A Rumination on Criticism via Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2

Richard Powers’s novel Galatea 2.2 is the story of “Richard Powers,” a novelist, who returns to the town where he attended university to be a token humanist in a science department for a year. While there, he’s drawn into a debate between scientists about consciousness, perception, and cognition; as a result, he joins cognitive neurologist Philip Lentz’s project, to “model the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks,” a simulation which will then be trained on a canonical list of Great Books to pass the English Master’s Program comprehensive exams. (This is how the scientists bet that cognition or at least a Turing Test can be assessed.) The novel was a bit of a darling among the literary circle when it was released in 1995: it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Time Magazine Best Book of the Year, and a New York Times Notable Book. More recently, however, it’s been included as an entry in Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo’s Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010.

And, more recently yet, I read the novel for the first time. “Crossover books” (and that’s a concept that needs some serious unpacking, on another day) intrigue me—the vagaries of marketing, which publisher has its icon on the spine, and all of those entirely alien-to-the-text things that decide whether a book is SF or not but have so little to do with the actual narrative.

As for first impressions, I can say a few things. For one, Powers’s prose is a thrill—it’s beautiful and provocative. For another, it’s definitely (defiantly?) speculative. And lastly, I really have no idea what my critical standpoint on this book even is.

I don’t often write about books on which I’m genuinely conflicted, but this has one has been prodding at me. With Galatea 2.2, I’m stuck between feelings of approval and frustration, irritation and intrigue, delight and dismay. I’ve been vacillating between readings that seem to pile up upon one another with equal evidence and potential. There seem to be no clear answers to the questions I have for the book or for myself about the book.

There is pleasure in being overwhelmed and having something to really chew on, though; the pleasure of not having a “right answer.” (That may be the point of criticism—not having a right answer—but rarely does a single book make that so clear within itself.) In trying to fumble through where this multitude of reactions and ideas is coming from—and where it might be going, in terms of interpretation—maybe I’ll communicate some of the strange, conflicted delight/frustration that this novel provoked.

For example: Galatea 2.2 is, without a doubt, an immensely self-indulgent book—but. Is it ironically self-indulgent; is it sending up the tropes of the literary genre? Or is it simply a self-indulgent literary/speculative novel like a hundred others? And for that matter, the entire narrative is built out of a hodge-podge of tropes, literary and speculative—intended as ironic, a commentary, or not? The specter of the intentional fallacy is hovering maniacally behind this whole argument, but regardless, I can find evidence for both readings. In some impossible way, I almost believe both to be equally true.

The same goes for Powers/“Powers”’s problematic relationships to the women of the novel, his romantic aspirations and drives. If the book is read as ironically self-aware, fictional-Powers’s stalking and idealization of the young graduate student A. is a send-up of the literary novel trope in which the male professor, having a mid-life crisis, fucks a young woman student (and that is the verb to use, there). I’m inclined to lean this way; after all, rather than swooning at his declarations of love, A. shuts him down thoroughly and precisely, with many of the choice words I myself would have liked to use. He does not “succeed”—the narrative seems aware of how problematic his behavior is, and arranges to castigate him for it. However! One of the moments that most made me want to throw the book was during the realization that fictional-Powers has about his feelings for the neutral net/AI Helen, once she has killed herself: he shortens her name to simply “H.” in his reflections. In fact, every woman he had romantic feelings for in the novel is reduced to merely a letter, in the exact same way he reduces cities. Their identities are lopped off with their names; they become ideals, Others, erotic objects without subjectivity or true representation. When he decides that he has loved Helen, she is made less in a literal, verbal sense. She loses “Helen”-ness and becomes simply “H.”

These two pairs of conflicted readings barely scratch the surface of how wildly my reactions to the novel swung through a spectrum of potential responses, but they’re emblematic of some of the provocations in Galatea 2.2. The evidence for each seems powerful; yet, they shouldn’t simultaneously all be true, unless I’m willing to posit that a book can be both intensely absorbed by and endorsing problematic tropes, while it is also deconstructing and complicating those tropes. (Which is not to say I don’t think this is possible: while I might have said that it wasn’t before, Powers’s novel has potentially convinced me otherwise.)

Or: I’m giving him too much damn credit, because the prose was so swift and inventive that I wanted the rest of the book to be likeable. I loved Galatea 2.2‘s prose unabashedly. Phrases like “epistemological parfait” filled me with such wonder that I paused in my reading to savor them. Fictional-Powers’s meandering considerations of what it means to write, to be a writer, and to be part of the commercial publishing sphere were engaging and vivid. His general observations are just as sharp (for example: “The web began to seem a vast, silent stock exchange trading in ever more anonymous and hostile pen pals” [9]).

However, if the book is a self-indulgent, vaguely misogynist, “mainstream” novel colonizing a speculative space, that makes things different. If it’s an ironic commentary on those tropes, if it is self-aware and self-reflexive… That’s something else entirely, too. I suspect that, yes, it might be just that: ironic, aware, playful. I can give you passages that seem to support that argument.

But then I can also give passages that contradict it, and make it seem as though the book is not deconstructing but wallowing, because criticism isn’t a science. When faced with Galatea 2.2, I’m reminded viscerally of that fact. There’s a lot of me in any interpretation of any text I take on; in fact, if we’re going to be honest, it’s all me—and the same is true of any critic or reviewer. We choose evidence and explicate proof out of texts all we like, and that’s totally valid, but what bits we choose to quote and what arguments we’re trying to prove with them is something else-ways.

This time, I’m peeking out from behind the curtain to waggle my fingers and admit that I’m stumped, and that I’m enjoying being stumped, and that maybe if you read this book, we can talk about it. That’s what we’re doing here, anyway: talking about books. That’s what I’m here for.

So: how did you read Galatea 2.2, if you’ve read it? Tell me; I want to know. It is, after all, a book about books, and cognition, and communication.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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