Jessica's Reviews > Galatea 2.2

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
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's review
Nov 02, 10

bookshelves: happyendings, love-and-other-indoor-sports, favorites
Recommended to Jessica by: leetle brother, eric simon, my flesh sings out, etc.
Recommended for: ALL OF *YOU*!
Read in November, 2010

I hate the Internet because of the comments section. On blogs, on YouTube, on the New York Times website, the hate-filled, aliterate hive mind rules, spewing bile and LOLZ and telling a truth about humanity that I can't bear to face. That truth is that we as a species have blown our legacy. These great big brains with their potential are just atrophied damaged lumps, twitching out asinine trivialities and ignorant, brutal crap. The Internet makes me embarrassed to be human, embarrassed even to be a primate. But at least monkeys are cute and furry, and can eat bananas with their feet; we have nothing left to recommend us once we blow out our brains.

Enter Richard Powers, the opposite of that terrifyingly idiotic mass online. Powers has a brain that you want to write poems to. You want to make it a candlelit dinner, try and get in its pants. I think this is the best of his books that I've read, and I have some theories about why that is. The main one is that its characters are abnormally smart people. As a genius, Powers gets in trouble when he tries to write about us regular-brained folk. It's sort of like the irritation I felt when Charlize Theron got the Oscar for having the guts to look ugly in Monster. As an ordinary-looking person, I feel condescended to when supermodels go out of their way to try and look like me, and in the same way I'm never convinced by Richard Powers's characters of average intelligence. I know he has the best intentions, but it just can't come off right. Powers doesn't know what it's like to be working with limited brainpower; I do, and can tell the difference between an effortful stoop and the bona fide half-brained thing. He should stand up straight and stick with writing about brilliant people, and let the rest of us try to stand on our toes.

I've said before that I find Powers's characters much less interesting than him, and My Flesh Sings Out wisely suggested this book as the logical remedy. The main character here is Richard Powers! He plays a writer-in-residence at a science center at the University of Illinois. Suffering from writers' block and the aftermath of his relationship with a tiresome Dutch American woman, Powers becomes absorbed in an experiment to teach a computer to read.

Two of my favorite writers these days are Powers and Roberto Bolaño, both of whom write about literature in a more interesting and inspiring way than pretty much anyone I think I've ever read. Powers is obsessed with literature, and also with brains. His AI creation Helen is one of the most compelling characters he's ever made. I was much less taken with the other two romantic interests here, though that might be partly due to cattiness because I wished that he were MY boyfriend. On the whole, though, with the exception of C. and A., I think the cast of characters here is much stronger than any in his other books, which I attribute to them all being scientists or literary geniuses. Powers should maybe give up on trying to write Everyman. His best people are either smarter than us, or else cognitively damaged. His TBI sufferer in The Echo Maker, the Downs Syndrome kid here, and the computer he's trying to make human all seemed incredibly real and interesting. Why is that? Hm. Maybe having too much relates somehow to not having enough.

Okay, so this isn't really much of a review, but I've set a time limit for myself today, so I'll wrap it up here. Galatea 2.0 is, I think, a thoroughly successful book. I started tearing up in public (like I do) when I got to the last pages. One of the many great things about this guy is that he does usually deliver an ending, and structurally this baby was sound all the way through. For its investigation of what makes humans, this book gets an A! It's also so well-written that after I finished it, I went back and started reading from the beginning so I could appreciate the sentences without being distracted by my impulse to find out what happened next. As I've said before, this guy can really WRITE (or really TALK INTO A COMPUTER, or whatever he does). In the past I've felt a kind of Apergery vibe from him sometimes, an inability to connect emotionally with the text as much as I wanted to, and sensed that Powers badly wanted to have me do. More than any of his other books, this one is successfully imbued with the heart and viscera and fluids that make us people, not machines, and he describes and makes me feel again why it is that I read. I know some people -- like my mother, who works in the tech industry -- are turned off by the topic and might not pick up a book about artificial intelligence. But Powers's own intelligence comes through here, more human than ever, and I recommend this unreservedly to anyone who uses literature to survive their world.

And especially, of course, to all users of this site! If you're into computers and books, this one's for you.
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Comments (showing 1-27 of 27) (27 new)

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Jessica AAAGHH, guess who wrote the fiction in this week's New Yorker?? It is like big chunks of Richard Powers are falling out of the sky and all landing on ME!


Jessica I really recommend Powers's short story in the New Yorker this week! A nice piece about reading that I think would appeal to a lot of the fans on this site.

I have a really hardcore crush on this guy's brain.

message 3: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jessica wrote: "AAAGHH, guess who wrote the fiction in this week's New Yorker?? It is like big chunks of Richard Powers are falling out of the sky and all landing on ME!

//cracks up You are so cute.

message 4: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jessica wrote: "I really recommend Powers's short story in the New Yorker this week! A nice piece about reading that I think would appeal to a lot of the fans on this site."


Jafar Just read the New Yorker short story. Brilliant!

