Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Powers, Richard

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1957-    ) US author of novels whose novels subject the contemporary world to scathing but abstract scrutiny; he is rarely misdescribed as a mimetic realist, though just as rarely is he called an sf writer. His first novel, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance (1985), focuses a meditation on the apocalyptic nature of World War One through its protagonist's obsession with the famous photograph (the book is titled after it) by August Sander (1876-1964); his second, Prisoner's Dilemma (1988), focuses its protagonist's obsessive conviction that the explanation of his profound disaffection with post-World War Two America lies at Alamogordo, where he imagines – or enters an Alternate World where this did happen – that Walt Disney (1901-1966) made a transformative film, seemingly based on the then-unmade It's a Wonderful Life (1946) directed by Frank Capra (1897-1991), in which the making of the A-bomb and the making of a better world are deeply linked. But the digressive ministrations of Disney fail either to cure the protagonist's world, or his justified sense of vastation.

The Gold Bug Variations (1991) – a slightly over-clever conflation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold-Bug" (1842 Dollar Newspaper) and The Goldberg Variations (1741) of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – interfuses advances in Biology and Computer science in a tale involving the decipherment and "playing" of DNA; Orfeo (2014), though not a sequel, closely replicates the central concept of the earlier book, in this case depicting the life of a composer who attempts to genetically modify bacterial DNA (see Genetic Engineering) so that it embodies (and can generate) a line of music magically free of time. Operation Wandering Soul (1993), a tale whose auguries focus on the Millennium to come, is set in a Dystopian Near Future Los Angeles (see California), where a doctor who must deal with dying children slips into solipsistic despair. Galatea 2.2 (1995) – a dark sf Bildungsroman whose title links Pygmalion's creation both to the Frankenstein Monster and a complexly pre-conscious AI – perhaps slightly doggedly describes the successive iterations of a "mind" embedded in a distributed network as it evolves towards personhood. The AI's use of Music to sing herself into consciousness seems to succeed, but in the end she recognizes that her song of being is a fungible mapping of something ultimately unmappable; and she terminates herself.

Plowing the Dark (2000) describes the evolution of an interactive game/entertainment into something approaching Virtual Reality. The Echo Maker (2006) treats post-9/11 traumas of Identity through the experiences of a victim of the "Capgras Delusion", a neurological disorder which generates an uncanny-valley effect, so that he can perceive his intimates, and ultimately the world itself, only as impostors. Generosity: An Enhancement (2009) similarly exploits a neurological condition: the protagonist of the tale, who "suffers" from hyperthymia, a genetic condition that makes her happy; and a firm specializing in genetics attempts to map and sell her coding as a commodity. Genie (2012 ebook), one of Powers's infrequent short stories of speculative interest, concisely explores the possibility that something like Creative Evolution, perhaps at the agency of an Alien civilization, is encoded in the human genome.

The Overstory (2018), which won a Pulitzer Prize, circles around the Ecological crises endangering the forests of the world, perhaps to the point of extinction, through a nest of stories as complex as the banyan that an American airman falls into during the Vietnam War, all of them climaxing in an attempt to save the last vestiges of virgin forest left in America. The tales include an instance of Reincarnation, another assault on entrepreneurial Genetic Engineering as a technique calculated to transform the world into fungibles, messages from grouped populations of trees whose Communication skills evoke the "dark diversity" of the speaking web of Gaia, and other elements whose multifarious confrontings of the world are a practical lesson in the uses of Fantastika to frame dominoes of deadly consequence. Bewilderment (2021) is set in the Near Future against the background of Earth's worsening environment (see Climate Change; Pandemic) and features experimental neurofeedback treatment for a child diagnosed with Asperger's and related syndromes, who may have a special affinity with Gaia.

The philosophical use of sf tropes throughout Powers's work, and their sublimation in extremely complex character-driven plots, marks him as a Mainstream Writer of SF; but the depth of his knowledge of the sciences, and the intensity of his application of that knowledge, demonstrate a far more intimate engagement with contemporary issue than can be found in most authors so described, and The Overstory transcends the generic limitations of mainstream writing. [JC]

Richard Powers

born Evanston, Illinois: 18 June 1957


collections and stories

  • Genie (no place given: Byliner, 2012) [story: ebook: na/]


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies