Orfeo by Richard Powers

In 2004, American art professor Steve Kurtz was arrested when police discovered a laboratory in his house containing artworks made from genetically modified bacteria. Kurtz maintained that his works, confined to Petri dishes, were intended solely for artistic ends, but this didn’t prevent federal agents raiding his home on suspicion of bioterrorism. Richard Powers’ new novel, Orfeo, takes Kurtz’s story and adapts it into one of the most ambitious works of fiction you’re likely to read this year.

Set in the present, Orfeo is the story of Peter Els, a 70-year-old avant-garde composer whose amateur interest in genetic engineering attracts the attention of federal authorities. Unlike in the story of Kurtz, Els flees arrest, quickly becoming known on the internet – where his unusual compositions are available for listening – as an infamous bioterrorist fugitive. Labelled the ‘Bioterrorist Bach’, Els roams across America pondering his life as a dedicated yet unacknowledged artist, all the while coming to understand that the technology that will reveal his location to authorities is the same technology that will grant him his one true chance to speak to the audience he has spent his whole life striving to attain.

As well as offering a sharp commentary on the present circumstances of digital technology and the surveillance state, Orfeo is a wonderful journey through the ideas explored in twentieth-century classical music. The story behind more obscure compositions, such as Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, composed in a concentration camp in 1941, John Cage’s ‘Music of Changes’, and Shostakovich’s ‘Fifth Symphony’ are all explored with boundless imaginative depth. The ongoing parallels that Powers draws between the movement of the planets and this music are also mesmerising. With sweeping ideas and enthrallingly told, Orfeo is a brilliant novel.

Steve Bidwell-Brown