“It’s terrible that artificial intelligence is kind of being born right now when the book is coming out,” says Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut. “It’s better to announce something that may never happen. It’s just more mysterious.”
The regrettably timely book in question is The Maniac (Penguin Press, Oct.), whose expansive central section focuses on the life of John von Neumann (1903–1957), a Jewish Hungarian mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, defense consultant, and, yes, early AI proselytizer. “This is really the man who birthed the 21st century—he just did it in 1950,” Labatut explains, speaking via Zoom from his home in Santiago. “He’s a monster, a leviathan.”
The reader hears about von Neumann’s life through the voices of his family, colleagues, and friends: from his upbringing in Budapest to his flight to Princeton to escape the Nazis, to Los Alamos, N.Mex., where he works on the Manhattan Project. Along the way, we read about his fateful run-in with Kurt Gödel at a conference in Germany in 1930, his listless days in the New Mexico desert playing chess and the ancient strategy game go with Richard Feynman and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and his first encounter with computers, which were being developed at Los Alamos to carry out the calculations needed to produce the atomic bomb. Back at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton after the war, we see von Neumann build his own computer—the prototype of the ones we use today—and become increasingly obsessed with self-reproducing machines and machine learning.
Though the events described in The Maniac hew closely to history and the people speaking are real, what they say is mostly imagined. But don’t call the book a novel.
“A novel to me is just the worst possible form,” Labatut says. “If I was a dictator, I would outlaw them.”
What is it then? “Nothing. A book. A novel is just a novel. But books are wonderful, books are weird, books are rare. To write a book is a difficult thing. I know I did it with my last book—I am absolutely sure of that. I think I failed with this one. People will call it a novel, and I will be ashamed.”
That last book, When We Cease to Understand the World (Labatut’s U.S. debut), became a minor sensation after it was published in translation by New York Review Books in 2021 and was shortlisted for the International Booker and a National Book Award. At its core are three moody and lyrical vignettes exploring the lives of great 20th-century mathematicians and physicists on the brink of unthinkable discoveries, and sometimes madness.
Labatut, 43, wrote When We Cease to Understand the World and two previous books (that haven’t yet been translated) in his native Spanish, but he wrote The Maniac in English, which he speaks fluently. He was born in the Netherlands and attended a British school there until he was 14, when his family returned to Chile.
The Maniac is as melancholy and disjunctive as its predecessor, with the long section on von Neumann preceded by a short chapter on Austrian mathematician Paul Ehrenfest (1880–1933), related by what Labatut calls “a depressing Sebaldian narrator.” Of the men at the center of the book, Labatut says, Ehrenfest is “the closest to my heart.” A good friend of Albert Einstein, Ehrenfest felt increasingly baffled and disheartened by contemporary advances in quantum mechanics, whose results were both verifiable and inexplicable, and by regressions in European politics: as a Jew and the father of a boy with Down syndrome, he was personally threatened by Hitler’s rise. Like many of the figures in Labatut’s books, his intellectual acuity leads him to some dark places.
“Paul is the one who says, ‘We don’t understand this, and if we don’t understand this, we’re heading down an incredibly dangerous road,’ ” Labatut explains. “We can still create, we can still have fun, we can still destroy, we can do a lot of things. But people kind of gave up on understanding, which is obviously one of my fucking obsessions, right?”
It obviously is. And to pursue it, Labatut needs von Neumann, who in some sense is Ehrenfest’s foil. “Von Neumann’s sheer intellectual capacity is winged and sharp and cutting,” Labatut says. “It has no gravitas at all. It’s just power with no limits. If he’s a god, he’s a childish god.”
Von Neumann moves through these pages like a blur, flitting from the foundations of mathematics to nuclear physics to computer engineering and game theory (he coined the expression “mutually assured destruction”). The reader sees him only through the eyes of others, and others see him as a mercurial alien intelligence.
Labatut describes the choral structure here as “ghosts speaking around the grave”: “There’s no way that a single perspective could do justice to the life and work of John von Neumann. Monsters lose their power if you see them up close.”
When asked if von Neumann is deployed in the book like the shark in Jaws, Labatut nods and looks down. “I didn’t want Johnny to show up until he had the oxygen tank in his mouth already and was about to explode.”
Labatut’s monster meets a less fiery end than Spielberg’s, but it’s quick all the same. He’s diagnosed with cancer in 1956 (possibly the result of radiation exposure at Los Alamos) and within months has to be sequestered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., lest he let slip any state secrets as his once-powerful mind deteriorates. He dies the following year.
The final chapters of the book skip ahead to 2016, describing a series of defeats suffered by Korean go master Lee Sedol at the hands of an advanced AI—the kind that von Neumann dreamed of. At one point, Demis Hassabas, the developer of the AI, thinks, “Our monkey brains had taken us as far as they could. Something radically new was needed. A different type of mind, one that could see past us, far beyond the shadows cast by our own eyes.”
Labatut’s books return again and again to the limits of human thought. “Tell me where I cannot think past, tell me what things are beyond human consideration—those are the things that I write about,” he says. “I write these books because I’m trying to kind of surround a little tiny speck of unknowability. All of the rest—it’s just history. You can find it somewhere else. Everything that I do is to get people to look at something that they cannot comprehend. To me, it’s like a secret kernel at the heart of things.”
The same impetus drives science, according to Labatut. “Science is in love with mystery,” he says. “It wants to consume it. It wants to take it into itself. It wants to process it. It wants to, you know, have sex with it. But there’s always something that gets away. And that, I think, is the quintessence of what makes science so wonderful, powerful, dangerous, deadly, scary.”
But he’s also keen to emphasize the differences between science and literature. “I’m not looking for understanding,” he explains. “I want something very different that only literature can give. What I want is excitement. I want people to be turned on and have a panic attack at the same time.” (This from the author of the only book on Obama’s 2021 summer reading list to feature a scene in which Werner Heisenberg sees the ghost of Goethe fellating the corpse of a 14th-century Sufi poet.)
“What can a book give you that a movie doesn’t, that art doesn’t, that drugs don’t?” he asks. “A book can contain an enormous amount of information—more than your mind can handle. But it can deliver it in a way that feels like a dream, like you’re being whispered to in a dream. I’m always trying to get in back of people’s brains and, you know, maybe tickle. I’m not going to say what I’m tickling, but I’m tickling something.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to New Directions as the publisher for When We Cease to Understand the World, when the book was published by New York Review Books.