College of LAS « Illinois

Faculty Focus

Technology on the Mind

Writing the way with award-winning novelist Richard Powers.

Richard Powers

The first car that novelist Richard Powers has ever owned sits under a tarp and a layer of hardwood leaves outside his modest, wood-framed Urbana house. Powers, Swanlund Professor of English, professor at the Center for Advanced Studies, and author of eight critically acclaimed novels, pedals a bicycle back and forth to the U. of I. campus. Powers chooses his technology carefully. The Evanston, Ill., native and recipient of numerous national honors, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the 2006 National Book Award, employs a voice-activated tablet PC—which has no keyboard—to compose his richly-layered novels, but does not own a cell phone or answering machine.

These are not irreconcilable contradictions or the stubborn trappings of a modern–day Luddite. In his quiet university office, lit by a single lamp, where a cot hangs on the wall (He wrote his novel The Time of Our Singing lying down, dictating the text into the tablet.) and where copies of his works translated into 10 languages dominate the bookshelf, Powers says that an ethical awareness of technology's potential for good and evil only makes sense.

"The question is, ‘What relationship do we want to have with the machines that we make and build?' Will that usage always invite misusage? I think it will. We can't be in the world without some kind of moral ambiguity in our existence."

That moral ambiguity is at the core of Powers' books. He pens multi–layered fictions that often challenge his characters (and readers) to confront their humanity in the face of a rapidly changing world. Powers' editor at the publishing house of Farrar, Straus, Giroux, John Glusman, says, "Richard is perhaps the most prodigiously talented American novelist at work today. A brilliant mind, a restless intellect, an unwavering belief in the beauty of the human spirit."

Technology's influence on humanity is a theme that befits Powers' Boomer generation. At 49, he straddles what he says is "one of the epical moments in human history. Our childhood was effectively pre–digital and now we can't imagine living without it. Are we aware of what we've gained? Sometimes. Sometimes we just habituate to it or black box it. Are we aware of what we've lost? Again, on rare occasions we can think back to and almost remember the shape of our consciousness prior to the digital."

Pairing Sciences With Humanities

Drawn to science at a young age, Powers received an undergraduate degree from U. of I. in theoretical physics, but switched to humanities in graduate school after taking a class from the late LAS English professor Robert Schneider. Powers says of his mentor: "He had the kind of intellect that was powerful and connecting. He showed me what books and literature can do in the hands of somebody who is looking outward and paying attention.

"Interestingly, he encouraged me to stay in science for as long as possible since the direction of specialization is such that it's easier, later in life, to go from the scientific disciplines to the humanistic ones than the other way around."

Even though Powers went on to earn an AM in English, he retained a passion for science. After college, Powers moved to Boston, where he became a computer programmer and where he chanced upon August Sander's 1914 photograph of a trio of farm boys walking to a dance. In an interview with Joseph Dewey, Powers remembers the powerful effect of that single photo, "All of my previous year's random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to [be] the birth photograph of the 20th century."

This epiphany led to Powers' first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in which the author tried to fictionally interpret the idea of humanity straddling the end of a century and the beginning of the next. Published to rave reviews, suddenly the 26–year–old was a hot literary commodity, and Powers realized for the first time that he could make a living as a writer. He moved to southern Holland, Dewey writes, to escape the "distractions of his initial success in the United States"… and to "immerse himself in that region's fascinating play of multiple languages and dialects and to secure the distance necessary to finish the draft of his second novel Prisoner's Dilemma." Before returning stateside, Powers also wrote the manuscript that would become his third novel, The Gold Bug Variations.

Powers says, "The writer looks for some kind of balance between being in and being out of the world, coming and going. We need to find ways of removing ourselves from the thick of things and the turbulence of experience in order to reflect on it and to write about it."

Minding America

Echo Maker

Richard Powers, the author of eight previous novels, has won the 2006 National Book Award for fiction for his new novel, The Echo Maker. Read more in a Q/A with him.

In 1992, Powers returned to his native Midwest and became a writer–in–residence at the U. of I. The Midwest is a powerful influence in Powers' writing. "Living here makes it possible to know how the American mind works in a region whose role is as a kind of primary producer for the rest of the country. So that's always intrigued me: America stripped bare. America without disguises and pretensions. You can hear yourself think. And that's why I've returned to the Midwest to write about Seattle or Los Angeles or New York."

Unlike those arguably more trendy coastal regions, Powers believes the Heartland keeps his writing honest. "When all of those fashion–driven trends are stripped away, it's you and the land, and what you put down on the page has to be somehow as sound, or as fundamental, as this constant and to some extent unvarying landscape that you look out the window and see every day. I like that relative solitude, I like the relative quiet, and I like the relative honesty of being out here."

While here Powers has written five novels: Operation Wandering Soul, Galatea 2.2, Gain, Plowing the Dark, and The Time of Our Singing. Subjects include inter–racial marriage, Los Angeles at the millennium, virtual reality, and environmental degradation versus economic growth. His newest novel, The Echo Maker, explores memory and the brain. He is a four–time finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award and a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award. Other honors include the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction and Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Laudable reviews follow each book: "dizzying cerebral," "dazzling and audacious . . . nothing short of astounding," "Richard Powers is America's greatest living novelist," "challenging."

As "dazzling and audacious" as Powers' fictions are, each novel ultimately returns to the theme of adaptation to encroaching technology, set in a world that is ironically dependent on the same creative spirit that leads to the written word. Powers is fully aware of the irony.

"If I said I can give you a tool that will hugely increase your ability to retrieve and to convey complex ideas over space and time, and that would completely change your relationship to exchanging information with others at any distance both forward and backward in time, and if I said, you can have this but the consequences are going to be incredible political instability, the destruction of the self as you know and understand it, the robbing of your memory, not to mention all sorts of other costs, would it now make you think twice about whether or not you would want to embrace this?

"The technology, of course, is writing, and no other subsequent technology we've come up with has been as world–shattering and world–transforming as that."

By Stephen J. Lyons
Fall/Winter 2006–07