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Bewilderment (SF) - Richard Powers ****

Generally speaking, I avoid anything listed for the Booker Prize as being too worthy and pretentious to be bothered with, but I'd heard good things about Bewilderment, and I have found in the past that genre books that manage to get past the literati (Wolf Hall, for example) are far better than the average entry.

The publisher would probably disagree, but the reality is that Bewilderment is science fiction. I wondered to start with if Richard Powers was dealing more in Lab Lit - fiction with a scientific context but where the science isn't the driver in how people's lives are changed - but this is pretty solid SF. Clearly the book is strongly influenced by that SF classic Flowers for Algernon - in fact, Powers does a couple of open hat tips in its direction. Although Bewilderment isn't as ground-breaking as Flowers, it follows the model of a person's brain being changed by science to deal with an issue, but here it's an emotional problem rather than an intellectual one.

There is also a second level of SF content - one of the two main characters is an astrobiologist, and the very short segments of the book (you couldn't call them chapters, but they make it easy to 'just read one more') are interspersed with 'visits' to imaginary other planets 'taken' by the character with his son, Robin, who is the one who undergoes the brain treatment that seems to mystically link him to aspects of his dead mother.

The book is genuinely engaging and we feel for father and son as they struggle with the realities of life. The SF concept is interesting and the scientific detail well-handled without it getting in the way.

I only have two small issues with the book. One is that the pretentiousness required to make the shortlist creeps in a bit. The dialogue of the boy and his mother is all in italics without speech marks. This makes for poor readability and provides no benefit for the narrative - it's just showing off. And the environmental context is very heavy handed. Not only is the boy's heroine a weakly disguised Greta Thunberg, but the real threat we face in climate change is presented in the pure doom terms typical of children - acceptable in the child character, but not the supposed scientist father. It simply doesn't reflect the real science of climate change in the way that the astrobiology parts do.

Overall, an interesting and enjoyable book. I find it entertaining that it's apparently a bestseller in the 'metaphysical and visionary' category: this underestimates its value. What Powers does here is what SF does far better than conventional literary fiction - explore what it is to be human by using hypothetical developments in science and technology to imagine how human beings would react to them. Bewilderment does this very well.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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