2022 Book #2 – Bewilderment by Richard Powers

by James Wallace Harris, 1/16/21

I often wonder how young people today feel about the future. The only way to have hope is through massive acts of denial. Susan and I never had children, so I don’t know what it’s like to answer their questions as they grow up. Do you lie? Do you hide the news? What do you tell them about the metal detectors in the schools? How do you explain our handling of pandemics or climate change? What do you teach your kids about race relations and the politics of hate? What do you tell your kids about the thousands of failures we are facing as a society?

This is the core of the new novel by Richard Powers. Bewilderment is about raising a nine-year-old kid with emotional problems. He’s probably on the autism spectrum but is very high functioning. He probably has other learning disorders, but nothing is definite. He has trouble in school and his teachers want to medicate him with powerful psychoactive drugs. He has hair-trigger tantrums. His mother has died. How would you cope with such a kid? To make matters worse, the setting is the near future where things have gotten even worse than today. Imagine what the U.S. would be like if Trump was on his third term.

Bewilderment is not marketed as science fiction, but it’s set slightly into the future and talks about technology that might be possible soon. The story often references science fiction and uses its techniques, so I do consider it a science fiction novel. It’s the most gut-wrenching science fiction novel since Flowers for Algernon. If that novel wrecked you emotionally, you might not want to read this one. I found this one even more emotionally devastating.

Theo Byrne is the widower father of Robin (Robbie), a nine-year-old boy who is smart enough to know that humanity is on an insane self-destructive path and he can’t stop asking why. Robbie relentlessly wonders why his father, his teachers, or any of the adults he meets don’t act rationally. Robbie acts out, sometimes violently, sometimes in tantrums, demanding truth and honesty. Robbie is the one sighted person in the land of the blind. Robbie is the person we should all be. And Theo is constantly at his wit’s end trying to help his son.

Teachers want to control Robbie with psychoactive meds, and Theo is looking for any solution but that. Theo is a great dad. He constantly tries to engage Robin in insightful learning. Theo has two tools for calming Robbie. One, he calls on his memory of reading 2,000 paperback science fiction novels for engaging stories to divert Robbie from his meltdowns. Second, Theo is a scientist developing simulations of exoplanets for the day a new space telescope will be launched. He gets Robbie involved in these possible worlds that could be discovered soon. The basis of Theo’s work is to develop as many simulations as he can, so when the telescope detects certain conditions with an exoplanet they can match it to the simulations and quickly understand what we might be seeing.

Theo uses his simulations to visualize being on other planets to engage Robbie’s attention. This works at times, but often it only fuels Robbie’s awareness of what we’re doing to the planet Earth. For a nine-year-old, Robin can extrapolate brilliantly. His bullshit detector never fails.

Bewilderment progresses through one year of Theo’s and Robin’s life. Robbie is obsessed with memories of his dead mother, who was a lawyer for all the save-the-world causes. It’s through learning about his mother that Robbie finds some hope of controlling his emotions.

Like I said, most people will not consider Bewilderment a real science fiction novel. Bewilderment doesn’t have spaceships, galactic empires, time travel, robots, or dystopias — well, other than our own. The reason I like to think of Bewilderment as a science fiction novel is it uses all the sense of wonder I grew up with to give us hope for the real future we’re about to enter.

Unfortunately, Bewilderment shows our science fiction dreams are going to fail us. Or more exactly, we are going to fail them. The rap sheet for our species is long. The list of what we’re destroying grows every day. One of the things Richard Powers believes we’re destroying is our positive science fiction dreams. That like me, he worries about what hopes young people can still find in science fiction.

Science fiction has always been about hopes and fears regarding the future. What happens when science fiction only has fears to work with?


19 thoughts on “2022 Book #2 – Bewilderment by Richard Powers”

  1. This book was so beautifully written, as was Powers’ earlier book, The Overstory. But, as you note, it was absolutely devastating. I felt gutted after reading it, and quite hopeless. I hadn’t thought of it as science fiction, but you make a good case for it. I fear, though, that it’s more science non-fiction.

  2. I’m puzzled by the book’s pessimism that I’m glad you detected too, as Powers expressed his intention to add to the debate and try to help convince people to act on climate change.

