This year marks the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s controversial lecture at the Senate House at the University of Cambridge on the “two cultures.” Well, the lecture was controversial at the time, spurring extensive follow-up and debate, even if unfairly forgotten today. Snow’s book on the topic was later noted by the Times Literary Supplement as one of the 100 most influential books published after World War II. And with good reason.
Snow argued that the sciences and the humanities—his two cultures—were no longer capable of communicating with each other. These competing ways of conceptualizing the world had much to gain from a dialogue, but they had lost the tools and translators necessary for such interaction. Even a cursory glance at our current situation reveals that the chasm noted by Snow has not narrowed during the intervening half-century. If anything, the humanities have embraced a deadening subjectivism, while science has become the plaything of commercial interests that can only view any humanist perspective as a hindrance to the bottom line. Perhaps the only thing in Snow’s thesis that needs updating is the word ‘culture’—the “two ideologies” might be a better way of describing the opposed views these days.
Novelist Richard Powers has built his whole literary career on the intersection of these divergent perspectives, seeking for dialogue where others only find barriers. His fiction focuses on science, but you would never label these books as “science fiction.” His technology is the kind that you might read about in today’s newspaper, or find profiled in the current issue of Scientific American. But the drama derives less from whiz-bang effects than from the human elements at play. In other words, if you are looking for exploding death stars or mutant aliens, you are advised to find another novelist.
Powers latest novel Generosity deals with one of his favorite issues, genetic determinism. Hey, don’t give me that grimace! There are no double helix diagrams here and certainly no test after the final chapter. Instead our novelist presents the story of a woman whose genes predispose her to a happy, cheerful disposition. Thassadit Amzwar is a Berber Algerian who has come to Chicago to study filmmaking. At age 23 she has seen enough horrors to crack apart even the solidest psyche, yet her serene and upbeat attitude not only has allowed her to survive—she positively flourishes. Those who come into contact with her find themselves helplessly attracted to her positive vibes. In a different time and place, she might have become a priestess or shaman, but even in modern-day Chicago she attracts a coterie of devotees who worship at her shrine of positive thinking.