ORFEO by Richard Powers

Book Quote:

“Five viral strands propagate, infecting the air with runaway joy. At three and a half minutes, a hand scoops Peter up and lifts him high above the blocked vantage of his days. He rises in the shifting column of light and looks down on the room where he listens. Wordless peace fills him at the sight of his own crumpled, listening body. And pity for anyone who mistakes this blinkered life for the real deal.”

Book Review:

Review by Bill Brody  (MAR 20, 2014)

The protagonist of Orfeo, Peter Els, listens at age thirteen to a recording of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony and is transported. This novel continues the author’s literary exploration of cutting edge science and its impact on its practitioners. Peter Els becomes a composer of serious music, very much of the current moment in the arts. He is a musical idealist, with a belief in the power of music to truly move the listener. As he matures, his work becomes ever more difficult and timely. As a young man he was a prodigy in music with talent in science as well. The creative juices of both flow in his veins. In college he starts out in chemistry, but becomes enmeshed in music through the musical connection with his first love, Clara. In graduate school at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, his work becomes ever more difficult and “modern,” in part through his collaborations with Maddy, who becomes his lover and later his wife for a while, and with Richard Bonner, an experimental theater director who he meets while in graduate school. Richard pushes him to become ever more radical.

Peter teaches music at a small university for some years, but retires fairly young and returns to chemistry, taking up biohacking as a hobby, encoding music into the DNA of the serrata marcescens bacterium. Peter chooses it because of its ubiquity in scientific research and ready availability despite the fact that it can cause illness. On the surface, this might seem like an implausible fantasy to write art onto DNA, but Joe Davis, an artist, in Cambridge, MA, hijacked the expertise of molecular biologists at Harvard and MIT more than 30 years ago to modify the DNA of e-coli to encode a bitmapped image as well as the decoding scheme onto areas of that organism’s “junk” DNA. Through a Kafkaesque series of happenstance Peter becomes pursued by the authorities who are concerned that Peter might be a bio-terrorist.

Orfeo is literary science fiction of the highest order. It is not about the future, but rather takes the cutting edge of contemporary science and makes it part and parcel of the novel. Among other things it is also a learned and passionate discourse on western music as it has developed over time to the present with an emphasis on more recent work. Powers’ description of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony is remarkable. My composer father wanted to name me Jupiter because the Jupiter Symphony was, in his opinion, the greatest symphony of all time. I’ve listened to it many times and find it quite wonderful, but I do not have the musical vocabulary to really appreciate its depth. Powers’ description of Peter Els listening to it for the first time showed me why my father felt so strongly. The poignant and elegiac description of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is wonderful poetic history. It is a piece that I’ve enjoyed many times and one whose history was familiar to me as well. Powers’ sympathetic appreciation of music is admirable.

I’m familiar with much of the contemporary music he describes and as far as I can see, the details, historical and artistic, are correct. The composers, old and new are as described. Powers gets his science right as well. The writing is brilliant, not dumbed down in any way, and evocative as all get out. I recommend this novel and author without reservation.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 34 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (January 20, 2014)
REVIEWER: Bill Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Richard Powers
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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March 20, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Literary, Reading Guide, Scifi, US Midwest

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