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Richard Powers

Richard Powers

Overview
Richard Powers is an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 novel
Novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

ist whose works explore the effects of modern science and technology.

Powers was born in Evanston
Evanston, Illinois
Evanston is a suburban municipality in Cook County, Illinois 12 miles north of downtown Chicago, bordering Chicago to the south, Skokie to the west, and Wilmette to the north, with an estimated population of 74,360 as of 2003. It is one of the North Shore communities that adjoin Lake Michigan...

, Illinois
Illinois
Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

, and his family later moved a few miles south to Lincolnwood
Lincolnwood, Illinois
Lincolnwood is a village in Cook County, Illinois, United States. The population was 12,359 at the 2000 census.-Geography:Lincolnwood is located at ....

, where his father was the principal at a local school. When Powers was 11, his family moved again, this time to Bangkok
Bangkok
Bangkok is the capital and largest urban area city in Thailand. It is known in Thai as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon or simply Krung Thep , meaning "city of angels." The full name of Bangkok is Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom...

, Thailand
Thailand
Thailand , officially the Kingdom of Thailand , formerly known as Siam , is a country located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is bordered to the north by Burma and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the...

, where his father had accepted a position at International School Bangkok
International School Bangkok
The International School of Bangkok is in the western-style community of Nichada Thani, in Nonthaburi Province.- ISB history :ISB opened in 1951. Its initial enrollment was 50 children of United Nations and U.S. diplomats. First located on Rajadamri Road, ISB expanded to provide both primary and...

. Powers attended the school through his freshman year, ending in 1972.
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Encyclopedia
Richard Powers is an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 novel
Novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

ist whose works explore the effects of modern science and technology.

Life and work


Powers was born in Evanston
Evanston, Illinois
Evanston is a suburban municipality in Cook County, Illinois 12 miles north of downtown Chicago, bordering Chicago to the south, Skokie to the west, and Wilmette to the north, with an estimated population of 74,360 as of 2003. It is one of the North Shore communities that adjoin Lake Michigan...

, Illinois
Illinois
Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

, and his family later moved a few miles south to Lincolnwood
Lincolnwood, Illinois
Lincolnwood is a village in Cook County, Illinois, United States. The population was 12,359 at the 2000 census.-Geography:Lincolnwood is located at ....

, where his father was the principal at a local school. When Powers was 11, his family moved again, this time to Bangkok
Bangkok
Bangkok is the capital and largest urban area city in Thailand. It is known in Thai as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon or simply Krung Thep , meaning "city of angels." The full name of Bangkok is Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom...

, Thailand
Thailand
Thailand , officially the Kingdom of Thailand , formerly known as Siam , is a country located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is bordered to the north by Burma and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the...

, where his father had accepted a position at International School Bangkok
International School Bangkok
The International School of Bangkok is in the western-style community of Nichada Thani, in Nonthaburi Province.- ISB history :ISB opened in 1951. Its initial enrollment was 50 children of United Nations and U.S. diplomats. First located on Rajadamri Road, ISB expanded to provide both primary and...

. Powers attended the school through his freshman year, ending in 1972. In his time outside the United States, Powers developed a love of music, developing notable skill in vocal music as well as proficiency in cello, guitar, saxophone, and clarinet. He also became an avid reader, enjoying classics such as The Iliad
Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

and The Odyssey
Odyssey
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature...

, but primarily works of non-fiction.

At age 16 Powers moved back to the U.S. and, following graduation in 1975 from DeKalb High School in DeKalb, Illinois
DeKalb, Illinois
DeKalb is a city in DeKalb County, Illinois, United States. The population was 43,862 at the 2010 census, up from 39,018 at the 2000 census. The city is named after decorated German war hero Johann De Kalb, who died during the American Revolutionary War....

, enrolled as a physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

 major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is a large public research-intensive university in the state of Illinois, United States. It is the flagship campus of the University of Illinois system...

. During his first semester, he switched his major to English literature
English literature
English literature is the literature written in the English language, including literature composed in English by writers not necessarily from England; for example, Robert Burns was Scottish, James Joyce was Irish, Joseph Conrad was Polish, Dylan Thomas was Welsh, Edgar Allan Poe was American, J....

