Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Against the black box

I went to a fascinating talk by Richard Powers at Stanford today. I will have more to say about this shortly, as the talk--quite fortuitously!--tied into a post I've been wrestling with about The Brothers Karamazov. (Yes, this week's post is overdue, and I know you're burning up with questions--is Alyosha still boring? Who will have an aneurysm first--Dmitri or Fyodor, or, coming up fast on the inside lane, Katerina Ivanovna? And is there a God, or what?)

Anyway, here's just a tidbit from Powers. He's now written two novels focusing on the human genome, The Gold Bug Variations and, most recently, Generosity. (He's also had his own genome mapped, courtesy of GQ Magazine, which is an experience I'll be quite happy not to have--in case anyone's asking.) Anyway, he feels genomics is critical for novelists not only to understand, but to write about. Genomics, he said, is "filled with questions of narrative." In an era when we can begin to manipulate our genetic code, we are no longer talking about playing the hand of cards we have been dealt--by the gods or God (or "the stars"), or by nature. Rather, we can get a whole new hand. It may soon become impossible to consider ourselves as "scripted actors" in any sense. Instead, we can be "co-authors of our own script" in a more profound way than ever before. We, as humans, can be rewritten.

And because novelists understand both writing and character, it's our job to investigate who is doing the rewriting, and how. That's why we need to understand genomics and related technologies, and present them in our work. We should not, Powers said, "black box" the technology. Rather, we need to try to understand what now functions as "the gods"--the forces that make us who we are, which we may soon be able to take hold of and change forever.

There was some resistance in the audience to this notion. Several people brought up the problem of the "lump of research." A novel is bopping along nicely, then suddenly comes to a screeching halt as the author displays, for many pages, his knowledge of some highly technical subject or process. The knowledge was obviously acquired at some cost, and there is a sense that whether it really serves the story or not, the author is going to shove it in there because he doesn't want that effort to go to waste. Powers's novels have been criticized for this, as has Ian McEwan's brain surgery scene in Saturday. (You could also easily point to Moby Dick as an example--though because it's old, perhaps the "lump" seems quaint or exotic instead of merely annoying.) Tobias Wolff brought up the end of Hitchcock's Psycho, wherein we get the complete Freudian explanation for Norman Bates's deeds.

Powers's response was that there's a humanistic aversion to certain types of "research" showing up in fiction. We don't object to some kinds of processes being portrayed in detail, but hard scientific stuff seems to raise hackles. He did make the point, though, that the research has to be shown in terms of a character's passion for the subject. If it's not a character's interest that motivates the inclusion, then the author has written an "essay," not a novel.

Also he pointed out that doing this kind of research is especially hard for humanists. We have a lot more to learn about science than many scientists have to learn about narrative--which is much easier to come across and digest than, say, articles in scientific journals. I'd say proof of this idea can be found in the many perfectly good science fiction novels by practicing scientists. These aren't Shakespeare, nor do they pretend to be; but they do just fine in the storytelling department, and some do much better than fine. Meanwhile humanists still turn up their noses at the hard work of understanding the technologies that are shaping humanity.

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