BEWILDERMENT – Richard Powers (2021)

BewildermentEvery intelligent, well-informed human that trusts the global scientific community and that recently became a parent undoubtedly will have had the same question staring him or her in the face: why did I knowingly bring a child into this world, a planet on the brink of catastrophic climate change, during the onset of the 6th mass extinction?

Richard Powers, 64, having no children, also felt the need to write a book related to that 21st century existential parental question. On the back cover it is posed like this: “At the heart of Bewilderment lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperilled planet?”

I will end this review with my own answer to these questions – being a father of two toddlers. Before that, there are 3000 words about Powers’ attempt – ultimately a failed and defeatist answer, in a novel that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. I’ll try to judge the book by the ambition that Powers’ expressed himself in various interviews.

But first, the question of genre: Bewilderment should appeal to most science fiction fans, at least on paper.

The father-protagonist is Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist who theorizes about life on exoplanets. Aside some talk about his actual research models, spread throughout the 278-page novel are about 25 short chapters that speculate about possible alien worlds.

The book is set in a slightly alternate today – not in a near-future, as I have seen claimed elsewhere. The novel’s story takes about one year, and Earth’s population is said to be 7.66 billion, so that would be somewhere in 2018. It’s basically our own time, but there are a few alternate events concerning a thinly veiled president Trump, and some existing technology that is used in a bit of a different manner as today. There are only three instances of such technological futurism, two of which are just details and perfectly possible already. The third however is central to the story, and while the technology does also already exist today – decoded neurofeedback (DecNef) – its described effects are totally speculative, even within the boundaries of the story itself, and as such it gives Bewilderment also a sparse magical-realist vibe.

Aside from the speculative content – I’d say this is slipstream rather than full blown sci-fi – Powers also incorporates references to science fiction, most importantly to the 1959 classic Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Theo Byrne is vocally proud of his collection of 2,000 science fiction books, Stapledon‘s Star Maker was “the bible of my youth”, and also the Fermi paradox is one of Bewilderment‘s themes – yet another staple of science fiction.

What’s not to like, fandom?

My guess is that this book might be more interesting for people not really acquainted with science fiction. Powers’ previous book, The Overstory, won the Pulitzer, and this one was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Powers’ marketing is clearly directed at general fiction readers. Maybe those are more easily wowed by all the stuff Powers brings to the table. Not that sci-fi readers will dislike this on principle, not at all. The troubles with this book lie elsewhere. In an interview with Time the author explicitly talks about Bewilderment‘s goals.

For starters, Powers aimed for the estrangement effect of near-future fiction, with the intention to make what is too familiar intense and real again:

I was thinking a little bit along the lines of the form that science fiction writers like to call the “near-term future,” where the story treats a world that’s a lot like ours, but set in some undesignated time in the future, in a way that allows the writer to speculate about the potential of the present to unfold in different ways. I guess it’s what Brecht would call the estrangement effect, where the realistic is made unusual again by just slightly changing the perspective from which you view it. And by putting the Earth on a slightly different trajectory, I was hoping to intensify and to make real again a lot of the things that we readers would probably simply gloss over because we’ve already discounted them as familiar.

The problem is that when Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg and a variation on TED-talks appear in the novel, they do not have an estranging effect on me at all. On the contrary, these instances snapped me out of the novel as a story again and again, and reminded me of the book as an artificial construction, exposing Powers as yet another writer trying to sell his two cents on our day and age. It simply is too transparent, and the seams show.

On top of that Powers doesn’t bring anything new to the table: Trump was on the brink of becoming an autocrat, the Republican party is anti-science, social media is socially disruptive. We know. I’ve linked to David Auerbach’s article about how common knowledge works in a social network environment before, but if you haven’t read it, be sure to do so. You will learn more about Twitter Trump, anti-scientism and social media in a few minutes than you will learn in Powers’s entire 13th novel. That’s a problem for an author who explicitly states he writes novels of ideas, of “intellectual passion”.

For books that are much more interesting near-future and do achieve Brecht’s estrangement, try Version Control by Dexter Palmer, or Zero K by Don DeLillo, both from 2016. In Version Control there’s even visionary stuff about a similarly intrusively tweeting President as in Bewilderment, but far more strange, and not grafted on a clearly existing real person. Because they are less tied to the now, my hunch is that these two novels will also age much better as political allegories.

But why does Powers want the familiar to become real and intense again? Why does he need estrangement as a strategy? Is this book an act in a war?