. In 1978 he received his undergraduate degree. He continued his education at Illinois, and in 1980 received his MA
Master of Arts (postgraduate)
A Master of Arts from the Latin Magister Artium, is a type of Master's degree awarded by universities in many countries. The M.A. is usually contrasted with the M.S. or M.Sc. degrees...

 in literature. He decided not to pursue a PhD
Doctor of Philosophy
Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated as Ph.D., PhD, D.Phil., or DPhil , in English-speaking countries, is a postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities...

 in the field because of his aversion to strict specialization, which was also one of the reasons for his earlier transfer from physics to English; and the apparent absence of pleasure in the reading and writing done by graduate students and their professors (as portrayed in his novel Galatea 2.2).

After receiving his master's degree, Powers worked in Boston, Massachusetts, as a computer programmer
Programmer
A programmer, computer programmer or coder is someone who writes computer software. The term computer programmer can refer to a specialist in one area of computer programming or to a generalist who writes code for many kinds of software. One who practices or professes a formal approach to...

. Seeing the 1914 photograph "Young Farmers" by August Sander
August Sander
August Sander was a German portrait and documentary photographer. Sander's first book Face of our Time was published in 1929...

, at the Museum of Fine Arts
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, is one of the largest museums in the United States, attracting over one million visitors a year. It contains over 450,000 works of art, making it one of the most comprehensive collections in the Americas...

, inspired him to quit his job and spend the next two years writing his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance
Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance
Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance is Richard Powers' first novel written over two years and published in 1985 to critical acclaim.-Plot summary:...

, which was published in 1985. The novel contains three alternating threads. The first is a fictional story about the three young men in the picture during World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. The second is about Peter Mays, an editor for a technology magazine, who is obsessed with the photograph. The third is the author's own critical and historical musings, mostly concerned with the mechanics of photography and the life of Henry Ford.

Powers moved to the Netherlands
Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

, where he wrote Prisoner's Dilemma
Prisoner's Dilemma (novel)
Prisoner's Dilemma is a 1988 novel by American author Richard Powers. It is the story of a dysfunctional family living in DeKalb County, Illinois. The novel explores the impact of history on contemporary life....

, a work that juxtaposes Disney
The Walt Disney Company
The Walt Disney Company is the largest media conglomerate in the world in terms of revenue. Founded on October 16, 1923, by Walt and Roy Disney as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, Walt Disney Productions established itself as a leader in the American animation industry before diversifying into...

 and nuclear warfare. He followed this with what became his best-known work to date, The Gold Bug Variations
The Gold Bug Variations
The Gold Bug Variations is a novel by American writer Richard Powers, first released in 1991.-Plot introduction:The novel intertwines the discovery of the chemical structure of DNA with the musicality of Johann Sebastian Bach's harpsichord composition, the Goldberg Variations...

, a story that ties together genetics, music, and computer science. Powers has said that he moved to the Netherlands to avoid the publicity and attention generated by his first novel.

Operation Wandering Soul, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1993, is about a young doctor dealing with the ugly realities of a pediatrics
Pediatrics
Pediatrics or paediatrics is the branch of medicine that deals with the medical care of infants, children, and adolescents. A medical practitioner who specializes in this area is known as a pediatrician or paediatrician...

 ward. It was mostly written during a year's stay at the University of Cambridge
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...

, and completed when Powers returned to the University of Illinois in 1992 to take up a post as writer-in-residence.

Galatea 2.2
Galatea 2.2
Galatea 2.2 is a novel by Richard Powers. The novel is pseudo-autobiographical: the narrator is named Richard Powers and there is discussion of the four novels he wrote before Galatea 2.2 along with other references to his real biography. Richard Powers creates a version of himself for the novel...

(1995) is a Pygmalion
Pygmalion (mythology)
Pygmalion is a legendary figure of Cyprus. Though Pygmalion is the Greek version of the Phoenician royal name Pumayyaton, he is most familiar from Ovid's Metamorphoses, X, in which Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved.-In Ovid:In Ovid's narrative, Pygmalion was a...

 story, about an artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence is the intelligence of machines and the branch of computer science that aims to create it. AI textbooks define the field as "the study and design of intelligent agents" where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its...

 experiment gone awry.

