“The brain is the ultimate storytelling machine and consciousness is the ultimate story” (Richard Powers). Richard Powers is Illinois charismatic writer and professor of English in his homeland. He is the author of nine novels and a holder of various literature prizes like MacArthur Fellowship, Lannan Literature Award and James Fennimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. His novel Echo Market won the National Book Award in 2006. Since the early years, Richard Powers was overwhelmed with science, had the reputation of beimg an anxious reader, and seriously considered to become a scientist. He was interested in physics, paleontology, oceanography, archeology, etc. Impatience towards science found the confirmation in his books. The author was about to become a physicist but changed his path as he gained the MA in English. Being extremely intellectual, Richard Powers added science into literature; at the same time, his novels cannot be called as science fiction. This special feature of his works makes him a unique and peculiar writer. His versatility can be proved by different topics aroused in his works. A genetic code was the topic of the books The Gold Bug Variations (1991) and Galatea 2.2 (1995) that was all about artificial intelligence; the virtual reality overwhelmed in Plowing the Dark (2001), neuroscience emerged in the novel named Echo Market (2006); a newborn work Generosity (2009) has genetic engineering inside its narrative.
In one of his interviews, the writer said that to be a fictionist is equally to loneliness as the author is always in his stream baffling his friends and creating the new ones in alternate reality. He believed that contemporary technologies are isolating a person from reality and deepen him into the virtual reality. Richard Powers was working as a programmer for some period of time so the theme of artificial intellect and virtuality were not new for him. His most ambitious novel Plowing the Dark (2001) Powers wrote in almost complete isolation. He told that being cut off from the world and society was his experiment; he wanted to find out how far his imagination would go being in total loneliness. Powers called it as the Stanislavski method of writing. The trick with isolation isn’t new for the writers’ practice. The most famous authors were using it to concentrate on their works.
The topic of virtual reality is also not so fresh. The term “virtual reality” means the artificial reality developed with the help of computer hardware and software and presented to the person using it as a simulation of real life. We are living in Digital Era; the technologies occupied almost all spheres of our life. The core desire to run out from real life is incarnated in the idea of virtual reality. The more developed we are the more unsocial we are becoming. The term “cyberpunk” emerged, and this style transformed into the separate branch of science fiction. Some vivid examples of virtual reality implied in literature are Vernor Vinge’s True Names, the trilogy Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson, which were the fundamental basis of Cyberpunk flourishing. Following the works of Rudy Morgan, Philip K. Dick, and Richard Morgan, they have strengthened the position of this style and brought the cult status to it. Cinema is exploiting Cyberpunk as well. Escape from New York, Strange Days, Hackers, and the absolute cult Matrix trilogy are not the full list of the virtual reality theory.
Some researches of the virtual reality theme compare the virtual reality to fiction itself. The prose is also some kind of escape from our day-to-day routine. The fantastic literature and especially the works about imaginary worlds and adventures take the person away from being in the present moment. Computer games and the so-called stimulators can make you a hero of war, a fighter, or a queen of your own world. Why do we need this? Why sometimes is the digital environment replacing our real surroundings? What isolation can give us for a better understanding of the today’s world? And how innovations are changing our lives? These questions are disturbing a lot of people around us. The heated dispute on the topic of the impact of technologies is urgent since the appearance of the first PC, and this lasts till now. Richard Powers was concerned in technologies and created Plowing the Dark for us, which is his view on the topic.
The novel Plowing the Dark shows two different stories and two separate chambers. One if them is a horrible prison room, and the other one is a tiny virtually stimulated dream. One you will never want to leave, another is a frightful nightmare. Which one is which is for you to decide.
Powers took the method of two parallel narratives, which he applied in The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, and Gain. The part of the story about virtual reality has a hint on the Microsoft Corporation, but it has never being mentioned by itself. In Plowing the Dark, he depicted two separate stories of an artist Adie Klarpol working on the 3D model of the virtual world and Taimur Martin, a man of the Arabic and American origin, trapped in Beirut prison. The main heroine of the first story is applied for work at the big computer programming company TeraSys and is developing the computer version of Rousseaus Dream. The program called “The Cavern” has to connect the user with everything he is dreaming about. Her job is to re-create some past artistic events and to trace a descent of the artistic history. Her work became so convincing that it leaves real scratches on people who have visited these digital jungles.
At the same time, Taimur Martin leaves his pregnant girlfriend and arrives to Beirut to teach English. He was caught by the Arabic terrorists and chained to wall for nearly two years. To preserve his sanity he creates the virtual reality in his mind depicted by past experiences and events that happened to him; he suffers from hallucinations and attempts to make a suicide. Taimur’s imaginary Chicago recreates every building’s brick situated in it. However, in Plowing the Dark, the author has connected two storylines only through hallucinating from main characters.
