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Mysteries of Space, Mysteries of the Mind

NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration, NOAO/AURA/NSF, JPL-Caltech/UCLA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is Leslie VonHolten from the High Plains of Kansas with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

At night, Theo and his young son Robin, the main characters of Bewilderment by Richard Powers, travel through the outer reaches of known space with their imaginations. Using Theo’s scientific data that he’s collected as a professor and astrobiologist—which is a scientist who searches for life on other planets—the two of them create stories about what life must be like on theoretical and unknown planets.

On the planet Geminus, for example, there was no rotation, so one side remains perpetually light, while the other side is dark and icy. Theo and Robin consider the planet hospitable to life, but they determine that beings living on the lighted side cannot comprehend life on the other, darker side. But Robin, being the beautiful, curious child that he is, absorbs wonder wherever he lands: on the dark side of Geminus, he is able to see the night sky like no other human ever has. “Dad! Dad! You have no idea.”

On Tedia, Robin and Theo discover that life can take form, but it takes thousands of years. But the planet is wedged into the center of the galaxy, and therefore packed in close with other planets. It continually falls victim to disasters taking place nearby. Once, a comet tore off a third of the planet. Later, as life was growing abundant yet again, a nearby star “supernovaed”—it exploded. Life was wiped out again.

This imaginative space travel is a perfect game for a father and son. It’s intimate, creative, and expansive, it uses the limits of knowledge combined with the curiosity found within the self. At one point, young Robin asks his father, and I quote the book— “’Which do you think is bigger? Outer space…?’ He touched his finger to my skull. ‘Or inner?’”

This is a real question—where are the real discoveries in this life? It’s one that makes my humanities heart sing. To me, the mysteries of the human heart are all of the exploring I need in my literature. Bewilderment has awe-inspiring science and theory throughout, but it is the dynamic between father and son, and the sparkling brilliance of Robin, that kept me reading.

Richard Powers juxtaposes these questions with depth and compassion. While there are scientists searching for answers in deep space—space so deep it is theoretical to me—Bewilderment also features scientists who are searching for answers in that other great frontier, our own brains. Theo marvels at this sublime enormity; his intimidation pulls at you, the reader. He is a father who wants in every way to do the right thing, but he is navigating galaxies within and around him at every moment. So, he does what parents do: he focuses on his child, his one offspring, and does his best.

The HPPR Radio Readers Book Club is made possible in part by generous gifts from Lon Frahm of Colby and Lynne Hewes of Cimarron, Kansas. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.

This is Leslie VonHolten for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club. I encourage you to read Bewilderment by Richard Powers along with us. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.

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Leslie VonHolten explores and writes about connections between land and culture and particularly on the prairie spaces she loves to walk. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in The New Territory, Literary Landscapes, About Place Journal, Dark Mountain Project, and Lawrence.com, among other sites. Leslie has served as a board member for the Garden of Eden art environment in Lucas, Kansas; was a founding member of the Percolator Artspace in Lawrence, Kansas; and has been a book commentator for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, Kansas, since 2015. She was honored with a Tallgrass Artist Residency in 2022. (https://leslievonholten.com/ or https://tallgrassartistresidency.org/leslie-vonholten/ and Matfield Green Works https://matfieldgreen.org/ )