Richard Powers has been skirting the edges of genre for years. He has exhibited the talent of consistently defying category while producing work that can, with a slight shift of perspective, be read as solidly within certain categories.
The question has always been—what category?
He has written about atomic physics, A.I., terrorism, biodiversity, virtual reality, genetic engineering, all convincingly and with a commitment to consequence found primarily in science fiction of the first water.
Now he has put science fiction itself front and center in a new novel that powerfully blends the soul of a family with the science of cosmology, neurology, and ecology and the sense of wonder that comes from imagining new worlds. Bewilderment is a profound examination of colliding worlds, both personal, global, and epistemological.
Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist. His work requires him to imaginatively hypothesize about extrasolar planetary ecologies as part of the search for new worlds. He is plugged into the community involved with finding and identifying exoplanets and advocating for further research.
His son, Robin, nine going on ten, is, broadly speaking, a special needs kid who is both brilliant and troubled. They share a love of ecologies and a commitment to the natural world enhanced by Theo’s late wife, Alyssa, who had been a dedicated eco-warrior running a non-profit and advancing legislation in an attempt to save the ecosystem. Her ghost haunts them both, inspires them, and in some ways tortures them, especially Theo, who feels he has never risen to the level of commitment she felt.
The story is set in an alternate reality in a United States that is sliding toward autocracy, threatening Theo’s work and, ultimately, Robin’s chance for the stability he needs to be effective pursuing his passions.
All the elements of a dystopian thriller are in place, but that is not where Powers takes us. The apparatus of government is left in place and the characters struggle with it in familiar (though uncomfortable) ways. There is no revolution being planned or carried out, at least not on the page. But it sets the stage for an ongoing background dialogue about the nature of science in conflict with ideologies.
The primary story is Theo trying to provide the best possible life for Robin and it is as heartfelt and affecting as one could want. Theo is in many ways out of his depth, treading water, and fighting to keep an unsympathetic world at bay while he works to get Robin through to a place where he can function in that world.
The science fiction comes in unexpectedly and wonderfully in Theo and Robin’s relationship. Theo is a longtime fan. He mentions that he still has over 2000 science fiction paperbacks and that he was inspired to pursue science (like so many scientists and engineers) by reading SF. But the best part is how he and Robin, as part of their nightly ritual before bedtime, will go visit a planet. Theo constructs one and they travel to it. These sections are beautifully-imagined and clearly drawn from decades of science fiction. This alone justifies the genre as among the most human forms of creation.
This is not the only aspect of the novel which depends on the tools of science fiction. There is an experimental neuroscience program, there is work on a new orbital telescope (to be positioned near Saturn) to enable unprecedented views of exoplanets, there is a whole worldview in play involving a defense of science and imagination.
Powers is an artist and the work at hand reads as an eloquent study of people in conflict with the world and their own souls. It revolves around the gravity well of love and the ties of the past even as we strive to progress.
Genre has long appeared to be a sort of antithesis to what some regard as “genuine” literature, despite examples of works which function comfortably within genre conventions which no one takes as any kind of handicap. Writers like Richard Powers demonstrate the absurdity of such balkanization. But he also shows the importance of taking your starting assumptions seriously, unlike those writers who, intentionally or otherwise, lock themselves into a category of their own creation by a lack of attention to the aspects of their projects which they seem to feel do not require as much (or any) respect.
Bewilderment is a literary novel that also happens to be science fiction. And a love story. And a political drama. By paying equal attention to each element and treating them seriously, he shows both that what is otherwise “mere” genre can achieve powerful, vital humanistic effect that centers on the journey of the mind and heart through a world contoured by dreams, hopes, and the realities of an imagination unafraid to go to new worlds.