Gain
Gain (novel)
Gain is a novel by Richard Powers published by in 1998. It intertwines two stories: the first is the history of Clare International, a chemical conglomerate with origins in soap manufacturing in the early 18th century; the second is of Laura Bodey, a 42-year-old divorcée living near Clare...

(1998) is a look at the history of a 150-year-old chemical company, interwoven with the story of a woman living near one of its plants and succumbing to ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer is a cancerous growth arising from the ovary. Symptoms are frequently very subtle early on and may include: bloating, pelvic pain, difficulty eating and frequent urination, and are easily confused with other illnesses....

. It won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction
James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction
The James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction is a biannual award given by The Society of American Historians. The prize is given "to honor works of literary fiction that significantly advance the historical imagination" . The prize is named for nineteenth century American...

 in 1999.

Plowing the Dark
Plowing the Dark
Plowing the Dark is a novel by American writer Richard Powers. It follows two narrative threads; one of an American teacher turned Lebanese prisoner of war, the other the construction of a high-tech virtual reality simulator.-Plot:...

(2000) is another novel with parallel narratives, this time of a Seattle
Seattle, Washington
Seattle is the county seat of King County, Washington. With 608,660 residents as of the 2010 Census, Seattle is the largest city in the Northwestern United States. The Seattle metropolitan area of about 3.4 million inhabitants is the 15th largest metropolitan area in the country...

 research team building a groundbreaking virtual reality
Virtual reality
Virtual reality , also known as virtuality, is a term that applies to computer-simulated environments that can simulate physical presence in places in the real world, as well as in imaginary worlds...

, while at the same time an American teacher is held hostage in Beirut
Beirut
Beirut is the capital and largest city of Lebanon, with a population ranging from 1 million to more than 2 million . Located on a peninsula at the midpoint of Lebanon's Mediterranean coastline, it serves as the country's largest and main seaport, and also forms the Beirut Metropolitan...

.

The Time of Our Singing
The Time of Our Singing
The Time of Our Singing is a novel by American writer Richard Powers. It tells the story of two brothers involved in music, dealing heavily with issues of prejudice....

(2003) is a story about the musician children of an interracial couple who met at Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson was an African-American contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century...

's legendary concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial is an American memorial built to honor the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. It is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The architect was Henry Bacon, the sculptor of the main statue was Daniel Chester French, and the painter of the interior...

 in 1939. Powers displays his knowledge of music and physics in this exploration of race relations and the burdens of talent.

Powers's ninth novel, The Echo Maker
The Echo Maker
The Echo Maker is a 2006 novel by American writer Richard Powers which won the National Book Award for fiction. It was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.-Plot introduction:...

(2006), won a National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has been awarded for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. It originated as the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, which was awarded between 1918 and 1947.-1910s:...

. The novel tells the story of a young man whose brain is injured in a truck accident. Although he largely recovers, he has cognitive impairments, including capgras syndrome, the suspicion that his sister has been replaced by an impostor. Another important character is a consulting neurologist, modeled to some degree on Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks
Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE , is a British neurologist and psychologist residing in New York City. He is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, where he also holds the position of Columbia Artist...

 and perhaps Gerald Edelman
Gerald Edelman
Gerald Maurice Edelman is an American biologist who shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work with Rodney Robert Porter on the immune system. Edelman's Nobel Prize-winning research concerned discovery of the structure of antibody molecules...

. The novel explores the themes of cognitive construction of reality, and the relationships between memory and emotional bonds between people, and some of the tensions between the beneficial and exploitative aspects of a famous doctor's work. The events occur along the Platte River
Platte River
The Platte River is a major river in the state of Nebraska and is about long. Measured to its farthest source via its tributary the North Platte River, it flows for over . The Platte River is a tributary of the Missouri River, which in turn is a tributary of the Mississippi River which flows to...

 in Nebraska
Nebraska
Nebraska is a state on the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States. The state's capital is Lincoln and its largest city is Omaha, on the Missouri River....

, near the shrinking migratory refuge of the sandhill crane
Sandhill Crane
The Sandhill Crane is a large crane of North America and extreme northeastern Siberia. The common name of this bird references habitat like that at the Platte River, on the edge of Nebraska's Sandhills in the American Midwest...

s. Social frictions in the story arise out of water and land use disputes.

