Writers & Company

In Bewilderment, Richard Powers explores the climate crisis, life in space, and the love of a father and son  

The American author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his passion for writing novels that reflect on our relationship with the natural world. Bewilderment is a finalist for the 2021 Booker Prize.
Richard Powers is an American novelist whose works explore the effects of modern science and technology. (Dean D. Dixon)

For more than 35 years, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers has been writing novels that reflect his passion for science, music, technology and our relationship with the natural world. 

His new novel, Bewilderment, combines the immediacy of a recognizable dystopian reality, including the climate crisis and the threat of species extinction, with imagined life on other planets. 

Taking place in what he calls the "near-present," it's an intimate portrait of the love between a bereaved father and his sensitive son — a boy named Robin, who was partly inspired by climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Bewilderment is a finalist for the 2021 Booker Prize and was recently selected for Oprah's Book Club. The Booker Prize will be announced on November 3, 2021. 

Powers's previous book The Overstory is an environmental epic about the complex relationship among trees — and between trees and humans. It won a Pulitzer Prize and was an international best-seller.

Powers spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from London, England, in a special event presented by the Vancouver Writers Fest and the Toronto International Festival of Authors.

Our sense of meaning

"The Overstory is an attempt not so much to innovate but it is a recreation of the way that we used to tell stories. For most of human literature and throughout most of human history, it never occurred to the storytellers to tell the human story as if it were separate from the story of all of those other beings whom we depend upon for our existence — and also for our sense of self and for our sense of meaning.

"I was inspired by the work of Canadian forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard and in the way which she very bravely — and in the face of a lot of expert knowledge and consensual wisdom — demonstrated that interconnectivity is not an exception. 

It is a kind of remedy story to the narratives we tell ourselves that perpetuate and continue the underpinnings of this culture of human exceptionalism.

"She notes that everything in the forest has layers of symbiosis and interdependence. She really turned on its head the old forestry notion that to understand the forest, you have to understand it exclusively as a series of competitions between individuals in one species and competition between species.

LISTEN | Suzanne Simard discusses her work:

‘Finding the Mother Tree’ that protects her young saplings in pioneering researcher’s memoir

"Her work changes what we know is happening in a forest. It changes what we think the evolution of an ecosystem is. This opens our eyes to the deep degree of transspecies cooperation that's going on all the time. It is a kind of remedy story to the narratives we tell ourselves that perpetuate and continue the underpinnings of this culture of human exceptionalism. 

"If we know that in the wild, there is for every act of competition many acts of cooperation — and a deep reciprocal interconnection between living things — then the deepening of our knowledge of that in a scientific way will necessarily change our sense of who we are, what we're doing and where we're doing it."

Writing to live vicariously

"In school, I had a lot of curiosity for a lot of different things — and a fair amount of skill at doing a lot of different things. I had that generalist temperament. As the years went by and I got older, the need to make a decision [on a college degree] encroached closer and closer. I thought that maybe a more fundamental field of study such as physics would allow me to get the big picture. Although it was a decision, it still meant closing a lot of doors. But at least it seemed like a place where a generalist might be happy. 

In school, I had a lot of curiosity for a lot of different things — and a fair amount of skill at doing a lot of different things. I had that generalist temperament.

"It turned out, after a couple of years of study, that I quickly realized that to succeed in physics also required a great deal of specialization. The claustrophobia started to set in again.

"But there was this remarkable thing that I discovered halfway through college, which is that I could write. In writing, I could effectively defer decisions forever. Through writing, I could participate in any discipline. I could spend time to get a layperson's knowledge in the field, and participate vicariously through writing stories about people who saw the world that way. 

"All of a sudden, something clicked — and I thought, 'This is my vocation for a few years.' I can be a paleontologist — and for a few years I can be a computer programmer, a musician, and all these other roads not taken that had so intrigued me when I was younger. 

"Not for real. But vicariously enough."

Mystical happenings

"I'm not typically a deep mystic. I have recognized, in the writing of both The Overstory and Bewilderment, that a lot of what we call mystical isn't actually that far from intuitive apprehension of things that are very empirical and very scientific. But in this case, I was getting a transitory impression of a thing that I would see often on the trails: namely a parent, a father or mother, with a flagging child who's gotten too tired to hike any farther and they put them up on their shoulders. 

"I had this sense of a kid riding on my shoulders. I immediately imagined him scrambling down and walking alongside me and then being astonished: his head was on a swivel and was seeing everything that I was seeing around me, but with a great intensity and a great urgency. And I had this fleeting sense that he was looking up at me. I imagined him saying, 'Are you for real?' 

A lot of what we call mystical isn't actually that far from intuitive apprehension of things that are very empirical and very scientific.

"This was something that the son of a colleague of mine used to ask me many years ago. I had a kind of surrogate parental relationship with this young and intense nine-year-old. He would use that question to mean: "Are you telling the truth, or are you making this up?'

When I had this fleeting sense, of this kid asking me this question that I remembered from long ago in my past, I thought he's asking me, 'Is this really happening to the world? Are we letting this, what we're walking through, disappear?'

"I had been writing the book with an adult protagonist, and I suddenly realized, 'No, this is my hero. This book has to be about a nine-year-old who can't understand what the adults are allowing to happen to the world.'" 

Richard Powers's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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