Bewilderment by Richard Powers

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).

Environmental fiction Science Booker shortlistThe 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.

galaxy solar system planets stars Bewilderment

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Watch this space later today to see who wins the prize! Check out the Booker shortlist here and the complete longlist here.

 

Episode 8: Ten Months of Bliss and Facing a Return to Work

Once over that initial hurdle, Allia blossomed and apart from that long scar, there was nothing to indicate there had ever been a problem. She was a happy, contented baby who loved to smile and engage with those around her, especially the band of eight and nine-year-old girls who lived in our apartment building and were frequent visitors.

For the first ten months I was able to stay at home with her, working a little, practicing aromatherapy, however I knew it was going to be necessary to find another full-time job, living in London demands it, all the more so when there is an extra mouth to feed.

Until this precious little girl came into my life, I never really questioned working long hours or weekends and I had thrived on the opportunity to travel with work. Now, I couldn’t think of anything worse – to leave this child behind, absolutely not, she had extinguished my desire to seek out the unknown, I found myself dreaming of safer pastures, the more familiar.

For the first time in eight years of living in London, the city that I thought had become my second home, I thought the unthinkable – maybe it was time to return to New Zealand?

P.S. This is what Allia came up with when I said this episode was about us having 10 months of fun times hanging out together, going to the park etc, I just love this picture, although my husband says that first one isn’t true! But her imagination is brilliant. Enjoy.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

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