The book is written without chapter headings, chapter numbers or section heading. The bolded headings here are added to help with navigating this summary (followed by the first few words of that section in quotes), but do not appear in the book.
Smoky Mountains Trip
Return from the Trip and the Metal Thermos
Beginning the Endangered Animals Project
The Currier Lab and Decoded Neurofeedback
Inga Alder, the Farmers’ Market and Protesting at the Capitol
Depression and Aly’s Brain Print
A New Robin, Homeschooling and Training Videos
Ova Nova and the COG Talk
Trip to Washington D.C.
HHS Investigation and DHS Involvement
Back to the Smokies
Smoky Mountains Trip
“But we might never find them?…”
The narrator, Theo Byrne, and his 9-year-old son, Robin (“Robbie”), are out stargazing in the woods with a telescope, looking out at the Andromeda galaxy. Robbie wonders why we’re the only ones that we know of in the universe (the Fermi Paradox).
Theo has taken Robin out of school for the week, and they’re staying in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains. Robin asks to sleep outside, so they make that night camp outside under the stars. The narrator thinks about his late wife, Alyssa (“Aly”), who passed away when Robin was 7. Robin’s dog Chester died a few months after that.
Robin has been diagnosed in various ways by various doctors — autism, OCD, ADHD, various syndromes, etc. — though Theo doesn’t agree with any of them. Instead, he thinks that “life is something we need to stop correcting” and that Robin is “a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom”. Theo also narrates that the combination of deaths Robin experienced is likely the “reason for disturbed behavior” on his part.
Robin is describes as having exhibited “disturbed behavior”, but while doctors have given him all sorts of diagnoses, Theo seems to have accepted it as some combination of Robin being unique and dealing with two difficult deaths.
Next, Theo and Robin drive to Hillbilly Vegas (“three towns jammed together with two hundred places to order pancakes”), where they play a game identifying wildlife on the way. When they get to Gatlinburg, they do touristy things like Ripley’s Odditorium, the aquarium, the sky platform, etc. When Robin falls asleep that night, Theo says the prayer Alyssa used to recite “so I could reassure him if he woke up horrified at forgetting”. Robin wakes in the middle of the night and peppers him with questions about astronomy.
The following day is Robin’s birthday. Theo brings out the digital microscope that Robin had been asking for. Then, when Theo brings out a cake, Robin rejects it because it’s not vegan, and Alyssa had been vegan. Theo tells him that Alyssa made exceptions sometimes, and Robin reluctantly eats a little.
Robin then asks him recite the story about how he got his name, which he’s heard many times before. Theo talks about how he and Alyssa went birding and he got excited about seeing something that turned out to just be a robin. Alyssa then claimed that the robin was her favorite bird, though it turned out that her actual favorite was any bird she happened to be looking at. Still, the robin ended up being a special bird for the two of them. Robin, however, says that kids at school make fun of his name.
That night, Theo makes up a new the planet Dvau, which Theo explains is uninhabitable since it has no moon to stabilize it.
Throughout the book, Theo dreams up new planets and “takes” Robin there by describing the many intricacies, ecosystems and oceans and of these imaginary planets.
The next day, they go hiking in the woods. When Robin almost steps on a yellow millipede, it releases a tiny amount of almond-scented cyanide, which reminds Robin of his mother’s baking. Theo does not tell him that it’s cyanide. At night, they set up camp in a clearing near a stream. As they walk into the stream, Theo looks sad, and Robin guesses (correctly) that he was once here with Alyssa on their honeymoon. When it gets dark, Robin reminisces about Alyssa reading poetry to Chester. Tonight, Robin brings up getting another dog again, but Theo is still against the idea.
Theo is “traumatized” by the idea of getting a dog to replace Chester. It’s clear that Theo has not fully processed that death, which is likely why he’s against the idea. Also, because of the proximity of the deaths of Alyssa and Chester, it may be that he associates replacing Chester with replacing Alyssa as well.
When they go to sleep, they recite Alyssa’s prayer: “There are four good things worth practicing. Being kind toward everything alive. Staying level and steady. Feeling happy for any creature anywhere that is happy. And remembering that any suffering is also yours.” While the prayer is conceptually derived from Buddhism (the Four Immeasurables), Alyssa “was her own religion”, according to Theo.
Robin then asks about Theo’s work. Theo works at university, and he writes programs to predict the gases in the atmospheres of planets. When Theo falls asleep, Robin wakes him with his solution for the Fermi paradox (an explanation for why, given the vastness of space and the universe, “there seemed to be no one out there”). Robin theorizes that perhaps they are out there but they are lithotrophs that exist in rocks (so we don’t see them), and they transmit messages too quickly or too slowly for us to interpret.
Lying awake, Theo worries about Robin being in a school he hates with students that don’t understand him and how “otherworldly” he acts. Theo also wonders what parenting mistakes he might be making now that he won’t realize until many years later. He thinks about how Robin only told him about the nightmares he got from reading The Velveteen Rabbit two years after-the-fact.
