Bewilderment

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Genre: sci-fi? Maybe political fiction? Maybe dystopian?

I read it as a(n): hardback

Length: 278 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Theo Byrne is a struggling single father. His son, Robin, has behavioural issues and seems to be on the spectrum. They are both grieving the loss of Robin’s mother, Alyssa, who died in a car accident a few years previously. Theo is an astrobiologist and uses computer programs to theorise about the climates of other planets. The information is then used to try to help correct Earth’s own climate crisis, which is worsening rapidly thanks to a belligerently anti-science government and a rise in religious fundamentalism.

If it sounds familiar, it should. This book was clearly written in response to the four horrendous years of the Trump administration, their ignorant and anti-scientific approach to as many things as possible, the sharp rise in Christian nationalism (AKA, Nazism), and the global climate crisis speeding up. 

This book made me mad and it made me scared. I was already mad and scared enough as it was, so this was not, perhaps, the best thing for me to read when I am already stressed out and anxious. I do think this should be on the curriculum for all contemporary literature classes, and it could probably find a place in at least the recommended reading of environmental science and behavioural science programs. 

The plot itself is fine. It was really sort of a modern take on Flowers for Algernon, so in that, it was pretty predictable. I felt bad for Theo because he had such a hard time finding help for Robin. I 100% disagreed with his surprisingly anti-medicine attitude, though. He didn’t want to give Robin vaccines because of the miniscule amount of mercury in some of them. I think there is more mercury in the fish we eat than what’s in vaccines. There was also a line in there about how no doctor can diagnose his son better than he can. Well, yes. Yes, they can. A parent is obviously more familiar with the kinds of emotional and behavioural outbursts a kid has, but unless they are also a doctor with a specialty in XYZ issues, then no, they can’t diagnose their own kids just as well as a doctor can. It’s why we have doctors in the first place. So that part really turned me off.

Overall, I liked it but the more I think about it, the more I realise that is all. I liked it, I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to. 

Favourite lines:

  • I wanted to tell the man that everyone alive on this little fluke planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is. I wanted to tell the man that life itself is a spectrum disorder, where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow (5). 
  • I’d visit Enceladus and Europa and Proxima Centauri b, at least via spectroscopy. I’d learn how to read the histories and biographies of their atmospheres. And I’d comb through those distant oceans of air for the slightest signs of anything breathing (48). 
  • …God isn’t something you can prove or disprove. But from what I can see, we don’t need any bigger miracle than evolution (59). 
  • The library was the best dungeon crawl imaginable: free loot for the finding, combined with the joy of leveling up (76).
  • Had mass extinction ever once felt real? (81).
  • In such steadiness, there was no great call to assist or improvise or second-guess or model much of anything.
  • He thought about that. Trouble is what creates intelligence?
    • I said yes. Crisis and change and upheaval.
    • His voice turned sad and wondrous. Then we’ll never find anyone smarter than us (114).
  • You know how when you talk to someone stupid and it makes you stupid, too? (116).
  • Have you ever considered what is going on inside a leaf? I mean, really thought about it? It’s a total mind-fuck (185).
  • Almost nobody knows this, but plants do pretty much all the work. Everybody else is just a parasite (215).
  • I knew then why these men wanted to kill this project. The cost overruns were just an excuse. The country’s ruling party would have opposed the Seeker even if it were free. Finding other Earths was a globalist plot deserving the Tower of Babel treatment. If we academic elites found that life arose all over, it wouldn’t say much for humanity’s Special Relationship with God (218).
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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Genre: nonfiction/science

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Shelly Frasier

Length: 8:00:00 

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Do you ever wonder what happens to the body if its owner has donated it to science? If so, this is the book for you. Author Mary Roach covers the uses of cadavers ranging from medical/surgical practice to body snatching, crash test dummies to a new residence at the Body Farm, and many topics in between. Always respectful but lightening the subject with her typical humor, Roach guides readers through the many relevant roles cadavers have in their post-mortem, well, lives. 

I had read this book years ago for my book club and remember being kind of bored with it. I listened to it this time on audio and I think the problem before was that I skimmed some of the parts that were horrifying to me and I was more focused on that than on the actual topic. This time, I didn’t skim or skip sections and the experience this go round was difficult in places. I am terrified of flying, for example, and so the chapter discussing the ways forensic examiners look at bodies in plane crashes to figure out what happened was really anxiety-making for me. A couple other sections made me lose my appetite. 

This still wasn’t my favorite book by Mary Roach. I haven’t read all of them yet, but of the ones I have read, I think my favorite is Packing for Mars. If a person has never read one of her books, I likely wouldn’t recommend this one as their first. That said, I was a lot more engaged and interested this time. In horror, I laughed out loud a few times. I definitely learned a lot. 

And yes, I still plan to donate my body to science when the time comes.

