Richard Powers: “Bewilderment”

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Author, Richard Powers. Photo by Dean Dixon.

Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Richard Powers discusses his new novel, “Bewilderment,” which has been longlisted for the Booker Prize and National Book Award. It is a love story between an astrobiologist father and his neurodivergent son, a love story between a young boy and the living world, and a ghost story about a missing mother. Plus the whole while, a father imagines life on other planets, as part of his job, and through stories he shares with his son. This novel is microscopic and telescopic. Powers speaks about changing as a writer, and exploring storytelling from a new perspective.

Excerpt from Bewilderment by Richard Powers.

The planet Stasis looked so much like Earth. The flowing water and green mountains where we touched down, the woody trees and flowering plants, the snails and worms and flying beetles, even the bony creatures were cousins to those we knew.

How can that be? he asked.

I told him what some astronomers now thought: a billion or more planets at least as lucky as ours in the Milky Way alone. In a universe ninety-​three billion light-​years across, Rare Earths sprang up like weeds.

But a few days on Stasis showed the place to be as strange as any. The planets axis had little tilt, which meant one monotone season at every latitude. A dense atmosphere smoothed out fluctuations in temperature. Larger tectonic plates recycled its continents with few catastrophes. Few meteors ever threaded the gauntlet of massive nearby planets. And so the climate on Stasis had stayed stable through most of its existence.

We walked to the equator, across the layers of planetary parfait. Species counts in every band were huge and filled with specialists. Each predator hunted one prey. Every flower kept a pollinator of its own. No creature migrated. Many plants ate animals. Plants and animals lived in every kind of symbiosis. Larger living entities werent organisms at all; they were coalitions, associations, and parliaments.

We walked on to one of the poles. The boundaries between biomes ran like property lines. No flux of seasons blurred or softened them. From one step to the next, deciduous trees stopped and conifers began. Everything on Stasis was built to solve its own private spot. Everything knew one, infinitely deep thing: the sum of the world at their latitude. Nothing alive could thrive anywhere else. A move of even a few kilometers north or south tended to be fatal.

Is there intelligence? my son asked. Is anything aware?

I told him no. Nothing on Stasis needed to remember much or predict much further out than now. In such steadiness, there was no great call to adjust or improvise or second-​guess or model much of anything.

He thought about that. Trouble is what creates intelligence?

I said yes. Crisis and change and upheaval.

His voice turned sad and wondrous. Then well never find anyone smarter than us.

Excerpted from Bewilderment: A Novel. Copyright (c) 2021 by Richard Powers. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.