Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist whose job is to search for life on other worlds. He is also a bereft widower and the father of Robin, a troubled nine-year-old boy. Robin is kind and super-intelligent, very concerned about animals, but he is also hyper-anxious and prone to horrible fits of rage. He has received conflicting diagnoses, and Theo doesn’t want to subject his growing brain to psychotropic drugs.
After a few incidents at school, Theo is aware that he soon may be butting heads with social services. So, when Stryker, a scientist at the university where Theo works, offers Robin a place in his experimental but noninvasive treatment studies, Theo accepts. The treatments seem to work magically well, but at the same time Theo fears that Robin is becoming a different person.
Theo and his environmental activist wife have brought Robin up to appreciate the abundance and beauty of natural life, so some of the most beautiful moments in this novel come during their camp-outs. Theo also entertains Robin with bedtime stories about the kinds of life that may be on other planets.
Powers has created an absolutely convincing story about the inner life of a fragile boy and his father, who is trying very hard but who himself is unusual and slightly off-kilter. He has set it in a slightly dystopian time with a Trump-like president and a background of social and environmental disintegration. The references in the beginning to the novel Flowers for Algernon set the tone for where the novel is going and despite a few smiles, there is no doubt that it is going there. Here is another troubling novel from Powers, very sad and powerful.