In that same Time interview he says this:

And yet, as the real-world consequences of catastrophic planetary change have become more real and more present and more immediate, we’ve fallen into that other trap that you mentioned which is, we’ve heard that story already and we’re inured to it, we’ve grown too familiar with the real. We don’t know what to do with that anymore.

That’s where fiction can come in—fiction can kind of shift the ground under the familiar and create that mystery and that instability that makes a reader say, ‘Wait, wait, what? What’s happening? What’s going to happen next? How are they going to deal with that?’ And through that refraction, all these things that they’ve fossilized in their own understanding about the news can become fresh again.

Aha! The cavalry arrives! He doesn’t say so with so many words, but it seems that Literature is here to save us. Art will change people’s understanding and with that new knowledge new actions will arise: now we know what to do again. Powers is a Romantic, it seems. I will not debate the power of Literature to change one’s perspective and one’s understanding, as it’s one of the reasons why I read. Still, such changes – significant ones – have rarely happened, and that’s with more than 1000 novels under my belt. Non-fiction is much more important to me in that respect.

Anyhow, I do question literature’s mobilizing power. Evidence for that is flimsy, basically non-existent. Especially for such global crises as climate change & mass extinction. Good luck changing the planet’s ecology with your book in English – even if it gets translated in 15 languages like The Overstory. It’s a form of hubris & a form of colonial thinking: Western writers will save the day. The time frame is dire by the way, not sure Bewilderment‘s message will trickle down soon enough.

Obviously I am too harsh here. We shouldn’t look at Bewilderment in isolation, but at literature and art in general. Surely all those cli-fi titles published the last decades must have contributed something? Again, evidence for that is flimsy & pathetic. Admittedly, it is hard to parse. How much is riding on protests? On UN reports? Scientists doing actual science? Fossil fuel propaganda? Bewilderment?

What I’m willing to admit is that certain books and art – even if it mostly preaches to the choir – may help a bit to provide entertainment and hope for activists and scientists, maybe even some inspiration. And Powers clearly writes that books did save the teenage years of fictional Theo, trapped with parents that were emotionally abusive, offering paper parallel universes as an escape, lighting up imagination. But I doubt it there would be less teenagers out on school strikes without cli-fi. I doubt it scientists would stop writing their alarming reports. So my hunch is, all and all, the effect is negligible. Not nearly enough to puff up your chest about. Maybe the case would be stronger if much more people would actually read the damned things – let alone people from the other tribe…

All this is not to say literature and art have no impact on society at large. They probably have. As a whole, they might better our imagination and creativity, even help shape our morals. But so far the imagination and creativity of the polluters is winning, so we might have been better off without things stimulating creativity altogether.

[Update November 2021: In my review of 2018’s The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory by Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell, I also discuss the societal power of the novel, and propose a viewpoint on the matter supported by Nobert Elias’ theory on religion.]

I’m sure Powers is conflicted himself. There’s the rhetoric of the Time interview – see below for more examples – but there’s also what’s in the book itself. Ultimately Bewilderment admits defeat, and sends a pessimist message. So why write a book to reinvigorate “what to do”?

Or is Powers message not about action? Does the ending suggest that what we should do is to simply accept & let go? That trying to save the rivers and everything in it is naive? Is that his subversive Buddhist message? Don’t bother? Humanity was a statistical anomaly anyhow? Already on page 5 Powers wrote that “Life is something we need to stop correcting.” Isn’t the Irish etymology of the Byrne name telling as well? Bran, the raven, a bird of death?

So if this book has a goal, does Powers succeed in evoking its necessity?

The fact that the book is defeatist might explain why Powers never really succeeds in translating the urgency of both crises to the page. While there is some talk about natural disasters, freak weather and diseased cows, it always remains in the backdrop of the story, a bit like most of such news for most people. There’s one telling line near the end of the book, when Theo answers his son Robin while he is listening to yet another news bulletin filled with environmental mayhem. It kind of sums up the book’s relation to its own content.

What’s the matter? “It’s nothing.” I took out my buds and stopped the app. “Just the news.”