Powers's latest novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, was published on September 29, 2009. It features a writing instructor named Russell Stone, who encounters one of his students, Thassa, an Algerian woman who is constantly happy. Meanwhile, journalists and scientists hope to exploit Thassa's joyfulness for financial gain.

Powers was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1989. He received a Lannan Literary Award in 1999. He currently teaches a graduate course in multimedia authoring, as well as an undergraduate course on the mechanics of narrative, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is the Swanlund Professor of English.

Critical response


Reviewer William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz , an associate professor of English at Yale University  until 2008, is a widely published literary critic. His criticism directed at a popular audience appears in The Nation, The American Scholar, the London Review of Books, and The New York Times...

 has written critically of Powers's oeuvre; in his review of The Echo Maker, published in The Nation
The Nation
The Nation is the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States. The periodical, devoted to politics and culture, is self-described as "the flagship of the left." Founded on July 6, 1865, It is published by The Nation Company, L.P., at 33 Irving Place, New York City.The Nation...

, he writes of The Gold Bug Variations that "what's missing from the novel is, well, a novel. The characters are idealized, the love stories mawkish and clichéd, the emotions meant to ground the scientific speculations in lived experience announced rather than established. The thinnest of devices are introduced to allow Powers to suspend the plot for dozens of pages at a stretch." But Deresiewicz also noted that his "is hardly the standard view of Powers's work. Over the past two decades, Powers has established himself as one of our most praised as well as one of our most prolific writers of fiction."

In an admiring essay in The New York Review of Books
The New York Review of Books
The New York Review of Books is a fortnightly magazine with articles on literature, culture and current affairs. Published in New York City, it takes as its point of departure that the discussion of important books is itself an indispensable literary activity...

, "In the Heart of the Heartland", published in December 2006, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood
Margaret Eleanor Atwood, is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history; she is a winner of the Arthur C...

 praised The Echo Maker as "a grand novel—grand in its reach, grand in its themes, grand in its patterning. That it might sometimes stray over the line into the grandiose is perhaps unavoidable: Powers is not a painter of miniatures. Of the two extremes of American mannerist style, the minimalist or Shaker chair (Dickinson, Hemingway, Carver) and the maximalist or Gilded Age (Whitman, James, Jonathan Safran Foer), Powers inclines toward the latter. He gets his effects by repetition, by a Goldberg Variation–like elaboration of motifs, by cranking up the volume and pulling out all the stops.

Awards and recognition

  • 1985 Rosenthal Award of American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1985 PEN/Hemingway Special Citation
  • 1989 MacArthur Fellowship
  • 1991 Time Magazine Book of the Year
  • 1993 Finalist, National Book Award
    National Book Award
    The National Book Awards are a set of American literary awards. Started in 1950, the Awards are presented annually to American authors for literature published in the current year. In 1989 the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization which now oversees and manages the National Book...

  • 1996 Swanlund Professorship, University of Illinois
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is a large public research-intensive university in the state of Illinois, United States. It is the flagship campus of the University of Illinois system...

  • 1998 Business Week Best Business Books of 1998
  • 1998 Elected Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
    American Academy of Arts and Sciences
    The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. The Academy’s elected members are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs.James Bowdoin, John Adams, and...

  • 1999 James Fenimore Cooper Prize, American Society of Historians
  • 1999 Lannan Literary Award
  • 2000 Vursell Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 2000 Elected Fellow, Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois
  • 2001 Corrington Award for Literary Excellence, Centenary College
  • 2001 Author of the Year, Illinois Association of Teachers of English
  • 2003 Pushcart Prize
  • 2003 Dos Passos Prize For Literature, Longwood University
  • 2003 W. H. Smith Literary Award (Great Britain)
  • 2004 Ambassador Book Award
  • 2006 National Book Award for Fiction
  • New York Times Notable Book, 2003, 2000, 1998, 1995, 1991
  • Best Books of 2003: Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Newsday, London Evening Standard, Time Out ( London), San Jose Mercury News
  • Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, 2003, 1995, 1991, 1985
  • Finalist, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2006
  • 2010 Elected Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters

External links