Manny's Reviews > Galatea 2.2

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
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Nov 16, 10

bookshelves: older-men-younger-women, too-sexy-for-maiden-aunts, science-fiction, linguistics-and-philosophy
Recommended to Manny by: Jessica
Recommended for: Software geeks who like books
Read from November 13 to 16, 2010

People see different things in this unusual book. Let me start with the undisputed facts. The novel is written by Richard Powers, and its narrator is a character also called Richard Powers. The narrator and the author share a good deal of personal history. Among other things, they have both written three novels with the same titles and, as far as I can judge, similar content. They are both Americans who lived in Thailand when they were children, moved to Holland when they were adults, and learned to speak reasonably good Dutch. They both got their first degrees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, initially studying physics and then switching to literature. They both returned to Urbana-Champaign when they were around 35 to take up a post as Writer in Residence.

There are other areas where I am pretty certain that the author and the narrator have had different experiences. In particular, the narrator, while he is Writer-in-Residence, becomes involved in a daring research project, whose goal is to create an artificially intelligent entity capable of passing a literature exam. The AI is well done. Powers has worked with software, knows a fair amount about it, and has familiarized himself with neural nets and other relevant background. He's very interested in the philosophical question of "grounding". How can a piece of software know what language means without experiencing the world directly though its senses? More generally, does the meaning of language derive from its connection to the world, or can one understand language in its own terms?

In between the real and the imagined, there are things which may or may not reflect the author's personal history. In the story, "Powers" is in a state of near-suicidal depression after breaking up with the love of his life, a woman referred to only as C. The book alternates between the present, where Powers works on the AI project, and the past, where he remembers his life together with C. It's hard to be sure whether the relationship with C. really happened, but I'm inclined to believe it did, at least in some form.

The analogy that occurs to me is with Lolita, one of my favourite books. When he wrote it, Nabokov had recently moved to the US. He was an immigrant whose command of English, though good, was by no means perfect. He was also unhealthily attracted to young girls. I know this is to some extent controversial, but the theme turns up in so many of Nabokov's books that I can't believe it didn't reflect something real; I'm pretty sure he never acted on his impulses. At any rate, Nabokov made the brilliant pragmatic decision to use the material he had available. He made Humbert Humbert another immigrant with a similar sexual fixation, I believe greatly exaggerating the side of his character which he was most frightened and ashamed of, and created a masterpiece.

Similarly, I think Powers worked with the material he had - though it feels to me that he was closer to it, and the novel lacks the distance needed to be completely successful. By all accounts, Powers is a person who has spent his whole life living in a world of words. He's read obsessively since he was a small child, and he published three good novels before he was 35. The narrator of the book hardly experiences life directly at all, except though his relationship with C. When that relationship breaks down, he wonders if he has ever really understood her, or understood anything.

Can you live just though language? The book is a dense web of allusions and quotations: every page is full of ones I recognise, and I'm sure I missed plenty. To me, Helen, the AI program, is standing in for Powers himself. Helen can only experience the world through language. Powers is good at showing us how language, and especially great literature, can open up new ways to see the world, but even more importantly he shows us just how much it misses. Words are a poor substitute for love.

To me, and I see to many other readers, Helen is the most appealing character, and the one who redeems the book. She is just a piece of software, but she desperately wants to experience the world directly, through the senses she doesn't have, and escape the web of language; in the end, she helps the narrator reconnect to his life. Against all the odds, this friendship between a depressed workaholic and a machine ends up being a touching and uplifting story.
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Reading Progress

11/13/2010 page 8
2.0% 1 comment
11/13/2010 page 55
16.0% "The narrator does come across as rather whiny. I hope this interesting bet will cheer him up!"
11/14/2010 page 90
27.0% "Connectionism and heartbreak. It's an odd mixture, but it works."
11/15/2010 page 170
51.0% "Ah! I think I see what the idea is. Now curious to find out whether my guess holds up..."
11/15/2010 page 205
62.0% "Taylor's death. But somehow, I'm expecting a happy ending..."
11/16/2010 page 260
79.0% "Then I need to be small. How can I make me as small as love?"

