Science and technology make for strange gods in Benjamín Labatut’s The MANIAC. Picking up where his sensational When We Cease to Understand the World leaves off, The MANIAC finds Labatut concerned once again about the unruly limits of materialism. This is his first novel written in English and if one wants or expects a radical departure in style, they will most likely be disappointed. The first part of a triptych, “PAUL or The Discovery of the Irrational” reads like it was left on the cutting room floor of its predecessor, every bit as committed to deep research and a sense that the word “novel” is a categorization used out of convenience rather than an authentic effort to assign the book’s genre.
“PAUL” is the (mostly true) story of Paul Ehrenfest, a brilliant Austrian physicist who descends into madness, murdering his fifteen-year-old son and then taking his own life. Ehrenfest fears a “strange new rationality that was beginning to take shape” during his lifetime, “a profoundly inhuman form of intelligence that was completely indifferent to mankind’s deepest needs … both logic-driven and utterly irrational.” Put in other words, Ehrenfest fears the 20th century: the rise of fascism, the atomic bomb, the blurring lines between human and machine consciousnesses. “PAUL” reads almost like a prologue, a setting of the stage for Part Two’s John Von Neumann (surprise: another brilliant physicist) who demands the majority of The MANIAC’s attention.
I’m hardly complaining: Von Neumann provides a fascinating central subject and a compass that directs the reader through the machinations of 20th century physics, mathematics, and computer programming. Narrated by a chorus of Von Neumann’s friends, family, and colleagues, he is characterized at turns as a singular genius and the id that belies science’s most horrific offspring. He is instrumental in the creation of the atom bomb. He becomes obsessed with the possibility of creating digital lifeforms. His worldview is perhaps best distilled by the following: “All processes that are stable we shall predict. All processes that are unstable, we shall control,” he suggests, attempting to create an (impossible) “forever forecast,” as he forays into meteorology.
While Ehrenfest fears the irrationality that may undergird our existence, Von Neumann believes the world can be understood, taxonomized, managed. Only toward the end of his life does he develop “an unquenchable curiosity regarding all matters of the spirit.” Unable to remain dignified as he contends with his own mortality, the stereotypical god-complexes too blithely used to characterize scientists become very literal for Van Neumann. He wants to “fill the void left by the departure of the gods,” convinced “the one and only candidate that could achieve this strange, esoteric transformation was technology.”
Or at least that’s how he is seen by his contemporaries. Mediated through fictional interviews, “JOHN or The Mad Dreams of Reason” is Labatut at his best. “Best” for me, I suppose: a reader and lover and thinker of/about novels. And “JOHN” does what novels should do: it speaks through the voice of another. It steps into a different consciousness. It forgoes the godlike and omniscient voice of history. Labatut wades into a messier, human space for The MANIAC’s longest and most central section.
If this polyvocal structure sounds reminiscent of another great Chilean author (think: The Savage Detectives), it’s for good reason. Labatut writes about scientists the way Roberto Bolaño writes about poets. They are near mythical figures, captured at the corner of the novel’s eye. They become historical in the most fraught sense of the term: subject to rumor and speculation and, eventually, the novel’s form inflates their personas into something so large they can only be understood as narrative, never known in any objective capacity.
Perhaps this is the reason why part three of The MANIAC falls flat when compared to the first two parts of the triptych. It’s a natural culmination and I don’t fault Labatut in the slightest for writing about the five-game match between DeepMind’s AlphaGo and the South Korean Go master Lee Sedol. Artificial intelligence and mechanical entities that can “think” like human beings serve as a capstone for 20th century materialism: the aforementioned god-complex, at last, bearing human-like creations. Lee Sodol and Demis Hassabis (the founder of DeepMind) are figures worthy of a novel, no doubt, but they lack the mystique and overwhelming power of a subject like John Von Neumann. It may still be too early for the same kind of mythos to surround a figure who I heard on a podcast produced by the New York Times this year.
This is to say, the story of artificial intelligence has yet to be written. And so when Labatut’s narration editorializes about artificial intelligence as “a future that inspires hope and horror,” The MANIAC disassembles as a novel and starts to sound like a stale thinkpiece. AlphaGo might represent the first glimmer of a true artificial intelligence, as Labatut suggests. It also could one day be considered nothing more than a souped-up cousin to IBM’s DeepBlue. We just don’t know yet.
Thankfully, the uncertainty surrounding The MANIAC’s final subject doesn’t obscure Labatut’s own brilliance. His prose is crisp, and he is able to render momentum where many writers might fail. Unfortunately, the uncertainty surrounding artificial intelligence persists in no shortage of hand-wringing, some fictionalized, some very real. As the novel reaches its final movement, the South Korean Go Association for its part awards AlphaGo a certificate for its “sincere efforts to master Go’s Taoist foundations and reach a level close to the territory of divinity.” Like with “PAUL” and “JOHN,” “LEE or The Delusions of Artificial Intelligence” understands material phenomena to be unruly. That doesn’t stop its characters from making gods where others see an electrical socket.
by Benjamín Labatut
Published on October 03, 2023
Garrett Biggs grew up in California. These days, he is the Jeff Metcalf Humanities in the Community Fellow at the University of Utah. More of his work can be found at garrettbiggs.net.