Although Powers writes the best scientists to be found anywhere in modern fiction, there's something that fails to ring true about his characters and it's more evident in Plowing the Dark than it has been in his previous books. I think it's that they (the characters) take events in the world around them more seriously than real people do (or at least, more seriously than people I associate with do). Even the cynical characters are merely covering up a desperate inability to cope with what is going on around them. In general, people seem a little more comfortable and secure, more centered in the world than he portrays them. Or something like that.
Plowing the Dark is set during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and has two primary storylines. The first centers around Adie, a commercial artist who is hired to design virtual worlds for the research arm of a high-tech firm that is pioneering immersive virtual reality. The second concerns Taimur, a young man who is held hostage for a number of years by Islamic extremists. The central contrast is between the open-ended possibilities of VR and the closed, bleak reality of the hostage; also, at another level, VR can be seen to be sterile -- it contains nothing more than its developers put into it, while Taimur's internal vision is limited only by the scope of his imagination.
As always, Powers takes a very personal view of his characters: their little foibles, hang-ups, and personal dramas are seamlessly integrated with the main story. I liked this book for that reason, and also because he does a good job portraying virtual reality, surely the technical subject with the highest hype-to-actual-value ratio during the past decade. At the end of Plowing the Dark Powers attempts something even more difficult -- a direct connection between the worlds that Taimur and Adie have created. And a month after finishing this book, I still can't decide whether he pulled it off or not.
copyright © 2001 John Regehr