We’re releasing the Outside Book Club this week, and to celebrate we’re releasing a series on how the burgeoning genre of climate fiction is helping us see our changing planet in a new light. You can read more about the Book Club here, or join us on Facebook to discuss our October pick, Perplexity, a new work of climate fiction by Richard Powers.
Perplexity, the latest novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers, is the most alarming flavor of dystopian fiction: the genre that seems dangerously, unsettlingly familiar. It’s set in the near future that’s never precisely dated – it could be ten years, or five, or one. The US president is a bawling autocrat who postpones elections and only types in all caps; the South is flooded and the West is burning (Carson City, Nevada, and San Bernardino, Calif., are wiped out in one sentence); deadly zoonotic pathogens move from livestock to humans; violent militias are on the move. The news is a lingering drumbeat of horror, a barely amplified version of our own time.
All of this, however, is just the dark backdrop for a more intimate story at the heart of the novel. Unlike Powers’ latest book, The story, a 500-page epic that follows nine main characters over many years of their lives, Perplexity takes place in a single year, and most of the action involves only two people.
Theo is an astrobiologist whose wife, a leading animal rights activist, died in a car crash. His research focuses on the potential for life elsewhere in the universe: he is not a UFO hunter but, rather, uses what little we know about the stars and planets outside our solar system, and all. what we know about the different ways that life can be sustained, to try to identify places in the universe where another version of life might exist. To that end, Theo uses algorithms, complex calculations, and an imagination fueled by a lifelong sci-fi habit to envision the possibilities.
Increasingly, however, his job is neglected as he struggles to care for Robin, his young son, who was an unusual child even before his mother died. Doctors have offered a range of potential diagnoses, but Theo resists medicalizing his son, even as the boy moves further and further away from his classmates and his occasional rage attacks become more frequent. Eventually, with the problems at school mounting and the threat of social workers hanging over his head, Theo decides to have Robin try experimental neurofeedback therapy. The rest of the book’s action stems from this decision, as Robin’s personality changes in unpredictable, almost supernatural ways. Among other things, his existing love for animals and wild places becomes more focused and determined.
Young climate activist Greta Thunberg has called Asperger’s syndrome her superpower, and Robin shares a similar stark view. He simply cannot comprehend how the people around him – Theo included – could be aware of the climate crisis and all of its accompanying sub-crises, could understand their deadly implications, and go on with their lives. “Mom says everything is dying,” he told his father one morning, invoking the deceased woman who dedicated her life to saving animals, as they argue over whether he should continue dating. primary school. “Do you believe her?
He continues, “Because if she’s right, there’s no point in going to school. Everything will be dead by the time I get to tenth grade.
Théo is left to think: “Did I believe her?” His facts were beyond doubt. Everything she claimed was common knowledge to scientists around the world. But have I to believe her? Has mass extinction ever felt real? Robin’s urgent clarity on the most important issue of our time contrasts uncomfortably with the apathy most of us feel every day, even those of us who care deeply about the environment. Faced with this clarity, I spent a good part of this novel a little stomach ache.
We’re running out of time, Perplexity seems to say. Go beyond yourself. Get out of it already.
Powers’ writing becomes expansive and lyrical whenever Theo and Robin venture into nature. Their common love for the wild world is expressed through special attention, and the level of detail also serves to invite the reader to pay more attention. On a father and son fall road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, Powers writes: “The fog has coagulated in the folds of the mountain.”
“Before us, a vestige of a chain that was once much higher than the Himalayas remained as rounded buttresses,” he continued a little later. “Lemon, amber and cinnamon – the whole series of deciduous colors – flowed into the watersheds. Sour woods and sweet gums covered the crest crimson. We went around the bend in the park. Robin exhaled a long astonished vowel.
Powers has always been known to incorporate scientific research into his novels—The story based entire scenarios, as well as a key character, on the actual work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard. Perplexity is also built on a basis of real science. The type of semi-speculative and exploratory space research that Theo does is well established and even has its own celebrities. Neurofeedback is also real, used to treat everything from insomnia, anxiety, and depression to migraines and epilepsy (although scientists are still debating its effectiveness as a therapy). Most important, of course, is the fact that the climate crisis is real and is accelerating. Floods, fires, epidemics, mass animal deaths – last summer alone, we saw it all. And yet most of us are sitting here: tweeting, buying more stuff online, dreaming of all the places we’ll fly on passenger planes once the current pandemic subsides. Of course, we understand the facts. But do we to believe?
Cynicism and apathy are everywhere. The seriousness required to be a dedicated environmentalist is not very fashionable these days. I often felt embarrassed to look back at the animal-loving and crusader-loving kid I once was, more sociable than Robin, but who nonetheless walked around with a button on my school bag asking, “Equal rights.” for all species ”and sold my toys at a garage sale to raise money for the local animal shelter. Theo, too, sometimes recoils when his son launches his naive little campaigns, the child believing that he can make a difference.
I can’t say for sure if Richard Powers himself still believes we can make a difference. Comparisons with The story are inevitable, both because this book was a huge success and a great influence, and because it was also a call to action for the health of our planet. But I have at least experienced The story like a book sweeter than Perplexity– it seemed to offer a fantastic epic rather than a dystopian future. Powers’ new novel reads as angrier, or maybe just more frustrated. We are running out of time, it seems. Go beyond yourself. Get out of it already.
Robin’s straightforward questions are uncomfortable because we know for a fact that we don’t have good answers yet. We fail the next generation, and we fail ourselves. While Robin’s classmates might laugh at him, we could all use his urgency and empathy more.
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