Bewilderment: A Novel

by Richard Powers

Hardcover, 2021

Call number




W. W. Norton & Company (2021), 288 pages


"A heartrending new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning and #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Overstory. "Richard Powers, whose novels combine the wonders of science with the marvels of art, astonishes us in different ways with each new book." -Heller McAlpin, NPR Books. The astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life throughout the cosmos while single-handedly raising his unusual nine-year-old, Robin, following the death of his wife. Robin is a warm, kind boy who spends hours painting elaborate pictures of endangered animals. He's also about to be expelled from third grade for smashing his friend in the face. As his son grows more troubled, Theo hopes to keep him off psychoactive drugs. He learns of an experimental neurofeedback treatment to bolster Robin's emotional control, one that involves training the boy on the recorded patterns of his mother's brain. . . . With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing vision of life beyond, and its account of a father and son's ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Richard Powers's most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Hccpsk
A huge letdown after The Overstory, Bewilderment by Richard Powers examines the similar theme of humans vs. nature but with much less finesse. In the near future, single father and astrobiologist Theo struggles to raise his son who has been diagnosed with many of the modern-day ailments that place
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him “on the spectrum”. Although the message remains clear and important, most of Bewilderment feels forced, trite, predictable, and holds none of the connections and characters that worked so well in The Overstory. Powers’ writing remains brilliant and the only real reason to start or stick with this book.
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LibraryThing member FormerEnglishTeacher
A retelling of Daniel Keyes’ classic “Flowers for Algernon,” which was made into a movie,”Charlie.” Robin is the son of a astrobiologist Theo Byrne. The story is a clever combination of science and science fiction with a disturbing dystopian look at the future. In fact, the story gives
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the reader a pretty good idea of how a second Donald Trump presidential term would work out. Spoiler: it would be a disaster. I got a kick out of reading the few one star reviews of the book on Amazon. Most were Trump supporters complaining because of the mistreatment of their hero. Funny thing is, Trump was never named in the book. I guess even the guy’s supporters realize what a train wreck he was and would be in term #2. So, if you’re a Trumpster, don’t read this book for two reasons: it would make you mad, first of all. And secondly, you wouldn’t understand the science in it anyway.
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LibraryThing member jnwelch
"We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” In Bewilderment Richard Powers once again takes head on what we're collectively doing to our planet. it is long-listed for the Booker Prize, and provides excellent writing and storytelling. It's shorter
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and simpler than the complex Overstory. It centers around Theo and Robin Byrne, a grieving widowed father and his extremely sensitive 9 year old son. Theo is told son Robin is "on the spectrum" and Theo responds, "Everyone is on the spectrum". Love it! Robin has some Greta Thunberg in him, and is determined to protest the planetwide destruction he sees happening. There's an interesting plot thread where a highly specialized mind-training device brings Robin some emotional control and even wisdom. This is another timely, thought-provoking novel from Powers.
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LibraryThing member davidroche

Q; how, as an author, do you follow the best book of the last few years – The Overstory?
A: you write the Booker shortlisted Bewilderment.

I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful this book is. It’s the story of a father and son struggling to get over the death of their wife/mother and
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keep the show on the road. The father is an astrobiologist who models the chances of life across the universe based on micro dots of shadows appearing as partial eclipses many light years away. The son loves animals and imaginary trips with his father to inhabited interstellar planets; he draws animals in danger of extinction and thinks deeply about the big questions of whether we are alone. Subject to tantrums and threatened with exclusion at school unless he receives help, he embarks on an experimental mind mapping procedure that his parents had sampled in the past; through this he restores contact with the records of his mother and starts to realise his true potential. The wonderful Flowers for Algernon is mentioned on more than one occasion and as things unveil, one is caught up worrying that he may follow suit. I thought Bewilderment was just brilliant and will now devour every book Richard Powers has ever written.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
Richard Powers is one of my favorite authors, and I always read his new books shortly after they are published. I liked this one very much.

