Richard Powers is a writer I’ve always admired rather than loved. When I reviewed his Generosity for Strange Horizons in 2011, when it was shortlisted for SF’s Arthur C. Clarke Award, I called it “a brilliant, brave and exquisitely composed novel”—and it is, I still consider it one of his best novels, perhaps second only to The Gold Bug Variations. Powers has since got into the habit of being shortlisted for the Booker Prize: in 2018, his The Overstory made the cut, and I called it then “monumental in its solidity, its fixedness of purpose.” That latter bit of praise might strike you as backhanded, suggesting as it does a novel which was also a bit stodgy, maybe overinsistent. I think that’s exactly what The Overstory was, and I cannot say I have much yearning to return to it; for all the undeniably more supple qualities of Generosity, nor can I say I’ve ever felt the need to dive back into the earlier novel, either. As I said: I can admire Powers, but I don’t think I’ve ever become a partisan.
At first, I thought Bewilderment might change that. It is far more focused than either of those two prior novels, keeping its perspective firmly centred on its central father-and-son duo. The father, our narrator, is an astrobiologist named Theo. He lives in a near future that has become obsessed with finding other, Earth-like planets. His research focuses on modelling other planets for what sort of life they might give rise to; increasingly this involves charting the extremsely wide range of ways in which that life has failed to survive, and why by the time Earthlings observe the planet it is uninhabited. This is Theo’s response to Fermi’s paradox: if aliens exist, why aren’t they here yet? Ultimately, his models echo Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan’s update of the Drake Equation, which sought mathematically to estimate the number of intelligent lifeforms in the galaxy: Earth, his numbers conclude, is probably host to the only technological civilisation anywhere in the Milky Way. The odds, essentially, are against us. “Holy crow. How many things did earth need [to make life],” one character asks incredulously. “More than a planet deserves,” is the dyspeptic reply (p. 14).
This work feels acutely relevant in the world in which the junior member of the novel’s central pairing, Robin, has developed acute and inconsolable distress: in this near future—where a Trump-like president is spending more time seeking to revoke the US constitution than on tackling climate change—the destruction of habitats and animals and, yes, likely human civilisation, is baked in. Society is already fraying—militias on the street, journalists in jail—as the coral reefs die and the Smokies begin to resemble a rainforest. “The world had become something no schoolchild should be allowed to discover” (p. 182). Earth, perhaps, is not the galaxy’s only technological civilisation; but, if it isn’t, it is only the latest to fail. Robin asks almost obsessively for details of his dad’s work. They tour the modelled planets of a speculative galaxy together, meeting bear-people and plant-based societies, watching planetary civilisations rise and fall; it does little to console Robin, the “sad, singular, newly-turning nine-year-old, in trouble with this world” (p. 1).
Robin’s distress is only deepened by the recent death of his mother, Aly, who died in a car accident when she swerved to save an opossum (she shared Robin’s sometimes self-destructive commitment to the animal kingdom). The robin was her favourite bird—she told Theo this on their first date. Her absence in her son’s life has driven him to distraction—just as he obsessively asks for information about his father’s work, he constantly demands details of a woman who is already receding into the irretrievable past. When children at school bully Robin by referring disparagingly to his dead mother, he physically injures them. Ahead of diagnoses of autism and ADHD, his father seeks therapies that might help Robin.
All this is delicately presented. For Powers, the first third of this novel is remarkably lightly and sympathetically written, whatever naivety that appears in the prose errs just on the side either of evoking Robin’s own or accessing the reader’s purer empathies. There are early clangers—“my boy was a pocket universe I couldn’t help but fathom” feels particularly clumsy (p. 5)—and Aly too often appears as improbably perfect (she is seen in flashback “cranking out fully researched action plans for one of the country’s leading animal rights NGOs every other week while dashing off countless diplomatic emails and press releases in her spare minutes” [p. 51]). But it is also hard not to develop a fondness for the narrator’s “pale, odd son” (p. 121), or for his clarity of vision about the world in which he lives: “Remember how Pawpaw just kept getting sicker and sicker and wouldn’t go to the doctor, and then he died?” Robin remembered his grandfather at one point. “That’s what everybody’s doing” (p. 163). Sure, these lines are calculated to be good, to place in the mouth of a babe the easy wisdom of the aphorism. But it works, for a while. Powers does something he hasn’t done before: he depicts, and evokes, love.
Alas, the spell doesn’t hold. The therapy Theo arrives at is an “empathy machine” designed by a university colleague named Currier—and once tested on Aly herself. Saved in the machine is a pattern she created when thinking about the emotion of ecstasy—essentially, the machine recorded her brain patterns and, in theory, has therefore saved a thought, an emotional response, that belong to a woman now dead. In an attempt to soothe Robin, to “fix” him—to give him something he is missing—Theo and Currier agree to plug Robin into the machine and let him experience Aly’s thought. Despite their scepticism, it works—Robin begins to get better, developing a range of strategies and happinesses which he is now able to deploy “in the face of the world’s basic brokenness” (p. 138).
Theo agrees that this is a conceit that “could have come from one of the two thousand SF novels in my collection” (p. 93). This is a novel in which people think like this. It’s a novel in which Theo and Robin actually read and refer to Flowers for Algernon constantly. In other words, it is a novel which becomes less subtle—not more so—as it goes on. There is the Greta Thunberg analogue, the campus funding politics—“this late in the world’s story, everything was marketing” (p. 179)—and there is, inevitably, the oversimplistic characterisation of the novel’s political opponents: “If we academic elites found that life arose all over, it wouldn’t say much for humanity’s Special Relationship with God” (p. 218). There is a difference between slimness and shallowness; focus need not be facile. The treatment of the novel’s themes feels too often overly broad. Perhaps the aim is accessibility, and I think the novel achieves this; but it is at the expense of a comprehensive approach I might previously have associated with this author.
This is a shame, because the novel’s central contention is interesting: that, fundamentally, if we are to survive as a planetary system we must learn to think as one. The intense empathy Robin develops while under treatment with Aly could—perhaps must—be granted to all of us, given sufficient will. This is Aly’s idea: “if some small but critical mass of people recovered a sense of kinship, economics would become ecology” (p. 177). Robin is increasingly treated like a celebrity rather than a messiah, but only politics—an increasing crackdown on campuses by the brutal dictator—gets in the way of his continued treatment (and the ongoing study of his situation). Ultimately, he proves the case—that what we all need is something “that could make us feel what it was like not to be us” (p. 166). Robin comes to “feel bad for them”—that is, other humans who have not had his treatment (p. 111). “They’re trapped inside themselves, right?” Robin’s wonder for their world—“Look where we are! Who gets this?” (p. 21)—is in this context radical.
If it’s also all a bit contrived, so is most literature. But Powers is also, perhaps, a bit too controlled: there are no countervailing winds in this novel, nothing to knock its theme off course, no grit to give it layers. Tellingly, what complexity there is comes in Powers’s best line, the one that also gives the novel its title: “Only pure bewilderment kept us from civil war” (p. 238). In other words, the confusion we have for each other is also what keeps us from simply destroying each other—we are too confused to act. There’s something in this, but everywhere else in the novel events are instead powered by an almost YAish determinism: the plot and the characters have a place to get to, a message to impart, and they do. “Which do you think is bigger?” Robin asks us (p. 268). “Outer space … or inner?” It’s a wonderful question for a writer whose career has straddled the science-fictional and the literary to ask. But this novel is ultimately too loaded to answer it fully.