The story is about two perspectives of virtual reality, one made by human mind, and the other is made by the computer program. The story telling is very visualizing and colorful. At the end of the book, Taimur hallucinates to come to the Byzantine cathedral, and at the same time Adie comes inside the simulation of the same place.
Literature critics are divided into two groups. The first ones were praising Plowing the Dark with highest marks; the others were blaming the work for the boring development of events. In 2009, Stephen Roof has posted his point of view on Power’s novel. “The first 150 pages of this novel spent too much time painting a too detailed background with too little happening.” (Roof, 2009). But it wasn’t the only negative remark. As to his point of view, the characters are blank and awake no sympathy. He joined the party of the critics claiming that there are too many details in the description of the 3D modeling process, which is very boring to read for the person without any computer knowledge. “Finally, at less than 200 pages, I decided it wasn’t even worth continuing with this book which is something I almost never do.” (Roof, 2009) However the critic was looking for the science fiction in the novel as he wrote that the trace of it was only in the fact of developing The Cravern. As we have known before, Richard Powers is not considered to be a science fiction writer, so blaming won’t be concerned. Roof noticed that because of the boring start; he didn’t read the work till its end, and there was no critic concerning the second narrative. At the end of the article, Stephen Roof recommended not to waste time on the novel.
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Chris Mitchell from the Spike Magazine posted in 2003 called Plowing the Dark as a novel of ideas. “Powers takes the computer as the single most important artifact of the last two decades and examines its impact upon our reality as much as our creation of new realities using it.” (Mitchell, 2003). To the contrary of Stephen Roof, Mitchell says that Power’s prose is very easy to read and at the same time a reader has to digest what exactly the author means by enclosing these different stories in the same book. “Whereas most novels take a central premise and string it out over a couple of hundred pages, it feels as if Plowing the Darkonly just keeps the lid on its own complexity.” (Mitchell, 2009) The same view Mitchell has with the previous critic towards the characters. He stated that characters are similar to be viewed through the microscope and not like moving around them. What is more surprising is that the story of the hostage arouses no feelings and stays blank in the critic’s heart. “Some of Powers' sentences on the emotional lives of Karpol and her friends seem almost like asides and yet always hint at a melancholy for those characters, a fundamental loneliness and an absence of happiness with no idea of where to look for it. These moments in the book are perhaps all the more noticeable for being moments of emotional vulnerability or longing amongst so much intellectual abstraction.” (Mitchell, 2009) Despite all criticism, Mitchell insists on high intellectuality of the novel and the ability to bring new interesting questions for readers. He calls Plowing the Dark a third millennium novel and extols it.
“A riveting novel conjures up the bygone days of virtual reality and the promise of the unreal world that might have been.” (Rosenthal, 2001) These were the introduction lines to the critical text on Plowing the Dark. The critic recalls the cult virtual reality movies like Matrix and Existenz and puts a question why Richard Powers picked up a topic of virtual reality. The fact that the VR is not new, though it has been a bomb in 1980s and 1990s, and it is understandable. Rosenthal claims that the author who chooses genetic engineering and artificial intelligence for his books can’t return to the virtual reality theme all of sudden. Again so as the previous critic Pam Rosenthal is concerned with the length of the narrative as well and arouses the same question of reasonability for writing 400 pages about virtual reality. “Their speculations about the political import of what they're doing are equally lovely and extravagant. I'll confess that I'd all but forgotten the flashes of loony technological optimism that accompanied world events like the Tianenmen Square demonstrations and the demolition of the Berlin Wall.” (Rosenthal, 2001) According to her research, the author picks up the virtual reality utopia to make some parallels with past and present. To Rosenthal’s opinion, it is made for a reader’s better understanding of present perspectives of the technological progress and its influence on the society. In the critical text, we can find a new thought of Richard Powers’ dualism in themes. Past and present aren’t the only notions, which collide here; the issues of real and imaginary, macrocosm and microcosm appear in Plowing the Dark as well. The world structure isn’t only the political responsibility; it is also our own personal view on our surroundings. The critical part of the second story line is more enthusiastic. “A dirty, windowless room in Beirut becomes the novel's ground zero. Martin's desperate and brilliant expedients to stay sane and human (drawn by Powers from many memoirs by political hostages) are as compelling as any of the book's computer wonder stories.” (Rosenthal, 2001) Pam describes the writer’s language as plastic and fertile, eager to reshape the world around him. In her text, we can find the comparison of Power’s novel Gain and Plowing the Dark. She writes that the second novel is smaller, but it saves its roots and correspondence to the time and space it had been written in. It still remains the utopia, especially concerning war terrors and technologies; Pam thinks Richard Powers remains too optimistic on these topics. “It's a chamber work, really, this meditation on rooms and other spaces, this smart, sweet, harrowing novel that reminds us how much the human prospect depends upon the homes -- virtual and otherwise - that we build for ourselves on Earth.” (Rosenthal, 2001)
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The critical response varies from strictly negative to highly praised odes. There are similarities and differences in the researches, which depict the book from multiple sides and give us the opportunity to understand the narrative better. The similar notions were about some kind of boredom. Richard Powers was accused of dragging out the plot. The technical language and description of creating The Cavern hasn’t awakened any enthusiastic reviews. In the two critical texts, the characters of the story are called emotionless and plain. However, the second narrative, which takes place in Lebanon, provoked strong emotions in Rosenthal and Mitchell. We don’t know about Roof’s attitude towards the story of Taimur, because the writer can’t draw himself to read the book till its end. This happened possibly because Stephen Roof was about to find the science fiction in Plowing the Dark”. The only one author defending Powers’ prose as an easy writing fiction is Chris Mitchell. He sings dithyrambs for the novel’s intellectuality and cold mind. Mitchell and Rosenthal revealed some new interesting details in Powers’ work. The first one mentioned the dualistic nature of Plowing the Dark; Rosenthal marked the novel as utopia because of an excess of the optimistic attitude towards war crimes and technology developing.
