Dismal-Science Fiction

Responding to the news that Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement has been nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award (a British science fiction prize) Ron Hogan has taken a look at the science fiction elements in that book and a couple of other Powers novels. Generosity is something of a slam-dunk on that front, as Hogan points out: “Not only does the science of Generosity have the abstract potential to change lives, the exploration of that science DOES change the lives of the characters involved,” Hogan writes.

The connections aren’t always so clear in other Powers’ novels, but Hogan brings up some interesting points in relation to 2006’s The Echo Maker and 1988’s Prisoner’s Dilemma—the latter of which reveals “Powers’ fascination with the mind’s role in defining our experience of reality, and the ways we seek to identify and push against the limitations of that experience.” That may be a loose definition of science fiction in general, but Powers is more concerned about the scientific details of “mind,” “reality,” and “experience” than many novelists. (The proof of that might be in the way publications turn the genre term into a pun when writing about Powers; the Nation‘s review of The Echo Maker was titled “Science Fiction,” and the New Yorker‘s review of Generosity was subtitled “The scientific fictions of Richard Powers.”)

Powers’ fixation on such details isn’t always to his credit: Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of two Powers novels I couldn’t finish, and as Hogan points out, the novel’s “characters read like templates rather than people.” A better turned example of Hogan’s argument might be Powers’ 1998 novel, Gain, which alternates between the history of Clare Corp., a small soap company that becomes a multinational chemical conglomerate, and a middle-aged woman whose ovarian cancer may be connected to the company’s products. There’s plenty of chemistry and oncology in the novel, enough to justify at least another punning “science fiction” tag, but the discipline Powers is mostly interested in in Gain, is economics, and its power to shape our mind, reality, and experience.

Laura Bodey, the hero of the novel and its cancer patient, is “a woman who has heard, yet has not heard,” Powers writes early on—somebody aware of what she needs to be as a mother, (ex) spouse, worker, and citizen, but disinterested in the larger forces that will ultimately affect her. When she hears a couple of farmers discussing details about agribusiness in the supermarket, she tunes it out; uncomfortable even with the question “paper or plastic?” in the checkout line, she punts and responds, “Whatever is easiest.” Still, Powers never makes Laura out to be either a Midwestern rube or a puppet controlled by larger geopolitical forces, though it’s clear that going in either direction would be easy. As the book’s reviewer for the Washington Post, (science fiction writer) Thomas Disch, put it, “Laura’s suffering as she soldiers through her prescribed regimen of chemotherapy is evoked in unsparing detail, but it is not blamed on Big Medicine. All the misery in the book is just part of daily life and death, and the moments of transcendence, while often spectacularly beautiful, are just that—moments.”

But though Powers declines to render Laura as a victim, her experience isn’t wholly disconnected from Clare Corp.’s work. As the novel progresses, Laura becomes increasingly aware of the company’s control over her life, the way it knows her better than she knows herself:

Who told them to make all these things? But she knows the answer to that one. They’ve counted every receipt, more carefully than she ever has. And wasn’t she born wanting what they were born wanting to give her? Every thought, every pleasure, freed up by these little simplicities, the most obvious of them already worlds beyond her competence.

The kicker to that passage reveals Powers’ understanding that however much we might resent these toxic chemicals and craven obsession with balance sheets, we are generally willing to succumb to it. Imagining that the corporation might invent a treatment called Cancer-Be-Gone, Laura thinks, “She’d sell just about anything but the kids to get it. If the cure lasted for only, say, ten years, at the end of which the vendor wanted the most unthinkable item in trade, she’d still sign.” He may have written no stronger argument for the way science changes lives.

8 responses to “Dismal-Science Fiction

  1. I definitely wouldn’t want to use “the mind’s role in defining our experience of reality” as a loose ALL-encompassing definition of science fiction, but I do see some resonances between Powers’ explorations of those themes and the way other science fiction writers have approached them.

    (And, absolutely, I wish I’d reread Gain — AND Plowing the Dark — in time to write those Tor posts — I do hope to revisit the topic later this year!)

  2. Powers declines to render Laura as a victim? Did we read the same novel? Or is GAIN a Rorschach test? For me, when Laura can’t find the strength to even cook something for that gathering, it’s an especially crushing moment, especially given the context of the social reluctance. GAIN is certainly the Powers novel (about as angry a book as OPERATION WANDERING SOUL is gloomy) that splits people. But it’s only because the naysayers haven’t quite grasped Powers’s clever formalistic trick. It’s the reader’s job to find an emotional connection to Laura, just as it’s the reader’s job to understand the hidden underlying connections of Clare Corp encroaching on the community. (That’s also spelled out with the description of the huge headquarters at the end. There’s the evil hiding in plain sight, but we can’t bother to connect to it. Just as Laura’s suffering is the compassion we must feel as readers and spectators. What indeed do we gain in abandoning such moments or reading a novel like GAIN so spottily?)

    Incidentally, in the review you cite, Disch was also careful to note that GAIN was “the largest compliment any author has paid to the American reading public in decades, for the author assumes that we will take in his meaning, which is large, elusive and mortifying, without his offering a word of explanation.” He knew very well what Powers was up to.

    I’ve read all of Powers’s novels at least once. And I will confess that PRISONER’S DILEMMA is the only one that doesn’t sit well with me either. But your observations about details are at least heading in the right direction. I’d urge you to read it again before writing about it. I must also say that I can’t understand why anybody outside of a needy and inexperienced undergrad would wish to pigeonhole Powers’s to some preexisting schematic. It’s about as uninformed an approach as identifying the great Thomas Disch as merely a “science fiction writer.”

  3. I suggest looking at Prisoner’s Dilemma again. I certainly disagree with the notion that the characters read more like templates than people, a charge lazily leveled at Powers all the time. Anyway, it’s one of only two of his that I’ve re-read, with much profit. There’s a lot there.

  4. fwiw, here’s an ancient post I wrote on Prisoner’s Dilemma

    • Mark Athitakis

      Really nice post, Richard. I’m a long way from the time when “Prisoner’s Dilemma” defeated me, but what you wrote suggests that the novel is an interesting precursor/companion piece to “Generosity,” being about a person who is in a puzzling headspace that confounds typical emotional responses. That’s true of other Powers characters, but it seems that both of those novels foreground it. I’ll have to get to this (along with “The Program Era”) sooner than I’d planned….

      • Mark: I’ve seen 14 year old girls with more backbone. Or do you wilt like a wallflower whenever anybody calls you out? If you can’t stand by another man’s dillentatish and flimsily supported opinions (“characters read like templates rather than people”), or demonstrate why such sophism is defensible (and I agree with Richard: it’s an utterly lazy critical charge, generally trotted out by the skimmers rather than serious readers), then it seems to me that you’re not much of a critic.

  5. I think Echo Maker the best novel about America post-911 I’ve read. The brother, after a traumatic crash, who can’t recognize his sister though she looks just like his sister, etc…..

  6. Yes, characters read more like figures than actual persons. It’s easy to see.

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