‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

BewildermentBewilderment is an entirely rational response to what we are collectively doing to our planet. Confronted by the injustices, dysfunction and unsustainability of the world we’ve created, how can we not react with bewilderment?

This wonderful novel is both an exploration of our sense of being overwhelmed by our condition and also a potential antidote to it. In a near future only slightly more bewildering than the present, the many threats to rationality and life itself are seen through the close relationship of a father and son, Theo and Robin. Their response is also shaped by the recent loss of a third key character, Alyssa, whose memory and thought patterns are still very much present in the narrative.

Astrobiologist Theo and his neurodivergent son Robin share a lot, including Alyssa’s belief system and the mantra ‘may all sentient beings be free from needless suffering’. It’s hard to disagree with their world view, and also hard to reconcile it with the overwhelming evidence that the one ‘sentient being’ who could live up to this aspiration is doing a very thorough job of messing things up.

The parent-child relationship and its tension with the developing world-child relationship is central to the book. Robin’s difficult journey is perfectly paced, including a detour via his successful use of a neurofeedback therapy which transforms his consciousness and perception.

The story is punctuated by short planetary biographies, jointly imagined by father and son. Dvau, Falasha, Pelagos, Geminus, Isola, Tedia, Chromat, Mios, Nithar, Similis… each is a thought-experiment, an exploration of the many possible ways life might emerge and thrive in different conditions and different parts the universe. The overall effect of our exposure to these other worlds is to help us view our home planet and its inhabitants from a different perspective and a little more clearly each time round.

Stasis, for instance, is a planet very much like Earth but whose axis has little tilt meaning there is one monotone season at each latitude and the boundaries between biomes run like property lines. As a result, Stasis has no intelligent life because

“nothing needs to remember or predict much further out than now… there was no great call to adjust or improvise or second-guess or model much of anything.”

Reflecting on this, Robin asks:“Trouble is what causes intelligence?”

Theo responds:

“…yes. Crisis and change and upheaval.

His voice turned sad and wondrous. Then we’ll never find anyone smarter than us.

The specific issues raised carry universal messages. The threats to defund the very promising ‘Decoded Neuro Feedback’ therapy which is helping Robin so mcuh, of to cancel Theo’s belowed ‘next gen’ telescope and ‘Seeker’ projects searching for life beyond Earth, the risks associated with industrialised farming and the self-defeating attack on biodiversity. These are particular concerns, but they all relate to the central question: how can a species capable of such creativity also be so carelessly destructive and narcissistic?

The novel deals with the ‘planetary’ uniqueness of every human being, the meeting of inner and outer space, the finite and the infinite and the vastness of both the universe and the human mind. In effect it is an inquiry into the possibility of intelligent life on Earth let alone anywhere else in the cosmos.

Every novel communicates ideas of some kind and has the potential to change its readers’ perception of reality. We think of the ‘novel of ideas’ as having a particular ability to shift our understanding of the world and of our condition, with the possibility also of spurring us to action.

Richard Powers is a genius of the ‘novel of ideas’, combining a profound understanding of scientific concepts with the ability to weave them into very human stories. In his work, the ideas are always deeply rooted and thoroughly explored, and this is pared-down Powers; the perfect distillation of meaning, narrative and emotion with not a word out of place.

See also:

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)

‘The Ministry for The Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (December 2020)

‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver (August 2019)

‘You either bend the arc or it bends you’ – ‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow (September 2021)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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