A Planet in Decline

In Glasgow, Scotland, the representatives of some of the most powerful and most influential countries in the world have converged for the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. At the heart of this conference is a growing concern that made every country, regardless of stature and wealth, vulnerable: climate change. As these world leaders scramble to mitigate the ugly reality that has been gripping our planet for decades now, many are experiencing its consequences, and its impacts on the planet and our environment are becoming increasingly apparent with the passage of time.

The red flags were raised by former US Vice President Al Gore in his eye-opening documentary, An Inconvenient Truth for it is indeed an inconvenient truth that many of us still refuse to believe. One doesn’t have to look far as the signs have become ubiquitous. With their natural habitat continuously exploited, many animals have been misplaced, worse, some have become vulnerable, extinct even. The image of a malnourished polar bear on melting ice has become one of the most popular representations of climate change. As the icecaps on the polar regions continue to melt at alarming rates, many coastal cities and towns are starting to be submerged. The rising sea temperatures have also resulted in stronger and more destructive hurricanes and typhoons. Hurricane Katrina and Typhoon Haiyan are just some of these destructive storms that have marked recent history.

Literature has been making its presence in these discourses on how our footprint is adversely impacting the world we are living in. Last year, Charlotte McConaghy earned praises for her novel, Migrations. This year, literary powerhouse Richard Powers lent his voice yet again on this subject with his newest novel, Bewilderment. Set in the near future, Powers’ thirteenth novel charted the story of Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist who was teaching and participating in research at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. His research is centered on creating models of planets where life can possibly exist. The Earth has been deteriorating at a rapid rate that its capacity to support the growing population and demand of its denizens. He managed to develop a complex method of searching for life on other planets, a study he was hoping to introduce. To do so, he must first hurdle the bureaucratic red tapes.

“They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.”

~ Richard Powers, Bewilderment

In between his scientific endeavors, Theo must also find time to take care of his nine-year-old son, Robin. He recently lost his wife, Alyssa, to a car accident, leaving the responsibility of raising their only son on Theo’s shoulders. Robin, or Robbie as Theo would fondly refer to him, however, was not an easy child. Robbie exhibited severe behavioral issues, with his emotional volatility becoming increasingly palpable following the death of his mother. He was struggling at school and Theo has been called to the principal’s office several times. The tipping point came when a discussion with his friend ended in violence. It was imperative for Theo to find a solution to coral his son. He was being pressured by the school principal to have Robbie undergo psychoactive medication. Despite the clamor, Theo was adamant on his stand to keep Robbie from these chemicals.

Robbie’s diagnosis was unclear, as noted by Theo: “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD and one possible ADHD.” Theo was cognizant that the failure to address Robbie’s condition will result in the intervention of the child care services, tantamount to him losing his son. Theo reluctantly availed the aid of Aly’s old friend, Martin, a scientific researcher whose experiment revolved around the technique of Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef). DecNef is an ongoing scientific study that uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and machine learning approaches to train individuals how to control their emotional responses and thought processes through the replication of neural activities using visual aids. The neural responses of desired traits are replicated.

Aly and Theo were once part of the initial stages of Martin’s DecNef experiment but only Aly showed an aptitude for the study. Like his mother, Robbie echoed the same level of enthusiasm and compatibility with the study. For this same reason, Aly’s thought patterns were used to train Robbie in coping with his condition. Despite his volatility, Robbie was a thoughtful child who was bequeathed with his environmental activist mother’s love for nature; it was the third strand that bound them together. He has a soft spot for animals and was heartbroken by their going extinct. In a way, Aly’s presence resonated on many levels through Robbie and Theo’s memories of her.

Bewilderment was recently shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. The nucleus of the story is the dynamics between father and son, with the heft of the story following father and son duo as they grapple with the realities that have surrounded them, on both personal and global levels. In Theo we see a father bewildered by his son. As a duo, we see them escape the tediousness of their realities by venturing on nature and wilderness trips, not just because it was part and parcel of Theo’s profession but also because it was in immersing in nature that Robbie manages to find tranquility. It was one of the few interests that Theo and Robbie share. Influenced by his father, Robbie was also enamored by the possibility of life existing beyond Earth. Their conversations revolve around what could be on other planets. 

“I felt us traveling on a small craft, piloting through the capital city of the reigning global superpower on the coast of the third largest continent of a smallish, rocky world near the inner rim of the habitable zone of a G-type dwarf star that lay a quarter of the way out to the edge of a dense, large, barred, spiral galaxy that drifted through a thinly spread local cluster in the dead center of the entire universe.”