Powers doesn’t manage to get his focus right. The truths he wants to illuminate remain blurry. Before I elaborate on that, let’s get back to that Time Q&A:

Meanwhile, he [Robin] responds with a kind of visceral panic to the discovery of mass extinction. Everything elicits the terror of isolation, and it’s only this empathy machine, this learning to link himself into somebody else’s state of mind, strangers at first and then his mother, that starts to bring about in him this idea that there’s nothing to be afraid of—that life is everywhere, and it’s an experiment that includes you. He’s transformed from an outsider to an insider—he’s suddenly connected through kinship to all other living things. In a strange way, what happens to Robin is simply the discovery of the fact that his fate is part of this much larger thing. And that greatly lowers all the anxiety about loss and disconnection and mortality that was driving him up to that point in the story.

The question is if empathy is the right way to frame it, or rather, if Robin’s empathy is with the right creatures. What is today’s problem? Not animals or plants going extinct by themselves. That peril of the back cover is not about animals dying. All individual animals living today will die, no matter what. Individual deaths is not the problem. Extinction of a species is not the problem, a ‘species’ doesn’t have feelings. Not even mass extinctions are. All that has happened before. Our planet is not “imperilled”. Nature is not “imperilled”. Nature will survive, adapt, form new beautiful ecologies, until the sun explodes someday. The problem is the demise of our civilization as we know it, and especially the increased human suffering because of it.

Robin is right to learn lower anxiety about non-human animals and their faith. He is right to accept mortality. But Robin becoming a child Buddha doesn’t solve a thing, as his initial anxiety is misplaced: this book should never have been about nature, but about humanity. Powers chose the wrong tree to bark at. Instead of mass extinction and the beauty of birds he should have picked the effects of both mass extinction and climate change on human society as Robin’s focus, and the book’s central theme.

It’s easy to become a Buddha about birds. Try small children drowned on a Mediterranean beach instead.

It’s interesting Powers goes on about empathy in that interview:

Stories are the great empathy machine. Decoded neurofeedback in this novel is really a kind of figuration, a metaphor for storytelling. It’s stories that allow us to occupy some other position to see what the world feels like if we weren’t us. And that is the only thing that has the power to change our consciousness. We have to be taken to another place and be another person for a while before we can see the validity of that difference and not be afraid of that difference anymore.

I see the sign already of that cultural transformation underway, especially among the young. The reality is, we won’t have to have too many more years like this year before the writing’s on the wall and most people in the mainstream realize that the bill has come due, and we can’t continue to live the way that we’ve lived. But it will require stories that show that the change from how we lived to how we need to live isn’t a terrifying thing.

His ambition with his story is even more outspoken than in the earlier quote, and he thinks stories will be necessary in the transformation of our society. While imagining the lives and suffering of others, and imagination in general, will indeed be important to get ourselves out of this mess, it is naive hubris to think books like Bewilderment will have an impact, especially as Powers seems to signal all is lost anyway. (Or does anyone has a different reading of the ending? If so, don’t hesitate to comment.)

My interpretation of the novel is reinforced by a fragment near the end, in which Powers again seems to advocate a focus on the Now, instead of trying to change the Future.

Before bed, he entertained me with tales from a planet where a day lasted only an hour, but an hour lasted longer than a year. And years had different lengths. Time sped up and slowed down, depending on your latitude. Some old people were younger than young people. Things that happened long ago were sometimes closer than yesterday. Everything was so confusing that people gave up on keeping time and made do with Now. It was a good world. I’m glad he made that one.

If I wrote at the beginning of this analysis that Bewilderment doesn’t know what it wants to be, it is mainly because of all that: make up your mind, Richard. Is this book about defeat and acceptance, or an attempt to bring about change?

The fact that the book thematically takes on so much – psychological overdiagnosis of children, autism, Fermi, Trump, grief for a dead mother, the American culture wars, viral social media, astrobiology, anti-science thinking, science fiction as a heuristic tool, inner space vs. outer space, the biological nature of emotions, the 6th mass extinction, the beauty of nature, Acceptance, empathy – in a slim volume with a fair amount of white space doesn’t help his goals either. Powers takes on a lot, but as a result only scratches the surface.

When he quotes Carl Sagan – “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” – the effect is that of an emperor without clothes, deceived not by tailor-scammers, but by his own mind. Has Powers come to believe the image the media has crafted of himself, as an important intellectual, changing how even Obama looks at the world? Maybe not, but either way, Bewilderment lacks exactly what Sagan wants: depth. Does that deflate the book’s significance?

I have to admit I would not have been so harsh in this review if Powers had not been so vocal about his ambitions. But I only started reading interviews after I finished the book, and while I read it I felt underwhelmed almost the entire time. It never convinced or gripped me, except for the ending that is unexpected, strong and emotional.

