Bewilderment, Richard Powers; Galaxy network, Photo: agsandrew/Getty Images; Surreal hills, Photo: Artur Debat/Getty Images
In a new novel from U.S. author Richard Powers, an astrobiologist creates imaginary planets to ease his troubled son's grief over environmental destruction on Earth / BY Kim Honey / September 29th, 2021
A few steps from Richard Powers’ front door, a carpet of virgin forest covers ridge after ridge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The U.S. author discovered this pristine wilderness on a short research trip for his last book, The Overstory, about the intertwined relationship between trees and humans. That book, his 12th, won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Powers wanted to see one of the last, vast tracts of intact, old growth forest in the eastern U.S. When he got there, he had a profound reaction akin to the “religious conversion experience” he had when he saw a California redwood that was 90 metres tall, nine metres wide and almost 2,000 years old. The park, which straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border, has eight distinct types of forest covering 96 per cent of its 210,000 hectares.
“It was just like going from black and white to colour, and the species count went up,” Powers explains in a Zoom interview from the National Public Radio station in Knoxville, Tenn., where he is doing back-to-back interviews for his new book, Bewilderment. “The quality of the light was different, the sound and smell was different. I was almost 60 and I had never seen it.”
Almost a year later, he couldn’t stop thinking about how invigorated he felt in a place where there are 19,0000 documented species of plants and animals, from synchronous fireflies that put on a show during mating season to ephemeral flowers that take advantage of spring’s sparse tree canopy to bloom for just a few weeks. About five years ago, Powers bought a house on the edge of the park, where he can “walk for hours and hours and not see another person,” although he does run into a lot of black bears.
“There are two bears per square mile here, and they do come up all the time when I’m out hiking,” Powers says. “I’ve had one on my back deck walk into the house.”
NATURE AND NURTURE
That brings us to Bewilderment, which has just been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. It opens with widowed astrobiologist Theo Byrne taking his only child, Robin, on a backcountry camping trip in the Great Smokies to celebrate the boy’s ninth birthday. It is a brief respite from Robin’s travails at school, where he has been suspended for two days after yet another run-in with classmates who tease and bully him because, as two doctors have suggested, Robin has Asperger’s. Theo, however, refuses to label his troubled, precocious son, because he appreciates Robin’s neurodivergence. “I liked him otherworldly,” Theo says. “I liked having a son so ingenuous that it rattled his smug classmates.”
They stop to marvel at ant nests, an eastern box turtle, a gigantic mushroom and a yellow-spotted millipede that smells like almond extract because it is exuding cyanide, which is lethal to birds and rodents. They set up camp next to a stream with deep pools surrounded by white water tumbling over the rocks beneath. Theo eases into the cold water, bracing himself against the current, and shows Robin how to scrabble around for handholds and footholds and “find his cascade legs.” This happens to be one of the author’s favourite solo pursuits, a fairly dangerous sport given the odds of slipping and smashing your head on a boulder as the water sweeps you down and under. As in the book, there is no cell signal here; after asking if he carries flares, Powers, 64, concedes perhaps he should buy some.
If the forest is his cathedral, Bewilderment is a sermon of sorts. Like The Overstory, it is an ode to the natural world, how humans are alienated from it and what that does to a person’s psyche. He agrees Bewilderment is a book about eco-grief, a term coined to describe deep anxiety, depression or hopelessness some people feel in the face of global warming, oceans polluted with plastic and shrinking ecosystems.
“I’ve seen this term soul nostalgia starting to get established, that sense of acute homesickness for a place that doesn’t exist anymore. And I think that is an epidemic among younger people,” Powers says. “They barely have time to feel that animism – in that connecting to the non-human – when they’re young, before they realize that it’s disappearing. And that’s what this book is about. It’s the accusation of a nine year old.”
When Theo comes out of the woods the next day, the sight of the road crushes his soul. “The cars, the asphalt, the sign listing all the regulations; after a night in the woods, the trailhead parking lot felt like death,” Powers writes. Then, when traffic comes to a standstill on a small mountain road, Theo realizes visitors have stopped to watch, photograph and take video of a black bear and her three cubs. Unwittingly, Theo sends Robin out of the car to see the wildlife, but the sight of humans converging on the bears sets Robin off and Theo fears another screaming fit that will undo the peace that has settled over the boy after a few days in nature. “They must really hate us,” Robin says. “How would you like to star in a freak show?”
