“Plowing the Dark” by Richard Powers

A riveting novel conjures up the bygone days of virtual reality and the promise of the unreal world that might have been.

Topics: Books,

Plowing the Dark
By Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 415 pages

Do you remember virtual reality? No, not just recent movies like href="/ent/movies/review/1999/04/23/existenz/index.html">“Existenz” and
href="/ent/movies/reviews/1999/04/02reviewa.html">“The Matrix” — I mean
do you
remember a decade back when virtual reality was the next big thing?

In the early ’90s, VR technology had produced only some fuzzy prototypes.
But the primitive
state of the art didn’t embarrass its promoters, who were heralding the
advent of full-fledged
computer-generated immersion environments to be generally available “around
the turn of the
century.” According to the hype, computer users would no longer peer into
the monitor like the
Little Match Girl. Virtual reality promised to dissolve the interface
between “user” and “world.”
When we booted up a VR system, developers promised, screen and desktop would
dissolve and
we’d seem to be there ourselves.

There was always some philosophical confusion, of course, about why being
there would
be any better than being here. But we never got there anyway, and we
don’t seem to miss
it. Huddled at our edge of the millennial divide, we’re happy, thanks to the
World Wide Web, to
stay home and order out.

So why, I wondered, would href="/books/int/1998/07/cov_si_23inta.html">Richard
Powers set “Plowing the Dark,” his seventh novel, in a VR lab during the
late ’80s and early
’90s? What interest could an overhyped and underachieving technology hold
for a novelist who’s
taken on challenges as various as cognitive science (in “Galatea 2.2″), the
DNA code (in “The Gold
Bug Variations”) and, most recently (in “Gain”), the history of the American
corporation? Why
squander a prodigious ability to wed metaphor to scientific language on
material you can read
about in a seven-year-old issue of Wired?

And do we really want to follow a fairly generic group of techies through
400 pages? I wasn’t
sure I did at the beginning, when Adie Klarpol, artist and emotional
burnout, considers joining a
team of VR designers in a Seattle start-up called the Realization Lab. Adie
gets to state all the
requisite antitech arguments, to register amazement at the moods and
meshugas of Realization’s
hobbit-like denizens and, in record time, to tumble for the seductions of
simulated space.

Luckily, we’re seduced as well, because that’s about it for the plot setup.
The Realization
programmers, engineers, mathematicians and designers are mostly
interchangeable walking
woundeds and socially stunteds, but what we watch them make is achingly
beautiful. Their first
prototype, a 3-D simulation of the jungle in Henri Rousseau’s painting “The
Dream,” is a riot of
joyous creation both in its rendered images and (at simulation’s second
remove) in the words that
render the images:

Through the Jungle Room, birds wing at liberty. Define a feather
when condemned
to the wind. Say how the shaft tapers, straining to be weightless. Describe
what the vanes do on
the air, how they luff and ruffle and flute 

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. “Maybe the spreading world machine was catalyzing this mass
revolution,” Spider,
the team’s hardware guy, muses. “Maybe silicon seeds had planted in the
human populace an
image of its own potential.” The vision, briefly shared by cultural-studies
radicals and hippie
technomystics, went something like this: If you could only see the
world — if by building
a complex enough simulation you could apprehend it both in its wholeness and
in its working
parts — then maybe you could fix it. Maybe computers could help us to find,
to create (in Powers’
words) “places where we can change all the rules, one at a time, to see what

Or maybe not. Maybe, as
Ellen Ullman
observes in the May issue of Harpers, what’s happened
instead is a radical
narrowing of vision and aspiration. Does anybody think nowadays that, with
the help of
technology, we can change all the rules? Does anybody think of much
at all beyond the
solipsistic and infantile “my computer, my Yahoo, my my

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 Dark” is 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.

But past and present are only one of the sets of oppositions upon which this
novel is built. Powers
lays down multiple coordinates, spins webs of interlocking narrative:
real/simulated, macrocosm/microcosm. World-building isn’t only a political
matter; it’s also a
matter of how we find our bearings and balance within intimate social space.
Like speaking
prose, we do it every day.

And so an entirely unrelated narrative weaves its way through the VR story.
While the
programmers build Rousseau’s jungle, Tai Martin, an American hostage in
Lebanon, savors a
hard-won concession from his captors — a daily half-hour of freedom to move
around his room as
he pleases:

You pace about, astonished. From the once-mythical far side of
this cube, you look
back across the ocean of air. Seeing your corner like this, from a
distance — your mattress,
radiator, chain; the grubby country that swallowed you entire — it looks
bounded, known,

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.
His struggle — to find
world-making tools in a cruelly deprived environment — is the thought
experiment at the book’s
core, the dark background against which the flashy VR technology is

“We’re all scientists  every person running this little experiment in being
alive,” one character
observes. The problem to be solved is an inhospitable world not of our own
making. The
experiment — to remake it so as to make ourselves at home in it — is
consciousness, the ability to
see “the miraculous density of day’s data structure” in “a place wide enough
to house human

Although sometimes heart rending, particularly in the Beirut sections,
“Plowing the Dark” is by
and large a work of great charm animated by the simple joy of making things.
“You type some
words,” says Stevie, a poet turned systems engineer, “the inner name of the
thing. You describe
how you want it. You build a topical outline of its behavior. Then you run
the description, and
there the idea is. Actual, working ”

I don’t suppose any real VR lab ever tried to grow Rousseau’s vegetation, or
to rebuild Van
Gogh’s room in Arles and open the window’s heavy shutters. But what a lovely
thought, and
what lovely language Powers bends around the imagined programming tasks:

Collision had already cost the team a tidy sum of man-months. It
wasn’t enough for
a garden-variety mushroom sprouting in the Cavern simply to look like one.
Even a toadstool
needed heft and weight and resistance. A simulated object had to bend or
droop or bruise or any
of several dozen other verbs that real things did when bumped up against 
Various variables
toted up mass and speed and English, calculating the thresholds between
bounce and break,
between shatter and slide and spin.

Think of the old Windows screen saver that sets two delicate polygons
rotating in space as their
angles narrow and widen and their colors traverse the spectrum. And then
imagine a blooming,
buzzing world in three dimensions, every object enabled to act to the extent
of its attributes — its
mass, its speed, its  English. Powers’ fertile, restless English is
endlessly plastic, infinitely ready
to reshape itself around whatever world he’s exploring at the moment. Wildly
fecund in “The
Gold Bug Variations,” nearly desperate in “Operation Wandering Soul,” his
language here is as
hard and bright as the syntax of Java or C++.

A smaller-scale work than, say, “Gain,” “Plowing the Dark” remains rooted in
its historical
moment and insistent on human perception as the measure of things. Although
imbued with the
horrors of war and the unholy technologies of unmaking the world, it feels
almost optimistic in its
resolution, refreshing in its evocation of a time less cyberselfish than our
own. 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.

Pam Rosenthal has previously written for Salon under the pseudonym Molly Weatherfield. A portion of her (pseudonymous) novel "Safe Word" appears in "The Best American Erotica 2000" (Touchstone).

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