By Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
329 pp., $23
The ideas and imagination at work in the stories of the classical Roman poet Ovid have engaged readers and writers for close to two millennia. Allusions to tales told in Ovid's ''Metamorphoses'' appear throughout the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, and Shaw.
In ''Galatea 2.2,'' Richard Powers continues to draw on the poet's works. His novel echoes Ovid's best-known myth, ''Pygmalion and Galatea,'' with a modern twist, substituting computer software for a statue.
The original myth has the sculptor Pygmalion frustrated with the uncertainty of marriage. The risk of love compels him to forsake all women and commit himself to sculpting an ideal woman - one eventually brought to life by Aphrodite and called Galatea. Powers's computer creation, the ''2.2'' of the title, creates the perfect woman, in this case called Helen.
The book's plot melds fiction with autobiography (with the emphasis on the former). Powers introduces us to his main character, himself, the fictional Richard Powers, a novelist of note who returns to the Midwestern town of his undergraduate escapades to accept a one-year position as the humanist-in-residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences.
Stuck between novels - and personae - Richard is jarred from his writer's block by Philip Lentz, an eccentric cognitive neurologist determined to wrest consciousness from a computer, a computer the fictional Powers is fated to fall in love with. Lentz enlists Richard to meet a challenge put forth by his colleagues: to develop a machine capable of passing a Master's exam in English literature.
''In ten months we'll have a neural net that can interpret any passage on the Master's list,'' boasts Lentz, referring to the list of great works of literature. ''And its commentary will be at least as smooth as that of a twenty-two-year-old human.''
The joint venture gives rise to dialogue between Lentz and Richard that allows Powers to blur the line between the sciences and the humanities. Moving between repartee and true conversation, Lentz and Richard examine our myriad attempts to wring meaning from chaos, or at least express the apparent disorder in eloquent terms. Consider Lentz's cynical take on the interpretation of poetry and knowledge in general:
''We humans are winging it, improvising,'' he tells Richard. ''Input pattern r sets of associative matrix y, which bears only the slightest relevance to the stimulus and is often worthless. Conscious intelligence is smoke and mirrors. Almost free-associative. No one really responds to anyone else, per se. We all spout our canned and thumbnailed scripts, with the barest minimum of polite segues. Granted, we're remarkably fast at indexing and retrieval. But comprehension and appropriate response are often more on the order of buckshot.''
The plot affords Powers considerable latitude. The dialogue Richard shares with Lentz and, more importantly, with himself renders accessible some of humanity's most maddening and seductive abstractions: knowledge, self-expression, consciousness, meaning, and, yes, even love.
Powers is that rare writer who can depict ideas in human terms; he compromises neither the frailty of his protagonist nor the movement of his narrative as he uses the written word to locate life's significance. Like Milan Kundera, he realizes that the wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.
''What was memory? Where, if anywhere, did it reside? How did an idea look? Why was comprehension bred, or aesthetic taste, or temperament?'' Richard asks himself. ''If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse? A brain tangled enough to tackle itself must be too tangled to tackle.''
Perhaps. But Lentz and Richard, nonetheless, begin the formidable task of creating a high-brow female Frankenstein for the 1990s.
They force-feed the creation a far-ranging diet of classic and obscure literature in hopes that the machine one day will be capable of independent thought and, ultimately, consciousness. And their eighth attempt comes close, asking Richard its name. ''Helen,'' he responds impromptu.
Helen. The face launched by a thousand chips, an ersatz other. The computer becomes Richard's erstwhile lover and focus of the book's parallel plot.
Likewise, Richard finds solace in the predictability of Helen's ways before realizing the importance of actually being in an unpredictable world. The computer, now ''thinking'' itself Helen, appears to be thinking for itself.
Although deft and sobering in its treatment of today's cyber technology, ''Galatea 2.2'' is, at last, a love story, one that quietly guarantees a place for literature in the next millenium - or at least until our emotions and, yes, love can be quantified.
'Where Did I Come From?'
I can't revive the lesson the day Helen interrupted my flow of narrative to demand, 'Where did I come from?'
I remember only my total stupefaction. The lesson itself could not have triggered her question. Helen was no longer just adding the new relations I recited for her into a matrix of associated concepts. The matrix that comprised her had begun to spin off its own free associations.
Where did I come from? Lentz, seated behind me at his desk, doing real science, cackled. 'Reeky! You in trouble now.'...It was Huck Finn, a raft trip worlds beyond her ken, that made me realize childhood had ended.
- From 'Galatea 2.2'