In his sublime 2021 novel, When We Cease to Understand the World, Chilean author Benjamin Labatut depicted the breakthroughs of real scientists and mathematicians as divine revelations and Greek tragedies. If When We Cease to Understand the World felt like the searing flash of a hydrogen bomb, The MANIAC is more of a measured descent into years of research and invention, with little sense of what’s to come beyond a pervasive, unnameable dread.
The novel is divided into three sections, the first of which is most similar to Labatut’s earlier work. “Paul, or The Discovery of the Irrational” tells the heartbreaking story of Jewish Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest’s succumbing to hopelessness amid the rise of Nazism, and his subsequent murder-suicide of himself and his son. The scene leading up to Ehrenfest’s final acts describes him moving like an automaton, a desperate machine that can do nothing but forfeit the game.
The second section is composed of a chorus of embittered, fearful and resigned voices, each sharing their impressions and memories of Hungarian genius Jancsi (Johnny) von Neumann, the inventor of game theory and a toxic proto-tech bro obsessed with finding “a mathematical basis for reality.” The final section recounts a contemporary John Henry-style battle against the machine, as Lee Sedol, a South Korean master of the game Go, faces down the artificial intelligence program AlphaGo. There is no dialogue in the novel, only quotations, and much of the narrative is told in summary—even the Go tournament is more analytical than propulsive.
Although The MANIAC is a sort of biographical fiction, its subject, artificial intelligence, is neither human nor much beyond its infancy. Labatut uses the language of parenting, birth, gods and creators, but this is no Frankenstein, and there’s no way to know what this baby will become. Von Neumann suggests that it could be our own new god, and indeed, as the lines of logic, gameplay and consciousness blur at the novel’s end, Sedol’s finale is nearly reverent.
For readers who come with curiosity and skepticism—the very mindset that has brought about our most disruptive evolutions in tech—Labatut’s book will provoke and inform, leaving us no more sure-footed in our nascent age of AI but certainly more aware.