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
Benjamín 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 programable 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.
About the Author
Benjamín 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.
“Utterly absorbing . . . The book drives at the amorality with which von Neumann and his brilliant cohort set humanity on an apocalyptic path . . . [A] terrifying sense of skirting the abyss.” —The Sunday Times
“Labatut’s unique framing of John von Neumann’s brilliance and his descriptions of the transcendent power of computers and AI creates a disturbing, awe-inspiring, and inevitable vision, one foreseen by von Neumann, of an ominous future dominated by near infinite technological possibilities.” —Booklist (starred review)
“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
“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 . . . 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. Readers won’t be able to turn away.”—Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“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)
“[Labatut] is fast emerging as the most significant South American writer since Borges . . . There is no one writing like him anywhere in the world.” —Telegraph
“Intoxicating . . . this marvel of a book, which inspires awe and dread in equal measure, is stalked by the greatest terrors of the 20th century, yet its final heart-stopping sentence makes clear the greatest terrors are yet to come.” —Daily Mail
“A dark, strange novel by a rising literary star.” —New Scientist
“Absorbing . . . The MANIAC reads like physicist Carlo Rovelli crossed with the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft.” —Chris Power, Sunday Times
“Monstrously good . . . Reads like a dark foundation myth about modern technology but told with the pace of a thriller.” —Mark Haddon
“As addictive as a true crime tale.” —Mail on Sunday
”Both entertains and provokes . . . His infernal vision of science captures something of the unsettling vertigo of living right here in the Anthropocene after all.” —TLS
“Labatut's voice comes from the future, to free us from the curse of our present.” —Wolfram Eilenberger, author of Time of the Magicians