Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Alongside The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, this is probably the most important, and affecting novel that I’ll read this year.

Theo is an astrobiologist, a scientist who studies exoplanets around other stars in our galaxy. He’s a single parent bringing up his 9-year old son Robin, a child with behavioural issues, as both of them continue to grieve the loss of Alyssa, mother to his son.

Robin finds school challenging, being picked on by other children for being different, and unable to control some of his feelings leading to constant disciplinary issues. For Theo, the fear is that he’s going to be forced to begin some kind of drug regime for Robin.

Robin has an awareness of the natural world around him much like his mother did. She was someone who was an environmental activist, petitioning US State government and spending her spare time birdwatching.

In 1985, the pilot/backstory of Max Headroom was called 20 Minutes Into the Future, and that’s as apt a description of the world this novel is set in as anything else. The US is falling apart. In the background, a belligerent right wing President is in power, and around the edges the environmental impact of continued disregard for our planet is having greater effects – forest fires, flooding, hurricanes. Freedom of expression is disappearing, and democracy is fading.

In the evenings, Theo takes his son out to distant exoplanets around the Milky Way, describing a new world each time, with its plant and animal life, and how life may have evolved differently depending upon the environmental challenges that the particular world might face.

As Theo desperately tries to find a better way to care for his son, in desperation he contacts a friend, a former partner of his late wife who is developing some neurological techniques that might deliver the possibility of his son developing some better control of his life.

Enrolling in a research experiment begins to make some profound improvements to Robin’s life, and brings about some major changes to his life.

Goodness, Power is angry here. You can feel his rage seeping through the pages of the book. But it’s kept in check by a textured and nuanced story that’s simply beautiful. Whereas Ministry for the Future was utterly explicit in our uncaringness for what we’re doing to the planet – driving home the message in chapter after chapter – Bewilderment takes a softer approach. There are just small tell-tale signs that something is going badly wrong, with society just “accepting” what’s happening and moving on as though nothing could be done.

This book couldn’t be more apt for 2021 – a year that saw the Capitol Insurrection and now faces COP26. The new normal is not a great place.

This is a book about science and nature; exploring the advances in science at the same time as dismissing them or not caring about them; about the utter disregard for so much of our planet by so many.

We see things happen, and we do nothing.

That’s what I mean about the anger. Robin may only be nine, but he asks the kind of questions that any sane person should be asking. At one point, spurred on by a Greta Thunberg-type character, he gets inspired, even as a Trumpian president destabilises hundreds of years of democracy.

As Theo takes Robin on his virtual trips to new worlds around the galaxy each night, we become distinctly aware of the fact that this world may only be here for an incidental period on a cosmological scale. We are so small.

An essential novel.

I need to go away and read Powers’ previous novel Overstory, alongside both Entangled Life and Finding the Mother Tree.