Powers, Richard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Dec-20-2021


Science is a fundamental part of modern reality. It is used to explain the workings of the world around us and is instrumental in making that world a more hospitable place to live in. There are those who assert that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. They advocate considering science and religion as parallel but not intersecting ways to understand the place and purpose of human beings. What about science and art?  Or science and literature? Can they peacefully co-exist? Richard Powers is an author who has dedicated his literary career life to the proposition that they can.

In his latest book, Bewilderment, he examines the question whether neurobiology can help people achieve empathy, potentially even merge with another person. Theo is an astrobiologist, someone whose job is to explore the conditions on the many planets in the universe and to determine if they are able to support any form of life, but especially human life. The underlying premise is that there are bacteria, fungi, and animals that can live under very extreme circumstances on Earth. So even if other planets have different atmospheres, ambient temperature, water, or chemical elements, Earth should not be the only planet with life.

Theo’s wife, Alyssa, has recently died in a car accident and he is still grieving the loss. She was pregnant at the time, and the accident occurred when she lost control of her car when trying not to run over an animal on the road (more on this in a minute).  Theo has one son, Robin, who is very bright but on the autism spectrum with significant anger issues. The father and son are fiercely connected and share their lives; the early part of the book beautifully describes a camping trip that they take together. But Theo has his hands full with Robin. In order to avoid medicating his son, Theo enrolls him in an experimental program, Decoded Neurofeedback  (abbreviated DecNef, like any DARPA-sounding program). The experimental study will enable Robin to control his emotions better. This would be accomplished by capturing his mother’s brain waves in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The pattern of her neural activity, which reflected her intense love of animals and nature, would provide a template that could be channeled into her son using feedback methods. The objective of the experiment  is to convert Robin into a more sensitive child who is more attuned to the world around him. Robin is remarkably responsive to the sessions, more so than any other participant, and he becomes someone who has the same warmth and protective feelings towards animals and the environment as his mother. But funding for the project is terminated, Robin’s fMRI sessions stop, and he gradually reverts back to the child he was. There is a final twist. But I leave that to those who are motivated by this annotation to read the book.


Science, as a subject worthy of writing, does seem to be infiltrating literature. A major stimulus has been the threat of climate change. Jenny Offill has written a book, Weather , with climate change as a backdrop. In a story called “The Ghost Birds,” recently published in the New Yorker (October 4, 2021), Karen Russell describes an apocalyptic world where people need to wear space suits with oxygen tanks to avoid breathing the ash-filled air and to protect them from the elements when they go out into the devastated world around them.

Richard Powers’ range has been much broader. He has written about the impact of trauma-induced Capgras syndrome (the belief that someone that you  know is actually not that person) in The Echo Maker; the relationship between DNA and music in The Gold Bug Variations; and the genetic basis of generosity in Generosity. Most recently he won the Pulitzer Prize for his extraordinary novel, The Overstory. That book details the intertwined stories of nine people whose lives revolve around five trees. The underlying idea is that trees communicate with one another and form a seamless web that impacts the lives of human beings.

Bewilderment displays the far-reaching scope of Powers’ imagination. It is his first foray into rapidly advancing area of artificial intelligence. The book captures a theme that was explored in a famous short story, “Flowers for Algernon,” that Daniel Keyes wrote in 1958. That story was made into a movie, “Charley,” and is required reading for many junior high school students. Powers openly acknowledges his debt to the story, which highlights the complicated consequences of experimental neurobiological intervention on a person’s cognitive capacity.

In this time of growing use of artificial intelligence in, among other things, medicine, law enforcement, and traffic control, Powers’ central plot device does not seem so far-fetched. In fact, Powers is quite non-judgmental about the future application of artificial intelligence into areas like enhancement and work performance While he recognizes the potential dangers of misuse and coercion, his transformation of Robin from a boy with poor impulse control and social awkwardness into a warm empathic child is presented in a tender, compassionate manner.  Bewilderment is less a novel and more like a play with a limited cast of characters and settings. It reads like an allegory, a myth foretelling what the future might have in store for us. It lacks the intricate depth and power (no pun intended) of The Overstory. But the prose is softer, more emotional, than in the other Powers books that I have read. It seems as if his heart was truly into Bewilderment. This novel belongs in the heart and brain of all of us.


W.W. Norton & Co

Place Published

New York



Page Count