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Amanda Hsu reads the latest novel by Richard Powers in the context of speculative realism.

Richard Powers, Bewilderment (Hutchinson Heinemann, 2021), 288pp. 

Many critics have suggested that Richard Powers’s Bewilderment (2021) is unable to transcend the heights of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory (2018). They find that his new book suffers from a heavy-handed Romanticism, for example in its idealisation of a missing environmentalist mother figure as a proxy for Mother Nature. The opprobrium in this latest fiction of Powers’s towards the U.S. government, for its sabotage of non-profit-making scientific research projects and disdain for environmental issues, has also been read as a similarly heavy-handed critique of the Trump administration. Yet viewing Powers’s novel as an allegory and placing too much emphasis on the novel’s social and political messages may distract us from appreciating other themes in this speculative fiction.

Throughout the story, the father Theo Byrne constantly wonders about the innermost world of his deceased wife Alyssa and that of his autistic, social-misfit son Robin. As an astrobiologist, Theo is also zealously in search of exoplanets, planets beyond our solar system. The father’s inability to access fully these twin sources of bewilderment bespeaks Powers’s literary attempt to craft a parallelism between the mystique of a planet in the cosmos and that of a human individual’s inner self. Theo’s quest is only possible with the aid of science and technology: both the NextGen Space Telescope he needs to access uncharted cosmic reality and the Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef) technology invented by Alyssa’s neuroscientist confidant Martin Currier, which enables the dead mother’s emotions to be planted into the nine-year-old son’s brain for therapeutic purposes. The development of such technologies, however, is thwarted due to the lack of funding support from the White House. Hubris-ridden, the government is reluctant to connect with extra-terrestrial intelligences, causing the abortion of the NextGen Space Telescope project. Worse still is the state bureaucracy that blinds the government to the emotional ailments of the human individuals under its governance. 

Alyssa is characterised by Powers as an absent femininity which both the father and the son, and also a patriarchal America, lack and need. She is an environmental activist who loves birding and reads poetry to the family’s dog nightly. Her uncanniness and Romantic nature have a profound impact on Robin. Alyssa, on the one hand, is married to Theo, an inquisitive, idealistic astrobiologist; on the other hand, she has an ambiguous relationship with the practical-minded neuroscientist Currier. While Powers deliberately romanticises this feminine figure as an anti-anthropocentric martyr, he does not set up Theo and Currier as opponents. Currier, though opportunistic, is a man of empathy who sympathises with every member of the Byrnes family. Towards the end of the novel, he even risks breaking the law to help Theo.

In Bewilderment, Powers dethrones the Enlightenment notion that science empowers humanity by exposing its vulnerability in America’s highly politicised late-capitalist society. It is science that offers a humanistic cure for the boy’s emotional undulations and serves as a means of communicating human emotions. It also embodies the astrobiologist’s solemn pursuit of knowledge about the cosmos. Its value notwithstanding, science is stifled in the end in the novel. In such a ruthless society which has no mercy for non-human beings in nature, human subjectivity falls apart too. It is in the light of this that this novel may be read as a variant of the Romanticist project to challenge Enlightenment. Yet it is more than this: Bewilderment is also a posthumanist speculative fiction, and science emerges from Powers’s novel not as inhuman, but at the mercy of an inhumane political machine. 

In Romantic Realities (2016), Evan Gottlieb delineates the conceptual continuity between British Romanticism and speculative realism regardless of their different historical contexts. Although speculative realist scholars such as Graham Harman and Ray Brassier would not approve of the individualism that underpins Romanticism, according to Gottlieb both the Romantics and speculative realists share the same interest in “things-in-themselves.” Speculative realism is an object-oriented philosophical inquiry that takes issue with the Kantian correlationist dismissal of external, material reality as inaccessible. This young school of philosophy is often considered as sharing an agenda with posthumanism and other anti-anthropocentric modes of thought. Reading Bewilderment alongside Gottlieb, Powers’s novel highlights the affinity between romanticism and speculative realism by juxtaposing romantic concerns with the characters’ longing for “things-in-themselves.” A better world that comprises non-hierarchal relationships between humans and nature/objects and among human beings is precisely what the mother and the son in Bewilderment strive towards, but fail to build. 

Theo always asks his son to describe the feeling of having his mother’s emotions mapped onto his own, but Robin does not articulate it fully. The non-linguistic, intangible yet real, connection between Robin and his mother is beyond representation. It reflects Powers’s materialist view of communication, which is also Theo’s constant subject of speculation. While Theo is unable to reach the recesses of another individual’s emotional reality, the cosmic reality he meticulously simulates and depicts in his language to his son is equally beyond his grasp. Like his wife and son, he is also a romantic, especially in terms of his love for Alyssa and Robin and his idealistic curiosity about the cosmos. Yet unlike Theo, his wife and son find meaning from their physical and sentient contact with objects out there in nature. Theo, however, is preoccupied with a kind of emotional correlationism to the most important human beings in his life. It is his being caught between his wife and son’s romantic pursuits to which he consents and his Kantian sense of limits to knowledge about human inner worlds and the extra-terrestrial reality that makes Theo ultimately a tragic hero. 

Richards Powers’s science fiction novel, like many other good science fictions, is realism in disguise: all the characters’ Romantic, idealistic pursuits are denied by stark social and political realities. If Bewilderment is not loved by some critics and readers as much as Powers’s The Overstory, perhaps it is not so much its Romanticism as its denial, in the end, of the Romantic impulses we crave to see actualised. Instead, Powers frustrates our desire to find better worlds in fiction, even if they are merely speculative. 


Amanda Hsu is a lecturer in the Department of English at The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include speculative fiction and literature in English by Asian writers. 

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