Saturday, October 4, 2008

Book Review: Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers

I finished Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers today. Now that I'm done with it, I can honestly say that I really wish I'd just looked up the ending on Wikipedia and given up on the damn thing less than halfway through.

I don't like to read book reviews, because so many of them contain spoilers--including, perhaps even especially, the "Editorial Reviews" on Amazon.com (Publishers Weekly, I'm looking at you). However, had I read them in this instance, I would have found that those who praise this book highly are doing so primarily on the rich vocabulary used by the author. They also praise his "well turned phrases". I'm sorry, folks, but knowing big words and being able to design a clever sentence does NOT make a novel worthwhile. If I want to see a bunch of big words and clever sentences, Roget's Thesaurus makes for more interesting reading of the former, while Bartlett's Familiar Quotations provides a more enriching dose of the latter.

Galatea 2.2 could have been a sly, thoughtful take on the meaning of intelligence and awareness. Instead, it is a long-winded self-referential wank of the highest order.

The protagonist/narrator is a novelist by the name of Richard Powers. Yes, that's right, he doesn't have the decency to disguise that it's an autobiography; he really is so full of himself that he thinks that his dreadfully boring mid-life crisis should be inflicted upon the reading public. Woven through the moderately interesting plot of creating an artificial intelligence is Powers' uninteresting life story, complete with failed relationships--starting with disappointed daddy on his deathbed, then dragging us over the coals of his painfully stilted, cold relationship with "C.", and ending with the fact that he couldn't even keep his artificially intelligent machine interested enough not to commit suicide.

Another irritating habit of Powers' is his inability to come up with invented names (or just use the real ones) for many of the characters and places; he instead abbreviates them to A., C., B., and so on. Some drooling sycophants gushed about this, simpering over how clever Powers is for using the old Russian style in this regard. I personally believe that it is distracting and unnecessary. If he's referring to real live people and trying to spare them the notoreity, why not just come up with a different name?

Powers would have benefited from a heavy-handed, strong-willed editor, a firm but kindly psychologist, and a huge kick in the ass. The 50% of this book which details the relationship with C. reads like a therapy journal, and it should never have gone any further than that. Powers obviously had a deep-seated need to write it all out, but it was unseemly for him to take it to the public, let alone pass it off as a "novel".

Also, anyone writing science fiction should get some Theodore Sturgeon under his/her belt to see how it can be written without making the technology eye-rollingly dated five, ten, or more years down the line. Powers probably thought he was impressive with his technical descriptions, but computer science has changed exponentially since 1995. He didn't really allow for that, so the "science fiction" reads more like "been there, done that".

In short, I really wish I hadn't wasted my time with this; it made me feel as if I were a voyeur to Powers as he masturbated to his own image in the mirror. This is no Pygmalion; it is a self-loathing yet self-obsessed Narcissus, except the Echo(s) in this tale drop Powers like a hot potato once they realize he'll never love them more than he does himself.

3 comments:

Nan said...

Thanks for the warning.

archtec said...

I totally agree. The story about the attempt at creating artificial intelligence and the result was compelling, while the reflective, self-absorbed reliving of his failed relationship was annoying at best.
Too much academic jargon, a pretentious literary style, and Powers narcissism makes this a laborious read.

teebo said...

I totally agree. The story about the attempt at creating artificial intelligence and the result was compelling, while the reflective, self-absorbed reliving of his failed relationship was annoying at best.
Too much academic jargon, a pretentious literary style, and Powers narcissism makes this a laborious read.