The novel’s central question is the same one posed in “The Overstory” by Douggie Pavlicek, a Vietnam War vet turned eco-warrior: “What the [Expletive] Went Wrong With Mankind?”
The dialogue distantly reminded me of that in my own favorite novel from third grade, Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”
Robbie speaks in italics throughout, as if he were an oracle or, like the baby in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” imaginary. “Don’t worry, Dad. We might not figure it out. But Earth will,” he says. And: “Spring will keep coming back, whatever happens. Right, Dad?” And: “New planet, Dad. Please.” And: “There’s something wrong with us, Dad.”
Robin adds, M. Night Shyamalanishly: “Your wife loves you. You know that, right?”
Theo says to him, “People, Robbie. They’re a questionable species.” He thinks: “There was a planet that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness.” And: “Oh, this planet was a good one.”
To be fair to Powers, he retains an ability to alchemize the strangeness of everyday global life — on paying a cabdriver, for example: “I fed my card into the cab’s reader and credits poured out from a server farm nestled in the melting tundra of northern Sweden into the cabbie’s virtual hands.” But these moments are rare here.
There are some books you want to give to your best friend; this is one to give to your distant aunt, for her reading group. It’s a James Taylor song when you require a buzz-saw guitar. There’s no impudence, no wit, no fire and little fluttering understanding, despite the ostentatious science, of how human minds really work.
It’s a book about ecological salvation that somehow makes you want to flick an otter on the back of the head, for no good reason at all.