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Plowing the Dark: A Novel Hardcover – June 2, 2000

3.7 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

No one who enjoyed Richard Powers's remarkable breakthrough novel, Galatea 2.2, will be surprised that he has returned to the richly promising realm of cyber-invention, one of our age's few remaining frontiers and a siren call to restless intellects. In Plowing the Dark, an old friend recruits a disillusioned New York artist named Adie Klarpol to work on "the Cavern." TeraSys, a Seattle-based company, is building this virtual environment at great expense in the hope that it will lower its enormous tax liability as well as, in the long run, provide the template for all such virtual playrooms. "Millions of dollars of funding," Adie's friend Steve tells her when she arrives on the job, "and nobody around this dump can draw worth squat." Suitably impressed by the Cavern's programming, and slowly absorbing its dazzling capacity to project vivid and convincing illusions, she sets herself the task of creating a faithful 3-D version of Rousseau's Dream. Her painstaking efforts in the Realization Lab are aided by a host of supporting characters, one of whom, Spider Lim, proves so sensitive that he gets a bruise from bumping into one of Adie's virtual tree branches. And when the central female figure appears among the foliage, Lim is irresistibly drawn in, marveling that
their first successful leaf, twirling in the Cavern darkness, had led to this--this pale, lentil body turning in his mind's dark. This scapular profile, these tow-line braids. Her hips fell somewhere on the Limaçon of Pascal. The squares of her breasts' abscissas and ordinates summed to an integer. This was the math of women, a field he'd given up studying, female equations whose complexities had long ago surpassed his ability to differentiate.
Powers's lush language corresponds to Adie's vision of Rousseau's jungle, and in turn to Rousseau's own ecstatic vision. Yet there is also something elegiac in the author's lavish descriptions of the Cavern's miracles, as if he were offering a late, last flowering of words before the cultural ascendancy of the image. Great, quotable chunks weight every page. Even readers fond of extravagant prose may find Powers's verbal persistence wearying, though it argues that there are still contradictions and subtleties of mind that no image can track. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

