Bewilderment by Richard Powers

BewildermentBewilderment by Richard Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is hard to classify. The author’s skill as a wordsmith is indisputable but the plot is an odd mishmash. It’s not quite science fiction, not quite political commentary, and, I suppose, mostly character development, although all those elements appear only sporadically. The main characters are Robin and his father, an astrobiologist who is researching life on other planets. Robin, however, is the main focus. He’s an implausible mix of idiot savant, nerd, ADHD, and spoiled but charming brat. He’s obsessed with environmental issues and animals, especially endangered species. Robin ends up as a subject in an experiment involving controlling thoughts and moods through biofeedback. Meanwhile, in the background an anti-science far right president and his cronies are killing scientific research funding at all levels threatening both Robin’s treatment and his father’s research program.

Stylistically the book is unconventional, as well. It follows the new fashion I first encountered in News of the World of not using quotation marks, substituting italics to indicate the child’s dialogue. The change of speakers also doesn’t cause a new paragraph. There may be a point to this, but I don’t know what it is. The larger style difference, though, is that every two or three pages Robin and his father are on some imagined exoplanet which is described in luscious detail. The scientific content on both terrestrial and extraterrestrial biology was quite high. The book was educational; the research deserves praise. Presumably these are stories the father tells to Robin, or they both conjure together, but they are not presented quite that way. The breadth of imagination is staggering and interesting in a way, but contributes nothing to the plot. I found them quite distracting after a while. There was a twist at the end which took place entirely on the final page but it seemed a bit cheesy to me. I can squeeze out four stars for the wordsmithing and the imagination, but the plot left me cold.

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