Richard Powers ‘Bewilderment’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Bewilderment”: In order of reading book number 5.


I NEVER BELIEVED THE DIAGNOSES the doctors settled on my son. When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.


In this complex father-son relationship story, Richard Powers adresses his vision of science’s view of the state of the world in a near future and paints a picture of hopelessness as we collectively head towards our own anhilation.
The narrator, Robin’s father, bringing up his special needs son alone after his wife’s accidental death, is being pushed by society towards treating his 9 year old son with opioids, as illustrated in the opening quote. He resists and one of his wife’s friends offers an experimental treatment for Robin, a new method using a neural feedback loop linked to AI, Robin’s mother had previously helped advance this experimentation also as a subject. Powers uses these two points to show an enlightened child able to question the world with his own mother’s wisdom and a child’s directness before the impending doom.


Clinicians and theorists are rarely going to agree on what constitutes mental health. Is it the ability to function productively in hard conditions or is it more a matter of appropriate response? Constant cheerful optimism may not be the healthiest reaction… I had an awful thought, maybe the last few months of neural feedback were hurting Robin, in the face of the world’s basic brokenness more empathy meant deeper suffering, the question wasn’t why Robin was sliding down again, the question is why the rest of us were staying so insanely sanguine?


Powers’ father is a leading light in looking for life in exo-planets and through discussions with Robin introduces us to Fermi’s paradox and eventually to his son’s vision of the probable solution to this paradox:


At last he said “I think I might know where everybody is.”
It took me a while to remember the question he’d latched onto so long ago on a starry night in the Smokies, the Fermi paradox…
“Remember how you said there might be a big roadblock somewhere.”
“A great filter, that’s what we call it”.
“Like maybe there’s a great filter right at the beginning when molecules turn into living things or it might be when you first evolve a cell or when cells learn to come together or maybe the first brain.”
“Lots of bottlenecks”
“I was just thinking we’ve been looking and listening for sixty years.”
“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”
“I know but maybe the great filter isn’t behind us maybe it’s ahead of us.”
“And maybe we were just now hitting it, wild, violent and Godlike consciousness, lots and lots of consciousness, exponential and exploding consciousness leveraged up by machines and multiplied by the billions. Power too precarious to last long.”
“Because otherwise, how old did you say the universe is?”
“14 billion years.”
“Because otherwise they’d be here.”


Powers, through the pressure on the father’s project’s funding of the Seeker space telescope, presents to us a barely extrapolated vision of the fight for science against economic obscurantism in our times, illustrated by his thoughts following one of the President’s tweets:


“So called science should stop inventing facts and charging them to the American people….”
The Seeker was just another proxi-battle in the endless American civil war, our side claimed the discovery of earths would increase humanities collective wisdom and empathy, the presidents men said that wisdom and empathy were collectivist plots to crash our standard of living


This is, as always with Powers, an engaged piece of work. A well constructed story and a pessimistic vision of our ineluctable future. Empathy is the way forward but the human race is not capable of enough of this commodity. Robin’s condition is an allegory of the earth’s situation; as for Robin, in one generation since the Meadow’s report, the realisation of the effect of humans on the climate and on our present and future lives has gone from non existant to the centre of preoccupation and as for Robin’s condition politicians and scientists “want to prescribe three different medications”. An interesting read.

First Published in English as “Bewilderment” in 2021 by W. W. Norton and Company

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