Theo then thinks about another potential solution to the Fermi paradox. It’s possible other creatures developed, met each other and became so advanced that they mastered time and space. Perhaps our universe merely exists as a “sealed-off” zoo-like terrarium for their entertainment. However, he doesn’t dare to tell Robin about this theory for fear of causing nightmares. He knows Robin already dislikes the idea of zoos (keeping animals cooped up), and he thinks about how Robin had spent two days worrying about the Fermi paradox once the idea had gotten into his head. He wishes Alyssa were here to tell him what to do about Robin.
That night it pours, and they get drenched since they had neglected to put the fly (covering) on the tent. The next day, the pack up camp and start driving back to the cabin.
There’s traffic due to people slowing down to see a mother bear and her three cubs near the road. When Robin sees them, he’s upset, thinking they wouldn’t like to be stared at like a “star in a freak show”. He also thinks that people are “jerk-faces” and that “we stole everything from them”. Robin starts to get agitated, but Theo talks him down. He says that humans are lonely and desperate to see something “smart and wild”.
Robin feels like his own “freak show” at school, so he anthropomorphizes (giving human traits to non-human things) the bears, imagining that they would feel similarly to the way he would feel in the same situation. Tobin also seems to have a general disdain for humans (likely based upon his negative interactions with most people), but also compassion as well for all things.
To talk him down, Theo tries to help explain things in terms of emotions that he knows Robin will empathize with like loneliness and curiosity.
Back at the cabin, Theo dreams up the planet Falasha, and he explains what the atmosphere and oceans of the planet would be like. Early the next morning, they head back to the city. As they catch up on the multitude of bad news they missed while on vacation, Robin insists on listening to it saying that “it’s good citizenship”.
On the drive back, they pass by the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, and Theo thinks about the counties they were passing through “that had little use for science of any kind”. He starts playing an audiobook of Flowers for Algernon which was one of the first science fiction books he’d owned. Robin is fascinated by the story, but he’s upset by the death of the mouse.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with a low IQ, who undergoes an experimental procedure to increase his intelligence. Th experiment was previously performed on lab mice with great success, particularly in the case of a mouse named Algernon. The experiment works with Charlie as well, though his heightened intelligence makes him re-evaluate his relationships, realizing people he thought were his friends just liked making fun of him.
Soon, however, Algernon starts to decline and dies. Charlie realizes the procedure was flawed, and his own intelligence declines (though the book doesn’t specify whether Charlie dies soon after or not).
In addition to being science fiction which Robin is interested in, the story touches upon a lot of things that Robin is dealing with, such as death, grieving, being bullied, being different, etc.
Moreover, Algernon’s story comes back into play later in the book.
Theo goes straight to the office when they get back. Carl Stryker, Theo’s colleague and the co-author of a paper he’s working on, gives him a hard time for being behind on his part of the paper. Stryker knows that Theo’s responsibilities as parent are what are holding him up, and Stryker has little patience for it, since he’s worried others will publish similar research first which could jeopardize their funding.
(In this part Theo recounts some background on his childhood and life before this point.)
“My life went through its own little Hadean Eon…”
Theo recalls how he was raised by a mother with Dissociative Identity Disorder, resulting in at 6 different personalities residing within her, half of which were potentially dangerous. His father was addicted to painkillers. When Theo was 13, he was convicted for embezzling and spent 8 months in prison. As a result, they lost the house, and his father only ever made minimum wage after he was out.
By twelfth grade, Theo was struggling with alcohol addiction, though he manages to graduate and go to public university. He becomes fascinated with the work on biochemistry that one of his professors, a Dr. Katja McMillian is doing involving life forms in places where “science knew it could not live” such as in places too hot, below freezing, too salty or radioactive, etc.
Dr. McMillian hires Theo to work on a summer field expedition, and her recommendation lands him a gig as a graduate assistant at U. Dub in microbiology. Meanwhile, knowledge of space was increasing a lot as he was in grad school. He starts to get interested in space and in understanding their ecosystems.
Towards the end of his Ph.D., he meets Alyssa at the computer lab on campus. She’s a law student interested in animal cruelty, and she likes hiking. They both get jobs in Madison, Wisconsin (referred to as “Madtown, Cheeseland”) after graduating from their respective programs. They get a house. Alyssa works for an animal rights NGO. Theo meets and begins collaborating with Stryker. They have Robin due to contraceptive failure.
Return from the Trip and the Metal Thermos
“The first night home was hard on Robin…”
At home, Robin is full of energy, and he asks to watch old video footage of Alyssa. Theo thinks Robin has been making that request in recent weeks more frequently than is healthy, but he allows it. They watch a video of her lobbying against something called “possum tosses”. Afterwards, Theo sends Robin to bed.
Theo wrestles a lot with how best to raise his son and tries to do calculations in his head of trade-offs between various decisions. He wonders if it’s worse to feed into having Robin watch videos of Alyssa all the time or if it’s worse to forbid it. He wonders if he would let him see certain footage of her that he’s curious about or if the content (describing animal rights violations or animal cruelty) will upset him. He struggles between educating Robin about the world and wanting to protect him from it.
