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Richard Powers: Galatea 2.2

Powers moves to semi-autobiography in this novel, albeit with an unreliable narrator. The narrator is called Richard Powers, he is an author who has written the same books as Powers himself has written and shares some biographical similarities with Powers. The book has two main plots. The first concerns the character Richard Powers. He has spent his life in books and has never married or had children. He has just ended a relationship with C. in Holland. He still thinks of her but was not prepared to make the commitment to her that she wanted. He also has writer’s block. He has been appointed for a year as humanist-in-residence at his alma mater, where he tries to write but cannot get beyond the first line and spends his time wallowing in memories (his colleagues call him Little Marcel, after Marcel Proust). The second plot involves Philip Lentz, a cognitive neurologist, who plans to create a computer programme that will study the Great Books of literature and pass an English literature exam. He involves Powers in his project whose job it is to tutor Helen, as he calls the computer, to appreciate and become conscious of beauty in works of art. Helen makes unexpected progress and Powers (the character) and Helen start some form of a relationship, as Helen is more and more able to respond to him. When a young graduate student, called only A., joins the project, Powers finds himself falling for her. At the end of the year both Helen and A. take the final exam and their results are compared. The question, which is never really resolved, is does Helen have consciousness or is she just a machine?

Once again, Powers gives us a clever plot coupled with a wide-ranging discussion of a variety of topics, of which communication and consciousness are the main but by no means the only ones. Some of it may well be tongue in cheek, particularly the idea of using himself as the main character, but most of it confirms Powers as a serious and important writer.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux