As I often do with new books from Richard Powers I read (listened to) this when it first came out back in September of 2021. Sad to say, I wasn’t terribly impressed and only rated it a 7.5 out of 10. My favorite book by Powers, hands down and by a long shot, is The Gold Bug Variations from 1991, but I keep reading the new ones, always hoping that maybe this time …
By Richard Powers 2020 / (287 pp)
Read by Edoardo Ballerini 7h 51m
Rating: 8-B/ literary sci-fi
That said, I read this within weeks of its release back in September of 2021. So then it was nominated for the 2021 Booker Prize (won by The Promise ~ Damon Galgut) and is just now, in January of 2022, being discussed in the Booker Prize group. So I probably needed this review and re-downloaded it and started over. I see by my original rating it only garnered a 7.5 but maybe it deserves a second chance. I only have the Audio book and I still saw no reason to get a Kindle version to supplement that.
On the plus side it’s a relatively short book and the narrator, Edoardo Ballerini, is one of my favorites. And another reason for the really generous rating is that Powers does write pretty nicely.
Theo Byrne is a fairly young widower with a 9-year old son named Robin. Robin is a difficult child with some combination of Asperger’s, OCD and ADHD. He is in frequent trouble at school and the authorities want him put on medications. If Theo refuses Robin will be expelled. Theo and Robin are also having a hard time dealing with their wife/mother’s death.
Dad’s job involves inventing planets via virtual realty based on algorithms and probabilities. He allows his son to use the computers for learning and for play. Robin is very, very bright.
Theo (and Powers apparently) are “knee jerk” against drugs for kids in the same way they’re obviously vegan and against killing in any way. So Theo finds Robin a place in an experimental self-training program using meditation and feedback. In this way Robin will learn to control himself. (NO room for the possibility that the chemicals in the brain are off balance.)
Robin messes up Thanksgiving by being rudely blunt with his grandmother, refusing to eat turkey and generally throwing a little fit. But he starts therapy/training the next Monday. It takes a week or so but Robin learns to control his emotions. I think this is just biofeedback. (My goodness – a whole week! – groan.)
The device is on which reactions to brain waves or something but it can be to the point of injecting someone else’s emotions into yourself – like your mom’s. These are obtained by film strips as far as I can figure.
“The laws that govern the light from a firefly in my backyard as I write these words tonight, also govern the light emitted from an exploding star one billion light years away. Place changes nothing, nor does time. One set of fixed rules runs the game in all times and places. That’s as big a truth as we earthlings have discovered or ever will in our brief run.” (Chapter 40. )
If that doesn’t sound kind of sappy I don’t know what does. What is this big rule, “for every action there is a reaction”? I don’t think that alone will fix a 9 -year old’s mental disorders. What action is it you’re going to take? Why?
But having been treated and apparently cured, Robin does better at school. He goes out to play with new friends. He gets teased about being vegetarian and he doesn’t respond to teasing. He says he’s “got his guys” which creeps Dad out (because it’s referring to the electro-points of the games he uses). At Grandma’s for Christmas he freaks out the larger family with his weirdness, but it is an incident free holiday. Dad’s happy.
Planet Stasis is where Dad and Robin visit electronically/virtually, and it’s similar to earth. In the cosmos there are a billion planets like earth. But Planet Status is also different because it’s stable – very stable.
“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 we’ll never find anyone smarter than us.”
Now there’s a kind of good-and-bad situation – damned if you do, damed if you don’t.
This is a heavily political novel – it’s “politically correct” in all the “right” places. It comes off as being didactic but Powers is preaching to a choir of his own, I think. Anti-Trump, anti-consumerism, anti-killing, but pro-science (without drugs) and pro-vegan. “Free to be you and me.” Let the kids show us.
Greta Thunberg is heroized under a different name. The local farmers market is championed. Fundraising to save the animals is a highly worthy activity for a 9-year old on his own. And suddenly Robin is transformed into an excellent salesman for a variety of reasons – he just comes out of himself when he’s allowed to do what he wants and believes in so he does supremely well. The kid feels great. But he gets another sales pitch via email to reward his efforts – lol! Robin is unnerved and won’t eat and he’s very angry at dad’s apparent ignorance. Robin wants to protest at the capital building like his mom did. The two get more and more into Mom’s words and ways. “Mom is everywhere,” therefore …. This feels a bit occult but that’s the tangent Powers takes. (Have father and son gone mad?)
I’ve read several novels similar to this lately – what happens if we try to fix our messes in the world? We make bigger messes.
See Appleseed by Matt Bell (my review on this site) is super good and certainly not preachy.
I really don’t like Richard Powers. M book group read “The Overstory,” and I couldn’t stand it. One tragedy after another, just unrelenting, until I felt like he was trying to manipulate my emotions, for way, way too long. The word that comes to mind is “turgid.” I stopped reading 2/3 of the way through.
Turgid is a good word for these books. The reason I was okay with The Understory was because there is work being done now in the field of tree “communication” (very loose and easily hyped terminology imo). The rest of the book was kind of worthless. His best was The Gold Bug Variations but that was quite fanciful, too.
The theme of tree communication was interesting to me, too. After that I read “Finding the Mother Tree” by Suzanne Simard, about her research on tree communication, and really liked it.
Susie, I’m kind of wanting to read the Suzanne Simard book. I’ve seen it on the pages that… who, Amazon? sends me. LOL! We’ll see if I ever have time.