I may just repeat a couple of points from Krokodil's excellent and more expansive review
, and you could also go looking for John Domini's smart appreciation at Bookforum.
First, this is a great place to start with Powers. His prose can in some of the novels seem a bit effortful--every sentence tumbling and jumping, waving its arms to get your attention--and the sweep of his ambition can get under some folks' skin. Never mine; I've found him a consistently dazzling, lively novelist -- a writer intensely interested in the ideas that inform and shape us might understandably want us readers to be thinking about how the words are informing and shaping our understanding. I've also never been distracted by the allegedly flat characters, or all that balderdash about his intellect outweighing his empathy, but this novel neatly undercuts any such fusty complaints: it's moving, and it moves quickly, compellingly, without sacrificing any of his ambition.
Second, it does a lovely job tussling with hot-button anxieties about genetic determinism. But I don't think Powers takes ye olde Humanities stance, distantly and critically appraising the objectives (and unintended consequences) of Science. He explicitly tips his hat to the Two Cultures debate here, but almost every one of his novels mines the seam between or at the intersection of technology and art, science and philosophy. I think he doesn't see a dichotomy or opposition there; I think both are fields of creative engagement with the world, and both are opposed to the more insidious influence of profit margins and corporate control. (In Gain
, one of my favorites, a corporation is actually a key character.)
What I took most from Generosity
was not the noodling about happiness but an interesting parallel between the art of fiction and the ambition of science -- both are propelled by a desire to shape the world to our needs, yet in both that desire is "satisfied" by forms dependent on a kind of determistic control. We crave a way to free ourselves from the frustrations (or horrors) of life; we do so in a way that seems to threaten or destroy freedom. Both writing and science have these unintended consequences, can destroy people's lives. Yet both also illuminate the creativity and (isn't it obvious?) generosity of people... It is less the product than the act of doing science or writing, Powers seems to argue, that matters.
Well, regardless: it's a great read.