Books That Inspired the Writing of Bewilderment

By Richard Powers

By Richard Powers

Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes

£9.99 £9.49

"When I first read about the provocative therapy of Decoded Neurofeedback about eight years ago, it gave me the chills. It sounded to me like something that might, in time, become a kind of empathy machine. The treatment gave me the idea for a story about a troubled boy who, thanks to this nascent technology, enjoys a burst of newfound emotional intelligence. This put me in mind of Daniel Keyes’s classic short story (later a novel), Flowers for Algernon, about a man who enrolls in an experiment that briefly gives him supernatural intellect. When I went back to Keyes’s story, I realized that he was retelling Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, as hinted at by the book’s epigraph, from The Republic: “Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.”

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time

Mark Haddon

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"As that troubled boy began to take shape in my mind, I looked around for depictions of unusual children in contemporary fiction. One of the most famous recent treatments is Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Haddon’s narrator is 15 and neurodivergent. My Robin felt somewhat younger; I eventually settled on the age of nine. Haddon explores divergence through Christopher’s own voice, returning the world to a state of surprise and mystery through Christopher’s unusual turn of thought. My Robin, by contrast, became something of a locked room, mysterious even to Theo, his father, who narrates the story and would do anything in his power—anything—to protect his unusual son from the world."

Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction

David C. Catling

£8.99 £8.54

"Robin’s father Theo is an astrobiologist whose work involves trying to detect signs of biological activity in the atmospheres of other planets. The first planet outside our own solar system was discovered only thirty years ago, and since then, the field of astrobiology has gone from an outsider’s domain to a rapidly growing conventional discipline. While writing Bewilderment, I read several books about the burgeoning search for exoplanets and the exciting new thinking about how life might evolve on planets very different from our own. That outward search is also an inward one, and interdisciplinary research is changing our vision of how life arose and colonized all parts of the Earth. For lay readers interested in an overview of this revolution in our understanding of life, Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction is a good place to start."

Invisible Cities

Italo Calvino

£8.99 £8.54

"To calm his son’s fears and feed his imagination, Theo takes Robin on nightly visits to imaginary planets, places where life might unfold in very different ways. I’ve always loved the picaresque “planetary romance:” short, serial excursions to places where the rules of life are very different. The form dates way back to the earliest fables, and it surfaces again with the nineteenth century island fantasies of writers like the young Herman Melville, where every new landfall yields a surprising culture. In science fiction, journeys to other planets enjoyed a heyday in the late 1960s. I read tons of them when I wasn’t much older than Robin. More recent literary excursions in the form include Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. Both those books were in my mind and at my side as I wrote Bewilderment."

Einstein's Dreams


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Star Maker

Olaf Stapledon

£8.99 £8.54

"Maybe the bewildering book that I read while working on Bewilderment was Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. Written in the 1930s, it tells of an Englishman who is out walking in the fields one night when he is swept up and sent out across the length of the universe. The book makes no attempt at characterization or psychology, and its plot is pretty much nonexistent. It is simply a raw, unrelenting speculation on the affordances and meaning of life. Kim Stanley Robinson said that every page had enough material to be spun into its own novel. Arthur C. Clarke called it “probably the most powerful work of imagination ever written.” It may be the weirdest and wildest book ever to come out of the British Isles."

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Robin Wall Kimmerer

£10.99 £10.44

"Bewilderment turned into a love story—the love of a father for his strange and intense son, the love of that child for the ghost of his dead mother, and the love of both those lost boys for the living world that is everywhere receding at a terrible pace. Robin’s inward journey into the therapy of Decoded Neurofeedback becomes a journey outward into interconnection with the more than human. For my own daily inspiration into reciprocity and kinship, I had Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. (My Robin owes his first name in large part to his spiritual godmother.) Kimmerer is an eminent bryologist (an expert in mosses) and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her beautiful essays braid together different ways of knowing: the ways of the scientist, the ways of indigenous cultures, and the ways of a parent. Kimmerer’s vision of Interbeing infuses my own Robin’s journey. In the end, both father and son come to realize that alien life is everywhere, all around us. We just need to remember how to hold still and see."

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