A groundbreaking literary novelist and MacArthur "genius" grant winner, Powers (Galatea 2.2; Gain; The Gold Bug Variations) takes on virtual reality, global migration, prolonged heartbreak, the end of the Cold War and the nature and purpose of art in his ambitious and dazzling seventh book. Like most of Powers's previous works, this novel weaves together two sets of characters. One comprises artists and programmers at the Cavern, a pioneering virtual-reality project sponsored by a Microsoftesque company. As college students in the early 1970s, painter Adie Klarpol, writer Steve Spiegel and composer Ted Zimmerman shared a house, an art scene, a complex erotic entanglement and a sense of limitless potential. When the novel opens, it's the mid-'80s, and Steve is a programmer: he convinces Adie to flee New York City and commercial art for Washington State and the Cavern. We follow Adie as she learns about new media and about her new, multiethnic colleagues, each with his or her own emotional problems. As Adie and Steve rediscover high art and each other, both must return to the charismatic Ted and his painful fate. Powers's other plot concerns Taimur Martin, an American teacher taken hostage in Beirut. Taimur spends most of the novel in captivity, thrown back on memory and imagination: his harrowing second-person narration transforms outward monotony into inward drama, building up to some of Powers's best writing to date. Powers's fans love his gorgeous, allusive (if sometimes florid) prose, and his digressions into the sciences; both features, largely missing from Gain, re-emerge here to spectacular effect. Taimur's life and Adie's link up only thematically--they never meet; instead, Powers's dramatic prose and his intellectual reach makes their symbolic connection more than enough to propel the novel toward its moving close. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 415 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (June 2, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374234612
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374234614
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,652,479 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J Scott Morrison HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"This room is never anything o'clock." That's the first line of this marvelous tale about two rooms a world apart--a virtual reality lab in Seattle and the room in Beirut where a man is held in solitary confinement by fundamentalist terrorists. What ties those two rooms together is the power of imagination both to destroy and to save. Powers manages to create a forward-rushing tale using such poetic language that one has to force oneself to slow down and savor his slightly quirky but always evocative prose. Two passages picked literally at random (I closed my eyes and pointed my finger) from page 11: "They drove out to his lair in the silence of small talk." "She did well around black. She understood it: one of the big two, not a true color, yet fraternizing with the deepest maroons, hoping to smuggle itself back over hue's closely guarded border."
Powers is one of that group of young American writers who are so imaginative, so stylish, so knowing that their prose snaps like a flag in a gale. Yet he's not a smart aleck like some of the others. You care about his characters. You care "how it turns out."
His previous novel, "Gain", seemed a bit flaccid to me. In "Plowing the Dark" he's back in top form.
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Format: Hardcover
An extraordinary novel full of the clash of light and dark. Two people in two separate and very different rooms: one is a solitary hostage in Lebanon, who fills his room with memories and the wanderings of his mind: the other is in Seattle designing a virtual reality room, filled with colour, making 'real' the creations of her imagination. Though their experiences couldn't be more different they share a great deal, not least their discovery of the way war and the needs of the militant can intrude on so-called ordinary life. I found myself thinking about this book long after I put it down - wonderful stuff.
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By A Customer on June 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book just swept me away. Richard Powers is one of my favorite writers of all time and Plowing the Dark shows Powers in prime form. Like his other novels, this one is both intellectually stimulating and emotionally rich. And yet -- how does he do it? -- this book is an absolute orginal! It provides all the expected pleasures of a Powers novel, yet it reminds me of nothing I've ever read before (by Powers or any other writer). Plowing is an absorbing story told in gorgeous prose. A must read!
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Format: Hardcover
A friend gave me this book to read because I once worked in Beirut. I had never read any of Richard Powers's work before, and didn't know what to expect. I ended up reading the book in almost one full sitting and have not been able to stop thinking about it since. Powers is amazing. I've never read anything that so successfully combines lyricism with significicant intellectual content. I loved this book!
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Format: Hardcover
Richard Powers is well named; for this is a powerful book. Every page just slams your head with a combination of punches that just does not stop. While incredibly impressive, at times you wish the bell would ring and you could go back to your corner to catch your breath.
I've lived in the world described in the book, doing research in computer graphics for the last 22 years; and in weaving his tapestry he does not drop many stitches. Every detail of the hardware, and almost everybody I know in the field can be found here. Still, the arcaneness of some of his references (Cornell boxes, please!) go over the line that separates authenticity from pedantry.
In the end, this is a very good book. By packing so much into each page Powers can explore a huge number of subjects. Some characters are two dimensional, perhaps; but between them they span the limits of human experiential space. The book soars breathtakingly then in crashes despairingly in a few pages; it's a remarkable ride.
This book reminded me at times of Asimov's Foundation; and at other times of Stephenson at his best. It's a book that I wish I had read more slowly -- Powers demands that the reader work hard to digest fully all the courses in this feast...and I'm sorry I pushed through to the end so quickly. This is a book for savoring. Maybe next time.
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Format: Hardcover
The novel is set in the late 1980's and early 90's, and has as its backdrop the astonishing worldwide events of those years--the Berlin Wall, Tianneman Square, etc. The main plot concerns a group of people working on a virtual reality project, and the team consists of everyone from stereotypical anti-social geeks to a crochety mathmetician, from a wannabe poet turned programmer to a former painter turned logo designer turned graphical designer. Though it doesn't sound like much of a plot, their struggles with what they are creating, set against the political background and motivated by their personal interactions is very compelling. The descriptions of what they are trying to create are breathtaking--Powers' writing is more beautiful in these sections than I can imagine "real" VR will be for decades.
There is a parallel plot that has as little "action," but is more harrowing--it is the story of a man taken hostage by middle-eastern extremists. What he goes through is still resonating in my mind. I won't tell you how these plots work together, but to my mind, Powers succeeds in bringing them together.
Having praised this book so much--and it is one of the best new novels I've read in a long time--I should say that it probably isn't for everyone. While it isn't extremely "post-modern" (there are no characters named "Richard Powers;" no extended discussion about textuality; the only idiosyncracy of printing is the placing of quotations in italics), it certainly is in a post-modern mode. The book isn't terribly depressing, but it is gut-wrenching at times, so I wouldn't read it if you are looking for a pick-me-up. That said, though, I highly recommend it.
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