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BOOK REVIEW

A father, a son, a dying planet in ‘Bewilderment’

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Solastalgia: Mourning what has been lost to catastrophic climate change.

That distress — particularly among the young — is what spurred Richard Powers, one of America’s most ambitious and imaginative novelists, to write his 14th and latest work, “Bewilderment.” In a year of unprecedented worldwide drought, fire, and flooding, it couldn’t be timelier.

In his vast Pulitzer-winning “The Overstory” (2018), Powers explored climate activists’ desperate attempts to save a last tiny fraction of the world’s ravaged ancient forests. That opus might be compared to a Mahler-esque symphony. “Bewilderment,” in contrast, is more-traditionally scaled — a short-chaptered chamber work, but no less searing for that. It takes as a model “Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes’s 1966 novel about a surgery that increases intelligence. (And like the Keyes book, “Bewilderment” has potential young-adult crossover appeal.)

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Here it’s not surgery, as in “Algernon,” but an experimental neurofeedback process that enhances the cognitive and emotional capacity of a sweet but troubled 9-year-old boy, Robin. Robin’s mother, Alyssa — or Aly — a prominent animal-rights advocate, has died in a recent car accident. Robin’s father, Theo, is an astrobiologist who ponders the possibility of life on other planets and the marvel of life on this one. Theo is flummoxed as to how to constructively channel his son’s curiosity and love, but also the boy’s sorrow and anger.

On a good day, nature is Robin’s salvation. But on a bad day, humanity’s noxious disregard for nature drives him into states of dark hopelessness — of solastalgia.

Dr. Currier, the researcher performing the neurofeedback experiments, suggests modeling Robin’s cerebral enhancement on Aly’s empathetic, optimistic, even ecstatic thought patterns, which Currier recorded not long before Aly’s death.

Theo has mixed feelings. He doesn’t want Robin to be a scientific guinea pig, but the boy is clearly suffering, and spiraling into a grim, joyless future. Besides, the alternative to Currier’s treatment for Robin would be the kind of psychotropic pills that have already dulled so many of the world’s young people into resignation over environmental decimation. Deepening Theo’s ambivalence, he comes to suspect that Currier’s fixation on Aly’s mind reflects a more intimate history between them.

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Throughout his career, Powers has been fascinated with intellectual and emotional enhancement, artificial intelligence, frenetic and arcane academic passions, and the Icarian quest for existential meaning through science. In novels like “The Gold-Bug Variations” (1991) and “Galatea 2.2” (1995), he explored such motifs with intimidating but exhilarating virtuosity. In others, like “Generosity: An Enhancement” (2009), the scholarship was whipped into a lighter sardonic froth. But in recent years, Powers’s writing has become more elegiac, with a mature confidence that allows for passages of sustained, quiet intensity.

Like the neurofeedback technology and the astronomy Powers describes, the political, environmental, and social-media phenomena in “Bewilderment” are just barely science fiction. They reflect a near future that looks a lot like the unsettling present.

An anti-science Congress slashes research budgets. Freak weather has become routine. “Summer floods throughout the Gulf contaminated the drinking water of thirty million people, spreading hepatitis and salmonellosis across the South. Heat stress in the Plains and the West was killing old people. San Bernardino caught fire, and later, Carson City.”

Stem rust that has killed a quarter of the wheat harvest in China and the Ukraine turns up in Nebraska. Livestock are decimated by diseases spread by factory farming. The TV news cuts “to an aerial shot of a staggering animal mass hundreds of creatures wide. … Brain contagion, tearing through Texas’s four and a half million head of cattle, spreading from feedlot to feedlot with industrial-scale efficiency.”

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Biodiversity plummets. A private mercenary force patrols the southern border. And a Trumpoid president sabotages and delays elections while distracting the sheeplike citizenry with semiliterate pronouncements. “America, have a look at today’s ECONOMIC numbers! Absolutely INCREDULOUS! Together, we will stop the LIES, SILENCE the nay-sayers, and DEFEAT defeatism!!!”

The good news is that despite the climatic and political chaos, Robin’s outlook is improving and he is becoming wise beyond his years while embracing his passion for drawing. The neurofeedback is turning him into a productive, caring, and upbeat learning machine.

“Where do finches go when it rains?” he writes in his journal. “How far does a deer walk in one year? … I warmed a butterfly back to life with my breath. … I love grass. It grows from the bottom, not the top. If something eats the tips, it doesn’t kill the plant. Only makes it grow faster. Pure genius!!!”

Bewilderment “means to perplex or confuse,” Powers writes, but “also means to head back into wildness.” That’s an interestingly enigmatic statement. Does his book title suggest that humanity’s appreciation of wildness will restore us to some balance with our planet? Or does it mean that balance will require Earth to rid itself of us?

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On one of their cherished father-son camping trips, Robin asks Theo, “Spring will keep coming back, whatever happens. Right, Dad?” Theo considers the question. “There were strong arguments either way. The Earth had been everything from hell to snowball.”Whether concerning family or nature, this heart-rending tale warns us to take nothing for granted.

BEWILDERMENT

By Richard Powers

Norton, 304 pages, $27.95

Alexander C. Kafka has written about books for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The Chicago Tribune.