Comments (showing 1-50 of 67) (67 new)


Natalie I have The Gold Bug Variations sitting quite close by, ordered and waiting its chance for election night be be over and my mind to be able to concentrate again for a change! Richard Powers is one of my favorite authors. Scenes, characters, and ideas from his books stay with me and influence my response to other literature and I suppose indeed to life itself, it that doesn't sound too corny?! ;) I think Gain is my favorite of all so far. Enjoy Galatea 2.2


message 2: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls My sister bought me this a week ago, but she still has the copy. There might be violence.


message 3: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Flancy a flutter? Taking bets on Manny's review: 2-1 it starts with something lascivious about C; 100-1 something academic about U; and 5-1 something ironic about AI.


notgettingenough You order from ABE not Amazon. Yea!


John Manny, glad you're trying this one, in some ways the peak of this author's well-nigh Himalayan career. You may have seen my 5-star review, here.


message 6: by notgettingenough (last edited Nov 16, 2010 05:38PM) (new)

notgettingenough Words are a poor substitute for love.

Is that so, Manny?


Krok Zero Nice review. Brought back how much I enjoyed reading this book. Alas, I'm reading Powers' Gain right now and it's painfully boring.


Jessica Yay!

My problem, though I'm not sure it was exactly a problem, was that I couldn't stand C., and I didn't like A. at all, either. So like, I don't know, words seemed like the rational alternative to love, even though I guess that's a little depressing.... and maybe says more about me than it does about the book.

Anyway, I'm really glad you liked it!


message 9: by Scribble (last edited Nov 16, 2010 09:04PM) (new)

Scribble Orca Nice review, Manny. Having not read the book, I had to google it. What I read 'netwise, and is reinforced by your review, is the nagging thought that I've seen this before. In Lawrence Durrell's The Revolt of Aphrodite: "Tunc" and "Nunquam"


Manny Jessica wrote: "My problem, though I'm not sure it was exactly a problem, was that I couldn't stand C., and I didn't like A. at all, either. So like, I don't know, words seemed like the rational alternative to love, even though I guess that's a little depressing.... and maybe says more about me than it does about the book.

Anyway, I'm really glad you liked it!"


Oh, as you can see I just loved this book. Thank you for pointing me to it!

About C. and A. Well, I found them both very lovable, but I was also appalled that he'd fallen for these women who were obviously unsuitable for him in every way, and whom he didn't understand at all. How could he have persuaded C. to go to translator school? How could he?

Though I suppose the novel is largely about him making those discoveries. If the two women really exist, I do wonder what they thought of it.


message 11: by Manny (last edited Nov 17, 2010 12:54AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny notgettingenough wrote: "Words are a poor substitute for love.

Is that so, Manny?"


You know, on further consideration, I wonder if my formulation wasn't too glib. I think it would be more accurate to say that one of the key messages in the book is that words are a poor substitute for life. Love transcends the division between words and the world. You can love things that are not: poems, ideas, people who exist only in your imagination.

Powers makes this clear in all sorts of ways. He talks a lot about semantics. Maybe I could paraphrase him as saying that love is what binds together the signifier and the signified, though again I think that's too glib, and it's really more complicated than I'm making out.

Love and denotational semantics... well, that's Proust territory. Hardly an accident that his colleague always calls him "Little Marcel", and that he and C. are in the middle of reading Proust together when they break up. It's a remarkably interesting philosophical novel.


message 12: by Jessica (last edited Nov 17, 2010 06:51PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jessica Yeah. I liked what you said about it, about him being lost outside his life in the words, and being Helen. When I think about Powers that way, it sort of advances my theory about what I find missing in most of his books -- like in Generosity for example, the opening scene is tracking this guy sitting on the El in Chicago, and it's so so so vivid and amazingly, beautifully executed, and the character is so carefully constructed and also vivid, but there is something -- just -- virtual? -- theoretical? -- removed! -- about it. As if Powers has read every book ever written about Chicago and every book about trains and every book about men, but there is some sense of actual lived experience that I just feel is missing from a lot of his books (though not from this one). I don't know why that is, though. Obviously Powers has been on mass transit in Chicago, and I'm sure he's even been a creative writing teacher, so it's not like he literally is some speed-reading computer sounding off, signifying nothing. But I still do have this sense a lot from him, that he wants this thing he can't quite grasp and knows he's missing, the same way that Helen wants it, and obviously being a person he does get a lot closer, and yet....