In bed, Robin has questions about Alyssa’s speech in the video when she said that “our ancestors watching us” and that “history going to judge us”. He also asks about God and what happened to Alyssa after she died. Theo tells Robin that he doesn’t know. He says that “she went back into the system. She became other creatures. All the good things in her came into us. Now we keep her alive, with whatever we can remember.”
Robin then hypothesizes that his mother’s energy changed form (since Einstein proved that nothing can be created or destroyed) and that now she’s a salamander, since they are small and mighty like her. Robin then gets upset, thinking about what Alyssa had said about wild animals only representing 2% of life on earth (with the rest being humans and animals for industrial farming).
Robin asks to hear about a new planet instead, and Theo describes the (imaginary) planet Pelagos. He fills it with diverse life forms, scattered around various islands and speaking a multitude of languages. He is still describing it when Robin falls asleep. However, Robin jerks awake when he realizes they haven’t said Alyssa’s prayer. They do it, but Theo worries that “the boy who took the next two hours getting safe enough to fall back asleep was no longer sure if that prayer was doing much of anything”.
Theo thinks about how astronomy and childhood are similar since they both involve “voyages across huge distances” and searching “for facts beyond their grasp”. He thinks about the long-awaited day when they would finally find an Earth-like planet or even a planet that can sustain life even if it’s not in the same way it operates on Earth.
The next morning, Robin is late for school, and Theo hurries to class to teach an undergraduate astrobiology class. Unlike many of his colleagues, Theo enjoys teaching. However, his lecture on the origins of life is interrupted by a call from Robin’s school. Robin has injured Jayden Astley — a classmate and Robin’s only real friend — by flinging a metal thermos at his face, cracking Jayden’s cheekbone in the process.
The principal, Dr. Jill Lipman, criticizes Theo for taking Robin out of school the previous week. She says that Robin needs “accountability” and “stability”. Dr. Lipman then brings up that Theo is ignoring the recommendations of doctors to put Robin on psychoactive drugs. She says they have until December to see some type of improvement or else she will “get the state involved”.
When Theo talks to Robin, Robin admits that it was his fault. He says that he “tried to let my good parts breathe, like you said to. But my hands got confused”.
Theo has clearly tried to teach Robin how to manage his anger and frustration, and Robin clearly wants to comply. However, Robin struggles with it nevertheless.
Robin refuses to say what Jayden did or said to set him off. Jayden’s parents are also more sympathetic about the situation that Theo expected, but they also decline to say what they know about the incident. That night, Robin demands to know more about what happened to Alyssa, and as he gets agitated, he tells Theo that Jayden heard from his parents that perhaps Alyssa was trying to hurt herself.
Theo insists it’s not true. There were witnesses who said that Alyssa was driving when it was icy outside, and an animal ran out in front of her. She reflexively swerved to miss it, causing her to cross the center line and get hit by an oncoming car. When Robin asks what animal it was, Theo reluctantly tells him that it was an opossum. Robin is then upset because Theo had originally told him that they didn’t know what animal it was. He said that Theo lied to him before when he said nobody knew.
Nevertheless, before Theo leaves, Robin makes a twisting hand motion and says that “it means the world is turning and I’m good with everything”. However, as he walks out, Theo thinks about his much bigger lie by omission — that the other passenger in the car that night was Robin’s unborn little sister.
Jayden’s parents are surprisingly forgiving since they know where Jayden got these ideas from (from them) about Alyssa’s death and they know that hearing that she might’ve wanted to hurt herself would be understandably upsetting for Robin.
We see more of Theo struggling with how to help Robin process his mother’s death here. Theo didn’t want to say what animal it was since he knows it would become “the most despised large animal on Earth” for Robin if he told him. He decides to tell him the truth to remove some of the “mystery” surrounding her death in hopes of helping to remove doubts about it for Robin, but then Robin is unhappy that Theo originally lied to him about his mother’s death.
As he walks out, Theo thinks about how he has neglected to tell Robin about his little (unborn) sister’s death as a result of the accident. Theo has been struggling with parenting decisions especially about what to tell Robin and what to shield him from. It’s clear in this case (when he decides to let Robin “fall asleep in the comfort of” that lie) that he feels Robin is better off not knowing.
Still, given how Robin already felt lied to by not knowing about the opossum, it’s clear that if he ever does find out, he will certainly feel deeply betrayed.
Beginning the Endangered Animals Project
“He woke up on Sunday in high excitement…”
On Sunday, Robin wakes Theo up at 6 AM in the morning. He wants to make paintings of endangered animals to sell at the farmers’ market to raise money and donate to one of the organizations Alyssa supported. Theo wants to encourage him, so he takes him to the library to check out books with pictures, and then they go to the art store for supplies. As they exit the art store, Robin uncharacteristically hugs the clerk who helped them. When they get home, he starts painting right away. Despite destroying some stuff he’s working on in anger when he’s displeased with the result, he is in very high spirits when he finishes his first painting, which is of a dusky gopher frog.
