‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers – 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Stars in 2 Trillion Galaxies


‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers      (2021) – 278 pages


OK, ‘Bewilderment’ brought me up to date on current thinking in astronomy. Thanks to the Hubble telescope and dozens of other super powerful telescopes in outer space outside the Earth’s atmosphere, astronomers now believe there are 100 octillion ( 100,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000 ) stars in 2 trillion galaxies. There are more stars than there are grains of sand on Earth. Many, many of these stars have planetary systems. The chances that there are conditions that support so-called intelligent life on many other planets are very, very good.

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 his novels, Richard Powers goes big. Instead of a guy who feeds the birds over winter, the main protagonist is an astrobiologist. Instead of going for short walks in the forest, he and his son go for full survivalist expeditions in the Smoky Mountains with the full camping regalia. Sometimes I wish Powers would just keep things small, so I could identify with the people in his novels more. However I keep reading Richard Powers so he must be doing something right.

Nobody’s perfect, but, man, we all fall short so beautifully.”

I wanted so much to love ‘Bewilderment’ as much as I have loved several of Richard Powers’ other novels in the past (‘Galatea 2.2’, ‘Gain’, ‘Generosity: An Enhancement’ – maybe I should stick to his novels that start with the letter “G”). Here I came close, but not quite.

First there is the precocious but troubled 9 year-old kid Robin whose mother Alyssa was killed in a traffic accident avoiding an opossum in the road. Alyssa studied animal law and was an expert on what constitutes legal cruelty to animals. Another major theme of this novel is avoiding cruelty to animals. Both Robin and his father Theo are vegans. The father who is an astrobiologist professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is bringing up his son alone.

Son Robin is deeply troubled, and his father makes arrangements with another professor at the University to use a new behavior technique, Decoded Neurofeedback, to help the son deal with his psychological problems. However both professors feel the pressure since critically important scientific projects are being shut down by political caprice.

An Image from the Hubble Telescope

There is an issue when the main person telling the story is also the chief advocate for the story’s line of reasoning. We readers are naturally skeptical, always on the lookout for a stacked deck. It would be more convincing to have someone who is originally skeptical tell the story and be slowly won over to the positions being advocated.

I suppose I react to environmental polemics like a spoiled kid would react when told by a parent, “Eat it, it’s good for you.” I stubbornly pigheadedly resist.

People, Robbie. They’re a questionable species.”

One optimistic way to look at it is if nuclear explosions or climate changes destroy life on Earth, it won’t be so bad because so-called intelligent life would probably continue to exist in many other places elsewhere in the massive Universe.


Grade:    B+



3 responses to this post.

  1. *chuckle*
    I’ve got this one too. I have no idea why I bought it!

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      Richard Powers is a terrific writer. In her 10-page essay on Richard Powers, Margaret Atwood has written “it’s not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book”.
      It’s just that Richard Powers sometimes gets a bit grandiose.



      • Yes… what I meant was… I don’t remember what triggered my purchase. With international authors, it tends to be because I’ve heard them at some festival or read a review somewhere…

        Liked by 1 person


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