Richard Powers’ 2018 novel The Overstory, which won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, followed decades of the MacArthur Fellow’s work investigating the intersections of culture, the environment, science and technology. His most recent book, Bewilderment, released Tuesday, again delves into the impact of science on human life.
In Bewilderment, something of a contemporary take on the Flowers for Algernon story, Powers writes of a neurodivergent, middle-school-aged child named Robin who undergoes an experiment involving decoded neurofeedback (a cutting-edge neuroscience technique in real life). The experiment improves Robin’s emotional quotient—at least at first.
Powers spoke to TIME ahead of the book’s release. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TIME: Bewilderment clearly has a lot to say about current and ongoing events. Was it your intention to have readers not just get swept away in a narrative but to force them to consider the real world moment?
Richard Powers: I was thinking a little bit along the lines of the form that science fiction writers like to call the “near-term future,” where the story treats a world that’s a lot like ours, but set in some undesignated time in the future, in a way that allows the writer to speculate about the potential of the present to unfold in different ways. I guess it’s what Brecht would call the estrangement effect, where the realistic is made unusual again by just slightly changing the perspective from which you view it. And by putting the Earth on a slightly different trajectory, I was hoping to intensify and to make real again a lot of the things that we readers would probably simply gloss over because we’ve already discounted them as familiar.
One of the things that kept coming up for me when I was reading was this idea of trying to help people come to terms with the incomprehensible. Throughout the book, Theo, an astrobiologist whose job is to essentially formulate hypotheses of what life might look like on other planets, talks out these potential worlds with his son, Robin. Of the many life-giving planets you create through this narrative device, the one that stood out to me the most was the one in which there is an intelligent life form somewhere out there that moves at a speed so different from us that we can’t comprehend it. That to me felt extremely relevant with regard to our relation to climate change.
We can only take in things that are unfolding, more or less on our physical scale, in more or less on the psychic timescale that we’ve evolved to take in. Something that unfolds more gradually in the background on a much larger scale can make its way into our intellect, but not into our deeper emotional understanding. I mean, the earliest warnings about climate change date back to more than half a century ago. And at the time we just kept talking about our children’s world, and that’s too abstract.
And yet, as the real-world consequences of catastrophic planetary change have become more real and more present and more immediate, we’ve fallen into that other trap that you mentioned which is, we’ve heard that story already and we’re inured to it, we’ve grown too familiar with the real. We don’t know what to do with that anymore.
That’s where fiction can come in—fiction can kind of shift the ground under the familiar and create that mystery and that instability that makes a reader say, ‘Wait, wait, what? What’s happening? What’s going to happen next? How are they going to deal with that?’ And through that refraction, all these things that they’ve fossilized in their own understanding about the news can become fresh again.
And that’s also what I think is so affecting about the Robin character—he is not inured to anything. It’s like he is able to take everything that he experiences on face value in some ways, where it’s like a sort of direct reaction to the reality of it without any of the social dulling. And that’s kind of the Holy Grail, right?
That’s right. You know, he’s an intense and an unusual child, what we would call neurodivergent, but his ability to directly confront all of the adult evasion that he sees in the world, and to give it a name to call its bluff—the way the little child in the Emperor’s New Clothes can call that bluff—I think is the secret of the story.
But you don’t have to be a neurodivergent child to be baffled by the adult world. I think there is a growing plague among children: They’re born into this world and in childhood we feel the magic of the living world, we’re pantheists, we connect to the nonhuman, we take it seriously. I think any adult with an active, engaged, intense, intelligent child now is going to have a hard time answering their questions about what’s happening. It’s the power of the child to say, ‘Are you for real? Is this really what’s happening and why are you letting this happen?’ That’s the crisis of childhood now, and the crisis of being a parent now is that there aren’t any good answers.
Do you have children?
I’m 64, and I don’t have children. I’ve been an uncle many times over and I’ve been a surrogate parental figure for several children. At least three different children, one nephew and one niece and one son of a friend went into the making of Robin. And Robin, also, I think is a recreation of my own strangeness as a child.
It’s easy to see this ubiquitous condition of disorientation and fear on the part of young people whether or not they’re your own children. There’s a word that you’ve probably seen creeping into the vocabulary: solastalgia, the feeling of homesickness for a place that you’ve never been in or that you’ve never had a chance to enjoy. You don’t have to be all that perceptive to see what it’s doing to young people.
Robin is obviously the character that embodies this the most in the story—but his solastalgia is kind of crippling, right? And I guess I’m wondering if you think it’s similarly crippling to this wider range of kids growing up in the world. Is there a way to deal with or address this “plague” that is productive or healthy?
