In a universe governed by randomness and impartial laws, chance has been kind to us — a kindness so immense it feels like a benediction. Here we are, drifting through the austere blackness of pure spacetime on a planet just the right distance from its home star to have an atmosphere and water and warmth for life. And what life! A cornucopia of creatures moving through lushness beyond measure, born of blue oceans and shimmering shores.
It didn’t have to exist, not one bit of it — not the oceans, not the redwoods, not the octopus, not the miracle of consciousness that turns back on itself to stand wonder-smitten by the majesty of it all. And yet here it is and here we are, children of the flowers, captives of this wonderland, lulled by habit and hubris into dishonoring our benediction by forgetting the staggering improbability of it all.
Richard Powers extends an uncommonly beautiful invitation to unforgetting in his novel Bewilderment (public library) — the story of an astrobiologist father searching for habitable worlds beyond our Solar System and his sensitive son lovesick for Earth.
A generation after the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Cosmic Ball” eulogized the Fermi paradox — the mournful question of where, if all probability points to the existence of life elsewhere in the universe, that other life is — Powers wrests poetry from this great puzzlement of science:
There was a planet that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness. That happened billions of times in our galaxy alone.
In the novel, another world, Earthlike but further along the evolutionary cycles of the universe, becomes a lens on our own — both on the precariousness of life and on its persistence: life as a force of resistance to entropy. Much like Kepler used the imaginative trope of lunar beings to awaken earthlings to the realities of our own world in the first work of true science fiction, Powers uses the fate of that other world to jolt us awake to the improbable wonder of our own:
The first time Thea died, a comet tore off a third of the planet and turned it into a moon. Nothing on Tedia survived. After tens of millions of years, the atmosphere came back, water flowed again, and life sparked a second time. Cells learned that symbiotic trick of how to combine. Large creatures spread once more into every niche of the planet. Then a distant gamma ray burst dissolved Tedia’s ozone shield and ultraviolet radiation killed most everything. Patches of life survived in the deepest oceans, so this time it was faster coming back. Ingenious forests set out again across the continents. A hundred million years after that, just as a species of cetacean was beginning to make tools and art, a neighborhood star system supernovaed, and Tedia had to start again. The problem was that the planet lay too near the galactic center, packed in too closely to the calamities of other stars. Extinction would never be far away. But there were periods of grace, between the devastations. Forty resets in, the calm lasted long enough for civilization to take hold. Intelligent bear-people built villages and mastered agriculture. They harnessed steam, channeled electricity, learned and built simple machines. But when their archaeologists revealed how often the world ended, and their astronomers figured out why, society broke down and destroyed itself, millennia before the next supernova would have. This, too, happened again and again.
Hinting at this eternal dialogue between nature and human nature, Powers considers the time arrow of the mind, reminding us that curiosity and all the tendrils of human longing exist only for as long as we ourselves exist; lest we forget, life as we know it — as we are it — is but “a flash in the pan, a few moments in the vast unfolding of time and space in the cosmos.” He writes:
Light travels at three hundred thousand kilometers a second. It takes ninety-three billion years to cross from one end of space to the other, past black holes and pulsars and quasars, neutron and preon and quark stars, metallics and blue stragglers, binaries and triple-star systems, globular and hypercompact clusters, coronal, tidal, and halo galaxies, reflection and plerion nebulae, stellar, interstellar, and intergalactic disks, dark matter and energy, cosmic dust and filaments and voids, all spun from the laws folded up into vibrations far smaller than the smallest units we have names for. The universe is a living thing, and my son wants to take me for a quick look around while there’s still time.
Set a half-tone up the scale of time from the menacing tritone of our present predicament, the novel paints a world for which time has run out in order to awaken a world, this world, teetering on the event horizon of too late. The story ends with that rarest and most beautiful of compositional triumphs — a requiem that is also a clarion call:
Oh, this planet was a good one. And we, too, were good, as good as the burn of the sun and the rain’s sting and the smell of living soil, the all-over song of endless solutions signing the air of a changing world that by every calculation ought never to have been.
Complement with Richard Powers on how to live with bewilderment, then revisit Lewis Thomas’s almost unbearably wonder-full meditation on our destiny as the fragile species and Rachel Carson on wonder as the antidote to self-destruction.