Theo Byrne is a college professor searching for extraterrestrial life. He is also a single father raising a special son, Robin, after the death of his beloved
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wife several years previously. When Rpbin begins acting out at school (after being bullied), the school tries to push Theo toward medicating Robin (and to a possible diagnosis on the autism spectrum). Instead, Theo takes Robin to an experimental biofeedback-like program designed to help control emotions. Over the following months Robin grows emotionally and intellectually.

In broad sense, the book is a sort of homage to Flowers for Algernon, and has similar themes to that earlier book. But it is also a beautiful story about a father's relationship with his son. It is all told against the backdrop of a slightly near-future, almost-dystopian, anti-science America, a society faced with climate change, mass extinction, and environmental disaster. But don't think this is too science-fictiony for you if you are not a scifi fan: it's mostly just about the love between a father and son, although it is also heart-breaking and bleak, and offers no easy answers.

4 stars
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
Robin is nine years old. His father is an astrobiologist, teaching and participating in research at the University in Madison, Wisconsin. His mother was killed in a vehicle accident when Robin was seven. He is a different boy, strongly empathetic, unable to control his emotions. He has been
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diagnosed with various labels, but his father doesn't want to use drugs to change, control his son. So in a last ditch attempt he turns to something that is still being researched, Neuro feedback, using brain patterns to learn control.

Robin loves, like his mother, the natural world and all in it. His father looks for other planets and these planets and imagined happenings on them, form a strong bond between father and son.

This is a novel of love but also loss. Not only people but all we on earth have destroyed and are continuing to destroy, with all the consequences this will have on environment, climate. It's also political, as the last administration pulled funding on many scientists of different backgrounds, exploring many different areas.

This won't be for everyone. It helps if one has an interest in the natural world as there are beautiful descriptions detailing different species. Or an interest in science, as the stories of planets are a big part of this book. It takes patience but ultimately it is a wonderful story of a father who loves his son, no matter how differently he sees, handles what is going on in our world.

