Into the Heart of Life: Richard Powers on Living with Bewilderment at the Otherworldly Wonder of Our World

“That’s the ruling story on this planet. We live suspended between love and ego.”

Into the Heart of Life: Richard Powers on Living with Bewilderment at the Otherworldly Wonder of Our World

“Today our whole earth has become only another shore from which we look out across the dark ocean of space, uncertain what we shall find when we sail out among the stars,” Rachel Carson, dying of cancer, told an orchard of human saplings in the commencement address she delivered in the late spring of 1962 — still the best recipe we have for how to save a world — as she was weathering a savage storm of attacks for having awakened the modern ecological conscience with her Silent Spring.

But somewhere along the way between her epoch and ours, as the world became more and more unsteady, humanity was sold on the expensive dream of living certain rather than bewildered, the dream of choosing — or being chosen for — the islanded certitudes of power over the open horizons of truth. The “dark ocean of space” lost its stardusted luster as we grew more and more unwilling to remain uncertain about the nature of reality and the open-endedness of the future.

As the Golden Record was traveling into the infinite cosmic space encoded with our best, other worlds started falling out of favor. This one had become too hard to control, to bear. The here and now became our focus, not as a lover making the loved one the center of all their passion, but rather like a small anxious stepchild, fearful, attached, uncertain of the meaning of love.

But beneath the wetsuit of fear, we remained what we are: passionate primates longing for truth and beauty, forever digging for that “submerged sunrise of wonder.”

Richard Powers addresses this binary pull on our nature in a wonderful autobiographical piece presented at Portland’s Literary Arts, folded into which is a kind of civilizational memoir — the biography of an idea that is corroding what is best of us, and the future history of its shimmering alternative.

Richard Powers

He is a reflective man:

When I was born there was only one moon in the universe. By the time I was five months old, there were two more moons. That was the year when my species… figured out how to escape gravity and send one of its most impressive artworks into permanent orbit.

It was quite a moment — the first time in four and a half billion years the planet had an entirely new type of object in the sky.

Growing up, I was in a nation that raced into space. Sputnik made a special impression on my father, who had always dreamed of being a scientist but couldn’t hack the math. Since my childhood, my father believed I’d succeed where he failed. It seemed to me that this was right too.

At the age of seven, at the attic bedroom of my family’s brick house on the north side of Chicago, I read the classic kids’ book he gave me: It’s possible to go to the Moon. Of all the wild stories I devoured back then — the one about befriending a wild raccoon, or the one about a bracelet falling inside a donut machine and being baked into the product — It’s possible to go to the MoonIt seemed the most possible.

I was my father’s son, and I grew up committed to the new frontier: Easy travel to other planets — it all felt so imminent. It was obvious that I would travel to the Moon. We all would — the whole parade of human history pointed to it. It was my part in this outward journey that was certain. To find out how heavy I’d be on Mercury, Jupiter and Mars, I stood on various scales at Adler Planetarium.

Space was where we would solve all the problems we never quite managed to square away here on this planet’s surface. My child’s pantheism merged with my father’s endless faith in human progress. When I was nine years old, it became clear to me that strange new worlds existed, they were possible, humanity would continue exploring them, and there would be the best kinds of life.

Leo and Diane Dillon’s art from 1973 visionary picture book Blast Off, Linda C. Cain & Susan Rosenbaum

Powers looks back on his childhood and how his generation was sold on the dream of the year 2000 as a “transformative threshold,” on the other wide of which lay “fusion-powered rockets” and “space colonies mounted in geosynchronous orbits” and contact with alien civilizations.

The math of it crushed him — he would be forty-three then, “too decrepit to go anywhere.” (A touching reminder that across cultures and generations, across the bruising artifice of adult divides, in the eternal sweetness of childhood we find out most indivisible humanity: A generation after Powers, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the nine-year-old me declared to my parents that I wanted my cord pulled at the senile age of thirty. The beloved aunt who was then only thirty-nine suggested to me that I consider embarking on Spaceship Life at age forty. It took me a moment to decide whether the evidence was in my favor or not.

