Tag Archives: Literary analysis

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?

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This is a list of longer articles of a more scholarly nature, some are +5,000 or even +10,000 words. Most touch on philosophical matters.

Frank Herbert

On Paul as a tragic hero, and determinism as the foundation of Dune, amongst other things.

A comparison between Dune & Dune Messiah, a part on Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence in relation to Messiah, and how that ties into Paul being a tragic hero and not an Übermensch. I end with a discussion on determinism & free will in Messiah.

For starters Alia as tragic figure, and a discussion about an important thing that remains unclear: Paul’s relationship to the Golden Path. After that, 4 specific subjects: how I think ‘change’ is the central concept of this book, the prevalence of a Nietzschean Amor Fati, the book’s relationship with Nietzsche’s morality beyond good & evil, and finally, free will and its relation to Leto II’s specific version of prescience. Over 10,000 words in total.

Starts with a regular review, and after that examines Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot. Also examines the nature of the supposed cautionary tale Herbert meant to write and the introduction of non-mechanical world building in the series, contrasting with its central theme of the absence of free will. Other topics are the mechanics of no-room shielded prescience, the Golden Path, change & creativity, and it takes a critical look at various inconsistencies in the novel. Over 8,700 words in total.

11,600 words. Among other things, the text looks at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examines the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It discusses love, heresy and variation as themes in the novel, and looks at how the book’s characters are permutations of those of Dune. I try the explain why I liked this book the most of the sequels, even with all its shortcomings. The most important focus of the analysis is on a major shift in the series, as in Heretics, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically. I also look at an underlying principle Herbert uses: perception shaping reality.

10,700 words. An assessment of the book’s shortcomings, plus a further examination of the Bene Gesserit, a section on free will and shorter sections on change & creativity, on Nietzschean morality, on the obscure & conflicted nature of Mentats and on Herbert’s obsession with bureaucracy. Ends with an reflection on the Dune series in general.

Yoon Ha Lee

On the morality of writing & enjoying violent fiction.

Hilary Mantel

On the conflict between the two world views underlying the novel: pragmatism vs. Plato, and a wee bit on free will.

Ada Palmer

8,600 words on the first half of Terra Ignota’s metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the embedded case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D., the question whether this utopia could devolve into war, a gender issue and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building.

Richard Powers

3,000 words on why the defeatist Bewilderment fails the goals Powers has set for himself with this clifi-ish short novel. Amongst other things a matter of hubris about the power of literature, and of content that is out of focus.

Kim Stanley Robinson

A lengthy, analytic review backed by lots of fragments from recent KSR interviews.

W. Olaf Stapledon

On the conceptual & philosophical content, and its science fictional relevance.

J.R.R. Tolkien

A detailed exploration of LOTR‘s most basic problem: its internal contradictions viz. free will, and Tolkien’s own messy thinking on the subject.

Gene Wolfe

5,500 words on a reread of TBotNS, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe has set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. There’s also a short section on free will, and it ends with my overall appraisal of the book’s enduring appeal.

Not as long, but with a coda that is a response to Wolfe’s delusional reactionary politics as he expressed them in a 2001 essay on Lord of the Rings.


Consult the author index for all my reviews, the index of non-fiction & art book reviews, or my other lists.