The Maniac confronts us with the deepest questions we face as a species.
In This Spotlight On The Maniac
Tracing The Dreams And Nightmares Of The Twentieth Century
The Maniac is from one of contemporary literature’s most exciting new voices, a haunting story centered on the Hungarian polymath John von Neumann, tracing the impact of his singular legacy on the dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century and the nascent age of AI.
About The Maniac
Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World electrified a global readership. A Booker Prize and National Book Award finalist, and one of the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of the Year, it explored the life and thought of a clutch of mathematicians and physicists who took science to strange and sometimes dangerous new realms. In The Maniac, Labatut has created a tour de force on an even grander scale.
A prodigy whose gifts terrified the people around him, John von Neumann transformed every field he touched, inventing game theory and the first programmable computer, and pioneering AI, digital life, and cellular automata. Through a chorus of family members, friends, colleagues, and rivals, Labatut shows us the evolution of a mind unmatched and of a body of work that has unmoored the world in its wake.
The Maniac places von Neumann at the center of a literary triptych that begins with Paul Ehrenfest, an Austrian physicist and 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, an encounter embodying the central question of von Neumann’s most ambitious unfinished project: the creation of a self-reproducing machine, an intelligence able to evolve beyond human understanding or control.
A work of beauty and fabulous momentum, The Maniac confronts us with the deepest questions we face as a species.
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/03/2023
Praise for The Maniac
After the slender yet incendiary When We Cease to Understand the World, Labatut returns with a sensational epic of the Hungarian American physicist and computer scientist John von Neumann. The title refers to a computer that ran calculations on atomic weapons at Los Alamos, and to von Neumann himself, whose theories and experiments brought about a new reality for humanity—and one defined by its potential annihilation. It was von Neumann, the originator of the concept of mutually assured destruction, who helped accelerate American investment in nuclear weapons and insisted the U.S. should not fall behind the Soviets in the arms race.
Labatut brackets von Neumann’s story with those of two other real-life figures: the darkly brilliant Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest—whose depression led him to murder his disabled son and then kill himself in 1933—and South Korean Go champion Lee Sedol, who retired in 2019 after losing multiple matches to AI, which he describes on a talk show as “an entity that cannot be defeated.”
Labatut mesmerizes in his accessible depictions of complex scientific material and in his inspired portraits of the innovators. In his previous book, Labatut grappled with the ways in which scientific breakthroughs offered new means of experiencing reality; this one succeeds at showing how acts of genius might break the world forever. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi, Inc. (Oct.)—Publishers Weekly
Labatut elegantly captures the sense of geniuses outstripping the typical boundaries of intellectual achievement and paying a price for it . . . Sharply written fiction ably capturing primitive emotions and boundary-breaking research.” —Kirkus
“Labatut has created his own genre: fictionalized accounts of great minds in the history of science, whose genius drives them to madness . . . The MANIAC charts the sweep of modern computing, from its first inklings in punched cards used in jacquard textile looms, all the way to dramatic confrontations between artificial intelligence and acclaimed masters of chess and Go. Labatut’s prose is lucid and compelling, drawing readers on a frightening but fascinating journey; even the most right-brained among them will gain insight into the power and potential dangers of AI. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)
From the Publisher
Dutch-born Chilean novelist Labatut has created his own genre: fictionalized accounts of great minds in the history of science, whose genius drives them to madness. His New York Times best-booked When We Cease To Understand the World explored a group of real-life scientists and thinkers in the early 20th century, linking their work to singularity theory.
His latest is told in the voices of 20th-century masterminds in mathematics, computing, quantum physics, and the development of the atom bomb. (MANIAC was the name of the computer at Los Alamos.) This group coalesces around the brilliant John von Neumann and includes David Hilbert, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Nils Barricelli, and Klara Dan, von Neumann’s second wife and one of the first computer programmers. The scientists’ lives are rendered as tragedy, but quick Google searches reveal that Labatut’s narrative is largely factual.
Labatut’s novel charts the sweep of modern computing, from its first inklings in punched cards used in jacquard textile looms, all the way to dramatic confrontations between artificial intelligence and acclaimed masters of chess and Go. VERDICT Labatut’s prose is lucid and compelling, drawing readers on a frightening but fascinating journey; even the most right-brained among them will gain insight into the power and potential dangers of AI. Highly recommended.—Reba Leiding, Library Journal
About Benjam’n Labatut, Author of The Maniac
Benjam’n Labatut is a Chilean author born in the Netherlands in 1980. He was raised in The Hague before settling in Chile, where he lives and works. He is the author of Antarctica Starts Here (2009), a short story collection; After the Light (2016), a series of scientific, philosophical, and historical notes on the void; The Stone of Madness (2021), a diptych on madness, chaos, and modernity; and When We Cease to Understand the World (2021), a book that explores the ecstasy and agony of scientific breakthroughs and has been translated into over thirty languages.
Titles by Benjam’n Labatut
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