The next morning, Robin wants to skip school to continue to painting project, but Theo rejects the idea, knowing he’s already in trouble with the school. Robin insists, saying that Alyssa says everything is dying so there’s no time to waste. He keeps arguing, saying that animals go extinct because everyone thinks that they’ll “solve it later”. Finally, Theo relents, saying he can stay home for today.
Theo ends up working from home that day while Robin paints. He produces five new paintings. That night they make Aly’s signature dish, eggplant casserole.
The next morning, Theo insists that Robin go to school, and Robin has a meltdown, screaming and knocking over furniture. He swings his mother’s old ukulele at a window and breaks both objects. He gets violent until Theo twists his arm (“way too hard”) and Robin stops, sobbing on the floor. Theo feels terrible, thinking about how Aly had only ever made him swear one thing: “never hit that child”.
That night, Theo dreams up the planet Geminus. It is split into two kingdoms. Theo and Robin travel there together, but arrive alone and are unable to find each other. When they finally see each other, Theo is still unable to reach him.
Theo’s planets are inspired by his and Robin’s fears, frustrations and thoughts. He feels a rift between himself and his son, so on this planet he imagines that they are unable to reach one another.
The Currier Lab and Decoded Neurofeedback
“Lots of people loved my wife…”
Theo thinks back to how Aly had always been good with people and getting them to like her was part of her job as a lobbyist. One day, Aly announced that her friend Martin (“Marty”) Currier, an acclaimed neuroscientist (who Aly goes birding with and who Theo had teased her about, saying that Martin was interested in her), wanted them to participate in an experiment.
Currier’s research at The Currier Lab dealt with “decoded neurofeedback“. They tracked the brain’s response to various emotional states. The goal was to teach subjects to activate those same brain regions (and trigger those same emotions) on demand. They agreed to participate. After answering some questions, he’s taken to a room with a brain scanner where he’s played music and shown various images. Then, the second part of the experiment begins, where he’s told to try to “inhabit” certain emotions.
He’s told to try to feel “Admiration”. He finds himself thinking about Aly. He recalls a time when Aly’s NGO received a call about hundreds of dogs from a shut down puppy mill that needed to be taken to shelters. Despite having a cold and despite it not really being within their scope of operations, she spent the next two days delivering the dogs to various shelters in Wisconsin. She then, went home and comforted Robin who had an ear infection and then wrote and delivered a speech the next day. The next emotion he’s told to feel is “Grief” and he imagines all sorts of horrors.
Afterwards, Aly did the same experiment. She’s was told to imagine “Vigilance” and “Ecstasy”. She comes out beaming in ecstasy, and afterwards they go home and are intimate with each other.
In present day, Theo approaches Martin and asks for help with Robin. He tells him about how the school wants him to medicate Robin, but he’s hoping for an idea on an alternate treatment. Martin suggests enrolling Robin in one of their trials, using decoded neurofeedback (“DecNef“) in behavioral intervention. Martin says that the point is to train him to control his own feelings. Their AI will give him feedback on how his brain is responding so will know how close or far he is to what he wants to be feeling.
When Theo tells Robin about the idea, Robin thinks it sounds like a game and agrees to do it. Theo then informs the school about their alternative treatment plan for Robin.
On Thanksgiving, they go to Aly’s parents place in Chicago. Aly’s extended family is gathered there and they argue about politics, since the current president has just issued a controversial decree. When Robin’s grandmother says a prayer, Robin interjects, commenting on the absence of God. His grandmother demands an apology. Then, when his grandfather tries to get him to eat turkey, Robin blows up, screaming about his refusal to eat animals. Finally, Robin asks to go home.
Through the events on Thanksgiving, we can see how Robin’s temperament and beliefs can be difficult to navigate for people who aren’t accustomed to it or who are unwilling to accommodate him. Theo narrates that they “finished the holiday alone together” — noting how they are together, but there’s an element of loneliness and alienation that comes from catering to Robin.
The following Monday, Robin begins his treatment. A tech named Ginny helps to set things up, and they start by having Robin look at a dot and try to move it based on whether he’s emotionally in the right place. Dr. Currier describes it as “practicing mindfulness”, similar to what you do when you meditate. When Robin gets frustrated, it jerks to the wrong direction, but they can see as he calms himself down. Theo know how determined Robin can be when he sets his mind to it. When he finally gets the dot to the right place, his excitement shows as the dot swings wildly around.
Next, Currier tells Robin to try enlarging the circle, which teaches him to control the intensity of his emotions, and after that, Robin is told to try changing the color. He remains enthusiastic about the process as he completes the day’s assignments.
For the next session, they ask to see Robin alone to prevent distractions. When Theo picks him up, Robin is in high spirits, and Dr. Currier seems pleased. Robin says that today’s session involved music and controlling the notes, and Dr. Currier explains that they are trying to induce connectivity in regions of his brain. As they head home, Robin comments that by trying to copy the brain patterns of others, it feels like they’re people who are “coming over to my house to hang out or something. Like we’re doing stuff together, in my head.”
