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Bewilderment review: Big ideas of AI, climate change and neuroscience crowd this small yet elegant canvas

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Richard Powers. Photo: Dean Dixon

Richard Powers. Photo: Dean Dixon

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

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Richard Powers. Photo: Dean Dixon

Bewilderment Richard Powers Hutchinson Heinemann, €14.99

Richard Powers’ novel Bewilderment, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize last Tuesday, begins with a father and son pondering the stars on a camping trip. The dialogue is back and forth, question followed by answer. This can be a highly effective narrative technique: the novelist gets that ultimate springboard, a child’s curiosity, undimmed by knowledge and its disenchantments.

It’s not hard to see why this would appeal to Powers. His narrators are almost always scientists of some kind or another, and they love to explain things. No exception, Bewilderment is told from the perspective of Theo Byrne, a young astrobiologist whose son’s innocent but probing questions justify elaborate digressions on some of the more esoteric aspects of his academic field.

Byrne’s son, Robin, is precocious but troubled. Assessed by a number of doctors, “the votes are two Asperger’s, one probably OCD, and one possible ADHD”.

The tragic death in a car accident of Robin’s mother, Alyssa, an exuberant animal rights activist and lawyer, has only complicated his already fraught disposition, not to mention his grieving father’s life.

After a series of violent incidents, Theo eventually decides to home-school Robin, while enrolling him in DecNef, an experimental therapy run at the behest of Martin Currier, a pioneering neuroscientist with whom Theo’s deceased wife, it’s suggested, may have had a previous liaison.

DecNef works by training a subject to emulate the brain state of another person, whose precise neural networks, when experiencing a particular emotion (say, serenity), have been carefully mapped. In Robin’s case, scans of his mother’s brain, which had been recorded in an earlier study she’d taken part in, are used.

The results are remarkable. Under pressure to secure funding for further research, Currier asks Theo if he will allow Robin to appear in what are essentially marketing campaigns. While deeply conflicted, he gives his consent.

What follows from this are the most compelling aspects of Bewilderment. While heartened by Robin’s improvement, Theo is nonetheless concerned about his son being reduced to a mere tool in the commodification of scientific research. He also fears Robin might struggle with all the attention.

More compellingly, Theo is troubled by his own response to his son’s new-found equanimity. He’s jealous, as his son has been granted a kind of access to Alyssa’s consciousness, facilitated by a man who he suspects was in love with her.

Unfortunately, the themes that flow from this – identity, love and mortality, for example – are crowded out by a deluge of references and mini-lectures on an array of big ideas: climate change, artificial intelligence, neural networks, extraterrestrial exploration, among other topics.

Powers’ talents notwithstanding, 270 pages is just too small a canvas to accommodate such bulk, which never quite dovetails with an already complex central narrative. 

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More frustrating still are his gestures to the contemporary. Minor characters who are obvious stand-ins for Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg appear, while Robin features in a COG talk – a substitute for TED, presumably.

These feel gimmicky. Trump in particular poses a problem over which Powers, to be fair, has little control. Since failing to get re-elected, he’s on the minds of few, save his so-called base.

All this has the opposite effect of what Powers, I imagine, intended, hitching the novel to a very specific, and now past, political moment.

Beneath all of this excess,
Bewilderment is a compelling story about love in a dying world. It’s just a shame that a novelist of Powers’ ability – he’s among the best at elegantly incorporating science into fiction – chose to dilute his focus on what seemed, initially, the book’s central concern, and whose relevance is depressingly ensured: our warming planet. 


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