[Entracte-Livres] “Stupid”, by Richard Powers, the man who turns science into a novel

“Perhaps the human race is a child of nine years: not yet ripe; but already less of a kid. Reasonable in appearance, but still on the verge of a fit of rage. »In this novel by Richard Powers (Pulitzer Prize 2019 with his previous novel, The World Tree), the nine year old is called Robin and is different. If his intellect seems rather developed, his relationship with other children is very difficult. Robin doesn’t always have his emotions in check and can have outbursts of aggression which are frowned upon in his school. To try to bring him calm and serenity, his astrophysicist father takes him to majestic nature, to a highly symbolic place, since it is there that he loved the mother of the child, who has since died.

Pastoral care between a father and his son

It is through this excursion that Richard Powers introduces the story, showing once again that he has no equal in weaving intrigues that combine scientific knowledge and psychological finesse. It will be understood, here, it is the father-son relationship which is at the center of the novel. Because on the return from pastoral care in the mountains of the United States, the child does not really keep his calm. To the point that his teacher requires therapeutic care that involves the absorption of powerful drugs.

It was then that the father came up with an apparently preposterous idea thanks to a specialist in neuroscience. Idea that is perhaps the most successful part of the book. It’s about eternal love and artificial intelligence, the relationship between a son and his deceased mother reinvented through experimental therapy. Welcome to what you might call sentimental science fiction.

Political uchrony

The novel is also a political uchronia, visibly inspired by the Trump years, in which a President decides to postpone elections again and again and the Senate exerts an influence on science. Funding for all research that stray too far from the biblical view of the creation of the world is threatened, starting with astrophysics and the conquest of space. “Our camp claimed that the discovery of other Earths would increase Humanity’s collective wisdom and capacity for empathy. The President’s men retorted that wisdom and empathy were collectivist plots to destroy our standard of living. “

Meanwhile, the climate of the United States is deteriorating and ecological disasters multiply, as Robin and his father discuss the possibility of other planets, endangered species, or the beauty of the world. Risking his life, Robin will soon follow in his mother’s footsteps, a tireless environmental activist.

A world novel

Sidetracks mixes all these themes together and it takes Richard Powers’ proven talent to mix it all together and produce a fluid, captivating and moving story, a true world novel. Anti-hubris manifesto, Sidetracks is a plea for Humanity to find a more reasoned attitude towards its ecosystem. “One day we will relearn how to connect to this living world, and stillness will be like a flight. “

By clicking on this link, you can listen to Richard Powers’ interview in La Grande Librairie, on France 5.

Sidetracks, Richard Powers, trad. from English by Serge Chauvin, Actes Sud editions, 400 pages, 23 euros

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[Entracte-Livres] “Stupid”, by Richard Powers, the man who turns science into a novel