As Robin learns to control his emotions, it seems like he feels less alone. Knowing he’s replicating others’ emotions, he feels like he has someone else’s emotions to feed off of or rely on as a guide.
By December, Robin’s evaluation are great, his “second-best ever”. His teacher, Kayla Bishop, notes that Robin is becoming more creative and exhibiting more self-control. When kids stick a tail on him (teasing him for loving animals) and laugh at him, Robin shrugs it off. Robin says he feels sorry for the other kids because they are “trapped inside themselves” alone, whereas Robin has his “guys” (the people whose emotions he’s trying to replicate) with him.
At Christmas, Robin is taken to see Aly’s family, and he uncharacteristically puts up with hugs from all of them. He even puts up with his cousin mocking his paintings of endangered animals. Theo is grateful for the first incident-free holiday since his mother passed. The next planet that Theo dreams up is the planet Stasis. It’s one where everything is in perfect and precise harmony.
At the lab, they tell Robin how great he’s doing. Ginny calls him “Brain Boy”. Currier agrees that he’s good at this, and agrees that perhaps his youth and the plasticity of his brain makes it easier for him to catch onto it. At home, Theo sees the positive changes in Robin as he laughs more and is more playful.
When Theo comes up with a planet where the various species are able to trade and share things like temperament and memory with each other, Robin recognizes where he got the idea from. Theo asks if he’s changing, and Robin says he’s exactly the same, it’s just that he “[has] help now”. He compares it to how playing a game with someone smart makes you a better player.
Still, Robin shows signs of his old habits of getting agitated occasionally. When Theo rejects Robin’s idea to try to sell him painting to other students, Robin gets momentarily upset. Robin brings them to school anyway, and Theo is anxious of how Robin’s day will go.
When he picks him up, Robin is clearly agitated. He says the other kids teased him and only offered him a few cents for the paintings. When he accepted, his teacher made them give back the paintings (and Robin returned the money), and Robin got a demerit for trying to sell stuff at school which is against the rules. As Theo drives them home, he is frustrated and thinks about how he is “done with humans”.
Theo realizes that Robin’s behavior is a bit odd which is why he discourages Robin from trying to sell the paintings at school, but even still he is disappointed and frustrated by everyone’s reaction nonetheless.
Inga Alder, the Farmers’ Market and Protesting at the Capitol
“In early March, the president invoked…”
In March, there’s political turmoil as the president tries to arrest a journalist for publishing accounts from a White House leaker. The two parties split along party lines in either condemning or criticizing the president. As violent clashes break out, things seem crazy at first but the incident proves “how good the human brain was at getting used to anything”.
On the news, a young, famous 14-year-old environmentalist named Inga Alder has launched a campaign encouraging other kids to join her in biking from Zurich to Brussels as a protest over the E.U. failing to meet emissions reduction goals that they’d promised. As she responds derisively to questions about why she isn’t in school or whether she should “study economics before telling world leaders what to do”, Robin seems hypnotized by her, seeing her as a kindred spirit. Theo thinks about how Inga is known to be autistic and how she was deeply depressed until she found meaning in advocating for the planet. Theo realizes it is “the moment my son first fell in love”.
It seems pretty obvious, but just in case it needs to be said, clearly Inga Alder is inspired by the real-life Greta Thunberg.
Robin soon begs to see more footage of Inga Alder and her various protests. Theo watches documentaries with Robin, and they follow her online.
In April, they go to the farmers’ market to sell Robin’s paintings. Theo is surprised at what a good salesperson Robin is, somehow managing to seem very normal for the sake of selling his work. In six hours, he collects $1,000. They go directly to the bank and send off the check to the conservation organization.
Two weeks later, they get a letter from that organization thanking him and encouraging him to donate again, since donors will match the funds right now. It also mentions that 70 cents of each dollar goes towards their goals. When Robin learns that big donors have money but refuse to donate unless others do and that only 70 cents goes to the animals, he flips out. However, instead of Robin throwing things around, Theo finds him in his room making plans in his notebook. Theo marvels at the “remarkable metamorphosis”. Robin soon emerges, asking if they can apply for a protest permit. He asks to go to the Capitol.
Robin works on a poster of animals reading “help me. i’m dying.” Meanwhile, Theo makes a deal with Robin’s school that he can miss class if he keeps up with his homework and does an oral report about his trip to the Capitol the next day. Robin dresses up in a blazer.
When they show up, the guards direct Robin to a place to stand. Robin is surprised how calm things are there, and he wonders why no one else is protesting anything. When Theo stands with him, Robin shoos him off, knowing that a young boy all alone with a sign that says “help me. i’m dying.” will be more effective than him standing with his father.
Theo thinks about all the times he’d met Alyssa at the Capitol due to her lobbying work. She once warned him that she sometimes she woke up in the middle of the night with nightmares. Eventually she tells him that she dreams about other lifeforms being able to talk and telling her about the horrors they endured. He remembers, too, that the last time he ever saw her, she’d been on her way out to the Capitol to advocate for a bill for nonhuman rights.
