Of all the novels responding to the Trump presidency, Richard Powers’s Bewilderment may come closest to pure propaganda. Set in a slightly worse and slightly more technologically advanced version of the present – popular adjustments in recent fiction – Bewilderment takes aim at the administration’s xenophobia and persecution of foreigners, its anti-science and anti-environmental policies, and its attempts to undermine democracy. In the novel, a coup successfully keeps the malevolent incumbent in office, with fatal consequences for its protagonists. Trump is never named, although tweets in a parody of his voice let us know who’s in charge. The pandemic and the Russians are left out – you can’t do everything.
It’s hard to think of Bewilderment as a political novel, however, since most of its politics will be innocuous to any imagined audience. If you aren’t in favour of killing endangered animals, of invalidating visas, of throwing out properly cast votes and of denying helpful therapies to suffering children, you will find little in the novel to argue with. Perhaps you think vast expenditure on elaborate satellites in search of life on other planets is, at this point in history, a waste of resources. That position would put you in conflict with Theodore Byrne, an astrobiologist and the book’s narrator. He testifies before Congress in support of Nasa’s Earthlike Planet Seeker programme, a giant self-assembling mirror to be deployed near Jupiter with the aim of detecting habitable planets and alien life. After the coup, the project is scotched along with the NextGen Telescope, $12 billion and thirty years in the making (a device that sounds a lot like Nasa’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, renamed last year for the agency’s first chief of astronomy and still in development).
Powers’s portrayal of a US government assault on Nasa is odd because it’s largely counterfactual. Trump and Pence, with their Captain Kirk fantasies, accelerated many Nasa programmes, shifting funding for manned space exploration away from Mars back to the Moon (already a trend under Obama) and initiating a Space Force of dubious utility. The one area where they gutted Nasa’s efforts was in the investigation of climate change, which Powers and his characters would certainly protest against. A development he ignores is the private pursuit of space exploration by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Perhaps it’s his ambivalence towards the private sector.
Fidelity to political realities may be too much to ask of what is essentially a rewrite of a children’s book. On their way home from a week in the woods of Appalachia, Theo and his son, Robin, listen to the audiobook of Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon (1966), a staple of school reading lists (although a disputed one). After surgical experiments successfully enhance the IQ of a mouse called Algernon, Charlie, who works in a New York City bakery and has an IQ of 68, undergoes a procedure that triples his intelligence. But Algernon’s advances reverse, leading to his death, and the same starts to happen to Charlie, even before he can use his superbrain to figure out a way to keep himself smart. He severs ties with friends and family as his intelligence dwindles, and checks himself into a state institution where nobody knows he was briefly a genius.
Flowers for Algernon has been reworked many times, including as the movie Charly, which won Cliff Robertson an Oscar for Best Actor in 1968, and an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer has a crayon removed from his brain, becoming as smart as his daughter, Lisa, and turning whistle-blower about the hazards of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Powers isn’t up to anything so funny (or anything funny at all). He shifts the field of experimental therapy from intelligence to emotional stability and social behaviour. Robin is quite an impressive nine-year-old, able to synthesise vast amounts of data and memorise swathes of trivia, especially about flora, fauna and the cosmos. He has an intense appreciation of nature. The trouble is that he’s given to temper tantrums and the occasional violent outburst at school. Diagnoses of Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD follow, and the school administrators want to put him on medication.
Theo objects to seeing his son pathologised and refuses to submit to the conspiracy of Big Pharma. He reckons his son is uniquely sensitive and, like himself, imaginative. Together they explore the virtual models of alien planets that he’s created in his research, and little passages of speculative interstellar tourism arrive at intervals throughout the narrative. Dvau is a planet like Earth, but without a large moon to stabilise its rotation it can’t support life beyond a microscopic level. Falasha is an orphan with no sun, a planet so dark that life (in the form of crabs and worms) only thrives near the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of its oceans. Pelagos is a sea planet teeming with intelligent kelp. And so on. The gee-whiz factor is high, but one can say the same about video games.
Robin and Theo have both been traumatised by the loss of Robin’s mother, Alyssa, a few years before the start of the novel’s action. In their memories, she is a vision of saintliness: a crusader against competitive hunting, factory farming and other cruelties visited on animals, endangered and otherwise. She crashed her car while trying to avoid hitting a possum. As a widower, Theo is devoted entirely to his work on alien life and the child at home who is ‘a pocket of the universe I could never hope to fathom’. It’s hard to find characters more in need of sympathy outside a Hallmark card.