All this doesn’t make Bewilderment a bad read. It does have merit. It is agreeable, and Powers knows how to tell a story. There are some interesting intellectual insights here and there, his prose is smooth and at times beautiful, and I guess the ending makes up for a lot. But I can’t recommend it, and I do take issue with Powers’ goals and methods.

Bewilderment doesn’t live up to the promise of its title, nor to the description of its heart on the back cover. Neither does it have “that rush of modernist excitement shared by a generation of artists about to go up in flames.” It is a confused book, unsure about its identity, looking up to its science fiction cousins, but never fully coming into its own…

If you want to read a novel that hauntingly succeeds in evoking the possible horror of freak weather, try Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. Or maybe read some non-fiction, like David-Wallace WellsThe Uninhabitable Earth from 2019. If you want a deep dive in the epistemics of astrobiology, try Russell Powell’s Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind, or the more accessible The Zoologist’s Guide to the Universe from Arik Kershenbaum. If you want a book about loss, the already mentioned Version Control does that too.

SO HOW TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION? I could elaborate, but I’ll keep it snappy. It is not because life will become more difficult that my children’s lives can’t be meaningful – how short or how long their lives may be.

I hope it doesn’t take a story, let alone a novel, to imagine truth in that.

sandhill crane

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49 responses to “BEWILDERMENT – Richard Powers (2021)

  1. Placeholder comment for later today or this weekend.
    I’ll be bahk….

    Liked by 1 person

    • And shoot. You’re other commentors have said a lot.

      Without reading the book (which obviously will never happen), just from your review, Powers sounds like every other 21st century “korrekt thinker”. It’s why I don’t bother with the literati. Instead of telling a good story, they have a message, which trumps all. Even Janette Oke and her “Christian Romance” books have better story telling and less punches to the face than this brand of writer.

      Honestly though, I don’t even find it worth discussing any more. I’d as soon bang my head against concrete blocks.

      I will say this. If you really think humanity is headed for an extinction event, then hadn’t you better figure out what comes after death, so you can pass that on to your kids?

      Liked by 1 person

      • The story here is not bad, as I wrote, the ending is even emotional, but indeed, Powers’ message drowns out most of its emotions and realism.

        The funny thing is that I agree with most of what he tries to say: social media is disruptive, American politics have become toxic (at least observed from here in the EU), climate change is a problem, etc.

        I’m not sure we are headed for human extinction, but most scientist seem to agree that there will be severe societal disruption.

        As for afterlife: if it exists, I hope that trying to teach my children to live and do good, that should be enough as an entry ticket. If that’s not enough, too bad, but I see no justice in that.

        Liked by 1 person

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  3. Great, snarky, negative review by Christian Lorentzen in the Londen Review of Books here, but beware, full of spoilers:

    And another one by Dwight Garner in the NYT:

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ” Nature is not “imperilled”. Nature will survive, adapt, form new beautiful ecologies, until the sun explodes someday. The problem is the demise of our civilization as we know it, and especially the increased human suffering because of it.
    It’s easy to become a Buddha about birds. Try small children drowned on a Mediterranean beach instead.”
    Thank you for saying what I have been shouting for years now.
    I’ve read two books by Powers, and what took me most was the prose. How was it here? Not that I will read it either way. Maybe Overstory is good.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The prose was definitely okay, solid throughout, and some great sentences here and there, but not enough to really recommend this.

      What bugged me a bit was the dialogue, not really realistic, but that’s a taste thing – I’m a sucker for realist dialogue. Besides, Powers didn’t want to write a realist book anyway, so I won’t hold that against him.


  5. Great review! When I hear about books like this by “intellectual” writers, I think I am better off just reading scientific reports. Those quotes you pulled from the interviews really turn me off. They might just be a marketing effort, of course, and only cooked up after the book was written. But his comments about cognitive estrangement… as if he personally rediscovered the value of science fiction and to bring that back to his mainstream colleagues. Ugh.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! Agreed – I feel non-fiction’s impact is much bigger. Fiction is just recycling that anyhow.

      As for the interviews: if they are just marketing, and Powers doesn’t really stand by their content, well, that would make it even worse. I expect honesty from artists, and to me their public persona is part of the artwork, so to say.

