Richard Powers

In Richard Powers' novel The Goldbug Variations, fractals are found in both the structure of DNA and in the music of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Powers' intricate prose places complexities of thought and emotion against the backdrop of unraveling the structure of DNA, with Bach's music providing inspiration, if not insight.

In Galatea 2.2, Powers recounts a fascinating collaboration between a computer scientist and a writer. The computer scientist is building a powerful neural net to pass a Turing test; he and the writer will train the net to pass a Master's qualifying exam in English Literature. Along the way, Powers gives a good description of neural nets mechanics, including backpropagation. But this is just the surface level of this rich novel. What else is being built here? Is the net being trained as a replacement person, fitting ever more closely a gap in the life of one (or both?) of its designers?

In part, Plowing the Dark is about a collaboration of computer scientists and an artist to design a virtual reality environment. Here is an early part of the description.

"There's another way we can make you a leaf. The oldest process going, even though we're still pretty new to it. We can build the leaf's description the way a real leaf gets built. We can grow it."

"Over the course of more makeshift sessions, he showed them how. He drew up genetic algorithms: fractal, recursive code that crept forward from out of its own embryo."

Powers' fiction is better-grounded in contemporary science than any other writer we know. Without any special fanfare, fractal geometry is a familiar theme in his work. It is an important part of science that he assumes is part of the general knowledge of educated readers. Also, the prose hums along, punctuated with moments of considerable grace.