibilities: recourse to the automatic fact of the reproductive life of species, or an answer built upon scientific theorems that are gender-blind in the first place. In other words, even though fictions of science explore the "logic" of life and the "laws" undergirding forces of attraction and repulsion in the universe for their application to a social world, they basically follow uninspired routes with respect to gender. Indeed, during the 1980s many argued that only feminist science fiction sought to explore the implications of a professional scientific network and its output--the research that guides our general understanding of organisms and physical "laws"--in terms that examine scientific orthodoxies of gender difference.(2) Very recently, one can detect in literature that has been acclaimed as "scientific" a concerted effort to respond to the insights of feminist critique and gender studies. For example, Molly Hite has convincingly argued that Thomas Pynchon's Vineland reveals an author who appears newly cognizant of the homosocial underpinnings of public life.(3) These recent fictional efforts to accommodate feminist knowledge about the social world to scientific "truths" emerge as a series of stresses, strains, incompatibilities and contradictions in the narrative structure of novels.

It is within this context that Richard Powers's fiction can be seen to shift the terms of literature's involvement with universalist models of science and masculinist paradigms of history. The gendering of professional roles and participation provides for a dialectical tension that informs issues of authorial originality and insight--a tension that can be ascertained across all of his novels. While Powers's plots borrow heavily from the intricacies of social and scientific theories, such as those of Walter Benjamin or Francis Crick, his subplots of women in history and the professions present women's "invisible" contributions as the indigestible material that inevitably skews the interpretive frames supplied by professional disciplines. Because disciplines, unlike novels, strictly police their professional parameters,(4) Powers's female characters ironically act as the more successful "amateur" researchers who are less likely to retrieve dead-end solutions that strictly reify the conundrums of professional life. Powers stages these encounters between knowing women and blind masculine universals forthrightly and with a sense of moral obligation; each of his novels demonstrates the extensive influence of feminist critiques upon contemporary understandings of professional identities, epistemology, and the construction of a masculine historical record.

The Invention of Genius

How do contemporary novels by male authors explain their attachment to the traditional romantic conceits of fiction? Powers repeatedly stages this question--and answers to it--with scenes where male characters recognize and critique their own yearnings for simple "out-dated" solutions. Galatea 2.2 forthrightly explores the ambiguities and power dynamics of novelistic couplings by retracing the convoluted lines of authorship and fictional source materials. In Galatea the fictional character "Richard Powers," on the rebound from a collapsed relationship and four acclaimed novels, relates the circumstances by which he composed a novel entitled Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance in a walk-up apartment in Boston. Powers tells a story of invention and novel writing that undermines clear ideas of intellectual property by explaining that Three Farmers put stories of his girlfriend's family history, as well as her personal sense of dislocation across the two cultures of the Netherlands and immigrant South Chicago, into fiction. "I used all the material I had at hand: the vanishing Limburg [C. …

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