Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1985
Prisoner’s Dilemma, 1988
The Gold Bug Variations, 1991
Operation Wandering Soul, 1993
Galatea 2.2, 1995
Plowing the Dark, 2000
The Time of Our Singing, 2002
“Losing Our Souls, Bit by Bit,” 1998
“Life by Design: Too Many Breakthroughs,” 1998
“Eyes Wide Open,” 1999
“American Dreaming: The Limitless Absurdity of Our Belief in an Infinitely Transformable Future,” 2000
Richard Stephen Powers, born in Evanston, Illinois, on June 18, 1957, is the son of Richard Franklin Powers, a school administrator, and Donna Powers, a secretary and administrative assistant. In 1968 Powers, his parents, and his four siblings relocated to Bangkok, Thailand, where for the next four years the father was an administrator in the International School of Bangkok.
Returning to the United States when Powers was fifteen, the family settled in De Kalb, Illinois. In 1975 he entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a physics major but soon became an English and rhetoric major. Having maintained a straight-A grade average, he completed his bachelor’s degree in 1978 and a master’s degree in English in late 1979, moving to Boston early the following year.
In Boston, he became a computer programmer and data processor. He was employed briefly by a large corporation, but, pressured to advance into management, he quit his job, became a freelance computer specialist, and devoted himself to writing. During this period, he stumbled upon a photograph, “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance” (1914), by August Sander. The date was significant: Europe verged on war.
The photograph became the basis for Powers’s first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, a multiplot work that won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was among the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. With the publication of this well-received initial novel, Powers clearly established himself as a serious author, comparable in many ways to such pioneering European writers as James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Hermann Hesse, and others at the forefront of modernism.
In 1987 Powers left the United States and for the next five years lived abroad, mostly in Heerlen, a Dutch town nestled between the German and Belgian borders. During this period, he received a so-called genius award from the MacArthur Foundation and spent 1991-1992 at the University of Cambridge, where he completed Operation Wandering Soul, one of five finalists for the 1993 National Book Award in Fiction.
Powers’s two most biographical books are Prisoner’s Dilemma, his second novel, and Galatea 2.2, his fifth. Prisoner’s Dilemma, set in De Kalb, Illinois, is populated by characters with strong parallels to members of his own family, particularly Eddie Hobson, closely resembling Powers’s father, who died in 1978. Like most of Powers’s books, Prisoner’s Dilemma and Galatea 2.2 are multiplot novels that explore the roots of modernism.
Powers’s most demanding book to date is The Gold Bug Variations, a finalist for the 1991 National Book Critics Awards and Time’s 1991 book of the year. The Gold Bug Variations demonstrates Powers’s intimate knowledge and understanding of the complex counterpoint of composer Johann Sebastian Bach as well as his structural grasp of DNA research.
The breadth of Powers’s knowledge in a broad number of fields is daunting. Galatea 2.2 demonstrates the author’s profound understanding of computers and their most extreme capabilities. Operation Wandering Soul deals expertly with many of the diseases of childhood, including progeria, but reflects as well a detailed comprehension of the Children’s Crusades of 1212-1213, of elements of the Sack of Rome during the sixteenth century, and of children’s legends.
In Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Powers writes knowledgeably about Henry Ford, the origins of Ford’s company, and his efforts to end World War I. Gain explores the origins of a major soap company, while Plowing the Dark focuses on Middle Eastern terrorism but also on the creation of complex virtual reality at a wing of the thinly disguised Microsoft Corporation.
In The Time of Our Singing, Powers returns to his broad technical and historical understanding of music but also delves deeply into the physics of time and the physics of the fire that destroys the apartment of the principals, the Stroms. He also demonstrates an exhaustive knowledge of the racial upheavals of the 1960’s.
Powers ranks high among the most impressive contemporary writers. His output is considerable, his subjects dauntingly varied yet expertly considered and represented. He returned to the United States in 1992 and in 1998 became Swanlund Professor of English at his alma mater. In June, 2001, he married Jane Kuntz.