Plowing The Dark by Richard Powers

I was discussing spoilers yesterday with Anthony Easton. This was in the context of movie reviews, but it had been on my mind thinking about this novel that I had just finished. The main strand is of a bunch of hotshot computer people developing a pretty lame-sounding virtual reality system. The smaller strand starts with a guy taking up teaching in Lebanon (actually never named, but clear enough)(and have I mentioned that I am related to a former president of that country?); I don’t think I can avoid mentioning that he is kidnapped and held hostage, and that does happen very early. But it’s a lot of pages before there is much more than the vaguest thematic link between the two narratives – obviously there are parallels where the man has no resources, but reconstructs things from memory and imagination, while the other lot are creating their worlds with the best resources available. These links strengthen as it goes on, but late on he pulls them a bit closer together in more than thematic ways, in what struck me as a crappy contrivance to no great purpose. It’s more because of that that I don’t mention it, than out of fear of spoiling it.

I’ve only read one other Powers novel, Galatea 2.2, and this is nowhere near that one’s strength. Some of the VR was stuff not remotely suited to or needing such simulations, and Powers clearly has zero grasp of chaos theory, which completely fucks one subplot, and focussing on an artist brought in to give the techies something to simulate is all very well, but when she compares a lot of chrome to a “Duchamp original” you wonder where you are supposed to be. Neither tale really goes anywhere very interesting, despite the brief SF gimmick, and while all the characters are well drawn none of them greatly gripped me. I still think he’s a very good writer and will read more, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone to start with this one.