Penguin Pr. Oct. 2023. 368p. ISBN 9780593654477. $28. F
Dutch-born Chilean novelist Labatut has created his own genre: fictionalized accounts of great minds in the history of science, whose genius drives them to madness. His New York Times best-booked When We Cease To Understand the World explored a group of real-life scientists and thinkers in the early 20th century, linking their work to singularity theory. His latest is told in the voices of 20th-century masterminds in mathematics, computing, quantum physics, and the development of the atom bomb. (MANIAC was the name of the computer at Los Alamos.) This group coalesces around the brilliant John von Neumann and includes David Hilbert, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Nils Barricelli, and Klara Dan, von Neumann’s second wife and one of the first computer programmers. The scientists’ lives are rendered as tragedy, but quick Google searches reveal that Labatut’s narrative is largely factual. Labatut’s novel charts the sweep of modern computing, from its first inklings in punched cards used in jacquard textile looms, all the way to dramatic confrontations between artificial intelligence and acclaimed masters of chess and Go.
VERDICT Labatut’s prose is lucid and compelling, drawing readers on a frightening but fascinating journey; even the most right-brained among them will gain insight into the power and potential dangers of AI. Highly recommended.
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