Jessica Yay! I loved that story, it's the only thing I've ever read where the second person worked because I really did feel he was talking to ME! He's so great. I'm totally having a Powers fangirl geek-out right now.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Whoa! Glad to see so much enthusiasm. Looking forward to the full review.

Jafar I started reading this today.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Incisive and entertaining review. One more diamond in the rough that is the sea of internet shite.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Thinking more about your point about really smart people tryng to portray not-really-smart people, I'm reminded of that other recommendation I sent your way for the Wells Tower short stories book Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. One thing I kept thinking about while reading it and describing it to friends was that I was really impressed by his ability to describe things like hunting and carpentry and lower class alcoholic squalor, and so on, despite the presumed (at the time) fact that he probably comes from some wealth and urban environments (a presumption mainly based on his strange and aristocratic-sounding name). So maybe some writers can transcend the limitations you point out and find a way to write themselves inside a type of mind and/or worldview that is foreign to them? It's an interesting topic to me and I'm glad you broached it and broached it in an interesting and readable way.

Manny Oh, I can't believe it... not only have I not read this, I hadn't even heard of it! I'm going to order it right now. Thank you! And a great review too.

Jessica Oh, this should be up your alley, Manny! Obviously there's a bunch of linguistics stuff in it, which maybe is not nearly as good if you actually know about linguistics; I feel like that's often the case with things (I hate a lot of books about social worky stuff and mental illness that other people seem to like). I can't wait to hear what your reaction is to this.

message 13: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana This is a great review that really makes me want to read this book. He sounds like a fantastic author to me. Which is odd because I usually hate the sort of fiction that gets published in the New Yorker.

Manny Well, my copy is on its way. I'd better finish Marguerite Duras's depressing novel before Powers arrives, because I'm sure he'll push her out of my hands. I am indeed very curious to see how he handles the AI and linguistics, and will report soon!

message 15: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana I'll be watching out for your review as well, Manny.

message 16: by David (new) - added it

David Ooh! My copy just arrived from Amazon! Zoinks!

Natalie @Jessica and other Powers intersted readers, Please read Gain. It is my first and still 'favorite'Richard Powers book. Two parallel stories: one is a sort of biography of a company (a thinly veild P&G?) and what happens when corporations get the rights of individuals one is the story of a contemporary individual struggling w/cancer. The stories intersect and the way Powers juxtaposes the timeline of human needs and desires with corporate needs and desires is the best economic education I've ever had! I would love to read more reviews of Gain esp from those who are just now reading Galatea 2.2.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Just felt like sharing a favorite quote from this book that I just stumbled upon here on GR:

"Speech baffled my machine. Helen made all well-formed sentences. But they were hollow and stuffed--linguistic training bras. She sorted nouns from verbs, but, disembodied, she did not know the difference between thing and process, except as they functioned in clauses. Her predications were all shotgun weddings. Her ideas were as decorative as half-timber beams that bore no building load.

She balked at metaphor. I felt the annoyance of her weighted vectors as they readjusted themselves, trying to accommodate my latest caprice. You're hungry enough to eat a horse. A word from a friend ties your stomach in knots. Embarrassment shrinks you, amazement strikes you dead. Wasn't the miracle enough? Why do humans need to say everything in speech's stockhouse except what they mean?"

message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

This is an amazing review, Jessica. I am beginning to love this website.


Jessica Did anyone else see this in the Times?

We gotta watch!

message 21: by Natalie (last edited Feb 05, 2011 08:20PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Natalie @jessica,
Thanks for posting that link.

Richard Powers statement toward the end of the article is quite something! He says: "Still, history is the long process of outsourcing human ability in order to leverage more of it."

Jessica wrote: "Did anyone else see this in the Times?

We gotta watch!"

message 22: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidnischfisch Jessica wrote: "Did anyone else see this in the Times?

We gotta watch!"

Watson might be able to answer "coy, sly, slant, esoteric, ambiguous questions", but I bet it can't express "coy, sly, slant, esoteric, ambiguous" opinions as well as a Good Reader.

Jessica More proof that this book is awesome: I have another random-yet-highly-relevant way-after-the-fact "OMG"!

I was just over at Project Gutenberg, which has posted an obituary for its founder, Michael S. Hart, who has passed away:

RICHARD POWERS MUST HAVE KNOWN THIS GUY AT URBANA, RIGHT??? It sounds like they were both there during the seventies. I wonder if their dorking-out about lit and computers inspired this book...?

Manny RICHARD POWERS MUST HAVE KNOWN THIS GUY AT URBANA, RIGHT??? It sounds like they were both there during the seventies. I wonder if their dorking-out about lit and computers inspired this book...?

I find it really easy to believe! Have you tried doing any searches to see if you come up with something more concrete?

message 25: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidnischfisch I've just re-liked this review, which is one of my favourites.

Jessica Awww, thanks!

message 27: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidnischfisch Something on GR swallows my likes of your's and Paul's reviews.

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