by Richard Powers
How much of our story lies in our genes? How much of a story needs to be true, in order for it not to be a lie?
Powers enjoys wrestling with big questions in his novels, and this time out he goes for issues that get to who we are and who we will be, and how science and the media shape the possibilities. (“Technology changes what we think is intolerable.”)
The writer — explicitly evoked here — presumably has God-like powers over his world, yet his control isn’t infinite. (Which is fair enough; the apple did get eaten in the original.) He’s a reluctant deity, too: “No one would write a word, if he remembered how much fiction eventually comes true.” His characters (the driven scientist-entrepreneur, the awkward writer-editor-adjunct, the tv personality, the college counselor, the art students, and the magnetic, possibly hyperthymic refugee) are believable enough even if they aren’t all that likeable. That isn’t a knock on Powers, as I find his books are more of an intellectual exercise in that I’m curious about the questions he poses but not in love with any of his people.
Powers doesn’t leave us with a neatly wrapped conclusion, but a running experiment. (“Information may travel at light speed. But meaning spreads at the speed of dark.”) I like stories that leave a tangle of “what if?” As for genetics, what if there is a happiness gene? With our science some day we will know more than we do now, though ethics and laws lag behind the possible until it is probable.
What if this spirit of generosity comes not so much from a place of happiness (which simplified, is what it looks like) but an unfathomably deep well of resilience? Who wouldn’t want that? People who believe there are prices we shouldn’t pay for the pursuit, for starters. And people who believe, as the title character nicknamed Generosity does, “We don’t need to get better. We’re already us.”