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
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
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. …