ARC from Edelweiss.
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LibraryThing member SallyElizabethMurphy
Very depressing
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Bewilderment, Richard Powers, author; Edoardo Ballerini, narrator The novel is about the Byrne family, Alyssa, Theodore and Robin. Alyssa is quite intense. She is an environmental activist. Theodore is an astrobiologist. Robin, their son, is an exceptional child. He questions everything and is a
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deep thinker, often making astute judgments. At nine, he has already decided to be a vegan. He is very concerned about the environment and animals, like his mother. Robin, however, is also a troubled child. He has difficulty controlling his feelings. He has been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, with obsessive traits, and there are hints that there may be other types of mental illness in the family as one mother supposedly had multiple personalities. When Alyssa and Theodore were contacted by her friend, a Dr. Currier, who is conducting a study of the brain, she and Theodore agree to participate. They had no idea that this study would ultimately change their lives. Raising Robin, after Alyssa’s sudden death in an accident, was very difficult for Theo. Robin had been very close to his mother. Although he used certain techniques to avoid his mood swings and meltdowns, they were sometimes unavoidable. Robin had no filter and often said and did awkward things. Because of his lack of social skills, and because he was small, he was the target of bullies at school. Also, he only liked certain subjects. As a result, he does not really like school. Doctors and the school wanted to have him medicated, but the Byrnes had always refused. Instead, they had actively parented him and guided him, teaching him how to deal with his emotions, as they gave him needed skills to manage his moods. Theo struggled to raise Robin. He used fantasy to distract him and told him about imaginary planets which they imagined they explored or inhabited. When Dr. Currier suddenly contacted Theo again to ask if he could conduct a brain study on Robin, to see if they could help him by retraining his brain, Theo reluctantly agreed. After a few MRI treatments that examined his reactions, he actually showed improvement. Collier then asked Theo if he could try to sync Robin’s brain with Alyssa’s, during a particular period of the study when she was ecstatic. Theo, consulted Robin, and once again, he agreed. Often, Theo appeared to be the child, and Robbie, showing extraordinary judgment, made the adult decisions. With the new therapy, Robin further improved. He seemed able to commune with Alyssa, and the other spirits he said were in his head. He believed they were guiding him. He was happier and did better in school. At age 9, Robin became a real animal activist. He wanted to raise money for endangered species but was horrified when he learned that all of the money did not go to the cause! When the brain study and the treatments were suddenly discontinued because of politics and funding, things went downhill for Robin, very quickly, and he began to withdraw and lose interest in everything. Once again, he had meltdowns that were sometimes violent, especially when animals suffered in any way or when his questions were not answered the way he wanted them to be. Without the therapy, he was failing. He was helpless to stop his downward progression and he was aware of it. Finally, to try and help Robin, Theo decided to take him on another trip to the place he had honeymooned with Alyssa. The first trip had been a positive experience, so he decided that they would go there to have a real scavenger hunt to search for things in nature. That appealed to the environmentalist in Robin, and he seemed to show some interest. Theo hoped that he could rebuild Robin’s confidence, calm him down, and fortify his mental state. However, when Robin witnessed the destruction of the environment there, he became very upset. He wanted to start cleaning it up immediately, without regard for the freezing temperatures. This forced Theo to face his worst nightmare. Using the experiences of this family, Powers seemed inclined to shine a light on all of earth’s problems, the unrest and riots, the corrupt elections and authoritarian Presidents, rules that limited speech, climate change that caused floods and storms, civil disobedience and assaults on the government, waning national security, deteriorating international relationships, and more importantly, the immediate need to make environmental changes to save the country and its people. He illustrated the corruption of government officials as they made foolish decisions to benefit political causes, rather than humanity’s causes, canceling vital projects, ultimately causing harm to the country. He illustrated the greed and selfishness that prevented the politicians and the citizens from doing what was right as they feathered their own nests. He pointed out the inability of our school systems and social services to handle children with disabilities. He pointed out the failures of education and the benefits of home schooling. He showed the consequences of political decisions that tragically caused shortages and disease to loom on the horizon. The book focused on our behavior as we caused the destruction of our world. Would it or could it be reversed? He even demonstrated the corruption of the police and the media, intent on headlines without regard for the consequences of their actions. At times, it seemed that the author leaned left, and his assumptions, sometimes colored by his personal politics, appeared to be blind to those who were really bringing the country to the edge of the abyss, as he often seemed to be accusing, symbolically and subtly, the wrong side of being the enemy he described. The offenses were often carried out by the left, but they were attributed to the right, or vice versa. Occasionally, the flashbacks were confusing. However, the novel was creative and the science seemed well researched. The overriding political themes were sometimes distracting. The story is a fantasy which required the reader to suspend disbelief, but some of the people and situations resembled well known people and real events. The author raised the most important issues facing society, issues that were and continue to be very real, although he used imaginary details. Positively, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the superb narrator who managed to give each character a distinct voice. The child and the world were both troubled. Would either be helped by the messages of this book?
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
This is my third novel of this Pulitzer Prize winning author. His previous novel, The Overstory was a favorite of mine so I jumped on this. Bewilderment is the story of a father and son. The father , Theo is an astrobiologist who teaches college and devotes his research to the investigation of
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another life sustaining planet, trying to convince the recent political party that the money for a NexGen telescope will assist with this quest. However his work demands and stresses are secondary to his raising of his nine year old son, Robin. They both are grieving the loss of Alyssa, the wife and mother that recently died in an auto accident. Theo’s first person narrative opens with a camping trip which both bonds the two and provides Robin with a break from school. He struggles in school and though it appears he is on the autistic spectrum, he is certainly bright and auto focused on his mother's passion for endangered species. “Life itself is a spectrum disorder, where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow.” “I wanted to tell the man that everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is.”
Their story is a sad one as Theo looks to neuroscience to help solve the riddle of Robin's thoughts; he is also hoping to keep him from resorting to pharmaceutical solutions. Powers, always the scientist, can articulate well the explorations of the galaxies and his bedtime stories to his son are often visits to the possibilities of life forms in the universe. But it is his relationship with his son that propels the novel, the depiction is both realistic and tender to read.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are
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forever starting out.”