Powers recounts watching the grainy Moon landing on a black-and-white TV in Bangkok, where his father had taken a job — the enchantment of “the two buoyant people in bulky suits and helmets, bobbing around on a dusty plain, making footprints that would last forever,” before the program returned to the I Love Lucy episode dubbed into Thai, depositing him back to the planet he “still half-expected to leave forever someday.”

Looking back on the science fiction wonderland of his teenage years — the peaking art of “planetary romances,” drawing on Melville’s island romances from the previous century, which in turn built on Daniel Dafoe a century before that — Powers writes:

Even though I was fifteen years old, it never occurred to me that I might die before any human beings set foot on another place.


In 1975, I was a senior in high school. Humans had taken control of the Earth and controlled every inch. No one was able to travel where others have gone.

Winter: MoonlightRockwell Kent. Available as both a printed copy and stationery cards.

And yet something of the wanderlust which artist Rockwell Kent so poetically captured at the dawn of the century seemed part of what Powers calls “the legacy hardware” of the human brain. He couldn’t shake it. He pressed the issue down.

Sometime between starting college as a Physics major and ejecting four and a half years later with a Master’s degree in Literature, I gave up space travel. In the interim, I had signed on to the idea — pretty much universal among my professors and fellow students in literature — that we humans were the only game in town, and there was no use pretending otherwise.

So he began to despise as primitive or colonialist stories that put science ahead of psychology and fact over feeling. “Real” literature, to his malleable and culture-sculpted mind, was the story of the social world. “The self-made mazes of the self.” Solipsism on the scale of the species.

With the abashed tenderness that is the best we can hope to muster for our younger selves — because, as Joan Didion reminds us, “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” — he reflects:

I put away science fiction, along with my other childish things, and I began writing stories of my own — stories that, without my realizing it, had assimilated the prevailing literary idea that human beings would never go anywhere new again; that we were here, in an empty universe, with only ourselves to contemplate.

One of Italian painter, poet, and futurist Giacomo Balla’s paintings from his 1914 series Mercury passes before the Sun. Available as both a printed and as stationary cards. Proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

It was not an unfounded notion. In that era, even most astronomers had no grounds for believing they would live to see the discovery of another new planet — a time when “anything more than brief, poetic speculation about life beyond Earth was courting professional suicide.”

All seemed to forget that the ability to be enchanted and wonder-struck by reality is a core part of humanity. All except Jill Tarter (and Frank Drake).

When the unimaginable happened and NASA’s Kepler mission, spearheaded by my visionary friend Natalie Batalha, discovered Kepler-10b — the first potentially habitable planet outside our solar system — Powers was thirty-five and so devoted to his narrow band of literary fiction that he just about missed the news.

Kepler-10b as rendered by an artist (NASA)

Abashed by this poverty of imagination — as much that of his young self as that of his young species — he writes:

I barely registered the landmark that life on Earth had just passed: A few self-replicating molecules, after four billion years of random walks shaped by nothing more than trial and error, had learned how to measure the infinitesimal dimming of light from trillions of miles away with enough precision to infer the transits of minuscule invisible planets passing in front of their obliterating stars — it was like detecting a fly walking across a streetlight in a distant city.

We did that — we Earthlings.

And then, just like that, a civilizational bloom of bold speculations followed — not merely about the existence of life, but about the wild and wondrous types of life that could exist in the frozen lakes of faraway moons or in the roiling mantles of drifting planets.

But Powers missed that, too — having “graduated from outer space,” he was living in the Absolute Here, occupied by Only Us. He had to wait years before he could see the reality.

By the 1990s — perhaps awakened by the Hubble Space Telescope’s epoch-making glimpse into the previously unfathomed frontiers of a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” — he was yawning awake.

Art by Daniel Bruson for “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

Sometimes, our best advice is not the one we’ve already given with our lives but rather what we need. Powers gave his top advice to a young man when asked for it back then.

