Bewilderment by Richard Powers (book review).

October 2, 2021 | By | Reply More

Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers is a literary Science Fiction novel, set in a world very similar to our own or in the very near future, take your pick.

Theo Bryne is an astrophysicist, searching for signs of life on exo-planets. He is also a widower with a nine year-old son, Robin, who is prone to bouts of anger and can be difficult to handle. The doctors are not sure what is wrong with Robin: ‘the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD and one possible ADHD.’

This is the story of a father desperate to keep his son off drugs like Ritalin, which the authorities threaten him with. After yet another temper tantrum, Theo takes Robin out of school for a week on a trip to the Smokies, a National Park in the Appalachian Mountains of America. Here a mourning Robin can be closer to his dead mother, Aly (short for Alyssa), who was an environmental activist. Robin develops an enthusiastic interest in all things wildlife.

The break is only a respite. Once back at school, Robin is back to being behaviourally challenged. This time he ends up breaking another boy’s cheekbone. The pressure mounts on Theo to do something about Robin. He finally gets help from Martin Currier, a neuroscientist who has recordings of the emotional states of both Aly and Theo. Currier experiments on Robin and uses Aly’s recordings to teach him how to self-induce happiness.

Is the experiment successful? Answering this is what the rest of the novel is about.

The writing in this novel, especially those precious moments between father and son, is exquisite. The words flow off the page into easily imagined scenes and to readily induce empathy with the portrayed emotions. This novel is a master class in literary writing techniques.

A central premise of ‘Bewilderment’ is that childhood and astronomy share a lot. ‘Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both…’

Throughout the novel, Theo introduces Robin to various imagined planets as a way of distracting him from impending rages or trying to answer Robin’s burning question about where are all the aliens? Each planet in turn gives part of the answer and what form aliens might take. The novel ends up containing a catalogue of standard theorised planets. Here Powers invokes literary license by choosing the planet to reflect the mood of the story at that stage. The list is long. Theo’s named planets alone are Dvau, Falasha, Pelagos, Geminus, Stasis, Isola, Tedia, Chromat, Mios, Nithar, Similis and Xenia. Those who know the roots of words can guess what these planets are about.

Another thread throughout the novel is the disintegration of Earth through climate change. In many ways, this reflects the gradual destruction of Theo’s memories of Aly with the passing of time.

Comments about Science Fiction are sprinkled throughout the novel. Perhaps the most poignant is Theo saying, ‘Not even the craziest SF story from my youth predicted it,’, it is a planet where the past kept on happening again and again, forever. But it left me wondering whether Powers believes this to be a major failing of the Science Fiction genre.

Bewilderment’s science and technology is wide-ranging and credible, even in those areas of extrapolated science. Powers has certainly done his homework here.

However, given ‘Bewilderment’ was published in 2021, what I felt was missing was the comprehensive understanding of research in the early to late-2010s to pick out the most suitable technology to deliver a required result. Powers quite correctly indicates an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner in which you lie down in for the measurements can take comprehensive readings of the brain’s activities. What he missed is researchers had by 2015 found ways to do very similar with just the use of a hood with pads. This technique would have reduced the expense of the research that is a notable plot point.

It makes me wonder how ‘Bewilderment’ would have changed had Powers known this. My guess it would have been a very different novel.

Rosie Oliver

October 2021

(pub: Hutchinson Heinemann, 2021. 278 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78515-263-4)

check out website: www.penguin.co.uk/company/publishers/cornerstone/hutchinson-heinemann.html

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Category: Books, Scifi

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