Sunday, September 17, 2006

The objective is fertile procedure. Is it not?

That's from Donald Hall's interview with Marianne Moore in the Paris Review, 1960. (Hall made much of her Nixon button.) She's talking about the similarities between poets and scientists:

Do the poet and scientist not work analogously? Both are willing to waste effort. To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each. Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision. As George Grosz says, 'In art there is no place for gossip and but a small place for the satirist.' The objective is fertile procedure. Is it not? Jacob Bronowski says in the Saturday Evening Post that science is not a mere collection of discoveries, but that science is the process of discovering. In any case it's not established once and for all; it's evolving.

I'm thinking about 'fertile procedure' after reading Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2. I'll confess that while I like the book as an experiment, and get the impression that he's a remarkably civilized thinker, I don't think it does well as either a novel or an explication of the science to the uninitiated. I won't include spoilers here, but will say generally that there's a literary backstory (incl. character depth, literary musing, rich setting, believably complex emotional lives, even if it's got the liability of a feckless writer character at its heart) that's thematically connected to the SF story dealing with arguments in artificial intelligence. The SF story it's grafted to has markedly flatter character and motivation, and I don't believe that the ideas chewed over are genuinely moving anyone besides the author/protagonist. But. According to Daniel Dennett, he's made tremendously good metaphors for the AI concepts, and returned useful questions and images to scientists. It's also slow. While the science work described is feverish, the book itself is slow, irritatingly slow sometimes, and reflective.

Which puts me in mind of some early-midcentury European novels, except that instead of the ideas and romances being grafted to political stories involving cartoon Communists, there's cartoon SF types. And all of a sudden I think I've been on the wrong track with this book. I'll come back to that, but the question I'll stop with is about who a novel like this is for. If the metaphors surrounding AI are too poeticized-fuzzy, in the novel, to give a clear sense of the arguments & mechanisms to the uninitiated -- and I think in general they are, in Galatea -- is it mainly for scientists, people in the field? I don't mean the question in the accusatory "you write only for the elite, you hate the common people!" Marxist-listmaker vein, but it hadn't occurred to me before that there might be literary fictions aimed mainly at scientists in the field. It seems to me a bit cramped, but maybe that's wrong and it's actually extremely useful, a narrow hall opening onto a vast expanse.