      That’s why I also take into account the back cover blurb. I can understand that the publisher tries to make a book sound as appealing as possible, but especially a writer with the status of Powers can easily veto everything on it, and exercise control on how it is presented. If Greg Egan can do so, surely Powers can. So if it’s on the back of your book, it has your stamp of approval. If not, you participate in an intellectual scam and all the ethical preaching inside it becomes moot.


      • Soon we will get Neal Stephenson’s cli-fi novel. Wanna bet what his solution for climate change will be? I think it will be about a US west coast tech billionaire who singlehandedly tries to fix the planet. Maybe by putting mirrors in space or something.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve preordered that a few days ago, will read it as soon as it’s delivered, after I finish whatever novel I’m reading then.

          You could be right. If I’m not mistaken, it won’t be a solution in the end, I had the impression it would be a dystopic novel.

          It will be cool to compare its narrative & ethical tactics to that of Bewilderment. Also, read the Ings article I linked to in a comment below, that might give a nice framework to judge these things.

          Liked by 1 person

    • What bugs me most about that back cover is that Obama quote about The Overstory: “It changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it….It changed how I see things and that’s always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading.”

      A quote like that, the only one on the outside of the book btw, with the name Obama in bold, signals that Powers and his publishers have ZERO interest in his book being read by people from the other political tribe – i.e. the people that need most convincing. It just shows how ill-considered their good intentions are.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah. A quote by Obama is too good to ignore by the marketing department. In the end, marketing wants a book like this to be bought by people who already agree with Powers’ messages, or his worries. What worries me too, besides the preaching to the choir, is messages of defeatism. Social media is rife with defeatism about climate change. We’re all fucked! We’re doomed! But this is stifling. I agree that what an individual can do is of limited impact, but it is better to identify everything we can do. On the other hand, it is also true that oil companies have tried to put the burden solely on the shoulders of middle income families, with ideas like carbon footprint. The focus should be towards politics and companies.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is the most interesting review of Powers’ book I have read anywhere. Bravo. Your entire essay should have appeared in the NYTimes book review, but of course editor in chief Pamela Paul, who is in cahoots with the USA book industry, would never allow your words to appear there. Sigh. Cheers, Dan Bloom at The Cli Fi Report in Taiwan (yeah I’m the American literary activist guy who coined the terms Cli-fi and climate-fiction in 2011.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey, wow, thanks! Garner’s review in the NYT was not positive either, but not on an as fundamental level as my critique.

      Interesting site you have. Glad to become acquainted with the person who coined a term I’ve been using too. If you could link to this review on your site in some way, that would be much appreciated, but don’t feel any obligation whatsoever, it might not fit the bill. Thanks again for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Linking to the Simon Ings article you mentioned on Twitter here too for my readers. I might work it into my Bewilderment review later. Thanks for the link!

      It’s about clifi as a tool to shape thought, and it makes some excellent points. It also has some reading tips for recent clifi that do a better job than books like Powers’ according to the author.


  7. Great review, Bart!
    I won’t be touching this with a long pole. I feel that general fiction, or literary fiction, suffers from a peculiar form of malady lately – most of it seems totally redundant, eating its own tail and fattening up on the already digested matter of good genre fiction. Also, looks like every writer is taking head on All the Problems of the World in their little books – it’s not just climate change and mass extinction, it’s Trump and grief and poor overpsychologized kids, etc. etc.

    As to the big question – I think the main factors in having kids are hope and meaning. One hopes for a better future, always – and any life has more meaning than no life at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “it seems totally redundant, eating its own tail and fattening up on the already digested matter of good genre fiction”

      That’s a great image – I think you could be very right. Obviously, I don’t read enough regular fiction nowadays to make definite statements on the matter, but I do try to be informed, I still read multiple literary supplements, etc. and hardly any regular fiction appeals to me any longer. I’ve read quite a lot in my teens/twenties, but there’s only so much you can say about the condition humaine in a regular setting, and I got the feeling it didn’t really teach me anything any longer. Not that speculative fiction does always do that, but at least it has a sense of wonder / entertains. I generally hate MESSAGE art in general, at least if the message overcrowds all else and is too transparant. If I want to read a message, I’ll read non-fiction, essays or book reviews 🙂

      This looked appealing because of its themes, and as I try to keep my horizons broad, I jumped on it immediately.

