This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “Bewilderment” by Richard Powers.
When we come into our narrator's story, he is a widower with his autistic, talented, brilliant, highly active, nine-year old son. They are on a trip to find a dark sky to look at the stars through their telescope.
Our narrator is an astrobiologist who imagines other planets and the life on them to share with his son. I was reminded of my grandmother who made up bed-time stories to tell me. I only remember a slight sense of those stories now. It was a device to share experience, fabulated and otherwise.
“And what if we never heard a peep from out there? What would that say?” asked 9-year-old Robin.
Robin will make a connection with his mother's neural signals from a scientific experiment, called decoded neural feedback (DecNef).
This uses fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to train subjects into focusing their brain activation pattern in a specific area.
One of the labs featuring DecNef promised that "… The easy, noninvasive treatment can painlessly improve your mental health condition and outlook on life."
I've heard those promises a few times before from new technologies or practices. After a while they start to sound the same.
Author Richard Powers uses that to make a familiar science fiction leap: experience transfer from one person to another, using technology.
In mid-August 1977, Kansas City, I was tending a 3rd-degree burn wound, scraping and applying salve, past midnight, about 12:45 in the morning. Suddenly I knew to look up at the ceiling where I saw a transparent sphere maybe half a meter in diameter.
Immediately I knew this was my grandmother, that she just died in Norfolk, Nebraska and was stopping by on her way to somewhere else, undefined. The experience was clear, very vivid, unexpected, but no surprise, informational. The experience was "as if actually sensed." I could not have taken a picture. My brain generated that transparent sphere rather than some ghostly visage. Maybe because of my scientific bent. Who knows?
Grandmother had been in care since January. I had no inkling she was about to die. Later that morning, about 7:30 my stepfather called to tell me she had died. At the funeral, I confirmed the time.
That set me off on a series of searches for a couple decades, looking for further information from the usual sources that claim special knowledge. I hit mainstream religious sources, and off-beat religions. Any odd philosophical, mystical or occult group; I stopped by. I bought shelves of books, bibles, scriptures, occult works. I programmed my first computer, a Radio Shack pocket computer, calculating astrological charts, both solar and sidereal. Recently I found a box of those charts, an inch and a half thick, at the bottom of a forgotten packing box.
Eventually, no matter how different the groups seemed, they all began sounding the same. As far as individuals with knowledge, I really didn't find them. I did find a lot of people, without such an experience, who wanted to tell me what my experience had been, and I should sign up with them. I dropped it all.
That "visitation," and a couple more experiences with similar qualities in later years, did shift my perspective on the world at large and the idea of connections. But there was no great wisdom or revealed knowledge. No secrets of the universe. No "powers." Just me, with an experience. Always learning.
This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.