The few negative reviews for this book suggest that it’s overly sentimental and light-weight. You could call it light-weight if you want, but I think that’s only really true in regards to other Richard Powers books. It’s probably his shortest, actually I am certain it is, but his next shortest Generosity, is the weakest of the one’s I’ve read. Instead, this book is oddly and sneakily bleak, as opposed to sentimental. I won’t fully explain that as it involves spoilers.
The model of the book is clearly based in part on the Daniel Keyes novel Flowers for Algernon. Our narrator is Theo Byrne, a planet-hunter astrophysicist, who is now the single parent of a son who is neuro-atypical after the death of his wife and the boy’s mother in a car wreck two years ago. We begin in medias res as the boy’s anger and frustration responses to, well, the whole world have regressed to a dark place. They are on a trip to the Smokey Mountains, where Theo and his wife honeymooned years ago, ostensibly to watch birds. She was an environmental lawyer who constantly lobbied the state government (of Wisconsin) for protectionist laws, and so she was a media presence available on YouT…er….a video website… This flat deathlessness, questions about her death (was it suicide maybe?) and the boy’s neurodivergence has made for a rocky path toward stability. Returning from the trip (which took him away from school) Robin lashed out at a friend, hurting him, and Theo is faced with an impossible choice: potentially lose his son or consider the use of drug treatments, which he has refused to do so far. A third way opens up: a cognitive neuroscientist friend (well, his wife’s ex-lover) offers up an experimental behavioral treatment which would have Robin use a neural interface to connect with scanned brain patterns of previous subjects. This treatment shows both promise initially, and later positive results.
That’s the set up of this novel, and it’s a lot. Robin and Theo are rendered in beautifully frustrating detail. There’s a light-touch in this novel regarding the political climate of this near future, and my major complaint is that the light-touch is not light enough, but it does allow for certain elements of the plot to move forward convincingly. However much of this novel intersects with Powers own life is for him to tell, but this feels as much as a new novel as a kind of re-visioning (or variation) of his mid-1990s novel Galatea 2.2.