Friday, June 13, 2014

Science Fiction: Generosity by Richard Powers

As I added Richard Powers' newest novel, Orfeo, to my reading list, I went ahead and decided to check out his previous novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, in preparation. This is a new author for me so I wasn't sure what to expect, and hoped I hadn't just signed myself up to read two books by a writer whose style I didn't like.

The Situation: Russell Stone is a new teacher and former writer. The only reason he is now a "former" writer is because of his inability to write anything truly imaginative and creative due to his fear of taking risks. While he enjoyed modest success during his short writing career, he became paralyzed creatively by the little criticism he received and one unfortunate event that involved the subject of one of his stories. But Russell is ready to try teaching, and ends up coming across a woman of Algerian descent who is inexplicably, and undeniably, happy. Russell isn't the only one who notices this. Anyone who meets Thassa or has any contact with her simply cannot deny that she has a joy like they have never seen. Thassa's joy and happiness is not only refreshing, but it's contagious. And for Russell, it starts to become troubling. He simply doesn't believe that anyone could truly be that happy. Especially someone who has witnessed the atrocities of war like she has. But despite Russell's disbelief, Thassa continues to infect those around her while insisting she is nothing special.

The Problem: While Russell would love nothing more than to keep Thassa's joy all to himself and the small circle of friends she has at school, an incident on campus causes the greater Chicago area to learn about the person who seems to be quite a bit happier than the rest of us. Soon, Russell is able to search the Internet for information on the world's happiest person and finds that everyone is slowly learning about Thassa and wants to know her secret. Inevitably, scientists are wanting to have Thassa tested, while journalists want to interview her. Other people are emailing Thassa wanting her for a range of reasons: some simply want to know her secret, others want her to go as far as to pray for them, with a range of other requests in between. Russell may have initially believed that Thassa was dangerously happy, but now he sees that happiness in danger of being smothered and never breaking the surface again. Unfortunately, he has neither the strength nor the courage to be her hero, and the fact of the matter is, if there is anyone who would be a hero, it would be Thassa.

Genre, Themes, History: I have placed this under the heading of science fiction simply because that is the category under which it is most commonly placed on Goodreads, and the book deals with scientific discoveries that have not yet been made in the present day. Plus, a good amount of the book deals with the question of whether happiness, much like depression for some people, can be genetic. Is there in fact a happiness gene? And if there was a way to bottle up whatever Thassa has and sell it to the public, how much would the public pay for it? The book also deals with the idea of being able to screen out certain diseases in an unborn baby, and how that possibility could easily lead to parents simply picking and choosing what color eyes to give their child, as well as hair, skin tone, height, etc. While part of the book follows Russell and his bumbling attempts at teaching a class, getting his creativity back, and generally just living like a normal human being amongst other human beings without coming off as too awkward, it also deals with the ethics behind the type of science that would try to discover the happiness gene and replicate it for future generations. And while the narrator is clearly third-person, I wouldn't say they are quite omniscient as it seems he (or even she) occasionally has the characters get away from him, but he also seems able to easily reign them in and have them do what he pleases.

My Verdict: This was at least the sort of science fiction I was able to easily grasp and wasn't too confused or intimidated by. I found Thassa's incessantly cheery disposition incredibly intriguing, but I didn't quite believe that people would really be so interested in her as they were. Sure, we would all love to know the secret to happiness, but I had a hard time really understanding just how magnetic Thassa was, and I don't believe that people would really act so desperately in order to have what she has. But maybe that is me being naive. What I do believe is how utterly helpless and useless Russell appeared to be. He shares a good amount of the blame for letting the general public know about Thassa and is absolutely useless in doing any type of damage control. In fact, given the opportunity, he would make things much worse. With all of that said, I am still looking forward to reading Orfeo for next week. And Generosity is short enough to where even if it isn't the best book you've read all year, it is still worth picking up.

Favorite Moment: When Thassa is given the entire world as an audience and ends up not giving them what they want.

Favorite Character: My favorite character is easily Thassa, and it is interesting that her incessant happiness would cause her so much trouble, mostly because people just don't seem to understand how someone, anyone, could be filled with such joy.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Humans by Matt Haig. It involves an alien coming down to Earth simply to kill off the few human beings who have become aware of a mathematical discovery that would advance the human race tremendously, but ultimately cause them to be a danger to the rest of the galaxy. I recommend it because it is another book that seeks to understand why human beings act the way they do. 

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