Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021. An astrobiologist thinks of a creative way to help his rare and troubled son in Richard Powers’ deeply moving and brilliantly original novel.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist. He is also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old. Robin is loving, funny and full of plans to save the world. He is also about to be expelled, for smashing his friend’s face in with a metal thermos. What can a father do, when the only solution offered is to put his boy on psychoactive drugs? What can he say, when his boy asks why we are destroying the world? The only thing to do is to take the boy to other planets, while helping him to save this one.

The 2021 Booker Prize
Published by
Hutchinson Heinemann
Publication date

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Richard Powers

Richard Powers

About the Author

Richard Powers is the multi-award-winning American author of 13 novels, who has now been shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize.
More about Richard Powers

Richard Powers on Bewilderment

‘I was just settling in for the most agonising part of the publication process – the several long weeks between the last efforts of proof-reading and the first reactions of the general public – when along came the bracing shock of the longlist. I confess that the news relaxed me quite a little bit. 

‘My satisfaction at making the list deepened when I saw the other contenders. I don’t envy the judges, who must cut these 13 titles by more than half: every book in the group seems remarkable in its own way. The work that I’ve already read has been urgent and moving, and I look forward to reading the rest. It’s quite something to be among this company.

‘The book has its roots in two different worlds. It is, in part, a novel about the anxiety of family life on a damaged planet, and for that, I’m indebted to writers as varied as Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Evan Dara, Don Delillo, and Lauren Groff. But it is also a kind of ‘planetary romance’ that pays homage to both contemporary and classic speculative fiction writers including Daniel Keyes, Ursula LeGuin, Olaf Stapledon, Alan Lightman, Italo Calvino, and Kim Stanley Robinson. I took great pleasure in colliding what a lot of readers might think of as entirely incommensurable aesthetics, and I enjoyed the light and heat thrown off by that fusion.’

Read the full interview here

Richard Powers author of Bewilderment

The astrobiology and neuroscience in Bewilderment – two fields undergoing rapid and dramatic revolutions – are really ways into much older and more intimate human passions

What the judges said

‘Theo is a widowed astrobiologist raising a troubled nine-year-old son tagged with a ‘special needs’ label. On his mission to help the boy, Robin, he is prepared to engage with experimental treatments. He dares to decode his son’s mind in order to save him, thereby drawing us into the claustrophobic relationship of a grieving man playing solo parent to a vulnerable child. Theo’s determination to protect Robin from becoming a prisoner of bureaucracy, something of a high wire act of its own, is beautiful and truly inspiring. That, and his willingness to venture beyond the known world into the cosmos make this book a clarion call for us to wake up and realise what our minds might be truly capable of if we were less obedient to the status quo.’

What the critics said

Meera Subramanian, Orion Magazine

Bewilderment is an exercise in grief, personal and planetary. It is a practice in radical empathy. It is an exploration of what loneliness bears, whether an individual who has experienced a grave loss or an entire species on a singular planet that has lost its way, forgotten its connections, within and beyond its earthly bounds. For those who share the weight that Powers carries, about the future fate of this planet and all its inhabitants – from the rocks that humans stack into cairns to the mysterious songmakers of the forest to these familiar yet unknowable humans we give birth to – do not expect forgiveness or atonement in Bewilderment. Instead, this book will bewilder you in the best ways, not in some traditional definition of the word, but rather, as in be-wilder, to return to the wild, sometimes only possible by shifting your perspective rapidly from the astral plane to the microscopic. Powers takes us along as we travel the spectrum between these two vantages in an attempt to provide some antidote to the trouble we’re in. It’s a love without reassurance, but still a cracked-open door to possibility.’

Susannah Butter, The Standard

‘There is a lot packed in and not everything works. Some may find the passages about the planet worthy, but I was so charmed by Theo and Robin that I didn’t mind a little preachiness. The plot is entirely implausible, like a Black Mirror episode, but all the feelings behind it ring true. This won’t be as successful as The Overstory: it’s less ambitious than that, and I think it is unlikely to win the Booker as parts of it are too niche. But I found it completely refreshing, original and moving.’

Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times (UK)

‘Bewilderment’s plot has the comforting solidity of a daytime TV series… celestial fables, which recall the cosmological wit of Italo Calvino, add a playfully inventive extra layer to the novel’s atmosphere… As it speculates about ‘exoplanets’ and their outlandish inhabitants, Bewilderment sometimes skimps in its attention to the earthbound here-and-now. Theo exists in a liberal bubble of them-and-us assumptions. Marty proves his good-guy credentials; Alyssa shines in memory as a departed saint. Yet their truth-denying enemies feature as an amorphous mass of bigotry, personified by the thug-president… Powers’s unchained imagination stretches its empathy circle from lichen to nebulae, in finely crafted prose. It fails to humanise the local menaces to life on Earth. Bewilderment suggests that, even at its strongest, American fiction now dwells on a polarised planet of night-and-day divisions, not one where dialogue and interaction thrive.’

Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

‘I was prompted to ask ethical questions that Powers seemed uninterested in answering… It’s a relief to see great novelists like Powers, Lydia Millet and Jenny Offill tackling climate change in ways that make for really good stories, brilliantly told. But there’s a key difference here. Millet and Offill, in their most recent books…are optimists. Even if the solutions their novels come up with are utopic or near-miraculous, the young people in them create something that might last. Powers cannot seem to find a way. When the plot of Bewilderment turns, it’s animated not by ethical questions but by external forces. There’s internet virality and then pushback, all under the shadow of the right-wing administration in Washington. This is fiction taking its cues from dark reality… Powers is an essential member of the pantheon of writers who are using fiction to address climate change. Bewilderment shows how tenuous their hopes may be.’

Clifford Garstang, New York Journal of Books

‘While lacking some of the depth of [The] Overstory, Bewilderment is another important and timely entry in the growing genre of environmental literature … Based on actual science, at times Bewilderment reads like the science fiction that Byrne favored as a child. Scattered throughout the book, in fact, are episodes where Byrne and Robin seem to be visiting other planets … Ultimately, Bewilderment is a clarion call.’

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Powers is an essential member of the pantheon of writers who are using fiction to address climate change. Bewilderment shows how tenuous their hopes may be

Listen to an extract from Bewilderment

Edoardo Ballerini brings Bewilderment to life in the audiobook.

Penguin Books UK · Bewilderment - Richard Powers, read by Edoardo Ballerini
Audiobook cover for Bewilderment on a blue-coloured background.

Other nominated books by Richard Powers

The Overstory