Flowers for Algernon is a Portent
I’m Bob Seay and this is another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.
I’ve been reading Bewilderment, a novel by Richard Powers. On its surface, Bewilderment is a father-son story set in a framework of science fiction. But, like all good science fiction, it is the human themes that make the story work.
The father and narrator is Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist who creates theoretical models of planets in an effort to understand the possibility of life beyond our solar system. The son is a neuro-divergent eight-year-old with behavior problems named Robin. Theo and Robin are still dealing with the death of Robin’s mother, an environmental attorney/activist named Aly. The story begins after Aly’s death, but she is still a major character in the book.
Theo rejects the school’s recommendation that he put Robin on antidepressants and other psychotropic medications. Instead, Theo reaches out to Dr. Currier, a colleague of his deceased wife, about interventions involving neurofeedback. This treatment ultimately makes Robin acutely aware of his mother’s thoughts and emotions, including her intense concern for environmental issues, animal rights, and the impact of humans on other species. This idea of negative environmental consequences of human activity is a major theme of the book. Another theme is the human reaction to those consequences and its implications for our collective mental health.
The story is set in a near-future that seems depressingly familiar. Funding for Theo’s extraterrestrial research and space exploration are cut by authoritarian politicians who are strongly anti-science. Aly’s colleague loses funding for his research and must find new ways to work with Robin.
While Bewilderment is a rewarding read, it is not light reading. Early in the book, on page 41 of the 278 page book, Powers references the Daniel Keyes’ short story, Flowers for Algernon, a story about a mouse that gains intelligence but then regresses. For me at least, this foreshadowing hung like a dark cloud over the rest of the book. Despite my best efforts, I could not shake the strong sense that I knew where the story was going.
But the Algernon analogy is too strong to ignore. Humanity, once ignorant of our impact on the planet, has long since acquired potentially planet saving knowledge about the environment and our place in it. We have identified the causes of our environmental problems and even know how to fix them. Unfortunately, our world seems to be regressing into an anti-science, anti-fact, anti-truth mindset that threatens not only our scientific progress but the very existence of the planet. Bewilderment may be fiction, but the attitudes and conflicts it presents are very real.
Powers seems to be asking why, despite our scientific enlightenment surrounding the environment and even other species, we seem hell bent on ignoring what we have learned and returning to a Medieval mindset.
For High Plains Public Radio, I’m Bob Seay.