Powers, Richard. 2000. Plowing the Dark. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Reviewed 02 July 2000

Plowing the Dark (cover) As should be apparent by now to anyone who actually reads these reviews, I believe in a strong historical foundation to literature. Literature—art—is not determined by that foundation; rather, art is the difference between a little box made out of ticky-tacky and Wright's "Falling Water." But, nonetheless, if we look close enough at both of them, we can say "house."

Richard Powers should not be unknown to serious readers of speculative fiction. His Galatea 2.2 (4 stars) is probably the best nonbiological Frankenstein out there, informed by both ambiguity and a humblingly well-rounded intellect. Powers doesn't seem to set out to write that awful science fiction stuff (and he'd bloody well better not, as he's a tenured professor of English). That has its dangers, such as those to which David Morse's ill-fated The Iron Bridge succumbed. Nonetheless, it also has its advantages, in that it allows the writer freedom to challenge deeply held assumptions. As a particularly radical example, consider a Lord of the Rings written not just from the moral viewpoint of the West, nor of Sauron, but of both—without sliding into obvious "I'm evil and proud of it" buffoonery. I doubt that a writer consciously working within the traditions could do it. It has been done, albeit perhaps not so well as it should have been.

In any event, where does Powers's latest novel fit in? How to we get a handle on a book that jumps from a prisoner held by Islamic extremists in Beirut to an early 1990s software firm striving to create small virtual realities, led by a poet-turned-programmer and an artist tired of doing commercial art? Perhaps this passage, from the middle of the book, sheds some real light on this virtual subject (my typography):

   "No," Steve said. "You can't possibly understand. There are too many layers now, between you and the artifact. Assemblers, compilers, interpreters, code generators, reusable libraries, visual programming tools. It wasn't always like this. You have to imagine looking at this towel, this beautiful, woven, cotton towel, falling in natural folds, as good as cloth. Have to imagine looking at it and seeing the realization of your own words, your own project, workable essay about the way that cloth looks and feels and falls."
   "Pygmalion?"
   "He's in there somewhere. Orpheus might be closer. I'm telling you, writing my first subroutine was … like causing huge chunks of unravished bride to rise up, just by singing to her. A good, polished program was everything I thought poetry was supposed to be."
   "Stevie. You must have had a very peculiar idea of what poetry was supposed to be."
   "No different than any person who ever wrote it. I was going to get inside of reality and extract its essence, write down on paper the magic metrical words that, read aloud, would do their open sesame."
   She looked at the screen, ready to deny everything. But she nodded. "The vital formula." Sympathetic spells. Life's nail clippings. The impression of a body in bed.
   He raced on, not hearing her. "There was this kid poet, and he wrote and wrote. He rubbed the magic lamp until the poetic self-abuse police threatened to come impound him. And still nothing happened. The incantation seemed to be defective. Then they put the kid in front of his terminal and initiated him into the secret syntax. A few simple rules, combined in a few elegant ways, and blamm-o. The thing works. It runs. The world does move. The rules churn. The descriptions step their way through their own internal logic. The lines of code set more switches, change more states. Commands produce results."
   "The word made flesh."
   Spiegel flinched. "Don't mock me."
   "I'm not mocking."

In a general sense, then, Plowing the Dark is about creating realities. This suddenly brings the Beirut scenes into focus, as we realize that the captive is fighting madness by recreating his own realities (which often come back to harm him). And, dare I say it, Plowing the Dark is an essential precursor, a Rosetta Stone, of …

Cyberpunk.

For this is where cyberpunk so often failed: its characters had no self-awareness, no real connection to their environments beyond the electronic tools with which they manipulated reality. Gibson's trilogy very much depends upon treating electronic and virtual realities as somehow justified by Clarke's Law ("any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"). With very few exceptions, cyberpunk books simply are not novels; they are, rather, extended guitar solos. That gets very boring after some time, particularly when the guitarists in question are closer in skill to speeddemons like Eddie Van Halen than to masters of the instrument like Mark Knopfler or J. Marshall Hendrix.

So that's where Plowing the Dark seems to sit. It represents the small steps between the mundane reality of today and the effortless recreation of reality in cyberpunk; the steps between the wheel and the automobile. Or the main battle tank. And, unlike the cyberpunk books themselves, Powers's prose has its own sculptured beauty, rather like a 1964 Jaguar. (Fortunately, it's a lot more reliable than the Jag.)

So, as usual, I have almost completely avoided mentioning the plot. And that, in the end, is the point, I think, of Plowing the Dark. The book—and art in general—is a process, not a thing. Just where does one shade from describing the natural folds of cloth using fractal functions and prebuilt data sets to creating a work of whole cloth?

Overall rating: 4 stars Excellent (award candidate). This is not an easy book to read quickly, as it tends to smack one upside the head with another perspective shift (in terms of the reader's response) about every thirty pages or so. This is a subtextual history of computing in itself, almost Escheristic in its transformations. As it happens, I like being challenged like this, particularly when the author respects the reader enough to create a challenge without relying on hiding the ball.


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