      As for hope: the only hope I have is that my children will reach adulthood without too much societal disruption. Meaning resides in connections – with other people and with reality. I hope we can provide them with enough heuristic tools to find any on their own.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s my problem, too. I rarely find good literary fiction nowadays, and I used to read loads, and enjoy these books too. Speculative fiction is also a hit-and-miss thing lately, as we’ve discussed 😉, but there at least I know most of the time what to expect from certain writers, and general hype doesn’t affect me. In literary, all those new hot names often turn into a miss for me – either because I read the books themselves or the blurbs. And also the novels become more politicized, turning often into pamphlets or essays, but without the depth I expect from political science.

        As for hope: looks like I’m a bit more optimistic than you, for a change 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • Lately I’ve been thinking of reading a bit more regular fiction, as most contemporary speculative fiction doesn’t seem to appeal to me, and I don’t want to read 60ies SF the entire time. Then again, most new regular fiction doesn’t appeal to me. We’ll see how it goes.

          Viz. politics in books: seen my reply to Aonghus Fallon below.

          As for hope: you have it easy in New Zealand, I’ve read it is the most likely place for civilization to survive, both because climate change won’t effect it as much as other regions, has enough farmland, and because it’s a distant island, easy to defend from migration, etc. Iceland, Ireland, Tasmania and even the UK were also mentioned in that study.


  8. Aonghus Fallon

    Like you, I’d be sceptical of any book’s ability to change people’s behaviour, no matter how compelling it might be, but all too often this is compounded by how the message itself is only too obvious while the suggested solution is either facile or just plain stupid.*

    Also, I’m not sure if climate change can be managed by an individual following his or conscience. After the abolition of the milk quota, the national herd in Ireland increased by around a million over a ten year period Our emissions actually went up during the lockdown (despite a decline in traffic etc) thanks to agriculture. But the agrifood sector have a lot of lobbyists and the Irish government is reluctant to tackle them.

    So this is a leadership issue – or rather, a failure of leadership.

    * I am interested in the rare occasions where the message makes for a good book. 1984 was preaching to the converted; it’s still works as work of speculative fiction, I reckon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like you say, the problem with politics in literature is that if it’s too obvious, it looses some of its force. At least for me. On the other hand, I think most literature would benefit from a political grounding, I mean, authors knowing or thinking about what there stance is, and trying to work that into the blueprint of the novel, without it taking over the narrative on a surface level. I guess the story you chose says something about your ideologies.

      A bit like Iain M. Banks, who managed to write entertaining stories to be enjoyed by most, but still managed to say something about our own society by evoking a post-scarcity one with a strong morally libertarian undercurrent. I also feel KSR manages to do so. He is obviously a leftist/progressive/climate activist, but I don’t think his novels are really about that first (but I haven’t read the Mars trilogy, and The Ministry for the Future is a clear exception).

      I saw your comment almost right after you posted it, but held off from answering to think about whether there have been novels that changed my behavior, and I haven’t come across a single one. I’ve stared at my library (I keep all the books I rate highly), thought about stuff I read in my youth before I bought books, but nothing came up. I must have read over 1000 novels in my life, so that’s quite a sample. Still a sample of one obviously, if you look at the reader side 🙂

      There are some books that changed my perspective on things slightly (like KSR’s 2312 changed the way how I think about living on an actual planet hurtling through space without protective domes except for our atmosphere, or River of Gods by McDonald showed me that the digital nature of possible AI is fundamentally different from biological life because it can copy itself easily, or…) but even that tally is not that big. Philosophy and science books fare way better in that respect, but even there I can’t think of any that have really changed my behavior on a fundamental level.


  9. Aonghus Fallon

    i couldn’t either!

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. A good, solid questioning of Bewilderment. I finished it a couple of weeks ago, and many of the issues you highlight are real. I agree: the book is not going to shift the orbit of consumer capitalism. I agree: species extinction does not have the same priority as human existence. And I agree: readers should really question the novel’s ending. On one hand, the tragedy signifies the general significance of discussion on the environment. Ok, ok. But goddamn, it is maudlin and manipulative. Like Thurnberg, I’m sure Powers would say that the conversation needs to be taken at the level of significance captured by the ending. But that doesn’t stop the story from being an extreme edge case in the larger, global scheme.

    I currently stand at the following crux: take Bewilderment as a character portrayal, specific to the people and lives the story describes, and it’s easy to recommend the novel. Powers captures their humanity in well written, sympathetic fashion. Readers feel for them. Try to extrapolate this novel at the environmental/political level, however, and holes quickly start appearing. The quotes you select from interview highlight this for me, also.