~ Richard Powers, Bewilderment

The novel is multi-layered and multifaceted, with the story of Theo and Robbie juxtaposed on the story of a planet that was slowly deteriorating and a society whose values were also in decline. The impact of climate change reverberated throughout. It was an ever-growing concern that affects everything on our vulnerable planet, from animals to plants, to human beings. However, many are still reluctant to acknowledge this reality simply because they are safely perched on their own pedestals. Theo, and especially Robbie, were bewildered by the inaction on the transformation that is enveloping our world: “Earth had two kinds of people: those who could do the math and follow the science, and those who were happier with their own truths. But in our hearts’ daily practice, whatever schools we went to, we all lived as if tomorrow would be a clone of now.”

With the growing concerns surrounding us, political and environmental activism has become prevalent among the younger generations. Greta Thunberg is a fine example. There is a growing awareness among their generation and they are trying to use their voices to usher in badly needed reforms. They have become cognizant that their future is anchored on the actions that we do today. This was also captured in the story as Robbie tried to call for action but his call went unheeded. It does seem that no one cares about the message the younger generation has to deliver. The insouciance of the majority echoes one message: there was no point in pouring in more effort to save our planet as it is already on the brink of destruction. The only viable solution is to find a different planet that can support life. It is a last-ditch effort.

A typical work of American literature, politics play a pivotal role in the story. Politics has been imbued in every detail of our lives, and its pervasive nature was vividly captured by Powers. Anything that impacts us almost always comes with a political element. The discourse on climate change has evolved into a political discussion; political will is required to mitigate it. The cuts in scientific research budgets were also explored in the story. The novel also depicted the impact of these budget cuts on scientific endeavors. It was in the story’s political facets that Powers delivered some of his most scathing remarks: “Everyone waited for Congress to move. There was no movement. Senators in the President’s party – old men armed with polls – insisted that no law had been broken. They scoffed at the idea of First Amendment violations.” Then there is this: “The minority senate called the action the gravest constitutional crisis in our lifetime. But constitutional crises had become commonplace.”

From political to environmental to personal, Bewilderment covers a vast ground of subjects. It also subtly touched base on animal cruelty, coping with grief, on media, and on the suppression of the freedom of speech. Each subject was carefully laid out by Powers, resulting in a lush story about us and the planet we live on. This rich tapestry was masterfully woven together by Powers’ evocative prose. His writing made the story flow fluidly. There was a silent and raw power that sieved through Powers’ writing. There was also a lyrical quality to his writing that made emotions flow, especially the heartbreaking moments towards the end of the story. It was also in the conclusion that we see the story’s emotional high points.

“Six different kinds of forest all around us. Seventeen hundred flowering plants. More tree species than in all of Europe. Thirty kinds of salamander, for God’s sake. Sol 3, that little blue dot, had a lot going for it, when you could get away from the dominant species long enough to clear your head. Above us, a raven the size of an Oz winged monkey flew up into a white pine.”

~ Richard Powers, Bewilderment

But then again, no novel is perfect. The novel’s stronger elements were weighed down by some of its inconsistencies. For instance, the novel extensively explored and echoed with scientific subjects such as climate change and astronomy; science was ubiquitous. However, Theo’s anti-science, anti-medical profession approach to the treatment of Robbie’s condition was effectively anti-vaxxer stand and somehow undermined the book’s overall message vis-à-vis science. The novel’s piercing political nature and commentaries were also its own undoing. There were some points where it got preachy and even polemical. The obvious allusions to real-life personalities and characters, such as Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, and Marie Kondo, were heavy-handed, unnatural, and even out-of-place.

The novel also suffered from under characterization. The protagonists, including Aly, were not believable enough. Theo, for instance, felt like a ghost who floated from one scene to another. He was mostly passive, finding comfort in his memories of his wife. His passive nature was also evident in the way he handled Robbie. While there were real and tender moments between Theo and Robbie, Theo tended to overlook his son’s excesses and tantrums. Robbie, on the other hand, was his antithesis – brimming with ideas, and excess energy. The under characterization became more pronounced with the story’s monochromatic worldview. Things were either black or white, with no colors in between.