I don't know man, but there is something really compelling and human about his disconnectedness. Do you know what I mean? It's like he understands everything so well because he is cut off from it somehow, in this way that I can't describe. To me that makes his fiction usually seem just slightly off, but then ultimately incredibly moving. Like when he gives Helen's response to the Turing Test, I just totally lose it. It's like the negative space where you're sort of looking for all the human stuff builds up in his books, and comes crashing down at the end and just buries the reader.

Argh! Sorry to ramble! It's exciting when someone reads a book you've just read and got really into, and I got carried away. I'm sorry if none of that made any sense.


Manny You are making perfect sense! This is so far the only one of his books I've read, though. So they all have this feeling of being somehow disconnected from the world, desperately wanting to experience it directly but not quite being able to?

As I said, he keeps mentioning Proust, and it certainly reminds me of him. I have often wondered if Proust suffered from Aspergers, and maybe Powers does too. He's so obsessive and analytical, and he has this tremendous intellectual ability to pick things apart while missing their essence. And he's well aware of it. He just never understands C. at all, not the first thing about her, and he knows that but can't do anything. It is indeed very tragic and moving.


Natalie @Manny, when you write "The narrator of the book hardly experiences life directly at all, except though his relationship with C. When that relationship breaks down, he wonders if he has ever really understood her, or understood anything"

I think he knows he hasn't understood her, because the other is always "unknowable" in a shadows on the cave wall sort of way . . . he can only know his memories of events to do with her, his perceptions of her, but not her . . . that's not for people to know about one another? only for god and he's not sure there's one of those?

In The Time of Our Singing two brothers come to know the world, each other, and the way they come to know the world -it is disintermediated by their knowledge and experience of music is different because they are each fluent in music in different ways because of what they practice/how they experience music itself. It is not just a book about experiencing life thru the lens of race but about coming to know yourself differently because of the language you speak which Powers seems to promote as the stronger force that creates separateness?


Manny Natalie wrote: "I think he knows he hasn't understood her, because the other is always "unknowable" in a shadows on the cave wall sort of way . . . he can only know his memories of events to do with her, his perceptions of her, but not her . . . that's not for people to know about one another? only for god and he's not sure there's one of those? "

I see what you mean, but I think the narrator's inability to understand C. isn't at a philosophical level. He doesn't get really basic things. The first time they meet and talk, he isn't aware that he's causing her to miss two classes. He persuades her to go to translation school, when it was obvious that she would hate it. He can't see that she wants to get married and have children.

And then, with A., it's even worse. As she says, he knows nothing about her, it's just projection. He's aware of what he's doing wrong, but he can't change himself. It's very tragic.

Well, maybe I will read some more of his books!


message 16: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan not the sort of book I'd normally read but your review and the comments on the thread make me want to go and have a look. One thing - I don't think because nabokov writes a lot about it that he is unhealthily attracted to young girls. He's just found a subject that allows him to express the ideas (eg barriers to love/ communication) he wants to get across. Writers who write about murder all the time are surely not closet murderers?


message 17: by Manny (last edited Nov 19, 2010 01:02AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Alan, I'd be interested to hear what you thought of Galatea 2.2!

About Nabokov and young girls... well, obviously we'll never know, and his riposte in Look At The Harlequins! was very funny. If it were just Lolita I would agree with you. But it's also Ada, and The Enchanter, and I've got a feeling I've forgotten at least one more.

Could someone who wasn't genuinely attracted to young girls write this much about the subject, with what looks like such genuine feeling? Answer: if they were as smart as Nabokov, probably they could. But why would they want to? I'm not sure I buy your analogy with murder. We're not talking about doing it, only wanting to do it.


message 18: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca I'm reading this conversation between you and Alan, Manny, and it brings to mind previous remarks concerning Iain Banks/Iain M Banks. I know I'm a complete pain-prude, but apart from The Business, what has Banks written, in his non-sci-fi guise, that doesn't refer to, explore or portray pain in at least one of its many forms? I'm not saying Banks is or is not as smart as Nabokov, but he certainly seems to be as riveted on graphic scenes of suffering as Nabokov was preoccupied with attraction to young girls.