    I just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock. It’s cli-fi, but it’s cli-fi which looks to option #3: instead of stopping certain human behaviors or activities, and instead of ignoring a situation that’s real, what can we start doing with technology? Yes, the book is techno-optimism, but it’s not blind. It’s throwing something at the wall and seeing how/if it sticks in geo-political fashion. I get the hint you enjoy cli-fi, and I think Termination Shock might be a bit of fresh air in that area regardless whether Stephenson’s speculation is right or wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!

      What do you mean with “Powers would say that the conversation needs to be taken at the level of significance captured by the ending”? I really have trouble interpreting the ending, as to me its defeatist, as I wrote, but at the same time that can’t be so because of what Powers said in those interviews. If it just serves as a warning (beware, or we will die), it’s not conceptually solid, because the ending happens in 2018, not in the future.

      I agree that’s it recommended for the personal story – I did like it being maudlin even, and when I wrote I could not recommend it, I meant the book as a whole, as a project by Powers.

      I’m just past the halfway mark of Termination Shock right now – but thanks for the tip regardless of that, appreciated. It’ll take me another week or so to finish, but I’m liking it so far. Not sure where it will end up, but it could be back on the level of Seveneves, even if it is much more accessible. – DODO and Fall were a bit letdowns imo. Lots of detail and backstories so far, curious whether it will pay off. What he does well is paint the enormousness (is that a word?) of the task at hand. Something Powers fails to. Powers laments, but doesn’t offer a way out or a way forward – as you say: what can we start doing? Stephenson’s research and world building really pays off so far in that respect.


  12. Apologies, I did not provide a good enough context to the statement regarding the level of significance captured by the ending. I meant that I felt Powers wanted readers to understand the situation is SERIOUS.

    Glad you’re enjoying Termination Shock. I think it pays off well enough. I won’t spoil anything, but there is a scene toward the end wherein some of the characters are trapped in a dark, enclosed location. One starts to light candles, which leads to the obvious point: the candles will burn the oxygen and fill the place with carbon dioxide – a small but apt metaphor for our world in some ways. The conversation which results from this scene I think captures the novel’s import.

    By the way, what’s your opinion of Stephenson’s portrayal of the Netherelands? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Serious indeed – but I guess most readers of his books are already aware of that, and as you say, he doesn’t show a way forward (accept for acceptance, in the way I interpret the novel).

      As for Termination Shock, still about 190 pages to go, but I have the feeling the political importance of the book is higher than that of Powers’. So far, Stephenson seems to have written something with a more realistic content/message, disguised as speculative entertainment, whereas Powers wrote a kind of emo-fable.

      As for The Netherlands – I’m not a specialist as I live in Belgium, but I grew up about 20 km from the Dutch border, have visited the country countless of time, had a few Dutch people as friends over the years, and, as we share a language (& literature), we voraciously consumed Dutch TV before the advent of commercial television in Flanders in 1989. I thought Stephenson did a great job capturing a certain spirit of the Dutch, especially the levelheadedness of the monarchy so to say. Also, all the political details are correct. (But I highly doubt it they would put a 17 year old on the throne, that bit about Lotte surprised me. He probably did so to stress the trouble Saskia was in after the the storm, but still.)

      He also used The Netherlands in the Baroque cycle, but still, I thought it was impressive for an American to be able to accurately conjure the feel of the country just from research.


    • For those interested, my review of Termination Shock is here:

      I compare it a bit to Bewilderment & The Ministry for the Future.


  13. Pingback: TERMINATION SHOCK – Neal Stephenson (2021) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  14. Follow up note: if you havo Netflix, or have a friend who has Netflix, watch Don’t Look Up. At its core, it’s an extremely similar premise to Bewilderment: humanity faces a massive threat, but non-believers in science don’t take it seriously. The film’s producers, however, take the idea in a satirical direction, something which I found much more effective than Powers’ personal/affecting story. Both are preaching to the choir, but the film delivers a clearer message. And even if you don’t like the film, there are still a couple funny moments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve seen the first 15 minutes of at my in-laws a few days ago. I was intrigued enough to put it on my mental list of things to watch next time I sign up for Netflix again (probably when s6 of Better Call Saul is released), and now that you tip it, I’m double curious. I’ve seen quite a lot of discussion of this movie online, it seems a divisive love it or hate it thing. From what I’ve seen, I think I’ll love it more than hate it.

