Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Is this sci-fi or a cli-fi? It probably doesn’t matter but it is certainly set in the near future with a slightly skewed version of our times or one step on from our times politically.

There is so much of the now in this book – it is a swift read because of the short chapters, some only half a page long – that it reminds me of a Reacher novel where things roll along and get quicker and quicker as you get to the big fight scene. Despite this, Powers has woven a lot of contemporary issues into the book:

  • The leader of the USA is a Trump-like figure, although Trump is never named, who tweets and who sends the National Guard to look for illegal immigrants (aliens) whilst his country is collapsing and burning down
  • Theo, the father of Robin, is an astrophysicist, creating computer models of conditions on other planets and looking for life on other planets – a real alien hunter!
  • Robin, the son of Theo, is a neuro-divergent child with behaviours , considered alien by some, that are becoming more difficult to handle. Theo doesn’t want Robin to have drugs as his mind is still developing so settles for a new type of work in trial called Decoded Neurofeedback where you take the brain patterns of others to solve problems such as managing your own behaviour. This is a real thing but reads like something yet to be imagined and created. Robin is so traumatised by the death of his mother that eventually they decide to use brain patterns from her when she was feeling ecstasy. This has a profound effect on Robin, making him open and aware of nature including small details.
  • The book considers who has the problem if 8 million children are diagnosed with OCD/ADHD/autism. Is it the child or is the way we as adults perceive what is normal? Powers is playing out what it must be like to be Greta Thunberg’s father in this book.
  • The role of education for children who are neuro-divergent. Eventually, Theo takes Robin out of school for home-schooling.

He’d learned more in one summer, on his own, than he’d learned in a year in a classroom. He’d discovered on his own, what formal education tried to deny: Life wanted something from us. And time was running out.

  • The search for other planets, like Earth, that we could make use of having messed this one up.
  • The role of social media and video clips going viral – although the book doesn’t develop this strand sas fully as it could.
  • The idea that children and young people have, including Thunberg, where they can’t understand why we aren’t acting now to save the planet – bewildered!

Most of all, I think this is a book about a loving relationship between a father and a son when they really only have each other. It is an intense relationship with instances of Theo admitting that he made some wrong decisions in his parenting. The book is single-minded and very focused, not unlike a neuro-divergent mind can be, in the pursuit of a child’s bewilderment at adults and their inability to see things as they do and act upon them.

I was bewildered in parts. It took me a while to realise that they visited other planets in their imagination, using Theo’s work to create the place and what was happening regarding life on them. There was also a message in this book about being wilder (be-wilder), the calming effect nature can have on people, their anxiety and stress and its importance in our life.

Oh, this planet was a good one. And we, too, were good, as good as the burn of the sun and the rain’s sting and the smell of living soil, the all-over song of endless solutions signing the air of a changing world that by every calculation ought never to have been there.


I didn’t understand the relevance of the Flowers for Algernon short story so had to look it up. Bewilderment is that story re-imagined.

There is a lot to discuss in this book so it would make an excellent book club choice.

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