In present day, people start to take notice of Robin. One woman tries to give him money, but he declines, knowing that the rules permit fundraising at the Capitol. Robin passes out flyers, and he takes a few minutes to eat the lunch that Theo prepared for them.
At one point, a man approaches Robin, grilling him with questions. When Theo intervenes, the man identifies himself as the chief of staff of the assembly minority leader. He tells them that Robin should be connecting to other groups, organizing with other kids, writing letters or doing something else on “specific and useful projects”. He implies that it’s cruel to have Robin waste his time pointlessly holding a sign up by himself. After that, Theo tells Robin they’re leaving, and Robin struggles with his emotions and seems defeated and frustrated.
When Theo comes up with the planet Isola, it’s one where they have trouble locating it. Robin suggests that there are creatures there, but they are learned to hide from us, since that’s the smart thing to do.
Robin’s suggestion that a smart creature would evolve to cloak itself from humans reflects the jaded and angry viewpoint that perhaps humans are the enemy or the problem. After trying to do something good and being knocked down and chastised for it, he is feeling disillusioned by humanity.
Depression and Aly’s Brain Print
“‘But we’ve seen real progress’…”
A short while later, Robin is depressed and difficult to get out of bed. By now, it’s summer vacation at the school. On campus, there’s a crisis because the President has revoked the student visas of Asian students. Theo meets with Martin to discuss Robin’s situation, and Martin suggests antidepressants, which Theo is reluctant to try. Martin also suggests that perhaps given the state of the world, Robin feeling depressed is not that unexpected. He suggests that perhaps “constant, cheerful optimism may not be the healthiest reaction” to things, and instead perhaps an “appropriate response” to bad situations should be benchmark for good mental health.
Martin’s suggestion about mental health posits that perhaps being depressed when thing are bad is normal and healthy. Instead, it’s entirely possible that it’s worse for you to continue to try to be cheerful when things are bad or perhaps a sign of something wrong with you if you genuinely feel cheerful seeing bad things happening.
Theo mentions that Robin has been asking how “Aly fought a losing battle for years without getting beaten by it”. Martin then says that he still has one of Aly’s old brain scans. He suggests training Robin with it to have him put himself into her emotional state and perhaps answer his question.
When Theo suggests the idea to Robin, Robin is immediately reenergized and resolute. After the first session, Robin is excited and happy. After the next session, it seemed like all traces of the funk he’d been in was gone.
In late June, after another session, Theo takes Robin out on their inflatable dinghy. Robin brings up the day that Theo and Aly recorded their brain scans, saying that he remembers it because they were behaving oddly that day. Robin then asks if Aly had a tattoo. Theo doesn’t know how he’d know about it, but answers affirmatively. Theo says it was a flower that turned out funny, so Aly went back to the tattooist to change it into a bee, but that turned out funny, too. Robin then wonders what Aly was thinking about the day she recorded her scan.
The next planet that Theo comes up with is Tedia, a planet that has died and then managed to come back to life. Unfortunately, it is too close to the galactic center which is full of comets and other galactic debris, so “extinction would never be far away”. Instead, it continues to die and revive itself repeatedly over time. Theo imagines that he and Robin go to visit. The creatures there know they are doomed, but they say that “There are two kinds of “endless.” Ours is the better one.”
Through the planet Tedia, Theo presents Robin with the idea of being at peace with the cycle of death and rebirth. He’s giving Robin another tool to help him deal with the death of his mother — the idea that destruction and death does not have to be a tragedy to be feared, but rather simply another part of the cycle of things.
A New Robin, Homeschooling and Training Videos
“Summer floods throughout the gulf…”
That summer, there’s more bad news around the world, ranging from contaminated drinking water to overheating to fires. There’s also an armed militia somewhere in the Plains states looking for “foreign invaders” and a wheat crop failure in China. In Dallas, a demonstration turns into a race riot, and the President continues to stoke fears about illegal immigration.
Meanwhile, Robin has done five sessions now with Aly’s brain scan. Theo notices that he is notably less anxious and more able to stay calm and concentrate on things. Theo remains curious about what exactly is going on in his mind as a result of these training sessions. One night, he sneaks a peek at Robin’s notebooks. However, there are no mentions of Aly, only doodles, observations and questions about animals and the like. Theo feels ashamed for having invaded his privacy. He also feels like “the pages had been dictated from the grave” since they remind him of Aly.
Robin suggests they take a walk around the neighborhood, and he becomes delighted when he sees a Scarlet Oak tree, pointing out to Theo the red hair on its leaves. Robin also identifies a downy woodpecker nearby based on its song, something Alyssa would have known. Theo is perplexed by how Robin knows all these things. Finally, Theo asks him about the training again, and Robin says it’s like being on “that planet we went to. The one where all the separate creatures share a single memory.”
While the old Robin was fearful and distrustful of people, the new Robin is endlessly fascinated by everything and eager to go out an explore, regardless of the people involved.
