Reasoning from a Sample of One
This is Bailey from Garden City, Kansas reviewing Bewilderment by Richard Powers.
This stylistically unique and prose-like novel takes the reader through the mind of a widowed astrobiologist who endeavors to find ways to help his brilliant and autistic son. Together they connect and share with each other through science fiction planets.
Theo, the father, struggles to help his son adjust and acclimate to the world as he transitions from childhood into maturity. After the loss of his mother, Robin no longer believes in humanity and the wonders they discover. His father is equally, if not more, pessimistic about mankind. Yet, the narrator takes the reader through periods of the father’s life where he was in awe of mankind’s discoveries. Theo’s background of parental neglect and abuse, partnered with the loss of the brightest person in his life, his wife, have exhausted him.
As Theo and his father work together to find a way forward through the use of decoded neural feedback, or DecNef for short, they continue to strengthen their relationship. Throughout their journey, the narrator makes use of fictional planets to illustrate a mental landscape, with hurdles and obstacles.
As an avid science fiction reader myself, I found it refreshing to find others whose love of fiction functioned as an escape from reality. In Theo’s case, his parents were either neglectful or abusive. Some could argue both. But the way Theo used his love of books, reading, and imagination as a way to bond with his son, pulled me in. Like Robin, I too loved going to the local library. It was a welcome refuge away from choices we didn’t want to make or realities we didn’t want to face. Robin used his father’s fictional planets, and the potential applications to the real scientific world, to help him find his place.
I absolutely loved reading and watching Robin grow. I sympathized with Theo’s decision to avoid prescription drugs for his son’s behavioral issues. I believe that many in our society often view behavioral issues like Robin’s as abnormal and something to be corrected with prescription drugs. Through the method in which Robin was “treated” was fictional, it centered on teaching himself how to work through his emotions. He simply needed the right tools to succeed.
I myself could stand to learn more about individuals not considered “neurotypical.” A line that stood out to me was where the narrator, Theo, began to describe a little bit of the history of astrobiology and discovery. He described current scientific processes of predicting variables for other planets based on prior human knowledge of Earth as “reasoning from a sample of one.”
When reading that line, it not only illuminated a bit more about Theo, but also struck me as something we could apply to any problem we do not understand. Robin, for example, was considered abnormal by his principal, teacher, and peers. It made me reconsider what we as a society consider “neurotypical.”
This sweet book really made me fall in love with Theo and Robin’s relationship. Storytelling can be such a powerful tool to help us understand our current reality and future directions. Through loss, grief, love, and joy, father and son find understanding and connection through the power of possibilities.
This is Bailey in Garden City, for HPPR Radio Readers Club.