‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

2021, 288 p.

I must be getting cynical. You look at the headlines and peep over the edge of the cauldron of the bubbling social media brew, and you know that you’re going to see all this moulded into fiction within the writing-and-publishing lead time that drives the book industry. MeToo, neurodiversity, gender, bushfires, climate change: I bet that readers in the future will be able to predict the publication date of a book by its theme (although, I do wonder if that hasn’t always been the case). Capturing the zeitgeist, yes, but there’s a narrow line that separates it from a form of political bashing-over-the-head. Perhaps it was because I’ve just watched the contortions of COP26, or been listening to a series of podcasts on Australia’s response to the climate crisis, or because I read The Guardian, but Richard Powers’ Bewilderment felt too heavy-handed for me.

Theo Byrne is a widowed astrobiologist, working on a long-term government-funded project programming simulations of life on other planets, spinning tales of other forms of life and society amongst the immensity of space. These are the stories he tells his son Robin, a brilliant and neurodiverse nine-year old, whose obsessions and volatility have led to his threatened expulsion from school. Both father and son are left bereft by the death of Alys, an environmental activist, in a car-crash two years before the story starts. When the school issues an ultimatum about medication or expulsion, Theo turns to a family friend who is working on a technology called Decoded Neurofeedback. Cocooned into an MRI machine, Robin learns to control his mental waves to approximate those of another subject, who just happens, in an ethical WTF, to be his mother whose neural records had been retained from her participation in earlier iterations of the technology. He adapts quickly to the learning, and begins to draw on not only his mother’s emotional and intellectual brain waves, but also on her world view and even, at a stretch, her relationship with Theo, Robin’s father. Already attuned through his father’s work to the contingency and explosive variation of life – in all its forms – Robin’s awareness of the climate crisis is heightened to the point of anguish. Publicity about the Decoded Neurofeedback technology catapults Robin into social media celebrity which, driven by his mother’s environmental passion that he is now channelling, he uses as a platform for activism in a world hurtling towards climate oblivion.

I hadn’t noticed the ‘Science Fiction’ designation on the back cover of this book, and when I heard someone else talking about it, I had felt that it sounded a bit implausible. However, for me, science fiction is most accessible when it is written in near-time, with the emphasis on the human rather than the science. I know that neurofeedback is increasingly being drawn into the medical and psychological mainstream, and there are many characters in this book who are familiar: a Donald Trump-type President (maybe even the Real Donald Trump) who tweets in capital letters and exclamation marks, and a Greta Thunburg- type character, an “oval-faced girl in tight pigtails”, called Inger Alder, who inspires Robin to action. There’s a nice little twist in the title with the inclusion of “wild”, reflecting its environmental theme. Also running through the book are allusions to Daniel Keyes’ short story Flowers for Algernon, but perhaps these references should have come with asterisks and links to an online bookshop, because it is important to the plot which becomes patently obvious to anyone who has read Keyes’ story or seen the film ‘Charly’ which it spawned. Although, perhaps it would have been more powerful if you were unaware of these antecedents.

The book is written from Theo’s point of view, with both Robin’s and his wife Ally’s words in italics, as if they are coming from somewhere else. There are no chapters, but instead a series of short episodes, each marked by capital letters in the opening sentence, giving the book a filmic character. Emotionally it is powerful, just as Keyes’ short-story was, leaving you with a hollowness at the loss of passion and intelligence, as the world and the protagonists of the book subside into a dark silence.

Much of the science in this book passed me by, but it is a testament to Powers’ writing that, instead of repelling, its complexity helped build a cosmological imagination, against which our heedlessness and intransigence in relation to climate and the environment seems particularly bone-headed. I regret, though, that the book veered into telling and not showing. It was just a bit too didactic for me.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I read this book because it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It merits its place on the shortlist, but its inclusion validates my fears that the Booker Prize would lose its distinctively Commonwealth nature, as it is a very American book.

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