(1957- ) US author of novels whose novels subject the contemporary to scathing but abstract scrutiny; fittingly, he is rarely called a "realist", though just as rarely is he described as an sf writer. His first novel, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance (1985), focuses a meditation on the apocalyptic nature of World War One through its protagonist's obsession with the famous photograph (the book is titled after it) by August Sander (1876-1964); his second, Prisoner's Dilemma (1988), focuses its protagonist's obsessive conviction that the explanation of his profound disaffection with post-World War Two America lies at Alamogordo, where he imagines – or enters an Alternate World where this did happen – that Walt Disney (1901-1966) made a transformative film, seemingly based on the then-unmade It's a Wonderful Life (1946) directed by Frank Capra (1897-1991), in which the making of the A-bomb and the making of a better world are deeply linked. But the digressive ministrations of Disney fail either to cure the protagonist's world, or his justified sense of vastation.
The Gold Bug Variations (1991) – a slightly over-clever conflation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold-Bug" (1842 Dollar Newspaper) and The Goldberg Variations (1741) of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – interfuses advances in Biology and Computerscience in a tale involving the decipherment and "playing" of DNA; Orfeo (2014), though not a sequel, closely replicates the central concept of the earlier book, in this case depicting the life of a composer who attempts to genetically modify bacterial DNA (see Genetic Engineering) so that it embodies (and can generate) a line of musical magically free of time. Operation Wandering Soul (1993), a tale whose auguries focus on the Millennium to come, is set in a Dystopian Near Future Los Angeles (see California), where a doctor who must deal with dying children slips into solipsistic despair. Galatea 2.2 (1995) – a dark sf bildungsroman whose title links Pygmalion both to the Frankenstein Monster and the complexly pre-conscious AI – perhaps slightly doggedly describes the successive iterations of a "mind" embedded in a distributed network as it evolves towards personhood. Helen's use of Music to sing herself into consciousness seems to succeed, but in the end she recognizes that her song of being is a fungible mapping of something behind her climb; and she terminates herself.
Plowing the Dark (2000) describes the evolution of an interactive game/entertainment into something approaching Virtual Reality. The Echo Maker (2006) treats post-9/11 traumas of Identity through the experiences of a victim of the "Capgras Delusion", a neurological disorder which generates an uncanny-valley effect, so that he can perceive his intimates, and ultimately the world itself, only as impostors. Generosity: An Enhancement (2009) similarly exploits a neurological condition: the protagonist of the tale, who "suffers" from hyperthymia, a genetic condition that makes her happy; and a firm specializing in genetics attempts to map and sell her coding as a commodity. Genie (2012 ebook), one of Powers's infrequent short stories of speculative interest, concisely explores the possibility that something like Creative Evolution, perhaps at the agency of an Alien civilization, is encoded in the human genome. The Overstory (2018) circles around the crisis-Ecology that focuses on the increasing danger to the world's forests, through a nest of stories as complex as the banyan an American airman falls into during the Vietnam War, all of them climaxing in an attempt to save the last vestiges of virgin forest left in America; the tales include an instance of Reincarnation, another assault on entrepreneurial Genetic Engineering as a technique calculated to transform the world into fungibles, messages from grouped populations of trees whose Communication skills evoke the "dark diversity" of the speaking web of Gaia, and other elements whose multifarious confrontings of the world are a practical lesson in the uses of Fantastika to ascertain the next moment. This novel won a US Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The philosophical use of sf tropes throughout Powers's work, and their sublimation in extremely complex character-driven plots, marks him as a Mainstream Writer of SF; but the depth of his knowledge of the sciences, and the intensity of his application of that knowledge, demonstrate a far more intimate engagement with contemporary issue than can be found in most authors so described, and The Overstory transcends the generic limitations of mainstream writing. [JC]
born Evanston, Illinois: 18 June 1957
- Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance (New York: William Morrow/Beech Tree Books, 1985) [hb/Cheryl Asherman]
- Prisoner's Dilemma (New York: William Morrow/Beech Tree Books, 1988) [hb/]
- The Gold Bug Variations (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991) [hb/Honi Werner]
- Operation Wandering Soul (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1993) [hb/]
- Galatea 2.2 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995) [hb/from Raphael]
- Plowing the Dark (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000) [hb/Beth Middleworth]
- The Echo Maker (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006) [hb/Rodrigo Corral]
- Generosity: An Enhancement (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009) [hb/Susan Mitchell]
- Orfeo (New York: W W Norton and Company, 2014) [hb/Raymond Martinez]
- The Overstory (New York: W W Norton and Company, 2018) [hb/Albert Bierstadt]
collections and stories
- Genie (no place given: Byliner, 2012) [story: ebook: na/]
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