Cover of The Maniac novel by Benjamin Labatut showing a greyscale photograph of clouds of smoke

The Chilean novelist Benjamín Labatut is fascinated by the unpredictability of technological progress. His International Booker-nominated When We Cease to Understand the World (2020), an essayistic ‘non-fiction novel’, mapped the labyrinthine prehistories of such notorious substances as Zyklon-B. As Labatut reminds the reader, the work of Fritz Haber, a Jewish convert to Christianity, facilitated the development of both that chemical, which would become instrumental in the Holocaust, and poison gas, which killed countless young men in the First World War. But Zyklon-B began as a pesticide, and Haber also invented a new way to mass produce ammonia fertilizer by extracting nitrogen directly from the air. For this—what would become known as the Haber-Bosch Process—he was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Enabling the production of essentially limitless amounts of synthetic fertilizer, the method has saved hundreds of millions of lives, though it has also contributed heavily to the climate crisis: producing ammonia is extraordinarily carbon-intensive, while leaks of the chemical can be ecologically catastrophic.

The most unsettling aspect of all this, Labatut implies, is that it is not solely a matter of coincidence, whereby the same individual invents some things whose effects are fruitful and others whose impacts are malign. Rather, the issue is that a single scientific breakthrough can be fundamentally ambivalent—and that its full effects can only be disclosed historically, across time. Haber would no doubt have been horrified if he had known of the diabolical use to which his work on pesticidal fumigants would later be put in Auschwitz and elsewhere.

At just 188 pages, When We Cease to Understand the World seems to me a bravura feat of synthesis, but its frenetic pace, relentless leapfrogging, and liberal blending of fact with fiction were not appreciated by all. In the London Review of Books, Adam Mars-Jones lambasted Labatut’s ‘vague allegorising’ and ‘little-did-they-know segues’ as ‘a rather desperate strategy for unifying a mass of miscellaneous material.’ In laying claim to an omniscience which his cavalier approach to the historical record could never justify, Labatut, Mars-Jones suggested, was peddling a suspect account of the past and a dewy-eyed dramatisation of genius. Besides, the idea that material progress is freighted with both good and bad is hardly an original insight; addenda to the Promethean myth are legion.

With The Maniac, his latest book, Labatut appears to have taken some of this criticism on board. Though it is another work of historically informed fiction, his attention is more concentrated. While in the brief but omnivorous When We Cease to Understand the World Haber was one of a wider chorus, The Maniac focuses largely on a single subject, the Hungarian-American physicist and mathematician John von Neumann. Labatut has also abandoned omniscient narration, adopting a more polyphonic approach: the book comprises a series of diary-like entries, written from the perspective of figures including Richard Feynman, the great American physicist; Klára Dán, von Neumann’s wife; and Sydney Brenner, the South African biologist. Von Neumann himself is never ventriloquized by Labatut. Instead, in what is perhaps a conscious echoing of the quantum physics that the book explores, his portrait of the great polymath is a composite and prismatic product of the imagined testimonies of those who knew him. Our perception of von Neumann shifts, in other words, depending on who is describing him, just as, according to quantum theory, observation alters the behaviour of the particles being observed.

The Maniac does not begin with the gregarious von Neumann, but, more ominously, with the tragic tale of one Paul Ehrenfest. Despite never achieving the renown of some of the other leading lights in early twentieth-century physics, the Austrian was nonetheless highly regarded by his contemporaries, including Einstein and Niels Bohr, both of whom acknowledged his significant contributions to the development of quantum mechanics. Ehrenfest’s lack of prominence, Labatut reminds us, can be partly explained by his attitude to what was then known as the ‘new physics’. Unlike most in his field, he was deeply concerned by what Bohr and his acolytes’ equations seemed to imply: that ‘the entire world was not as real and solid’ as everyone had hitherto assumed. As Labatut tells it, he feared that ‘a fundamental line had been crossed’, and that a ‘strange new rationality was beginning to take shape’: a ‘profoundly inhuman form of intelligence that was completely indifferent to mankind’s deepest needs.’ This new rationality was ‘both logic-driven and utterly irrational’, and risked enrapturing ‘the cleverest men and women with whispered promises of superhuman power and godlike control.’ Labatut captures Ehrenfest’s deep sense of foreboding, exacerbated by his chronic depression and Europe’s darkening political climate. As the Nazis began to take power, this eventually overwhelmed him. On the morning of September 25th 1933, Ehrenfest shot and killed his disabled son, Vassily, before turning the gun on himself.

