In Richard Powers’ latest novel, Bewilderment, astrobiologist Theo Byrne is a single father struggling to raise his nine-year-old son Robin. Robin himself struggles with emotional turmoil for which there’s no clear diagnosis.
“So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD … Half the third-graders in this country could be squeezed into one of those categories.” [p. 97]
Theo builds computer models that conjure up life on hundreds of exoplanets, while struggling to explain to his son the destructive behavior of the dominant species on this planet.
In the background, there’s a Trump-like president raving about imagined threats while ignoring the real ones – mass extinctions and pandemics that are devastating the planet.
“The world had become something no schoolchild should be allowed to discover.” [p. 182]
After a violent lunchroom incident, Robin’s school threatens to call in Social Services unless Theo seeks treatment for him. The school doesn’t seem to care what the treatment is, “so long as Big Pharma gets their cut.” In desperation, Theo seeks help from an old colleague who is researching something called Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef), a kind of mindfulness training with integrated real-time neural imaging that drives AI-assisted feedback.
Robin responds well to DecNef treatment, becoming calmer, more self-aware and self-confident until …
By Richard Powers
W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2021
I hugely enjoyed Richard Powers’ previous novel The Overstory, which I reviewed here, so I had high hopes for Bewilderment. There are several themes running through the book, each interesting in their own right. But even though it’s structurally a simpler novel with far fewer characters, Bewilderment didn’t seem to come together as well for me.
One idea that does stand out is the Fermi Paradox: The Universe contains so many galaxies with so many stars and so many planets orbiting them that the probability of intelligent life on other planets must be very high. So where is everyone? Why haven’t we discovered them or been contacted by them?
There are many possible answers to the Fermi Paradox. Bewilderment suggests that we find it so hard to comprehend different kinds of intelligence among each other that maybe we can’t yet recognize extraterrestrial intelligence, and at the rate we’re going, our civilization may self-destruct before we ever do.