For all its fault, Bewilderment still has accomplished a lot. The strong points of the novel more than made up for its blunders and weaknesses. It is an impressive literary masterpiece that brings to the fore a plethora of timely and seminal subjects concerning every one of us. It provides an eye-opening diagnosis of what the future has in store should we still lack the will to address the pressing concerns. Climate change is real and is a clear and imminent danger. The novel, for all its politics, is both a call for action, immediate and urgent action; and a caveat, lest we start totally losing what we all call home. Amid this turmoil is an equally heartwarming and heartbreaking story of a father and son. We see a father who was bewildered by his son, but we also see a duo who was bewildered by the world as a whole, yearning to make sense of the pandemonium and of a planet in peril. Bewilderment, overall, is a scintillating and powerful story that can simultaneously stimulate the mind and pluck the strings of the heart.

“There are four good things worth practicing. Being kind toward everything alive. Staying level and steady. Feeling happy for any creature anywhere that is happy. And remembering that any suffering is also yours.”

~ Richard Powers, Bewilderment
Ratings

91%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 
28%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%

My first encounter with Richard Powers was, if my memory serves me right, was in mid-2020 or early 2021. I came across his novel, The Overstory, during one of my several trips to the bookstore. I was captivated by the novel’s cover page that I even thought it was a work of nonfiction. What also caught my attention was the fact that it won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. However, I held back; there was something that made me ambivalent. I felt like it was a book that was not in my alley. A couple of months later, I would encounter Powers again after his latest novel, Bewilderment, was longlisted, and eventually shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. Without originally intending to, I began purchasing reading all the longlisted novels which brought me to Bewilderment.

It was the fifth book from the shortlist that I read. I didn’t know what to expect at first, except that he came in highly recommended; I even came a post forecasting works for the shortlist and Bewilderment will make it through simply because it was Richard Powers. It made me feel like his name is enough of a marketing device. Reading Bewilderment made me understand why. There was a silent power to his storytelling that flowed throughout. The political shades were pervasive but the book’s message about our declining planet remained clear. I also liked the father and son dynamics between Theo and Robin. Parts-heartwarming, parts-heartbreaking, Bewilderment made me a fan of Powers’ prose. Maybe it is time to read The Overstory? It is something that I am seriously considering.

Book Specs

Author: Richard Powers
Publisher: Hutchinson Heinemann
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 278
Genre: Science Fiction, Political Fiction

Synopsis

A moving new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times bestselling and Booker-shortlisted author of The Overstory.

Theo Bryne is a promising young scientist who has found a way to search for life on other planets dozens of light years away. He is also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old. His son Robin is funny, loving and filled with plans. He thinks and feels deeply, adores animals and can spend hours painting elaborate pictures. He is also on the verge of being expelled from school for smashing his friend’s face with a thermos.

What can a father do, when the only solution offered to his rare and troubled boy is to put him on psychoactive drugs? What can he say when his boy comes to him wanting an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its won destruction? The only thing for it is to take the boy to other planets, all while fostering his son’s desperate attempt to save this one.

At the heart of Bewilderment lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperilled planet?

About the Author

Richard Powers was born on June 18, 1957, in Evanston, Illinois, USA, and was one of five children. At a young age, he lived a peripatetic life because of his father’s profession. When he was 11, the family moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where his father accepted a position at International School Bangkok. It was during his stay in Bangkok that he developed various skills in cello, saxophone, and clarinet. It was also during this period that he became an avid reader. When he was 16, the family moved back to the United States, where he completed his high school education at DeKalb High School in DeKalb, Illinois.

He initially majored in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) but eventually switched to English literature during his first semester. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1978 and a Masters of Arts in Literature in 1980. Prior to pursuing a career in literature, Powers first worked as a programmer in Boston. However, he quit his job shortly after encountering a 1914 photograph titled “Young Farmers” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1980. Drawing inspiration from this photograph, he began writing the drafts of his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which was published in 1985. A critical success, the book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

He backed up his successful debut with more critically successful work, Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988), The Gold Bug Variations (1991), Operation Wandering Soul (1993), and Galatea 2.2 (1995). His third and fifth novels earned him his second and third nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award while his fourth novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. His 1998 novel, Gain, won the 1999 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction, and his 2000 novel, Plowing the Dark, received the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He finally won the National Book Award with his ninth novel, The Echo Maker (2006). It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. One of his biggest breakthroughs came in 2019 when his 2018 novel, The Overstory, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was also the winner of the 2019 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and was his first shortlisted work for the Booker Prize for Fiction (2019). His thirteenth novel, Bewilderment, was published in 2021. It was also shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize and was longlisted for the National Book Award and Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Over the course of his career, Powers has published a score of short stories and essays. In 1989, he earned several the MacArthur Fellowship. He has also taught at the University of Illinois and Stanford University. He is currently residing in the Great Smoky Mountains.