On a micro level, this book is a retelling of the devastating classic by Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon. On a macro level, this is a political and planet-level existential cautionary tale about the dangers of ignorant autocrats and environmental destruction.
The story opens when Robin Byrne is turning 9 years old, and ends just after Robbie turns 10. His mother Alyssa (“Aly”) has been dead since Robbie was 7. Robbie’s dad Theo, an astrobiologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is raising Robin on his own. It is a challenge for a number of reasons, the most consequential being that Robin has anger and behavioral issues. He has been variously diagnosed with possible autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and OCD. Nevertheless, Theo resists any recommendation to put his son on psychoactive drugs. He thinks Robin’s behavior is justified given what has happened to him in his life, and besides, “life itself is a spectrum disorder, where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow.”
Robbie is obsessed with the same crisis that occupied his mother, i.e., the rapid extinction of species subsequent to direct abuse by humans and secondarily by climate change. He constantly demands to know why no one is doing anything about it, and it is difficult for Theo to assuage him.
After Robbie’s school threatened “to get the state involved” over Robbie’s disruptive behavior, Theo asked for help from Martin Currier, a senior research professor in neuroscience, who was a friend of Aly’s. Martin was exploring the use of Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef), which is AI-mediated feedback to help modulate behavior. Theo and Aly had done some brain scans to model some different emotional states as a favor to Martin, and these would presumably be among those used for Robbie’s therapy. Soon after Martin began sessions with Robbie, Theo could see rapid changes for the better; even Robbie was aware of how he was being helped. Robbie and Theo had listened to the book Flowers for Algernon together, and Robbie pointed out the similarities between himself and Algernon.
Meanwhile, in the background, the country was increasingly tilting to the right, after the authoritarian presidential candidate insisted he won the election and usurped power from the presumptive electoral winner. His administration began taking anti-science measures and ramping up prejudice against those who were different, inter alia. Both Theo and Martin lost funding for their fields of study, and for Robbie, the inability of Martin to help him anymore proved devastating.
Evaluation: There is no end to the heart-breaking aspects of this story, on all levels – for the individual, the country, and planet-wide. It is hard not to find the book quite depressing. But it is a good story, and would make a great selection for a book club. There is much to discuss, from the ethics of experimentation to the way society treats those who are different, and to the many trenchant observations Robbie makes about human nature and life on earth.
Note: Bewilderment was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and longlisted for a National Book Award. Powers, whose novels reflect a brilliant understanding of science and technology, has won a number of awards in the past for his work including a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly known as the “Genius Grant”) and a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019.
Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2021