“This late in the world’s story, everything was marketing. Universities had to build their brands. Every act of charity was forced to beat the drum. Friendships were measured out now in shares and likes and links. Poets and priests, philosophers and fathers of small children: we were all on an endless, flat-out hustle.”

Theo Byrne is a astrobiologist, raising his nine year old son, on his own since his wife died a few years before. Robin is a gifted child bursting with ideas and possessing a deep love for nature. He has also been growing more troubled and to avoid putting the boy on pyschoactive drugs, Theo decides to try an experimental neurofeedback treatment. This story is a riff on Flowers For Algernon, which is mentioned a few times in the narrative. Powers is a fine writer and I love his thoughts on nature and the cosmos but this one didn’t have the impact on me, the way his last novel The Overstory did. Still worth reading.
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
I did not know what to expect going into this book. I loved The Overstory but heard this was very different (it is...and it isn't). I read that this book is not a story, it's about ideas (it is a story, but it is full of ideas).

Robin is a 9-year-old boy living with his widowed father, an
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astrobiologist. His mother died 2 years earlier in a single-car accident. Robin does not have a diagnosis (or, had received different diagnoses) and he and his father deal with a lot: anger, frustration, tantrums. A friend of his mother's offers an experimental neurofeedback treatment. It does wonders.

But Powers brings in more: school, climate change, habitat destruction, disease, autocracy, a Trumpist-sort of president who is all about profits and control. A lot of discussion revolves around possibilities of life on other planets (an astrobiologist's interest) and research--what is life? What could life be? How do we define life? Why do we say life must be carbon-based, does it really matter?

There is a lot to think about here--from how we eat and the food chain; to life throughout the universe, to climate change, extinction, medical advances, profit over all, and more. For such a short book (
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LibraryThing member berthirsch
Bewilderment by Richard Powers

A father and his 9-year-old son deal with the aftermaths of the death of their beloved wife/mother. Robin is a special child who may or may not be on the spectrum, yet his intelligence and unique insights are often way beyond what one would expect from a young boy.

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father is an astrobiologist teaching at a university in Wisconsin. There he is expert in modeling the possibilities of life existing on distant planets in the universe. His son is particularly passionate about the ecological dangers that threaten the existence of life on planet earth. The mother’s death is life changing for both. They silently grieve her loss in their own internal dialogues. Her loss and their mutual interest in science and knowledge serve as a lasting bond.

The book begins with their taking a camping trip to the Smoky Mountains where the father and mother had honeymooned. Once they return home Robin’s problems follow him to his school setting and his temper tantrums and hypersensitivities take prominence. His father resists Robin being diagnosed and “treated” and becomes a champion for his son’s development. When disoriented the son often asks his father to describe a far-off planet which he does dozens of times, each description unique in its details and possibilities.

At the university is a neurological experiment that maps basic emotions which are then transmitted through a rigorous training session in an MRI setting. The lead investigator was a close friend of the deceased mother and may even had been a secret lover. He takes an interest in Robin’s issues and the boy starts training and shows marked improvements in his ability to process emotions. Marketed as Decoded Feedback (DecNef) Robin becomes the poster child for its promise.

“Well-being is like a virus. One self-assured person at home in this world can infect dozens of others. Wouldn’t you like to see an epidemic of infectious well-being”, Currier the investigator asks. Indeed, Robin’s newfound attitudes, his empathy and optimism are infectious, “his face lights up from within”.

Unfortunately, in America, all is not well:

“That first Tuesday in November, online conspiracy theories, compromised ballots, and bands of armed poll protestors undermined the integrity of the vote in six different battleground states. The country slid into three days of chaos. On Saturday, the President declared the entire election invalid. He ordered a repeat, claiming it would require at least three more months to secure and implement. Half the electorate revolted against the plan. The other half was gung-ho for a retry. Where suspicion was total and fears were settled with the like button, there was no other way forward but to do over.”