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (Website, Twitter)

Genre: nonfiction/science

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Sandra Burr

Source: my own collection

Length: 10:27:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (2 Aug 2010)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Mary Roach talks about Things to Learn So We Can Live on Mars, or Go to Space! I decided to listen to this right now because, in our current election cycle with 4 years of Lobotomized Hitler at the helm, packing up and moving the fuck to Mars holds more than a little appeal to me. But honestly, I think there is really nothing Mary Roach can’t write about and make interesting. And laugh out loud funny. I almost crashed my car listening to this while driving. 

Some of the things NASA thinks to test. And the acronyms. And sucking the joy out of things. And really, I might not have needed to know some of these things but they were written in such an entertaining manner that I really don’t mind knowing about how to poop in space, for example. I mean, I literally learned something new every day while listening to this, so that’s a winner in my book. 

I’ve read several of her books and now I really think Mary Roach needs to write about bees. Or the evolution of body modification/ plastic surgery. Or anything, really. I’m here for anything she wants to write about. You should be, too. If you have never read any of her books, you are missing out!

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • The whole chapter on sex in zero-G
  • Hygiene in a space capsule or space station
  • Pretty much anything having to do with air ram

Outgrowing God

Outgrowing GodOutgrowing God by Richard Dawkins (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Genre: nonfiction/atheism/YA?

Setting: n/a

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 294 pp

Published by: Random House (8 Oct 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a terrific, brief book that addresses religion from a scientific perspective, as do all of Dawkins’s books. In it, he lays out many arguments people use for believing in a god (it teaches you morality, you can’t be good without God, etc) and then he goes on to point out the fallacies involved in thinking that. Such is the first part of the book. The second deals more directly with actual science and evidence for how we know what we know. 

I love this logical approach. Even as a child, religion never made sense to me. When I asked questions in Sunday School, I was rarely satisfied with the answers I was given – you just have to have faith (why, though? That’s not good enough), we can’t see God but we can’t see the wind either and so that’s the same thing (honestly, what the actual fuck?). Now, of course, I know a lot more about logic and reasoning than I did as a child, and the kinds of arguments and fallacies that are involved. But not everyone does. Nor would I try to change, say, my granny’s mind about her beliefs. It doesn’t hurt me and it is a comfort to her, so I’m not here for that. But I do think a ton of people need to read this book, and all of Dawkins’s other books, and then move on to writers like Sam Harris, AC Grayling, Daniel Dennett, Dan Barker, and the late, greatly missed Christopher Hitchens. It will be an eye opener for many, in the best way, I promise.

I felt like this book was written for a slightly younger audience. I don’t know if Dawkins did that intentionally but this would be easy for most teens to grasp, as well as adults who are not as scientifically literate as some of his other readers. I appreciate Dawkins’s ability to write science in a way that is easy for a layperson to understand but that doesn’t dumb it down so much it is essentially inaccurate. Some people say he is condescending, but I don’t really think it’s that so much as he is breaking down complex issues and tells his readers if an upcoming section is particularly challenging. He’s just being a typical professor – ok, class, time to take careful notes. I think too that maybe some of the ‘he’s really condescending’ crowd might just feel a little defensive about their beliefs that he is disassembling. Just a thought. 

I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially those who might still cling to certain beliefs, religious or otherwise, without good evidence to support it.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Arguing over whether angels are demigods is rather like arguing whether fairies are the same as pixies. 
  • …if I’d been born to Viking parents I’d firmly believe in Odin and Thor. If I’d been born in ancient Greece I’d worship Zeus and Aphrodite. In modern times, if I’d been born in Pakistan or Egypt I’d believe that Jesus was only a prophet, not the Son of God as the Christian priests teach.
  • We can’t prove there are not fairies but that doesn’t mean we think there’s a 50:50 chance fairies exist. 
  • ‘Jesus’ is the Roman form of the Hebrew name Joshua or Yeshua. It was a common name and wandering preachers were common. So it’s not unlikely there was a preacher called Yeshua. There could have been many.
  • We tend to think the United States is an advanced, well-educated country. And so it is in part. Yet it is an astonishing fact that nearly half the people in that great country believe literally in the story of Adam and Eve. 
  • You get the impression from him that God i far more interested in the sins of one species, living on one little planet, than he is in the vast expanding universe he had created. 
  • The whole bit in chapter 11 about patterns and how human brains are evolutionarily hard wired to seek them, and how false positives and false negatives may have started superstitions and religions. 
  • Science regularly upsets common sense. It serves up surprises which can be perplexing or even shocking; and we need a kind of courage to follow reason where it leads, even if where it leads is very surprising indeed. The truth can be more than surprising, it can even be frightening. 
  • Courage isn’t enough. You have to go on and prove your idea right.
  • Isn’t science wonderful? If you think you’ve found a gap in our understanding, which you hope might be filled by God, my advice is: ‘Look back through history and never bet against science.’
  • I think we should take our courage in both hands, grow up and give up on all gods. Don’t you?