THE SEARCH FOR INTELLIGENT LIFE
The novel is woven around bedtime stories Theo tells Robin as he tries to ease him into sleep. The boy’s mother and Theo’s wife, Alyssa, was killed in a car crash two years before and then Robin’s dog died months later. Theo has been stumbling along as a single parent and university professor, trying to juggle his son, his classes and his research on extra-terrestrial life on exoplanets – some 4,000 planets outside our solar system that orbit a star other than the sun – but he is falling further and further behind at work.
His research group is putting together a proposal for government funding for a space-mounted telescope that could prove there is life on exoplanets. It’s not that far-fetched, given there are anaerobic creatures like bacteria and worms that live without oxygen near thermal vents deep below the ocean’s surface. Theo spends his time modelling scenarios for life on exoplanets, simulating their surfaces, cores and atmospheres on a computer and compiling a catalogue of plausible ecosystems. As Theo says: “My worlds didn’t have to be like Earth … I tried to free myself from bias and assume nothing, the way a child worked, as if our single instance proved the possibilities were endless.”
He spins these scenarios into stories of fictional exoplanets like Dvau, which has a lot of similarities to Earth and dozens of microorganisms swimming in tidal pools, but no moon to stabilize its spin. “Every time life tried to break loose, the planet twirled, beating it back to extremophiles,” Powers writes.
The author explains the bedtime stories are part allegory. “They function as little bite-sized moments of meditation with all of the variables tweaked,” Powers says. “I also think they function psychologically as well … they very much reflect [Theo’s] hopes and fears.” And once father and son are “visiting” a planet, the reader gets a glimpse into “the locked world of Robin’s mind.”
HOPE AGAINST HOPE
Robin and Theo inhabit an America ruled by a Trump-like president at war with science and an environment where wildfires rage in California, a hurricane sweeps part of Long island into the sea and China and the U.S. are “playing nuclear cat-and-mouse.” Robin’s world is leavened by decoded neurofeedback, which Powers says is in its infancy and mainly used in trauma therapy. It has been described as “non-conscious brain modulation,” and clinical experiments suggest giving a patient a reward when a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, aided by artificial intelligence, detects brain patterns associated with, say, a fear of spiders can unconsciously alter a memory or mental state. In the novel, Powers takes the idea into the realm of science fiction when Robin is put in an fMRI scanner and learns to change notes in a musical composition – and even the instruments playing it – “just by wanting it.” Almost immediately, the experiment with Robin makes the boy more social and less prone to outbursts, and leads to more joy as the experimental treatment progresses.
Despite some dark moments, Powers says Bewilderment is not about existential despair. Yes, feeding the constant cravings of capitalism have stripped the planet of resources, poisoned our land, air and water and made a mockery of the virtue of humanity. We’re now at the point where we throw up fences around nature and call it a reserve or create imaginary boundaries = and call it a preserve, in an effort to protect everything from dark skies to gorillas to butterflies.
So does Powers have any hope for what Theo calls “this little blue dot?”
“When people say, ‘but do you have hope for us?’ if they mean do I have hope that we will continue to be able to live like this, I would say no, I can’t hope for such a thing,” he says. “But if by hope you mean a commitment to engage the future to find meaning in a new kind of world that has overwhelming challenges, but has more possibility for gratification and meaningful reward than the world of private accumulation ever had, then I would say, yes, this book is filled with hope.”
As a child, Powers says he was “a bee guy and an insect guy,” but the former computer programmer, who started a degree in physics before switching to English literature, was interested in oceanography, too. After exploring the symbiotic relationship between humans and trees for Overstory and reaching for the stars in Bewilderment, I ask whether he’s ever considered applying his unique enviro-vision to what lies beneath. After all, the world’s oceans cover 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface and have been largely unexplored by humans. “I am, maybe, 100 pages into that book,” he laughs.
With scientists estimating there are a couple of hundred thousand ocean species, and perhaps as many as a million, to be discovered, Powers has another vast expanse, teeming with possibilities, where his imagination can run wild.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers was published Sept. 21 by Penguin Random House Canada.