When Robin describes matching the brain scans as being similar to sharing memories with his mother, both the reader and Theo are presented with the question of whether Robin really is able to tap into his mother’s memories by training with her brain scan.
Theo and Robin see some kids vandalizing a stop sign, and Robin decides (uncharacteristically) to go up to them. He tells them there’s an owl nearby and offers to show them. They leave the stop sign alone to go look, and he points it out to them. When the boys scare the owl off by taking photos, Robin ends up merely signing and walking away.
In mid-August, after Theo dreams up the planet Chromat, Robin says he wants to be homeschooled. Theo initially resists the idea, but Robin insists they can just fill out a form and then he can learn by himself. Robin declares that he wants to be an ornithologist. When Robin is able to list off details about birds that he taught himself just that summer, Theo finally agrees.
Theo soon fills out the paperwork, builds a curriculum for Robin and officially withdraws him from school. He also has to sort out the logistics and dealing with all of it means that his own job suffers as a result. That semester, Theo isn’t able to publish any academic work. All the while, Robin is eager for more schoolwork to dive into as Theo tries to come up with assignments to keep up (which he and Robin refer to as “treasure hunts”). Theo also decorates his old tablet to look futuristic and calls it a “Planetary Exploration Transponder” to give to Robin to work with.
One day, Robin suggests to Theo that he tell Dr. Currier to do a brain scan of a dog. He says that by letting people train to think like a dog, they can empathize with animals more. Theo is dismissive of the idea. However, a few weeks later, an ecologist uses Theo’s models to show how rising temperatures will cause thousands of interconnected species to quickly die off at some point (“Not a gradual decline: a cliff”), he thinks that Robin was right and that perhaps mandatory neural feedback training would be necessary to get people to care about these future extinct animals.
At the last training session of the summer, it’s now been a year since they started and Robin is like a new person compared to one year ago. Ginny tells Theo how delighted they are when Robin comes in. Martin pulls Theo aside and tells him that they’re at risk of losing their funding and that Robin is their strongest proof of the treatment working. Martin says he wants to license their technology as an “adaptable mode of therapy for multiple psychological disorders”. They want to include a clip of Robin in their presentations to others. Martin assures him it would be anonymized and pixilated and voice-altered.
Theo says he needs a few days to consider the request. He then asks to do training on Aly’s scan as well to try to access her mind. However, Martin shoots down the request, saying they can’t justify the cost. Theo also brings up the idea of whether it would be possible for Robin to access Aly’s memories through the scans, and Martin says definitely not. When Theo then questions whether that emotional state was really Aly, Martin’s response (being unable to look Theo in the eye) reveals “the truth beneath a suspicion I’d nursed forever”.
Theo has mentioned how Aly was flirty and how he had to manage his jealousy. Martin especially was someone she spent time with and who clearly liked her. When Martin is vary familiar with Aly’s feeling of ecstasy and is unable to look Theo in the eye, Theo finally realizes that something must’ve actually happened between the two of them at some point, something he’d been willfully ignorant of before.
That night, Theo teleconferences with some colleagues. For the last 8 years, Theo has been assembling the Byrne Alien Field Guide to catalog spectroscopic signatures and what extraterrestrial life might make them. However, what he really needs is more data to move the project forward. As a result, for a long time, he and other researchers have been trying to advocate for the Earthlike Planet Seeker (the “Seeker”), a space-based telescope a hundred times more powerful than the Hubble telescope, to give them the data they need.
Part of the problem is that there’s also another space telescope project (that’s designed for use in cosmology as opposed to planet seeking), the NextGen Space Telescope, which years late and billions over budget. It has been pulling funds from other projects for a long time.
Now, the Seeker is at risk with Congress threatening to pull funding. His colleagues decide they need to plan a trip to Washington to secure it’s funding. Theo, however, feels like it’s futile and that he doesn’t have the time to devote to something like that right now. Instead, his mind is on Robin. Theo wonders if Robin is even his biological child.
Two days later, Theo finally asks Robin what he thinks about other people seeing his training videos, Robin talks about how much the training helped him and seems open to the idea if it leads to helping more people.
Theo tells Martin to proceed. By October, the Currier Lab is in the news, being featured in science magazines and even featured in the Times. Martin describes the technology as being faster and more effective than mainstream psychotherapy. His video of Robin shows the marked difference in the boy from the first session and in the last session.
One day, Theo gives Robin an assignment about the Mississippi River, imagining the journey that a drop of water takes from Minnesota all the way to the Gulf. As Robin does his research, he learns about the terrible pollutants that we put into the water and its effect on the fish, water quality and animals. He doesn’t understand why we don’t fix it. When Theo doesn’t have a good answer, Robin tell him not to worry and reassures him that Earth will figure it out.
Unlike the old Robin who would get agitated and be unable to handle things, the new Robin is optimistic. The tables are turned as Robin reassures his father instead of the other way around.
The next planet Theo comes up with is Mios. He imagines an flourishing planet that builds a ship that’s capable of continuously replicating and looking for more planets, until there millions of the ships around exploring. He describes how they one day come across Earth and it turns out that these ships are teensy tiny and that flowers are huge to them.