Von Neumann seems in many regards the antithesis of Ehrenfest, and he shares few of the characteristics of the tortured geniuses who populate Labatut’s other books. Naturalised a United States citizen in 1937, the Hungarian was an unflagging optimist whose sunny temperament chimed with the postwar self-confidence of his adopted homeland. As Klára, his wife—or Labatut’s version of her— puts it: ‘Johnny loved America as much as I despised it. All that maddening, unthinking optimism, all that cheerful naïveté […] America altered something inside him, it triggered a chemical or electrical rewiring of his brain.’ Here, at the level of vocabulary—‘maddening’, ‘unthinking’—Labatut already hints at the great irony that von Neumann as a figure and intellect represents. For many, the picture of sanity—an impression only sharpened by his extraordinary intelligence and easy-going demeanour—he was the ideal vehicle for what his colleague and collaborator Oskar Morgenstern called ‘perfectly rational insanity.’ The example par excellence of this was, of course, the US’s Cold War nuclear strategy of MAD (“Mutually Assured Destruction), which von Neumann played a central role in formulating.

The military establishment’s most potent weapon against doomsayers and suspected saboteurs like J. Robert Oppenheimer, the hawkish von Neumann seemingly shared none of his colleagues’ anxieties about the ends towards which their work was being directed. He was therefore a considerably more dangerous individual than the likes of Kurt Gödel, his notoriously taciturn colleague at Princeton, for he combined the mathematician’s rare ability to distill and reduce complex ideas with something far more common: a need for power. ‘Whatever he could not control or understand enraged him’, Klára complains in this book. Rather than retreating, as an Ehrenfest might have, Labatut shows von Neumann becoming ever more intent on figuring out how to master, tame, and dominate. Anything that behaved in what appeared to be unpredictable ways—the human body, for example—was simply a problem to be solved.

Shortly after the War, von Neumann became involved in the early development of computers. The most famous of these was MANIAC I (Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer Model I), which was the first to defeat a human in a chess-like game. In these machines, however primitive, he saw a future free of biological vulnerability; Labatut has his close friend, the theoretical phycisist Eugene Wigner, describe von Neumann’s longing for a form of consciousness ‘unharnessed from flesh.’ Von Neumann hoped that one day we could ‘merge with machines in a way that would allow computers to become aware, or permit our species to exist in a manner that would make us immune to corruption and disease.’ His obsession only intensified after he was diagnosed with advanced cancer in 1955, likely a result of his involvement in the Manhattan Project, the Oppenheimer-led programme to develop an atomic weapon before the Nazis, during which he would have been exposed to radiation.

In Wigner’s voice, Labatut depicts how von Neumann came to relate to his disease in ‘a highly morbid and superstitious way’, experiencing it as ‘an evil entity that was growing inside him, colonising his tissues, spreading and corrupting not just his flesh but also the soul that seemed to have awakened in his innermost self, and that grew at the same merciless rate with which his disease spread along his organs.’ The language of demonic possession is unmistakable here, and though the remedy prescribed is not that of the church, the philosophical assumptions the Wigner persona imputes to von Neumann are revealingly of a piece with its teachings: mind and body can be separated. Labatut’s Wigner decries his friend’s ‘chimeric and borderline unscientific’ ideas, which he sees as heralding a dangerous marriage between ‘advanced technology and our most archaic mechanisms of transcendence.’ As the cancer progressed, von Neumann, whose family were non-observant Jews, took to reading Scripture and concerned himself almost exclusively with ‘matters of the spirit’. He had been baptised a Catholic in 1930, but only for the purposes of marriage. Shortly before his death, and to his family’s confusion and dismay, he received the sacraments.

Von Neumann’s late turn to spirituality strikes Wigner as in part a depressingly conventional death-bed conversion motivated by terror of the unknown, and as something more disturbing and profound: Von Neumann had identified in religion the template which science would have to adopt if we were to prosper as a species in the future. Labatut has Wigner paraphrase one of his dying friend’s ‘sermons’: ‘In the long run, for us to have the slightest chance, we had to find some way of reaching beyond us, looking past the limits of our logic, language, and thought, to find solutions to the many problems that we would undoubtedly face as our dominion spread over the entire planet, and, soon enough, much farther still, all the way to the stars.’

