The Maniac by Benjamin Labatut [8/10]

Chilean author Benjamin Labatut stunned the literary world in 2020 with a fiction-fact blend about early 20th Century scientists, When We Cease to Understand the World. His latest, The Maniac, has a similar bent but is, in my opinion, vastly superior to the earlier one. Rather than testing my patience, as the earlier one did, The Maniac is such a virtuoso rush of fictional/actual reportage spanning a century and bookended by tales of Paul Ehrenfest, despairing peer of Einstein, and the 2016 battle royale between South Korean Go titan and an AI program, AlphaGo. In between, and occupying the heft of the book, is the story of prodigious scientist and intellectual John von Neumann, who was instrumental in birthing the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the computer age, AI, nuclear warfare theory, and game theory. Unlike the earlier book, I surrendered to Labatut’s gold-spun stories covering von Neumann from different character viewpoints. I surrendered even when, say, he spoke in the voice of physicist Eugene Wigner, a voice I found unfamiliar despite reading so much about Wigner. The outsized, super-fervid brain and personality of von Neumann is brought to stunning life, and the scenes around his 1957 death read like science fiction come to reality. The Maniac is a virtuosic delight indeed.

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