game theory, the novel

I am excited to use this forum to promote a piece of fiction. I recently had the pleasure of reading Prisoner’s Dilemma by Richard Powers, which is–as the title suggests–about the classic prisoner’s dilemma problem. The novel amazingly introduces the prisoner’s dilemma in an accessible way, as well as algorithms to solve it. But it’s not all fun and games. The prisoner’s dilemma parallels a family dealing with terminal illness, and the human element–not the game theory element–makes the story compelling. The Library Journal offers this synopsis:

Eddie Hobson is a former history teacher who cannot escape the past. Seared by a painful experience during World War II, he develops a mysterious illness that gradually alienates him from even his own wife and children. Hobson’s illness has grim physical symptoms, but its essence is “his need to love people without knowing whether they deserved it.” Interlaced with a third-person anatomy of the Hobson family are the first-person musings of a son trying to understand his father’s eventual death. Although his subject is pathology, Powers provides a dazzling display of wit (riddles, triple puns, and palindromes) that may entertain, but also contributes to the themes of this remarkably well-crafted novel.

Before you write Prisoner’s Dilemma off, consider this: Richard Powers may be an English professor, but he is also a geek: He once worked as a programmer and once was a physics major. His novels deal with the intersection between technology and life, and the technology portions of his books do not disappoint.

Reader beware: Prisoner’s Dilemma, like all of Powers’s books, isn’t a guilty pleasure, but rather a piece of literature. I use more brain power than usual to read his novels, and I have to be willing to forego formula and traditional happy endings. Still, I recommend Prisoner’s Dilemma (as well as other Richard Powers books) if you are the right frame of mind. Richard Powers is from Illinois (and is currently a professor at my alma mater, the University of Illinois), and all of his books reflect his Midwestern sensibilities. I think that’s a good thing, but the Midwest doesn’t exactly do it for everyone.

I also recommend these other Richard Powers books:

  • Galatea 2.2 addresses artificial intelligence in this retelling of the Pygmalion story. If you’ve ever lived in Champaign-Urbana, you need to give this book a chance. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only bring ten books with, this would make the cut. [Finalist, 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award; Time Magazine Best Books of the Year, 1995; New York Times Notable Book, 1995].
  • Plowing the Dark “follows two narrative threads; one of an American teacher turned Lebanese prisoner of war, the other the construction of a high-tech virtual reality simulator.” I found the VR aspects of this interesting since having been in one of those VR caves a few times.
  • The Echo Maker deals with memory and identity, and it really has nothing to do with programming or OR, but since it won the National Book Award, it is well worth a read. It is also available as an audiobook if you have about 20 hours in your car and are sick of all your mix tapes and MP3s.

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