But we might never find them?
Fermi’s Paradox is at the heart of this story.
The story goes that in 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, made a passing comment asking ‘where are all the aliens?’ given the youngish nature of our planetary system and the relative ease of space travel. Fermi was not the first person to ask this question. Nor will he be the last. It makes for excellent science-fiction storytelling fodder for starters!
One of the possibilities for where they all are, became known as the zoo hypothesis. This proposition believes that humans are not yet ready for contact, but that we are being observed from afar by other life forms. A more extreme version of this believes that we are the subject of an experiment, with the whole Earth as a laboratory.
Of course, the problem with both these possibilities is the underlying assumption of endless progress and evolutionary change towards some ideal of higher civilisation or being. Given the state of our world right now, it is getting harder and harder to prop up this assumption.
Every belief will be outgrown, in time.
This is where Richard Powers steps in with his latest eco-novel, Bewilderment.
Theo and his nine year old son, Robin, are looking at the stars and wondering about the possibility of life on other planets. Theo is an astrobiologist. Robin is a troubled young boy – smart, thoughtful and curious but not always good at dealing with people or real life problems. In the past couple of years, Robin and Theo have had some pretty major real life problems thrown at them, including the death of Alyssa, their much loved mother and wife, in a car accident.
Robbie had spent two days worrying over the silence of a galaxy that ought to be crawling with civilisations. How could anyone protect a boy like that from his own imagination?
The Overstory was one of my favourite books of 2019, with a few reservations. I therefore approached Bewilderment with eager willingness tempered by caution.
I read somewhere that Powers had been completely drained by writing The Overstory and wasn’t sure he could write again. The Overstory was that kind of story – rich, epic and dramatic, but a sense of helplessness and hopelessness about the fate of our planet pervaded the book. It was one of my reservations about it – being left with nothing I/we could do to make a difference…except write a story. No wonder Powers also felt bereft, perhaps feeling like he had used up all his words in this one heroic story.
Bewilderment had moments where I thought it had the potential to veer off into the land of twee sentimentality or grandiose thinking, but Powers reined it in each time.
I found the story intense, mesmerising and passionate. It was one family’s story cradled within the story of the world, the universe and everything.
Love of science was central to the story and our understanding of the characters who inhabit it. Theo, Robin (& Alyssa) are in awe of the planet we live on and the cosmos surrounding it. But this love is not unconditional.
It wasn’t enough for anyone simply to do science. Everything was a race for priority, for professional advancement, for a share of the shrinking grants pool and a raffle ticket to Stockholm.
Theo is an astrobiologist, and neuroscience becomes the drug-free solution for Robin’s issues. Alyssa was an environmental activist and campaigner. However, it’s not all data and theories, philosophy also comes into play, especially Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
In the allegory, a group of people live chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. They watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them. These shadows are their reality, even though they are not an accurate representations of the real world behind them.
The philosopher is the prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are actually not reality at all. The philosopher is convinced of the superiority of this reality and wants to share it with the other prisoners. However, the other inmates of the cave do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life. When the philosopher returns to the cave, he appears blinded, coming into the dark from the sunlight, causing the other prisoners to believe that his journey out of the cave has harmed him.
The mind’s eye had two bafflements: coming out of the light and going into it.
The main science fiction influence on Powers was Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Flowers For Algernon is a short story written in 1958 and first published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. Keyes then worked on an expanded novel over the next few years, which was published in 1966.The novel was the joint winner of 1966 Nebula Award for Best Novel along with with Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany.
If you choose to read Bewilderment, I strongly recommend that you take the ten minutes to read the short story version. You could manage without it, but it complements and informs a lot of what Powers does here, that, I for one, was very glad to have read it first (or at least at the same time as Theo & Robin listened to it in their car).
The other factor at play here, was US politics. It’s pretty obvious when Powers was writing this book and the political landscape that infected his mood. Much of what happens in Bewilderment is a writer’s guess at what might have been if Trump had won the 2020 election.
Only pure bewilderment kept us from civil war.
And now that I’m finished?
I enjoyed the science and philosophy and discovering the science-fiction antecedents at play in the story, but I realised at the end that I was not particularly invested in the characters emotionally. Perhaps that makes me a cold fish? Or maybe in the face of such immense environmental and political upheaval and chaos, it’s not easy to become invested in just one family, unless it’s your family?
Curiously, my lack of emotional connect to the ending, has not taken away from my engagement with the rest of the story. My mind is still buzzing with the possibility of life on other planets, prisoners in cave fascinated by shadows and classic science-fiction scenarios. For me, this is a good thing. I love it when I book challenges me and I learn something new.
A sense of bewilderment permeates our characters (from Theo’s floundering abilities as a parent to Robin’s disbelief that we are doing nothing to stop the degradation of our planet) and the story as a whole. Despite the temptation to fall into a pit of hopelessness, Powers offers up some light of our own. If we could only take our eyes off the shadows and face the reality, there is still hope. A glimmer that is getter harder and harder to hold onto, but it’s still there.
From the Booker Prize 2021 Q&A page, Powers talks about the origins of Bewilderment. He says:
The book has its roots in two different worlds. It is, in part, a novel about the anxiety of family life on a damaged planet, and for that, I’m indebted to writers as varied as Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Evan Dara, Don Delillo, and Lauren Groff.
But it is also a kind of ‘planetary romance’ that pays homage to both contemporary and classic speculative fiction writers including Daniel Keyes, Ursula LeGuin, Olaf Stapledon, Alan Lightman, Italo Calvino, and Kim Stanley Robinson.
Powers lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.Rachel Carson
Therefore, for a similar reason, we must admit that the Earth, the sun, the moon, the ocean and all other things are not unique, but number in numbers beyond number.Lucretius | De Rerum Natura
- Shortlisted 2021 Booker Prize
- The Earth
Favourite or Forget:
- However, I cannot see this book winning the Booker, but who knows what this year’s judges will deem ‘the best’?
Title: Bewilderment Author: Richard Powers ISBN: 9781785152641 Imprint: William Heinemann Published: 21 September 2021 Format: Trade Paperback