How different would the world be if it were possible to ‘feel what it was like to not be us’? This thought sits at the heart of Bewilderment, Richard Powers’s latest exploration of humanity’s increasingly fraught stand-off with the natural world. Powers’s second Booker Prize-shortlisted novel is narrated by Theo Byrne, an astrobiology professor and single father of a nine-year-old son, Robin. Theo is the creator of the Byrne Alien Field Guide, a ‘taxonomic catalog of all kinds of spectroscopic signatures collated to the stages and types of possible extraterrestrial life that might make them’. Part of the novel consists of a series of imaginative journeys taken by father and son into this catalogue, exploring its planets and interacting with their hypothesised topologies, atmospheres and alien inhabitants. It is Theo’s role as a father, however, that provides the novel’s primary emotional content: Theo’s eco-warrior wife, Alyssa, was killed in a car crash years earlier in a desperate swerve to avoid an opossum.
That may sound faintly comical, but readers be warned: Bewilderment is achingly serious. Robin’s vicissitudes of temperament place him, according to one paediatrician, ‘on the spectrum’, a diagnosis that Theo both accepts (‘everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum’) and rejects (‘when a condition gets