      I think that movies are a better tactical medium to influence ideas, as they reach a bigger audience, but I guess you are right that most people that are going to watch this are converts already.


    • Just saw the movie. Basically, I thought it was brilliant in its dissection of mainstream contemporary American/Western culture and even politics. But indeed, preaching to the choir, and in the end, just another Hollywood product too.


  15. I never once felt while reading Bewilderment that it was a novel about climate change.

    It’s a novel about a widowed father struggling to raise an emotionally disturbed child. Robin, the child, reacts to the problems of our world, but the focus of the novel, is not those problems per se, but how to answer Robin’s questions about them. And most of the problems that upset Robin does not deal with climate change but animal cruelty, habitat destruction, and extinction. But the dramatic quality of the novel, is not our problems, but how to react to Robin’s fear of them.

    I believe it’s wrong to judge Bewilderment on whether it’s a novel about climate change. Someone else could accuse it of being a novel about veganism. But that would be wrong too.

    From start to finish I was emotionally caught up in Theo’s struggle to save his son. Everything about that story was beautiful. I’d say the father-son relationship is 75% of the novel. My eyes were wet for almost the entire time I listened to this book.

    10% of the novel is the science-fictional psychological treatment of Robin by teaching him to resonate with his mother’s brain waves. This part reminds me of Flowers for Algernon.

    10% of Bewilderment is about astrobiology, reading science fiction, and speculating about exotic life on exo-planets.

    5% is about anti-science stupidity in politics. Any contemporary novel that mentions today’s politics could include this content. It’s just part of our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I fully agree the novel is not about climate change. But I do judge it because of that, and for two reasons. First is the back cover, for which I hold authors responsible too, especially of the stature of Powers (if Greg Egan can do it, Powers surely can). On my back cover is this: “At the heart of Bewilderment lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperilled planet?” You cannot separate climate change from our imperilled planet, or a truth we have to tell our children. The second reason is that mass extinction is not a moral problem/peril as such as I try to explain in the review – and besides, there even is still debate whether it is actually happening. As for an urgent peril to our children, climate change is much more important.

      And because Powers expressed that he tried to write a political/activist novel in interviews, I think his tactics/choice of subject could have been better.


    • But I have no trouble with lots of other aspects of the book, and I was very emotional at the end too (but only at the end).


  16. I think this is the only negative review of yours that nevertheless made me still go out and by the book. Will probably be another month till I finally tackle this one (reading your last Egan recommendation right now), but the themes you describe seem right up my alley. Seems like an interesting book, even if it doesn’t fully come together.

    Fingers crossed.

    Anyway, always love stopping by and checking on your reads. I always find interesting recommendations based on your tastes. Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The more I think about Bewilderment, the less I’m sure what I actually think about it. My main critique with the book has to do with stuff outside that book: Power’s interviews, the back copy, etc. But you can’t really separate those two spheres.

      I’m still in doubt what the actual message of this book is, or how Powers meant that ending. Either way, as a story, it worked for me, even though parts of it were a bit pedestrian, the ending simply worked very well for me on an emotional level.

      I think most people will like this book – I more or less liked it too, even though my review was negative. It’s just that he set a high bar for himself.

      I also think the themes he chose for this book work for a lot of people, in that sense writing ‘this’ book in ‘this’ time was a smart move business wise, and it didn’t really need a lot of research or plotting – a short, snappy book that must have been fairly easy to write for a seasoned writer of big serious books like Powers. It’s probably picked up easier by occasional readers as well, they might stay away from books as thick as The Overstory. (Not intended as critique whatsoever btw, just something that crossed my mind.)

      Thanks for stopping by, appreciated. It’s always fun and insightful to exchange some thoughts!


  17. Pingback: CHAPTERHOUSE: DUNE – Frank Herbert (1985) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  18. Pingback: ZENDEGI (2010) & DISPERSION (2020) – Greg Egan | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  19. Michelle McDougall

    I personally despised the ending. The message to me was “drug your kids. They’re safer when zombified into obedience by medication.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not sure about that, as


      the kid drowns?


    • Or do you mean that wouldn’t have happened if he had been on meds? I’m not sure anymore whether he was on meds or not in the end, after they stopped the experimental treatment.


      • Michelle McDougall

        He’d discussed the meds so many times, I don’t think he started giving them to the kid without mentioning it. Medication for kids theoretically decreases their propensity towards risk taking, so I do think he was strongly implying the kid should have been drugged.


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