Don’t forget the knowledge you were given. The embryo of this single fluke, large, cross-indexed thermodynamic experiment is still being created. It’s not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet. You can read it once you have finished.

Powers, however, was short of buying power. By the time he realized he was at the midpoint of his expected lifetime, he found himself gnawed by the same suspicion many of us face on our darkest days: that humanity had permanently maimed life on Earth, that “there was something inherently wrong with Homo sapiens, that we suffered from congenital defect — a built-in, incurable sadistic impulse toward domination that doomed us to failure along with 98% of Earth’s other experiments that had already gone extinct.”

To calibrate his despair against the essential fact underneath the flinch took many decades.

Insanity wasn’t in our genes — we humans had gone off the rails because our culture had lost its source of external significance. The belief that economics and personal consumption were the only meaning of life was so deeply ingrained that it felt almost like an assumption. We’d forgotten the fact that, in Gaylor Nelson’s great phrase, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, and not the other way around.”

Echoing Carson’s prescient 1953 admonition that our only real wealth lies in honoring “the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” he adds:

We are very few and far between. This is why we feel the need to destroy the most beautiful place possible in this universe. Here — We had come to see the planet as a collection of exchangeable commodities reduced to their use value.

Somehow, in the mere century since Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology to name the relationship between organisms in the house of life, one inhabitant of the house decided, as Powers puts it, to “exploit all the planet’s ecosystems to its own ends” while presuming to reside “outside ecology altogether.”

A nine-year-old’s drawing from humanity’s first gallery of children’s art in space, depicting what kids most cherish about life on Earth.

At the time of his most acute exasperation with our species, Powers befriended the nine-year-old son of a colleague — a kid whom we would now call “neurodivergent,” a term far beyond the cultural horizon then. One day, midway through a conversation about the boy’s beloved Star Wars, somehow Mars came up — the planet’s fate, how it may have been home to life once but lost all of its water to become an arid red desert.

The child was initially incredulous at the idea that such an event could happen to a planet. He then paused and asked Powers if such a thing might occur.

Powers lied.

It took twenty years, an existential breakdown that left him in “a constant state of pointlessness and dread,” a deadly pandemic, and a five-year love affair with the astonishing interconnected universe of old-growth forests until Powers could give the child — and himself, and the child he had once been, and the rest of despairing humanity — the real answer in his exquisite novel Bewilderment (public library).

NebularMaria Popova. This print is available to benefit The Nature Conservancy.

This story is set sometime in the distant future. It tells the story a three-year old astrobiologist with his neurodivergent nine-yearold son. Together, they search for other worlds but discover how to bring meaning to our own.

Radiating from their quest is a luminous invitation to live up to our nature not as creatures consumed by “the black hole of the self,” as Powers so perfectly puts it in his talk, but as living empathy machines and portable cosmoses of possibility, whose planetary story is yet unwritten.

Fittingly, the novel opens with an epigraph from Carson’s The Sense of Wonder — her most personal piece of public writing, which had begun as an essay titled “Help Your Child to Wonder,” inspired by the beloved grandnephew she adopted and raised after his mother’s death:

The beauty of the earth inspires people to find inner strength and persevere for as long as they live.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain — a French illustrated celebration of a more possible world for the children of tomorrow.

As the father searches for other worlds, he is savaged by despair at humanity’s catastrophic mismanagement of this one, haunted by the growing sense that we couldn’t possibly be good interplanetary emissaries until we have become good stewards of our own home planet. But each time he hits rock bottom, he bounces back up — as we all do, as we all must in order to go on living — with rekindled faith in what we are capable of. There are echos of Maya Angelou’s spaceborne poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” in his reflection on what we, despite our sacrificial destructions at the altar of the self, have achieved in our longing for those truths much larger and longer lasting than us:

A lineage of slow, weak, naked, awkward creatures… had lasted through several near-extinctions and held on long enough to discover that gravity bent light, everywhere in the universe. For no good reason and at insane expense, we’d built an instrument able to see the tiniest bend in starlight made by this small body, from scores of light-years away… We were… making it up as we went along, then proving it for all the universe to see.

