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Richard Powers: Bewilderment

When you read a Richard Powers novel you more or less know what you are going to get: a very well-told story, a very original story and a lot about scientific ideas, particularly cutting-edge ideas. In the past, these ideas were often (though certainly not only) in the realm of computers, In his previous book Powers fully moved into environmental issues and the natural world, and this is very much the concern here, though we have the issue of intelligent life on other planets, a topic he has previously touched on, as well as behavioural modification techniques. Don’t let that put you off. If you are like me, you probably won’t understand it all but that is not really necessary to appreciate this book.

Our hero is Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist working in what he calls Madtown, Cheeseland, i.e, Madison, Wisconsin. He is a widower. His wife, Alyssa, a keen animal rights activist, was killed when she swerved to avoid an opossum. They had one (unplanned) child, a boy called Robin who will turn nine early in the book.

Robin has issues. What exactly those issues are is not exactly clear. Robin has been subject to tantrums and violence and variously diagnosed with Asperger’s, OCD, and ADHD. Theo does not accept the doctors’ diagnosis. He has, he feels, a highly intelligent, very sensitive son, who does not fit into the system and does not conform with the general view of what a boy of his age should be like. The problem is that he had been violent at school and has missed school. He has been cut some slack because of the death of his mother but the school principal can no longer accept either his absences or his behaviour, particularly when he throws a thermos at the only boy he is friendly with and badly injures the boy’s cheek.

At the beginning of the novel, Theo takes Robin away for a few days camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The closeness to nature has a calming effect on both father and son. Six different kinds of forest all around us. Seventeen hundred flowering plants. More tree species than in all of Europe. Thirty kinds of salamander, for God’s sake. They commune with nature the whole time. Theo has something of a game with Robin. He invents imaginary planets which always have different structures, different life forms and they discuss them.

However once back in the real world… As Alyssa was into protecting endangered species. Robin decides that he is going to draw pictures of every endangered species in the United States. He does not realise that there are more than two thousand. However, he gets obsessed with the project and refuses to go to school, causing problems with both his father and the school. As Theo says I could no more raise a child than I could speak Swahili.

Before Alyssa’s death they had both become involved in a project called Decoded Neurofeedback. Basically, it maps people’s brains when they enter specific emotional states. The idea is to make a detailed map based on mapping the brain activity of a large number of people in these specific states, therefore giving them a good idea of what emotional state a person is in when their brain activity corresponds to the mapping.

To define these states, they use a classification based on Plutchik’s wheel of emotions. Plutchik identified only eight emotional states, Powers calls them Terror, Amazement, Grief, Loathing, Rage, Vigilance, Ecstasy, Admiration. Interestingly the Wikipedia article linked has the same states but with different names, i.e. Anticipation, Joy, Trust, Fear, Surprise, Sadness, Disgust, Anger. Whatever they are called, I am sure we would all disagree with their choice but no matter.

When Alyssa and Theo were doing it, Alyssa was given Ecstasy. In other words she had to think of something that made her ecstatic. (Theo got Grief.) Whatever she thought about it clearly had a profound effect on her. When they got home, Robin is shoved into his room and the couple have sex.

Theo now wonders whether this project could help Robin. Currier, the man in charge, seems to think it could. Robin is shown a mapping of Alyssa’s brain scan and he has to try and map it with his own brain. This initially succeeds.

Much of the rest of the novel is about how this project works out. However, there are other things going on. In the real world, there is a president who is trying to restrict immigration and restrict civil liberties. (I suspect this novel was written before the November 2020 US presidential election.) He soon turns his attention to science which he neither likes nor understands. He tweets Why are we pouring ever more money into a BOTTOMLESS PIT that will never return a SINGLE CENT on investment??? Socalled “Science” should stop inventing facts and charging them to the American People!! Both Theo’s project and the Currier project are in danger, the latter more so as the pro-life brigade do not like it.

Robin becomes more and more interested in nature and the environment and soon discovers Inga Alder (clearly based on Greta Thunberg) and finds great affinity with her. Indeed, he wants to be like her. Like his father and lots of other people he is getting increasingly concerned about what is happening in the wider world, not just the actions of the US president but also the effects of climate change. Not all agree. Earth had two kinds of people: those who could do the math and follow the science, and those who were happier with their own truths. His father adds People, Robbie. They’re a questionable species.

As always with Powers, there is a lot going on in this book. Firstly, there is the whole issue of bringing up a child. We probably all do it wrong and, as mentioned above, Theo struggles with it. The key issues in this book are, firstly, how do you bring up a child who is different, special. Often we label them, as Powers indicates here (ADHD, OCD, Asperger’s) and then proceed from there. Does that work? Powers thinks not. Each child is different and there is not a generic treatment.

The idea of behavioural modification using a parent’s brain scan is of course fascinating but can it, would it work? Could it even exist or is it just another Ritalin?

Secondly, Powers is clearly pointing out that we are losing our contact with nature and that this is having disastrous effects on the planet and its people and animals. This is not, of course, an original idea but Powers does make it forcefully.

Thirdly, the world or, more particularly, the US is tilting to the right. He does not examine the root causes but he does point out the dangers though obviously he is by no means the first person to point out how dangerous Donald Trump is/was.

Related to that, he is pointing out the importance of science whose objective is not commercial but aimed at increasing our knowledge of both our world and the world beyond our world. If we want to know who and what we are we need independent but well-funded scientific research.

Finally, he looks to other planets. He is not saying that extraterrestrials have been or will be popping down for a visit any time soon but he does say that life can take many forms and not necessarily ones we are familiar with. Moreover, he points out that intelligent life could and almost certainly would have evolved in ways different from the ways we know.

The idea of the Fermi paradox (that if there is intelligent life out there why hasn’t it paid us a visit) and its variation the Zoo hypothesis is important and he has suggestions as to why it exists and why they have not visited us or, at least shown themselves. This is, of course, a standard trope of science fiction but still interesting.

The title, by the way, comes from a quotation from Plato, which appears in Flowers for Algernon, a key book for Theo and Robin. The quotation reads Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.

In conclusion I can only repeat what I say after reviewing any Powers books. This is another superb novel, full of interesting ideas and with a great story to tell and, as always, very well-told.

Publishing history

First published 2021 by W W Norton