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To my point of view, the most valid opinion has Pam Rosenthal. She is very objective concerning the choice of the topic for Powers’ next novel. We can agree that virtual reality was up to date at the end of the 1980s and in the beginning of the next 10 years. Today, the virtual reality phenomenon is quite obsolete and mostly connected in mind with such fantastic movies like Matrix. Then, the author goes deeper into the narrative and confesses that 400 words aren’t that exhausting because Powers hides more interesting issues, which can be read between the lines. She has an interesting finding in the plot; Pam suggested that Powers believes in the power of changing the world with the help of computers. She found out that the writer suggests we can build a world where a person is able to change everything and become happy in his imaginary world. The critic is quite right concerning the somehow utopian nature of Richard Powers’ work. “I don't know if Powers would see it that way, but I do think he intends us to consider the present that's rooted in the past he explores. Plowing the Darkis like near-future cyberpunk science fiction in a fun-house mirror: Powers evokes utopian technological aspirations of the near past and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions about the present.” (Rosenthal, 2001) She is one of the first critics who felt sympathy for the characters, especially for Taimur held in prison by the Arabic fundamentalists. His enormous struggle with preserving his mind is painful. The only escape for him is the imaginary world made by his past memories and the conceived conversations with those people he knows. Pam Rosenthal makes her statements well-reasoned by providing various citations and statements corroborating her point of view.
To my point of view, 'Plowing the Dark' is an extremely visual novel. Even sometimes it looks like the picture gallery of both worlds created in Taimur’s mind and in Seattle lab. Till the very end of the story the words don’t collide, but we have some kind of a hint they are rather similar. The projection and imagination collide but both have absolutely different aims. Taimur’s world serves for salvation, though Adie’s simulated environment is made for the conscious escape to experience new dimensions.
Adie is a typical Powers’ character; she has the talent but lost her self-sufficiency; her ideals changed to the more premature nature. She changed her path being in the past a very successive painter and a simple illustrator for the web corporation. Taimur is an English teacher who went to Lebanon and within weeks is caught by the Islamic terrorists. In places that describe some TeraSys’ chapters of 'Plowing the Dark, there is some fresh air, and the Beirut paragraphs depict the man's physical fall and mental breakdown. These sections contain the most visceral prose Powers has ever written. Taimur's narrative threatens to capsize Powers' well-planned structure. Does Powers really believe that we move toward an era where ''every soul in the world'' will serve ''as every other soul's 24-hour server''?
The theme of two worlds colliding, real and surreal, is sharply distinguished. Adie lost faith in her art powers; in the process of modeling The Cavern, her self-sufficiency goes higher. While being in prison, Taimur is loosing his mind and erase the boundaries between real and imaginary. Powers shows us that our minds can create the worlds and both awaking and falling asleep in them.
For me, the technical details were sometimes strange and difficult as well, and I have to agree that, according to the critical response, the novel can be shorter. Sometimes Powers concentrates on the description of the worlds and doesn’t give us more details of the character’s inner self. I consider some critical writings against the plainness of the novel’s heroes based upon this fact. Plowing the Dark gives some perspectives in understanding the world and human nature better. It also draws the attention towards future technologies abilities in changing our environment to the instant one. However, it is difficult to answer why exactly a person is so eager to escape the moment he is living in normal conditions. Is it a fear of awareness that your life is obvious and is lacking the adventure? Or, maybe, it is just the boredom of everyday routine life? Why people escape from the real conversations and choose virtual reality, friends, conversation instead of their live experience? Maybe, it is better to collapse and never wake up from this artificial happiness.