    1. I didn’t see any ideas about solving climate change, or even a call to action. But then, the novel might be like that movie, Don’t Look Up and is just showing how stupid we all are – and I guess with the hopes that we’ll stop being stupid.

      My guess is Powers doesn’t see any hope either. And like me, he regrets that we’re not going to do all those things we thought we were going to do in science fiction stories.

      1. Could very well be, but he did express his intention to try and change people’s minds on climate change. If you have no hope, why bother writing about it with that agenda?

        I think it’s a bit of a blind spot in Powers’ own reasoning.

          1. Yes, probably. I’m not sure the novel succeeded on its own terms, but it the writing was excellent, and I thought the ending was very strong and emotional.

          2. bormgans, that’s an impressive review of Bewilderment but I feel you focus your criticism on aspects of the novel that weren’t meant to be primary issues. Most of the novel is about raising an emotionally disturbed child. It’s about the father and son. And it’s done beautifully.

            Yes, the novel is intended to remind us of humanity’s problems, but the focus is on what do we tell kids today about those problems. How do we soothe their fears, and explain how to live with these horrors. It’s about being a parent. And I thought it interesting that the dad, Theo, used science fiction and science to distract Robin’s obsessive thoughts.

            A certain amount of this novel could be considered criticism of humanity and politics, but the vast majority is a work of art about a father and son.

            Science fiction is often indifferent to matters of the heart. We SF fans get too distracted by ideas and plot. So when I literary writer veers too close to our territory we judge them by ideas and not by the emotion in their stories.

          3. Yes, I agree partly to what you say, I’ve responded also at length to your comment on my blog, and that touches on some of the issue you raise here too.

            But I also feel the answer the dad gives to his child is a bit lacking. As a parent of young children myself, I didn’t feel I really got good advice from Powers. On the contrary even, the novel is defeatist, and the solution to soothe the child is totally speculative, and boils down to ‘more science’ will fix your feelings, and in the end he fails his kid. I also felt the dad didn’t take the lead, but on the contrary, the child kind of took over. I’m not saying all that is bad, as I said, I was very emotional at the end of the book, but it isn’t in line with what was promised on the back cover. I talk about these issues a bit too in my own review.

          4. bormgans, what do you tell your children? How old are they? Are they interested or concerned about the future?

            I’m not sure Theo could have told Robin anything that would have satisfied him. We have solutions to our problems, but we’re not going to pursue them.

            I thought Powers chose a brilliant approach by creating Robin. Our real failure is letting down future generations. That’s our crime. It isn’t about the specifics of our problems, but our guilt.

            The novel is not defeatist — it’s realistic. We’re on the Titanic heading towards the iceberg and we aren’t doing a damn thing. I admire Powers for not giving us any sugar coating. This novel was not about the problems or solving the problems. We’re not going to solve our problems. This novel just asks us, what are we going to tell our children.

            Here is one film, on one issue, deforestation. I could give you dozens. Each one leads to a different iceberg. We’re doing nothing significant to stop it. What do we tell the coming generations? If we’re honest we’ll tell them to expect a massive paradigm shift in how we live — get ready. It would be lying to say we’ll fix it. That was Theo’s problem. He couldn’t tell Robin the truth, the best he could do was divert his attention, probably hoping that once he gain some emotional stability he could learn the truth.

          5. My children are 3 and 5 and totally oblivious of the future. I 100% agree that we are on the Titanic, and that Powers is realistic as such.

            I can only hope my children will be able to live a meaningful life, and I think there’s a good chance that they will.

    1. Sorry, you didn’t enjoy it. It’s not science fiction like Iain M. Banks or Kim Stanley Robinson would write, but I think it’s a subtle, literary kind of science fiction, what some people used to call slipstream. You didn’t get this far, but Bewilderment eventually models Flowers for Algernon, one of the genre’s most beautiful book.

      I’ve always considered fiction about the future to belong to the category of science fiction, and Bewilderment is all about the future. The difference between Bewilderment and most science fiction books is most science fiction books are about fantasies of possibilities that have no chance of ever becoming real, whereas Bewilderment is a fantasy about our reality.

      I used to believe that science fiction told us about endless possibilities, but reality is collapsing on just one.

  3. Hmm, reading all commenting here. I wish I have read this book also but I cant seem to download it anyway.

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