Echoes and real voices
I recently finished the latest novel from Richard Powers called The Echo Maker. It was one of the finest books I’ve read in years. Powers is by leaps my favorite writer. His books are poems trapped in the novel form. The craft with words every bit as compelling as the stories they tell. I’m a big fan.
But there’s something different about this novel. It is still superbly crafted for sure, but the narrative engine revs louder. There was something about it. Something I couldn’t quite identify. As I was reading the book a fellow Powers fan friend of mine alerted me to an article in the NYT (login required), written by Powers, about how he composed the novel using only speech recognition software on a tablet computer. That was it, I thought. This must be the stylistic difference. A novel voice-crafted versus hand-crafted.
Except. The more I think about it, the more I can’t believe it. I work for IBM, a company deeply committed to speech recognition, text-to-speech, and machine translation. It is hairy, complex computing — bordering on AI. Personally I’ve been working in Arabic-English translation since 2000 and I know just how thorny the problems are in getting good recognition. I simply can’t believe an author as talented as Powers could create a book as linguistically complex as The Echo Maker using speech reco alone.
I’m not saying he’s lying. I’ve had some interaction with Powers, all positive. He kindly responds to e-mail, for one. And yet, there’s precedent for this tale of novel-by-dictation being fiction too. In 2002 at the Chicago Humanities Festival Powers delivered a talk called “Literary Devices” about an ELIZA-like machine that sucked him into an e-mail conversation that was as real as any human author’s output. I bought it. Most bought it. We bought wrong. The story itself was fiction — which only made it better. Humans falling for a story about a machine that tells stories indistinguishable from human stories. Amazing.
So, I guess I’m asking this. Mr. Powers, did you really dictate this whole novel? Or should we nestle comfortably in what is admittedly a damn good story even if you didn’t? All half-dozen readers of this blog are dying to know. And if we can’t tell your response from a computer impersonator we’ll obviously consider the dialogue valid. Do tell!
UPDATE: Powers replies. Wow. More on this in a bit …
See also the follow-up post Thamus (partially) vindicated.