Although the novel is set in the future, I would not call it science fiction, or fantasy, or even speculative fiction — it is merely an inspired, lucid glide along the clear vector of knowledge stretching between our past and our future. We believe we are at the end of all truths, or that there is no limit to what is possible. This has been repeated over and over again. We have proven wrong again and again. Powers’s astrobiologist names an existential possibility that, by all mathematical probability, will become reality in our lifetimes:

The data was sent back by instruments that flew all across the Solar System. There was much more to the planets than we thought. Saturn’s moons, Jupiter and Saturn were found to contain liquid oceans underneath their smooth crusts. All Earthly chauvinisms fell. We’d been reasoning from a sample of one. You might not even need water. You might not even need it. Perhaps it doesn’t even require a surface.


It was one of the most significant revolutions in human thought. A few years before, most astronomers thought they’d never live to see the discovery of even a single planet outside the solar system. After I had finished my graduate studies, eighteen or nine of the planets that were known existed turned into hundreds. They were at first mostly gas giants. They became gas giants. Kepler was launched, and Earth was flooded with worlds, some not much larger than ours… People were looking at infinitesimal changes in the light of immensely distant stars — reductions in brightness of a few parts per million — and calculating the invisible bodies that dimmed them in transiting. Minuscule wobbles in the motion of massive suns — changes of less than one meter per second in the velocity of a star — were betraying the size and mass of invisible planets tugging on them. It was impossible to believe the accuracy of these measurements. It was almost like using a ruler for measuring distances that were a hundred times shorter than what the ruler could expand due to heat.

WeThat was their intention. We Earthlings.

Yet, we did it! This — this burning house, this sullied pale blue.

Pessimism or Optimism by Giacomo Balla, 1923. This print is also available as stationery cards and a printed copy. All proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

Echoing the largehearted Lewis Thomas and his forgiving assurance that we are “still new to the earth… a juvenile species, a child of a species… only tentatively set in place, error-prone, at risk of fumbling,” the astrobiologist looks at his son — a child filled with anger at his civilizational inheritance, filled with passion for righting it, uncertain where to begin or how much difference it would make — and reflects:

Nine is the age for great turning. Humanity was perhaps a nine year old, yet not grown up. While it appears that you have everything under control, your emotions are constantly on the brink of chaos.


The two share much, including their love of astronomy as well as childhood. Both share the desire to travel across vast distances. Both seek out truths beyond their control. Each of them thinks big and allows possibilities to multiply unabated. They both are humbled about once every two weeks. Both are ignorant. Both of them are confused by the passage of time. Both of them are always starting from scratch.

Anne Bannock, Seeking an Aurora by Elizabeth Pulford. Art

Over and over, Powers reckons with the question of why, given how life began in the first place — “One day two billion years ago, instead of one microbe eating the other, one took the other inside its membrane and they went into business together.” — we, supposed pinnacles of life, most privileged beneficiaries of this immense progression of symbiosis, have managed to turn on the rest of life so ungratefully, to grow so childish in mistaking Mother’s body for a resource and our responsibilities for rights. In one of his protagonist’s moments of shamed optimism, Powers produces the great indictment of our species:

That’s the ruling story on this planet. It’s a life that is suspended between love, ego and reality.

Answering audience questions at his Literary ArtsPowers talks about what it takes to get from the side of love into the abyss.

The wild to me is a condition of interbeing and presence that recognizes the importance of place and all that is there. To be “bewildered” is to land back on Earth… to understand that there is no way of talking about us or our stories — where we’d been or where we’re going — without being a part of that interdependent wild community, of putting ourselves into the neighborhood — not as something above it, but just as one of the many, many agents that make place.

Telescope for TimeMaria Popova. This print is also available as stationery cards. Proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

Novels, if they are any good, are not things one can write about — only things one can read, or write. The book is called Bewilderment. It is an excellent novel — one of those rare epochal works, of art and of truth, that both slake the soul of their time and outlive it.

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