The Gold Bug Variations was supposed to be Richard Powers' "science" novel. In every book he writes, he turns his attention to some radically different field of human endeavour, becomes more expert than the experts, learns the native language so that he can use it to write his poetry. When I read Gold Bug back in high school, I remember being overwhelmed by the deep and profound understanding that he had for the things that drew me to science. He put into words things I had only vaguely felt, gave me a sense of the purposes that drove me. It would have been enough.

But then he had to go and write Galatea 2.2, and have something to say about computers and life, and somehow make them both seem like branches of literature, to bring a further layer of aesthetic justification to the technology that runs through my chosen life in computers. Again, there it was, that understanding, that articulate sense for the emotional meanings that thread themselves through the electronic machinery I work and play with. He understood not just what it was like to do science, but to work with computers, the strange unearthly thrills and fears. It would have been enough.

But, noooo, nothing is ever enough for Richard Powers, and he has given us Plowing the Dark, in which he directly, repeatedly, and in great detail draws out the metaphor of programmings as art. Not "art" as in "artifice," that weak second cousin, drained of its color by the too-close association with "craft" in too many articles about the professonal dynamics of programming. Art, instead, in the deeper sense, somthing driven by interior visions, something that exists only as the artifacts of an intangible process, pure beauty forced into some inadequate expression. And he has taken that metaphor, the programmer as the true artist, and extended it beyond belief, found further consequences, shown what light this connection throws on the nature of each. Powers has captured in his words things I thought incapable of verbal expression: the amazing potential of programming, its intimate connection with the imagination, its expression of something pure and holy, its sudden power to escape reality or to reshape it, the excitement of the creative process, and the awful but necessary moral consequences of this pursuit we engage in.

Now and then people complain about the immorality of programming, the sense in which it is a wasted profession, its creations impermanent and intangible. This sense hangs over me and my fellow programmers at times, I think: it is unreasonable that we should be supported by society in doing what we do, that we should be kept and fed in order to sit in front of monitors and alter the flow of some well-confined electrons and shuffle a few abstractions around. Powers sees this critique, critiques and expands upon it, but he makes also the opposite point, the more profound one. Plowing the Dark asks what becomes of programming, whether it is ever free to exist solely of itself and for itself, asks what images and dreams will fall upon our waking eyes because of the code we have written, probes the wonderful and terrible effects that programming will have upon the world, makes us consider what shape our thoughts must take when made real through computer code's mediation. This book makes me proud to be a coder, makes me hope to be halfway worthy of shouldering the terrible moral weight that programming carries with it. Daiyenu.