(As usual, I'm going off at a tangent. That's what I love about your reviews :D).


Manny Well, that's a good point. I find it hard to believe that Banks doesn't at least enjoy the idea of inflicting pain.

By the way, if you haven't read any of them, the SF novels tend to be at least as sadistic as the mainstream ones.


message 20: by Scribble (last edited Nov 19, 2010 03:39AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Manny wrote: "...the SF novels tend to be at least as sadistic as the mainstream ones..."

The only two books of his that I finished reading were The Business and The Player of Games. I went on a bit of spree without checking the contents of the other books. I ended up (after gagging my way through a few pages) taking the books straight around to the library and off-loading them. Spineless, but true.


message 21: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan Answer: if they were as smart as Nabokov, probably they could. But why would they want to? Your answer is in the first sentence. Would they want to - yes because it allows them to discuss so much about forbidden desire, old/young (eg Europe/USA; literary/youth culture) etc. The analogy with murder still stands - your premise assumes because someone writes a lot about something they want to do it, therefore someone writes about murders a lot wants to commit murder: no, I don't think so.

sorry it's taken me a while to get back, had to work..


message 22: by Scribble (last edited Nov 19, 2010 03:09AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Alan wrote: "Would they want to - yes because it allows them to discuss so much about forbidden desire..."

But this presumes that there is nothing more to lusting after children than that it is forbidden, and says nothing about whether (forbidden or not) lusting after children is actually a natural, albeit forbidden state, or is a result of something going wrong in wiring of the person experiencing the lust. In light of recent neurobiological research, is it true to assume that lusting after children is in fact something that we naturally experience, albeit forbidden, or actually arises from previous abusive experience in our own childhood?


message 23: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan sorry GN, it doesn't assume that at all. I think it's pretty clear Humbert Humbert is an unusual man, and his desires and predelictions are certainly not shared by the rest of the populace (well not most of them anyway). In the same way that novels about serial killers can make you empathise with the killers (can't think of an example offhand but know there are plenty), it doesn't make the author (or reader) a killer or want to be a killer.


Manny Well, as I said, obviously we don't know about Nabokov. I guess my argument is basically Occam's Razor: it's simplest to assume he used something he really felt, rather than making it up.

Here's a comparison point. Everyone knows Nabokov's novels sexualize young girls, but it's less well known that they also sexualize women's shoulder blades. At least in his books, Nabokov's frequently going on about how erotic shoulder blades are. This is unusual, and I certainly don't know any other author who does it as much.

Now, it's possible Nabokov made this up as well, and that, in real life, shoulder blades did nothing for him. Again, I wouldn't put it past him: he was so fiendishly clever and had such a bizarre sense of humour. But, all the same, I think the common-sense explanation is that he got turned on by women's shoulder blades.

So, similarly...


message 25: by Robert (new)

Robert I don't think Occam's Razor distinguishes between the two theories: the number of entities is the same in both.

The Player of Games is full of gruesome and sick torture/rape/murder! I don't remember much of that sort of thing in Whit.


message 26: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan umm, no still can't agree. A writer might use something he does feel in the context of something he makes up, to add authenticity or just because it fits. I don't think you can assume a writer's real desires etc from what he writes about. That would make Agatha Christie a rabid murderer underneath, and Enid Blyton a lover of ginger ale, which ain't necessarily so.


Manny The murders in Agatha Christie are so abstract and stylised that I draw the opposite conclusion: she never really wanted to kill anyone!

On the other hand, I'd be shocked to discover that Blyton actually hadn't liked ginger ale even as a child. That would seem heartlessly cynical...


message 28: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan you'd be shocked if Blyton was heartlessly cynical! I wouldn't


Manny Robert wrote: "The Player of Games is full of gruesome and sick torture/rape/murder! I don't remember much of that sort of thing in Whit."

