A writer I’ve hesitated over before, but heard many rave about, I decided to read this purely because so many predict it to win the Booker Prize, (winner announced later today).
The book is about Theo, a widower and astrophysicist, raising his nine year old son Robin alone, two years after the death of his wife.
Theo’s work is pure imagination, a science fiction fantasy, he creates models of imaginary planets, deciding their characteristics, populated with his own datasets, that one day he hopes can be substituted for real data – if they ever complete the trillion dollar machine/project that can go further than anything else ever has and discover the unknown planets out there that may contain life.
And all my simulated atmospheres waited for the day when the long-gestated, long delayed space-borne telescopes would lift off and come online, blowing our little one-off Rare-Earth wide open.
Robin likes to listen to his father speak of these planets as a bedtime story/game, but his own urgent focus is on planet Earth and her endangered species, and the terrible things humans are doing to her. His passion and enthusiasm for things elicits unwanted attention at school and he’s unable to control his responses.
Theo mentions the problem to a neuroscientist colleague who suggests an alternative treatment, a kind of training in an aspired emotional trait, something Theo and his wife had already contributed to, that Robin might benefit from.
“Are you afraid he might hurt someone? Has he ever come after you?”
“No. Never. Of course not.”
He knew I was lying. “I’m not a doctor. And even doctors can’t give you a reliable opinion without a formal consult. You know that.”
“No doctor can diagnose my son better than I can. I just want some treatment short of drugs that will calm him down and get his principal off my back.”
In essence that’s the story, Theo’s navigation of Robin’s equilibrium, the precariousness of his own career, Robin’s frustrated attempts to make a difference on planet Earth and their mutual grief and loss of his mother.
In a sense Theo’s interest and career in imagining those lifeforms far, far away, external to oneself are a method and training to avoid any kind of inner reflection and growth – they are another form of distraction, escapism from what he perceives as a painful reality.
Theo’s only comfort is to be in the forest with Robin, something he too adores.
It’s written in a kind of spare prose that at times, semi-lectures rather than describes, the effect perhaps of a father talking to his son about science, but neglects to inform him about life, which can make the reader detach somewhat.
It’s an outer journey, not so much an inner one, ironically, this becomes one of Robin’s most thought-provoking questions, near the end of the narrative.
Which do you think is bigger? Outer space…? He touched his fingers to my skull. Or inner?
At the same time as the planet is in peril, so is humanity, not least in the manner of how this father is disconnected from support and community, taking on the care of his son in a way that isolates them.
It reminded me of the fallacy of man and the inclination of those in power, spending trillions in the pursuit of a curiosity out there, or more trillions defending man made territories here, while the concerns of caring, poverty, and nurturing what already exists, living in the present are rarely mentioned, valued or given concern.
It’s an interesting story and it touches on many familiar, contemporary issues and it will be of interest to anyone interested in the environment and space. Likely to provoke opinions, about what is present and what is missing.