In this respect, The Maniac is as much about the present as the past, speaking to contemporary concerns about runaway technological progress. Von Neumann’s delusions, filtered kaleidoscopically via the imagined reminiscences of those who knew him, prefigure the madcap fantasies of today’s transhumanists, accelerationists, and techno-optimists. Labatut draws out these resonances in the book’s final section, devoted to the Google DeepMind AI programme which took on Lee Sedol, a celebrated master of the ancient Chinese game Go. The ending culminates with the emergence of AlphaZero, the strongest and most versatile of DeepMind’s progammes to date, and thus takes the reader right up to the present, the brave new world von Neumann longed for now upon us.


Some have dismissed Labatut’s whole enterprise, including this latest novel, as a fawning exercise in ‘fanfic’, suggesting he is yet another writer seduced by ‘the grand performance of higher mathematics’, as the New Yorker’s James Wood said of Cormac McCarthy recently. Sure, the narrators of The Maniac appear at times almost bewitched by von Neumann’s talents, but who wouldn’t be? Besides, the speakers are typically his family and friends, and many, including his wife Klára, hardly shy away from emphasising his flaws, namely his extraordinary arrogance and calculating, Machiavellian understanding of human relations. ‘He could be incredibly cruel without realizing it’, Klára tells us: ‘He kept a merciless and exacting tally of every slight, insult, and injury. All my misspoken words, anything I had ever written or said in anger, were fossilized and preserved in that awful memory of his, and so he could pick me apart as if I were the object of one of his famous mathematical deductions’. If this is hagiography, it’s a strange genre of it.

The book’s central dramatis personae are mostly men, but Labatut appears aware of the gender bias in the material he has to work with, and gives welcome prominence to several women, stressing their status as pioneering thinkers in their own right. Von Neumann’s wife, Klára, who is now rightfully credited as one of the first computer programmers, and his daughter, Marina, a well-known economist, emerge as something like the book’s conscience, spelling out the disastrous implications of his increasingly deranged logic. In von Neumann’s final days, we hear his daughter asking him ‘how he used to be able to contemplate, with total equanimity, the killing of hundreds of millions of people in a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union, and yet he could not face his own mortality with any sense of calm or dignity. That is entirely different, he replied.’

More broadly, The Maniac raises the question of what constitutes an appropriate literary response to the kind of inscrutable genius displayed by von Neumann, of whom the Nobel laureate Hans Bethe said, ‘I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like his does not indicate a species superior to that of man’. James Wood has suggested that the crystalline precision of mathematics is apt to instil envy or even self-hatred in novelists, condemned as they are to grope in the altogether more nebulous realm of the verbal. In a review of The Maniac for 4Columns, Sasha Frere-Jones detects less this insecurity but instead a form of immaturity, noting the often excitable tone of Labatut’s prose, which he calls ‘tumescent’ and ‘aphrodisiacal’. Latent in this critique is a sense that there is something essentially juvenile and boyish about such amazement in the face of genius—and an implication that guilty embarrassment is the only mature response to so adolescent a reflex. But what is, then, a fitting approach to writing about such volatile, troubling brilliance, and, with it, some of the last century’s most epochal events? Labatut’s flourishes of feverish prose seem warranted, to me, considering his subject matter.

In our contemporary context, such wariness about scientific genius seems, to some extent, a matter of cultural and political sensibility. Given the individuals who claim to be the most committed champions of technological progress these days—think Elon Musk and his army of IQ-obsessed sycophants—to sound horny for science is to risk courting the wrong company: that of the terminally uncool and politically toxic. These are individuals who conceive of genius not as some manifestation of the sublime, as Labatut does, but rather latch on to the concept as a way of justifying the economic hierarchies they happen to benefit from. If anything, though, Labatut’s passionate account of von Neumann’s life serves as a cautionary tale, and might also put into perspective the altogether more modest endowments of such figures, who risibly position themselves as his heirs. Tellingly, these are less likely to be scientists themselves than tech bros, billionaire entrepreneurs and ‘rationalists’: people who like to fetishize the prestige of science so as to profit from it. If the likes of Musk can be said to share anything with von Neumann, it is surely his menace more than his genius. In The Maniac, Labatut cunningly repurposes one of von Neumann’s last published papers, ‘Can We Survive Technology?’, in the form of a final letter to Wigner. Von Neumann offered a clear warning, one his self-professed legatees would do well to heed: ‘Technology as such is always an ambivalent achievement […] It is not the particularly perverse destructiveness of one specific invention that creates danger. The danger is intrinsic. For progress there is no cure.’