“I wondered how I might explain the crisis to an anthropologist from Proxima Centauri. In this place, with such a species, trapped in such technologies, even a simple head count grew impossible. Only pure bewilderment kept us from civil war.” (Surmises the boy’s father)

Richard Powers who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Overstory, has written an enchanting, charming, and heartfelt touching father-son tale. Seeped in science and ecology the story unfolds on both universal and intimately personal levels.

The writing moves quickly, in brief interludes, and as I read I thought of two other books I have lasting memories of: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which a father prepares his son for apocalyptic times, and The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, a miraculous tale about a single mom and her precocious son. Powers has written an equally masterful novel; a lasting inventive tale of the unique relationship between parent and child.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
A beautiful intimate story about a father and son and the state of the world in the not-so-distant future. Powers words connect the reader to the characters and to the world. I'm blown away with how much I grew to care about Robin and his father, and naturally, our planet. It's a beautiful story.
LibraryThing member tungsten_peerts
I wound up liking this far more than I thought I would. Powers is undeniably brilliant, but for me he has always fallen short of being a really great novelist because his ability to limn convincing characters has never matched his concepts: more specifically, Richard Powers characters have almost
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inevitably sounded to me how I imagine Powers himself sounds (in conversation) -- brilliant unto occasional glibness, never really at a loss for words. This is a serious shortcoming in the kind of fiction that Powers writes -- which in many ways is straightahead 'realistic' narrative, so there's no "experimental fiction" pass on convincing characterization.

Furthermore, I'd heard this novel was a bit heavy on message. It is, but somehow (perhaps because of my own connections to astronomy? not sure) it didn't bother me.

The central conceit is engaging, and Powers drew me in with it, convinced me and held my interest. There was never much suspense about how it was all going to end, though the manner of the ending was surprising and upsetting. This falls for me only short of *Galatea 2.2* in the Powers canon. It's speculative fiction (what is sometimes called, ugh, "sci-fi") by any other name. Well done.
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LibraryThing member emquixotic
I love Richard Powers writing but reading about a father and son wasn't really a topic I was that interested in going into the book. I thought it was an interesting twist on Flowers for Algernon and absolutely a great metaphor for the last election and climate change--I saw Powers point and am here
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for it. However, I think that it was a bit too on the nose for me. The Overstory was so compelling because of the slowness of the prose and how he made the reader empathetic to violent acts and those who felt that was their only option in order to get the attention their causes needed. But for a book about empathy and how badly we all need more of it, it was very difficult to feel empathetic about these characters and their situation.

The writing was great as usual and I appreciate this book for what it is and what it tries to do, I just felt it was a bit of a miss for me personally.

As a side note mostly for myself, I had a lit class in college (eons ago) and we read "Man Walks Into A Room" by Nicole Krauss which is partly about implanting a memory into another person and I am thinking that this book would make a great companion to that book and it would be very neat to discuss memory and empathy and experience through a postmodern/deconstructionist lens.
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LibraryThing member eesti23
Did not finish book. Stopped at 13%.
I could not get into Bewilderment. At first I thought it was because I started reading it in a semi-busy location, so restarted it when I was at home. That helped a little, but not much. The writing, storyline, and characters did not grab me.
LibraryThing member kcshankd
The first Powers book I read was Echo Maker when it came out, and I was absolutely floored - Nebraska, Sandhill Cranes, philosophy of mind problems. Hit all my high notes. I then read him start to finish, and was continuously captivated by Power's explorations of mind, history and experience.

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the rest of us, I am afraid Powers has taken a heart-breaking turn, as the techno-optimism has been replaced by absolute fear of and for the future.

Like the rest of us, Powers experienced 2016 to COVID, and this novel is the result. It is not a pretty story, or a happy story, but then neither is the truth.