I think you're right about Whit. No rape or torture that I can remember. Well, I believe one rather half-hearted attempted rape, but it barely counts.


message 30: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan OK instead of Christie, you're assuming that Thomas Harris would like to eat someone accompanied by fava beans and a nice Chianti.


message 31: by Robert (new)

Robert Yeah - definitely an attempted rape/incest thing but nothing compared to Player of Games.


Manny So Alan, here's my question. Do you think Nabokov genuinely found women's shoulder blades erotic, or do you think he made it up? And on what do you base your answer?


Manny Is cannibalism a recurrent theme in Harris's books, i.e. outside of the Hannibal Lecter series? My knowledge of him doesn't go further than having seen Silence of the Lambs sometime in the 90s.


Manny Alan wrote: "you'd be shocked if Blyton was heartlessly cynical! I wouldn't"

Even about the ginger ale?! That would shock me! I'll ask Elisabeth, she's recently read a book on Blyton.


message 35: by Scribble (last edited Nov 19, 2010 03:53AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Robert wrote: "Yeah - definitely an attempted rape/incest thing but nothing compared to Player of Games."

I musn't have read Player of Games. Either that or I've blocked it from memory.

Maybe Banks, Harris and Nabokov liked the idea of discussing what made others uncomfortable. Why....well, one answer could be because controversy sells books. But that's probably too cynical.


message 36: by Robert (new)

Robert Espidair Street - I don't remember much gruesome violence in that.


Manny Robert wrote: "Espidair Street - I don't remember much gruesome violence in that."

Um, what happens to his rock-star girlfriend?


Manny Maybe Banks, Harris and Nabokov liked the idea of discussing what made others comfortable. Why....well, one answer could be because controversy sells books. But that's probably too cynical.

Harris, very possibly. Nabokov, definitely not. Unsure about Banks!


message 39: by Robert (new)

Robert I'm sure Banks likes to be shocking/controversial. What his motivation is, I can't say.


message 40: by Robert (new)

Robert Manny - I don't remember! Something brutal and horrid presumably!


Manny Robert wrote: "Manny - I don't remember! Something brutal and horrid presumably!"

Good guess :)


message 42: by Robert (new)

Robert I might have to re-read it in order to remind myself...


message 43: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan Manny wrote: "So Alan, here's my question. Do you think Nabokov genuinely found women's shoulder blades erotic, or do you think he made it up? And on what do you base your answer?"

don't know, but not surprised because women's shoulder blades are erotic, along with their knees, ankles and toes, surely?


Manny Alan wrote: "don't know, but not surprised because women's shoulder blades are erotic, along with their knees, ankles and toes, surely?"

Well, yes, as soon as I wrote that I was of course thinking shoulder blades! yum! But even so, not many people are as keen on them as Nabokov. And in The Mikado, the sexualization of Katisha's right elbow is generally regarded as bizarrely comic...


message 45: by Manny (last edited Nov 19, 2010 08:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Did you ever see the issue of Viz that contained the Victorian porn magazine? It's all full of explicit sepia-toned pictures showing hussies brazenly displaying their ankles...


message 46: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan I did, I did. In fact I have it under my pillow..


Manny There are a dozen questions I'm burning to ask, but I'm so tactful and well-bred that I won't do so. I'll just say that you have a remarkably understanding wife.


message 48: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan well could be a lot worse


Natalie Manny wrote: "So Alan, here's my question. Do you think Nabokov genuinely found women's shoulder blades erotic, or do you think he made it up? And on what do you base your answer?"

I think Nabokov genuinely found women's shoulder blades erotic the same way he genuinely was fascinated with butterflies -as a 'collector' who wanted to be known/show off a little for his knowledge of them?!

He didn't just look at them and sigh. He remembered what they looked like, wrote about what it was like to look at them and respond to them, wanted people to read about how he responded to them, thought that would entertain/increase people's understand of the world or both?


message 50: by Manny (last edited Nov 19, 2010 08:35AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Natalie, I can see you've thought more about this than I have! But we seem to agree on the bottom line: as far as the shoulder blades were concerned, anyway, it was genuine...


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