Richard Powers,
Plowing the Dark
(Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000)

Plowing the Dark is a work of fiction, peopled with fictitious characters and events. It also takes the form of a philosophical dialogue held between one of these fictional characters and a group of others who are cooperatively engaged on a single great project. But the clever thing is (and this is a very clever novel) -- the two participants in this dialogue never meet, their stories unfolding independently in such a manner that the only place left where conversation can possibly occur is in the mind of the reader.

The single individual whose point of view sustains half of the novel is an American of Iranian extraction, Taimur Martin, who, fleeing a tempestuous and bruising love affair, takes a teaching job in Beirut. The time is the late 1980s and Islamic fundamentalists kidnap and hold him as a "western" hostage. Meanwhile, in Seattle, a group of researchers is recruited by a corporation and given an ill-defined task: to develop further the concepts and application of virtual reality.

Readers of science fiction will immediately be aware of what this group is attempting. The SF sub-genre of cyberpunk deals with "cyberspace," a virtual space where computerized information takes on visible three-dimensional form (the paradigmatic novel is William Gibson's Neuromancer). The emphasis on the visible explains the presence of an artist, Adie Klarpol, in the ranks of the assembled technologists and computer geeks. Plowing the Dark is not genre SF (no direct brain-machine interface is contemplated); nevertheless a major theme is the quantum leap in human cognition which may result from the ability to manipulate objects, and the data streams they represent, within a visually projected three-dimensional synthetic space.

Members of the project research team believe that this new form of mastery over the material universe will bring changes to humankind greater than those wrought by the invention of writing or the printing press, or greater even than both of these combined.

Where does the convergence (and therefore the story) between these disparate experiences and outlook lie? Taimur is kept in a darkened room, one leg manacled to a radiator pipe. He suffers terrible beatings and equally terrible psychological torture. For years the single, small filthy room is the only world he is to know. A prisoner, physically and mentally isolated, he must rely solely on his resources of memory and imagination to conjure up a new reality in order that he might keep himself sane. The Seattle group decide to build a room, a virtual construct perfect in every detail to the extent that when a person enters (wearing special wrap-around spectacles), the division between reality and artifice should be difficult to discern. The artist Adie, new to the digital medium, struggles to realize the room visually, to conjure it out of the bits, bytes and do-loops provided for her by the technologists.

And so the dialogue ensues. Sometimes one is unsure whose thought processes are being described, Taimur's or Adie's, as each is forced to consider at a most fundamental level such things as human perception and its boundaries, the barriers of perception that separate each person from another no matter how close the bond, the representation of reality in pictorial art, and the possibility of ever attaining or representing the "true" meaning of anything.

The two worlds, of the prisoner and the artist, could not be further apart, one relying for information on furtive taps on a wall, or glimpses from beneath a blindfold, the other hooked into 24-hour news feeds. Over the five years in which the story is set the Berlin Wall (a physical and mental construct) falls, and with it the Soviet Empire. Such world events intrude into the dialogue, and indeed it is one such event that brings the story to its climax.

Plowing the Dark is an ambitious and in places daring novel, none more so than when, near its conclusion, at some place outside of ordinary space and time, the joining of the two worlds is attempted -- that of the prisoner's hell (his construct now failed and reality biting hard) and the artist's now badly compromised attempt at the construction of something new and beautiful under the sun. Whether the author succeeds in all he attempts is for each reader to decide, but what is certain is that this novel deals intelligently with cutting edge science and the people who do it, and also with the impact that such science can have, both individually and collectively, on a long-suffering humanity.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 21 July 2001

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