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It’s Dystopian. It’s Bleak

Artist’s concept of earth-like planets in the future
ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Artist’s concept of earth-like planets in the future

I’m Pat Tyrer from Canyon, Texas for the High-Plains-Public-Radio-Readers Book Club.

The novel I’ll be talking about today is Richard Power’s 2021 novel Bewilderment. I should caution you that I may have read too many dystopian novels of late, but I found Bewilderment was not as satisfactory of a read as was his previous, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory, although it is only half as long at 288 pages.

My main issue with Bewilderment, and this may very well be an enticement for you, is that the novel takes on too many major concerns; it explores too many life-changing events to keep me focused. Instead, I found myself restless from concern over the environment to being fretful over the ending of humanity, to wondering how the two central characters would fare as the world ended, to hoping for more information on possible planets out there capable of sustaining life after we humans had destroyed it on Earth, and finally to possible advances in neurofeedback to treat mental and emotional conditions.

The central theme of the novel is the shifting relationship between Theo, father and first-person narrator, and Robin, his nine-year-old son who seems to be highly intelligent but neurodivergent. The suggestion at one point is that the son is “on the spectrum,” although Theo rejects classification as well as the use of drugs to contain Robin’s intense and inappropriate emotional reactions. In addition, both Robin and Theo are recovering from the loss of Alyssa, wife to Theo and mother to Robin who was killed in an auto-accident the previous year. But even though Alyssa or Ally is deceased, she has left behind a set of brain scans that both she and Theo had done a few years earlier as part of a research study. Marty Currier, a neuroscientist (who also happens to be Ally’s former lover) offers to scan Robin’s brain to evaluate possible treatment options. And this is where, for me, the novel gets truly interesting as Robin’s emotional state alters after exposure to his mother’s brainwaves.

Initially during the experimental stage, the scientists copied the brain patterns of people who had achieved high levels of composure through years of meditation and use those patterns to teach Robin to control his outbursts, his spontaneous brain activity, to conform to a prerecorded template. They “then shape that spontaneous activity through visual and auditory cues” to mimic the patterns through feedback to the more moderated response. This process of neural feedback is an assistive procedure with little possibility of danger and unlimited potential for improvement. Ah, if only this weren’t science fiction, right?

The story is overall dystopian, so even with bright spots imagining life on other planets, or the possibility of Robin’s uniting with his deceased mother, or at least her emotional brain patterns, are bright spots, overall the story is bleak. However, I feel that there’s so much in this novel, that you’re bound to find a section that you personally can connect with. I encourage you to check out Bewilderment by Richard Powers for yourself.

Again, I’m Pat Tyrer from Canyon, Texas for the High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club.

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