Reader requested: spoiler alert for the post below.
As novelists, Dan Brown and Richard Powers inhabit opposite ends of the literary continuum. Where Powers is regarded as among the most literary and deeply cerebral of contemporary novelists—someone who is hard yet rewarding to read—Dan Brown is routinely judged to be the literary equivalent of fast food—engineered to be easy, tasty, and addictive.
Yet there are some interesting similarities between Brown, the other of last year’s #1 bestselling fiction title, Inferno, and Powers, the author of the just-published Orfeo, featured in the New York Times Book Review on January 12.
Both authors of these one-word titled novels have woven complex plots that ultimately hinge on geniuses who think they can—and should—manipulate DNA for their own desired ends, with complete disregard for regulation, ethics, morals, and traditional scientific principles of experimental safety. Brown’s mad genius biotechnologist Zobrist believes he can create a virus that will render the human species less fertile and thus save us all from the apocalyptic fate of population explosion the earth is otherwise headed for. Powers’ Peter Els is a mad genius of a composer. He believes he can splice musical patterns into living bacteria cells. Both characters end up on the run from powerful anti-terrorist security forces. In Brown’s case, he has spoken openly of sympathizing with Zobrist’s concerns. As for Powers, reviewer Jim Holt asked in the New York Times:
“Does Richard Powers believe his protagonist’s idea is beautiful? It is, of course, a fallacy to attribute the views of a fictional character to its author — even if, in the case of Peter Els, the character has been given hair identical to that of the author…. But I can’t help thinking that the emotional power of Orfeo is diminished a little by this unhappy genetic conceit. It seems that the Powers Problem — producing novels that are more head than heart — has here turned into its opposite.”
Curiously, some have leveled nearly the same criticism at Dan Brown’s Inferno.
Along with the movie Her and the David Eggers novel, The Circle, both of which deal with electronic/digital/social technologies, Brown and Powers’ tales of the genetic/biology revolution address in various ways the new world evolving before our eyes—a world of endless possibilities for both good and evil to come from new technology. It is an uncomfortable world of new questions about who we are as human beings and who we will be in the future.