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Bewilderment - Richard Powers

Powers has written a tender allegory that drifts from despair to melancholy and then back again into the dark. The setting is either the near future or a parallel world that echoes our social perils and ecological failures. Powers is whip-smart, finding all kinds of intricate connections and clever observations that magnify the theme and ignite curiosity. The story feels honest and authentic. Written in first person, it often felt like someone describing their actual experiences. The plot follows a widowed astrobiologist and his troubled, neurodiverse nine-year-old son. Theo, the father, is researching what life might exist on other worlds and how we might detect that life. He is also just barely keeping his son, Robin, out of a system of therapists and psychoactive drugs that he worries will do more harm than good. He signs up for an experimental treatment that makes use of his dead wife’s brainwave patterns to retrain his son’s brain to help him be resilient and control his emotions. It uses fMRI with a graphical feedback loop to allow Robin to learn how to control his mind. Before long the boy blossoms, excelling in artistic ability, advancing intellectually, and finding the emotional stability he was lacking. In other words, he becomes a little buddha. Intertwined with this plot, Powers alternates between beautiful observations of our planet’s biodiversity, and through a game with his son, fascinating vignettes of creative exploration of what life might look like on other worlds. The ending is poignant but disheartening. Powers deliberately references “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes as a parallel to this tale. I saw his son, Robin, as a symbol of Earth. Full of wonder, but precariously balanced on the edge of tragedy. There are remote seeds of hope, but the odds are stacked vastly against him, and us. Powers describes the dangers our world faces; loss of habitat, species extinction, pollution, and yes, climate change through the eyes of this special child, but offers little chance for salvation. The best we get, it seems, is to appreciate what we had and what is left before it’s all gone. Still, there is a great love of nature and of the universe in this story and I hope Powers can find more to be optimistic about in his future works. A bittersweet, delicate weave of science, fiction, and philosophy that exposes the beauty and the likely tragedy of our lives, our world, and our universe.

Guest reviewer Kevin Kuhn is a proud member of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. His first novel, Do You Realize?, won five independent literary awards and spent time as a number-one Amazon bestseller in four countries. He is also a retired technology executive who currently teaches at the University of Minnesota. You can find signed copies of both his books Ten Tales of a Dark Tomorrow and Do You Realize featured on our "Local" bookshelf. Remember to check them out next time you're in the store.

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