What I’m seeing in children is a lot of anger and a lot of frustration. But I’m also seeing a huge upsurge in activism and engagement. I see the signs of a generation saying we have to look for meaning in another place outside of ourselves. Greta Thunberg is a very high profile example of this but there are mass movements and stirring stories of teenagers who are doing extraordinary work in, and are simply energized by, this idea that the destruction of this world of private, personal, individual meaning that measured only by accumulation is the beginning of a new world where we can start engaging and rehabilitating and finding purpose beyond ourselves.
Robin, through the course of his engagement with decoded neurofeedback, opens up and transcends his own fury and his own frustration and finds a way of being that’s almost religiously transcendent, and it’s a great source of inspiration to the adults who see him as he’s developing these capacities. And even when the plug gets pulled on their project, and he starts to return to his condition at the beginning of the story, he holds onto something.
Most people want to remain hopeful that we can somehow continue to live the way that we have been living. I have no hope for that. Nor do I think it is wise to have hope for that. But I think if we can learn how to give up hope for that, we can find and place our hope into something much more enduring and that’s really the narrative of this story.
Your previous novel The Overstory was very much about getting the reader to identify and empathize with another type of living thing—trees—that feels so distant, and to recognize the value of identifying with this other kind of way of living. There’s this moment, I think it’s about midway through the book—and to me this is almost the thesis of the book—where Theo says that it’s essential that we do anything that can make us feel what it’s like to not be us. What or who or when do you want readers of this book to identify with?
I think the book holds open the possibility of a more joyous and a more rewarding way of being in the world. It’s a way that the great religions of the world have always advocated for. You mentioned the word ‘empathy,’ and in the book, I describe this decoded neurofeedback training that Robin goes through as a kind of empathy machine. To watch this boy become a joyful person, as he discovers himself beyond himself, as he discovers the reciprocal interconnections between himself and other living things and other humans, is to raise in the reader the possibility of a life that’s more meaningful and more rewarding than the life of accumulation has ever been.
Do you think we need to better connect with each other in order to better connect with everything else?
Well, I think Robin’s anxiety stems from loss, and fear. He is acutely aware of his own strangeness and his own inability to fit in with his peers at school. He feels cruelty and mistreatment on the part of his fellow children, and the anxiety that he feels is the anxiety of homelessness, of not having connection.
At the beginning of the story, he just wants his father to tell him again and again what his mother was like—he wants to rehearse all these old stories because he’s desperate to feel connected to this woman who’s now just a ghost. He doesn’t feel connection to his schoolmates.
Meanwhile, he responds with a kind of visceral panic to the discovery of mass extinction. Everything elicits the terror of isolation, and it’s only this empathy machine, this learning to link himself into somebody else’s state of mind, strangers at first and then his mother, that starts to bring about in him this idea that there’s nothing to be afraid of—that life is everywhere, and it’s an experiment that includes you. He’s transformed from an outsider to an insider—he’s suddenly connected through kinship to all other living things. In a strange way, what happens to Robin is simply the discovery of the fact that his fate is part of this much larger thing. And that greatly lowers all the anxiety about loss and disconnection and mortality that was driving him up to that point in the story.
Flowers for Algernon is one of the first great stories I remember reading as a kid. In it, the power that’s imparted is traditional intelligence, whatever you want to call it, but in Bewilderment, what Robin gets is emotional intelligence. I thought that was an interesting way to recreate and reframe that, and seems relevant to everything you’ve been talking about.
It’s not going to be cognitive intelligence that gets us into the next viable culture here on earth, it’s going to be emotional intelligence. Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book is really articulate on this: we still think that, somehow, new technological mediations are going to solve the problems caused by old technological mediation, without changing the way our system values—our system of morality, our system of consciousness. We have to get wiser, not necessarily smarter.
Certainly. How do we do that?
Stories are the great empathy machine. Decoded neurofeedback in this novel is really a kind of figuration, a metaphor for storytelling. It’s stories that allow us to occupy some other position to see what the world feels like if we weren’t us. And that is the only thing that has the power to change our consciousness. We have to be taken to another place and be another person for a while before we can see the validity of that difference and not be afraid of that difference anymore.
I see the sign already of that cultural transformation underway, especially among the young. The reality is, we won’t have to have too many more years like this year before the writing’s on the wall and most people in the mainstream realize that the bill has come due, and we can’t continue to live the way that we’ve lived. But it will require stories that show that the change from how we lived to how we need to live isn’t a terrifying thing.