The Maniac by Benjamín Labatut Book Review 5/5
From the publisher:
John von Neumann was a titan of science. A Hungarian wunderkind who revolutionized every field he touched, his mathematical powers were so exceptional that Hans Bethe – a Nobel Prize-winning physicist – thought he might represent the next step in human evolution.
After seeking the foundations of mathematics during his youth in Germany, von Neumann emigrated to the United States, where he became entangled in the power games of the Cold War; he designed the world’s first programmable computer, invented game theory, pioneered AI and digital life, and helped create the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was the darling of the military industrial complex, but when illness unmoored his mind, his work pushed further into areas beyond human comprehension and control.
The MANIAC places von Neumann at the center of a literary triptych about the dark foundations of our modern world and the nascent era of AI. It begins with Paul Ehrenfest, an Austrian physicist and close friend of Einstein, who fell into despair when he saw science and technology become tyrannical forces; it ends a hundred years later, in the showdown between the South Korean Go Master, Lee Sedol, and the AI program AlphaGo.
Braiding fact with fiction, Benjamín Labatut takes us on a journey to the frontiers of rational thought, where invention outpaces human understanding and offers godlike power, but takes us to the brink of Armageddon.
Review contains spoilers.
The Maniac…hints at a darkness present at the limits of knowledge…the transmutation of that knowledge into ultimate power…
Labatut’s first novel, ‘When we Cease to understand the World’, absolutely knocked me sideways. I’d never read anything like it – a heady, manic mash up of truth, fiction, and something almost in between the two. It’s a book that’s stayed in my mind ever since I first read it, and now, with The Maniac, Labatut is back and I’m glad to report it absolutely doesn’t disappoint.
The Maniac tells the story of mathematical genius Janus (John) von Neumann, from the points of view of those surrounding him, following his journey from precocious childhood, his achievements in physics and mathematics, and his work on the atomic bomb. The Maniac is hard reading in places, with Labatut’s skilful weaving of fact and fiction painting a devastating picture of the interplay between genius and callousness. Particularly hard hitting is von Neumann’s calculations of the exact height from which to drop the bombs for maximum devastation and his abstinence in signing a joint letter to President Eisenhower, in which a group of nuclear physicists hope that the bombs they developed are never used.
The main section of the book, concerning von Neumann, is told by those who work and live alongside him – school friends, colleagues, spouses. The overall picture is chilling, detailed and ultimately devastating. I found Labatut’s writing to show a sort of ease with which horrific weapons can be developed in the name of scientific advancement, and an apparent casualness in the work of some of the most intelligent minds employed to work on those weapons. The Maniac differs in tone from Labatut’s previous book – although the commentary concerning von Neumann’s seeming lack of morality may touch on similar concepts. At what point does genius become madness? The Maniac, however, hints at a darkness present at the limits of knowledge – not madness, individually, but the transmutation of that knowledge into ultimate power and the consequences that follow.
The Maniac begins, and ends, with separate sections which seem to be mostly factual, although there is no indication as to which parts may or may not be fictionalised – and as someone unversed in the intricacies of chess tournaments, I would have no idea! The book begins with an account of Paul Ehrenfest, a physicist, becoming increasingly disillusioned by developments in the field and overwhelmed by societal implications for his disabled son. Terribly, Ehrenfest kills his son and commits suicide immediately afterwards. For me, this opening chapter has echoes of When We Cease To Understand The World – the tipping point between genius and madness. After von Neumann’s death, the book ends with a detailed account of the development of artificial intelligence, specifically relating to chess and the game Go, and the ability to defeat human players. As we enter this new world of AI and unknown power, we need to remember the consequences that may follow when pushing the limits of knowledge. A full 5 stars – I loved this.
Thank you to #Netgalley for the ARC 🙂