"Galatea 2.2," by Richard Powers. 329 pages. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23 Think of Helen as the face launched by a thousand chips, and you're on your way to successfully storing "Galatea 2.2," the fifth complicated fiction from brainy Richard Powers, on your hard drive.
Whatever else may be said about it, "Galatea 2.2" does not steal its plot from an old Balzac tale. Helen is a contraption made from junk components, hooked up to a super-duper computer. A writerly character named Richard Powers - hey, he can't be innovative in everything - and his wiseguy cognitive-scientist pal Philip Lentz plan to input her with a canon of Great Books, and much ancillary knowledge besides.
Freedom of the will vs. determinism, soul vs. structure, hardware vs. software, teaching vs. learning, flesh vs. plastic, mechanism vs. mysticism, representation vs. reality, the innate vs. the environmentally acquired - these are not the oppositions most fiction teachers have in mind when they tell their fledgling writers that an exciting novel requires conflict.
But Richard Powers, like Bill Gates, is his own CPU, creating his own benchmarks for fiction. For all his cybersmart wizardry, he still writes about megahurts in a language anyone can understand.