I hope Powers writes long enough to express optimism about what is to come, again.
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LibraryThing member nyiper
Richard Powers has an incredible imagination, to put it mildly!! What a compelling story that managed to tie in a rather rightening vision of how close we are in our present time to the climate and political changes Theo was experiencing happening to the earth while he and Robin (Robbie) were being
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challenged with not only his wife's death but also with Robin's mental "events"---not sure what else to call them. Powers describes Theo's version of planets to his son with life forms that are so detailed -- just amazing versions of possibilities. Would the new Webb telescope possibly make Theo cheer that maybe all was not lost?
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LibraryThing member Dianekeenoy
I probably should have read what this book was about before listening to it since it took me awhile to connect with it. It probably , for me, would have been better to read it than listen. But, still a good book.
LibraryThing member Michael_Lilly
Overly sentimental. Science fiction that is very fictional. Ultimately, after dangling hope in front of the reader, it sends a message that our situation is hopeless.
LibraryThing member browner56
Theo Byrne is a professor of astrobiology who is raising his nine-year old son Robin by himself after his wife Alyssa died in a car accident a few years before. The relationship between Theo and Robin is sometimes fraught, mainly due to the challenges of bringing up a child identified as being
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‘on the spectrum’. Robin is highly intelligent and deeply connected to nature, but also emotionally unstable and socially awkward. When school administrators push him to put Robin on mind-altering drugs, Theo opts for the experimental alternative of decoded neurofeedback sessions that allow Robin to tap into the recorded empathic patterns of his mother’s brain. This treatment is spectacularly successful in changing Robin’s behavior until government officials shut down the laboratory, which leads to his sad and ultimately tragic regression.

As Richard Powers notes in a Foreword, Bewilderment is strongly influenced by the story Flowers for Algernon that which the author read as child. Indeed, this novel can be viewed as an updating of that classic fable, which focuses on, among other things, how we teach our children to process information about the world around them. It also advances Powers’ recent agenda, begun with his masterful The Overstory, to examine the damage that mankind is inflicting on the planet with its hubris and willful ignorance. This is also the author’s most overtly political novel to date, with a Twitter-obsessed, environmentally insensitive, and reactionary president conveniently serving as the ultimate villain in the tale. While unnamed, there is little doubt who Powers had in mind when creating this character.

I found this to be a deeply affecting story that was also quite enlightening in terms of the applications and ethics of the new science it explores. Powers is an extremely thoughtful writer and his descriptions of the flora and fauna of this world, as well as his imaginings of what life might look like on other worlds, were remarkable. My only real criticism of the novel would be that the main characters were not always quite believable—Theo was one-dimensional and far too clueless while the swings in Robin’s emotional state and mental prowess were too dramatic—and they served mainly as devices to deliver the message the story needed to impart. Still, Bewilderment was book that this fan of the author enjoyed, even if it might end up being an acquired taste for other readers.
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LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
“Bewilderment” is one of the 10 most imaginative and thought-provoking books I’ve read within the past several years. Powers brilliantly blends sci-fi (a genre that is typically a turn-off for me) with ecological themes and an intriguing narrative that explores a unique father-son
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relationship. Every page – every sentence – reminds readers that they’re being guided by a master word merchant. And unlike many skilled authors, Powers doesn’t feel compelled to deliver a lengthy, verbose saga. In fact, this is one book that I didn’t want to end as quickly as it did. “Bewilderment” is a literary delight.
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LibraryThing member BryanWilson
One of the best books I have ever read (I don't know how many books I have read but it must be over 5,000). Combines a grieving father and son who have lost their mother with cutting edge neuroscience and ecological meltdown and the loss of democracy in America. Seems like it would be too busy and
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overreaching but it works beautifully. One of the very few truly stunning books. This was the first book of his I have read, I hope the others are half as good.
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LibraryThing member bblum
What happens when a space physicist’s wife dies leaving him with a young boy on the spectrum? What will we learn when we look at things deeply and in wonder, especially deep space and planets beyond our view? It’s a deeper Flowers for Algernon.
LibraryThing member Carmenere
A gentle tale of love, loss and acceptance becomes an in your face diatribe on the ecosystem. I understand that Powers has an agenda here and, although I’m sympathetic to the issues, it is not the reason I enjoy reading fiction.
I’d be a bit leery about picking up anything else by this author.





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