Every 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 Wells‘ The 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.