Robin is enrolled in a therapeutic programme that puts him in touch with an AI simulation of his mother (both parents participated in a prototype before her death). This ‘empathy machine’ gives him access to his mother’s virtuous moral matrix. Here’s how it works:
The Currier Lab was exploring something called Decoded Neurofeedback. It resembled old-fashioned biofeedback, but with neural imaging for real-time, AI-mediated feedback. A first group of subjects – the ‘targets’ – entered emotional states in response to external prompts, while researchers scanned relevant regions of their brains using fMRI. The researchers then scanned the same brain regions of a second group of subjects – the ‘trainees’ – in real time. AI monitored the neural activity and sent auditory and visual cues to steer the trainees toward the targets’ pre-recorded neural states. In this way, the trainees learned to approximate the patterns of excitation in the targets’ brains, and, remarkably, began to report having similar emotions.
The contraption is a bit flimsy as a foundation for a novel. In practice, Robin lies on his back inside a scanner while his eyes follow dots on a screen, another experience that’s a bit ‘like a video game’. Whatever the plausibility of the treatment, he becomes a savant of serenity. For a while, the programme’s founder, Martin Currier, is viewed by Theo as a triple threat: a charlatan, a possible rival (in retrospect) for his wife’s affections and a potential profiteer of his son’s emotional healing. But these worries fall away when Robin turns into a viral sensation as an icon of the new therapy, the counterpart to a Greta Thunberg-like activist figure on whom he has a distant crush. As Robin’s fame grows, Theo’s concerns about their privacy dwindle: his son’s media savvy rivals the dalai lama’s.
For the reader this echo of Algernon’s progress has an inverse effect: you feel yourself getting stupider and meaner the wiser and more prophetic Robin becomes. Powers seems to want Robin’s indignation to appear as a form of righteous cuteness, but his benevolence is immediately insufferable. It’s especially hard to take seriously because it results not, say, in friendship (though he does start to forgive his schoolyard bullies) but celebrity. When Theo surreptitiously reads Robin’s notebooks, he finds they are full of adorable thoughts about plants and animals: ‘I love grass. It grows from the bottom, not the top. If something eats the tips, it doesn’t kill the plant. Only makes it grow faster. Pure genius!!!’ (Robin and Alyssa always express themselves in italics.)
It’s curious that in Bewilderment, as in Powers’s previous novel, The Overstory, his epic of tree consciousness and ecoterrorism, love and empathy more often bloom between humans and plant life than between humans themselves. Still more curious is the prize attention these books have attracted: The Overstory won the 2019 Pulitzer and the 2020 Howells Medal for the best American novel of the past five years; Bewilderment is on the Booker shortlist and was on the National Book Award longlist. The simplest explanation is their lowest common denominator liberalism: a combination of self-pity, self-flattery, self-flagellation and baseline contempt for declared (Trump) and putative (unscienced) enemies.
‘It changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it,’ Barack Obama says of The Overstory in a blurb printed on the cover of Bewilderment. ‘It changed how I see things and that’s always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading.’ Putting aside Obama’s preference for books found on the front tables of Barnes & Noble, his remarks display a yearning for environmentalism played out at the level of adolescent crusade. Robin too wants to change the way everybody thinks. Here’s one of his thoughts before he begins his slide back into emotional dysfunction:
I have a great idea, Robbie said, Dr Currier’s lab could take a dog. A really good dog. But it could be a cat or a bear or even a bird. You know that birds are a lot smarter than anybody thinks? I mean, some birds can see magnetism. How cool is that? …
‘Take a dog and do what Robbie?’ His thoughts these days often grew richer than he could say.
Take him and scan him. Scan his brain while he was really excited. Then people could train on his patterns, and we’d learn what it felt like to be a dog.
I failed to rise above adult condescension. ‘That’s a cool idea. You should tell Dr Currier.’
His scowl was gentle compared to what I deserved. He’d never listen to me. Which is sad, you know? I mean, think about it, Dad. It could just be a regular part of school. Everyone would have to learn what it felt like to be someone else. Think of all the problems that would solve!
When Theo hears about a new climate model, which shows global warming sending various species ‘off a cliff’, he decides that ‘Robbie was right: we needed universal mandatory courses of neural feedback training, like passing the Constitution test or getting a driver’s licence. The template animal could be a dog or a cat or a bear or even one of my son’s beloved birds. Anything that could make us feel what it was like not to be us.’
It’s odd for a novel to be so concerned with what it’s like ‘not to be us’ and yet so vague about what that might mean. Would seeing magnetism help us stave off climate disaster or would it just be ‘cool’? After Robin’s treatment is banned, his erratic behaviour leads to a (rather perfunctory) accident on a trip to the woods with his father. But by this point he’s less a boy than an allegory: for the death of democracy, for the death of the Earth, for human self-destruction trumping life of all kinds, here and in outer space. Certainly, all of this is sad, and none of it is cool.