Confusion Review: Big ideas from AI, climate change, and neuroscience crowd onto this small but elegant canvas

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Confusion Richard Powers Hutchinson Heinemann, € 14.99

Richard Powers’ novel confusion, Nominated for the Booker Prize last Tuesday begins with a father and son contemplating the stars on a camping trip. The dialogue is back and forth, question follows answer. This can be a highly effective storytelling technique: the novelist gets the ultimate stepping stone, a child’s curiosity, untroubled by knowledge and disappointments.

It’s not hard to see why this would appeal to Powers. Its narrators are almost always scientists of one kind or another and love to explain things. No exceptions, confusion is told from the perspective of Theo Byrne, a young astrobiologist whose innocent but haunting questions from his son warrant lengthy digressions about some of the esoteric aspects of his academic field.

Byrne’s son Robin is precocious but concerned. Judged by a number of doctors, “the voices determine two Asperger’s, one likely OCD and one possible ADHD”.

The tragic death of Robin’s mother, Alyssa, an exuberant animal rights activist and lawyer, in a car accident only complicated his already tense mood, let alone his grieving father’s life.

After a series of violent incidents, Theo finally decides to teach Robin at home while enrolling him in DecNef, an experimental therapy conducted at the behest of Martin Currier, a pioneering neuroscientist with whom Theo’s late wife is believed to be had a previous liaison.

DecNef works by training a person to emulate the brain state of another person whose precise neural networks have been carefully mapped while experiencing a particular emotion (e.g., serenity). In Robin’s case, it uses scans of his mother’s brain taken in a previous study she participated in.

The results are remarkable. Under pressure to secure funding for further research, Currier asks Theo if he will allow Robin to appear in actual marketing campaigns. Although he is deeply conflicted, he gives his approval.

What follows are the most compelling aspects of confusion. Though encouraged by Robin’s improvement, Theo is nonetheless concerned that his son will be reduced to a mere tool in the commodification of scientific research. He also fears that Robin might struggle with all the attention.

More imperatively, Theo is troubled by his own reaction to his son’s newfound equanimity. He’s jealous that his son was granted some sort of access to Alyssa’s consciousness, relieved by a man he suspects was in love with her.

Unfortunately, the resulting topics – identity, love and mortality, for example – are being displaced by a flood of references and mini-lectures on a number of big ideas: climate change, artificial intelligence, neural networks, extraterrestrial exploration and other topics.

Regardless of Powers’ talent, 270 pages are simply too small to accommodate such a mass that is never quite compatible with an already complex central narrative.

His gestures towards the contemporary are even more frustrating. Minor characters, who are obvious substitutes for Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg, appear while Robin can be seen on a COG talk – presumably a replacement for TED.

These feel cheesy. Trump in particular poses an issue that Powers, to be fair, has little control over. Since he was not re-elected, he is on the minds of a few except for his so-called base.

All of this has the opposite effect of what I imagine Powers intended by tying the novel to a very specific and now past political moment.

Under all this abundance
confusion is a compelling story of love in a dying world. It’s just a shame that a writer of Powers’ abilities – he’s one of the best at integrating science elegantly into fiction – chose to water down his focus on what initially seemed to be the book’s central concern and the relevance of which is depressingly secured: our warming planet.


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