Named One of the 10 Best Books of 2023 by The Washington Post and Publishers Weekly • One of Barack Obama's Favorite Books of 2023 • A National Bestseller • A New York Times Editor's Choice pick • Nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
“Captivating and unclassifiable, at once a historical novel and a philosophical foray . . . Labatut is a writer of thrilling originality. The MANIAC is a work of dark, eerie and singular beauty.” —The Washington Post
“Darkly absorbing . . . A brooding, heady narrative that is addictively interesting.” —Wall Street Journal
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.
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. The title refers to a computer that ran calculations on atomic weapons at Los Alamos, and to von Neumann himself, whose theories and experiments brought about a new reality for humanity—and one defined by its potential annihilation. It was von Neumann, the originator of the concept of mutually assured destruction, who helped accelerate American investment in nuclear weapons and insisted the U.S. should not fall behind the Soviets in the arms race. Labatut brackets von Neumann's story with those of two other real-life figures: the darkly brilliant Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest—whose depression led him to murder his disabled son and then kill himself in 1933—and South Korean Go champion Lee Sedol, who retired in 2019 after losing multiple matches to AI, which he describes on a talk show as "an entity that cannot be defeated." 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.