Powers follows up his Pulitzer-winning The Overstory with Bewilderment (Norton, Sept.), about an astrophysicist and his troubled son, Robin, who connects with his dead mother through experimental neurotherapy.
The Overstory, published three years ago, was monumental. What was it like to follow that up?
I remember writing to Barbara Kingsolver and confessing to her that I was a little anxious about what to do next. And she said, “Look, at 64, you’re too old for a sophomore jinx.”
To turn away from that large canvas of The Overstory to make something much more intimate, shedding a lot of characters to focus on two people, was a real rejuvenation for me. It’s a pandemic book, in that it’s turning more inward. I would compare it in a way to a composer writing a string quartet after a symphony. There’s something beautiful about going to a more restrained space.
The spaceborne telescope and Robin’s experience with a Flowers for Algernon–esque “empathy machine” both speak to the intersection between technology and wildness. What interests you about that?
Technology becomes a mediation to tell the kind of fable we’ve been telling forever, about what it would take to really know what it’s like to be someone else or something else. It’s baffling to think of a planet beyond ours, but also a life beyond ours. The bafflement of empathy lies at the heart of the book, whether it’s obtainable, whether we would have to give up being ourselves in order to understand someone who isn’t us. It’s a book about a father who struggles to understand a son whose way of thinking about life has some similarities to his own, but also eludes him.
You’ve got a Trumpian president who denies science and election results, and a cascade of global disasters, making this read at times like a near-future narrative, and at other times like an alternate version of very recent history.
In a way, this is like a near present. This book is leaping from Earth to a not quite Earth, and that slight displacement keeps things surprising. It forces a kind of estrangement. For me, it was a way of reexamining what we’ve just lived through without trying to be journalistically rigorous, and also while still being speculative about where it might have gone. And so there is a president and he does weaponize Twitter and much of the message of anti-science and paternalist white exceptionalism is there, but he’s just enough not the president who we’ve just lived through to surprise a reader into another place and say, “Where was I and where might I have been?”