Ova Nova and the COG Talk
“I brought him to campus with me…”
Theo brings Robin with him to campus when he teaches, and the grad students are happy to tutor Robin. One day, a woman named Dee Ramey shows up, who is a producer for Ova Nova, a popular online video channel. She says that she saw Robin in the training clip and managed to track him down.
While Robin thinks the idea of being on one of their videos is fun, Theo is concerned about Robin being turned into a “public spectacle”. Dee Ramey lets Theo know that they’ll be doing a video on this either way and that it’s up to them whether they have a say in it or not by participating. Theo unhappily decides having a say is better than doing nothing.
At this point, Theo feels that he’s made a “parenting error” by allowing Robin to end up in this situation. He knows that setting Robin up for public scrutiny is a bad idea, and now gears are in motion and it’s too late to prevent it.
In the video, they call Robin “Jay”, and clips of him doing his training are interspersed with snippets from an interview Robin did with them. It shows the difference between the angry and distrustful boy from the beginning and the happy, calm on later on. When the interviewer asks him if it made him feel like his mother was inside him, Robin tells her that “Everybody’s inside everyone”.
In the interview with Dee, “Jay” starts talking about the environment and how we’re “breaking the whole planet”. He also talks about how his dad is an astrobiologist who’s searching for other life forms in space. When two other kids show up at the beach, he cheerfully greets them and starts telling them about the animals.
After the video goes up, Currier calls to tell Theo how popular it’s becoming, and Theo tells him that “I truly hate you”. The video gets increasingly popular as various influencers online share the video. Currier says that journalists have been calling about it, but Theo decides to stop talking to anyone else. He hopes that things will blow over soon.
Soon, COG, a popular academic lecture series, comes to Madison. The most popular regional COG talks can make their way to the overall COG website. Theo had previously done a COG talk, but it didn’t make it up there. Organizers for COG Madison reach out to Theo, hoping for Robin to show up for a COG talk that Martin is doing on Decoded Neurofeedback. Theo is furious with Currier that Robin’s identity has clearly gotten out, but Currier is unapologetic.
Theo decides to ask Robin what he wants to do, and Robin says yes. Theo demands “veto rights” from the COG people for the finished video if he’s not happy with the final product. They accede to his request when he says it’s the only way Robin is going onstage.
At the talk, Martin goes over what Decoded Neurofeedback is, explains the software and plays the clip. He talks about how they used Robin’s mother’s brain scan to train him on it and how they used it to “nurse his spirit into health”. Finally, he introduces Robin, and everyone claps wildly. When Martin asks Robin what has changed, he responds that he doesn’t feel scared anymore.
The next planet that Theo dreams up is Nithar, where there is great culture but primitive industry. Robin wants to explore, but their sky is rock hard. Instead, Robin digs downward endlessly until he finally hits air.
Trip to Washington D.C.
“Robin was beside himself…”
Soon, Theo heads to Washington D.C. to provide testimony for the Independent Review Panel regarding the Seeker. Scientist from three different continents will be making their case that the telescope is worth the expense. Robin is excited for the trip and prepares something in his room for it.
Theo takes the opportunity to provide Robin a civics lesson as well as they arrive in the nation’s Capital, and they go to visit the Museum of Natural History. Robin finally shows Theo what he’s been working on, and it’s a lengthy banner that reads “LET’S HEAL WHAT WE HURT” filled with drawings of hurt animals. On the flip side, it says “MAY ALL BEINGS BE FREE FROM SUFFERING” and it shows animals at peace. Robin says he wants to upload photos of him holding the banner so that when people search for clips of him online, then they’ll find this instead.
The next day, over breakfast, they get interrupted by a woman who recognizes Robin. Theo is curt with her, wanting her to leave them alone. At the meeting for the review panel, Robin and Theo watch as others provide their testimony.
By lunchtime, things are going poorly. The current political situation is such that the reigning political party is against funding scientific research, and the congressmen’s questions reflect that sentiment.
When Theo goes to provide his testimony, he shows them a blurry photo which represent the best view of other planets that they currently have. Then, he shows them an clear image representing an approximation of what the Seeker could show them. Then, he answers questions. A skeptical congressman questioning him refers to earth as “the most interesting planet anywhere” filled with “the most interesting beings in the entire universe” and Theo understands that the real problem is that people are uninterested in the world outside of themselves.
Afterwards, Theo feels dejected, knowing the meeting did not go well. Robin finds a spot for them to set up his banner near the Capitol building, and Theo asks someone to take a photo. As astronomers exit the meeting, they stop to talk to Theo and Robin, and other people stop to look at the banner. Soon, there’s a crowd gathered as others recognize Robin from his video.
However, it eventually gets the attention of officers who note that they don’t have a permit to protest there. Theo argues that they’re not protesting, merely taking pictures with a banner his son made. As the crowd disperses at the officers’ behest, Robin and Theo gather the banner to leave. When one of the officers grabs at the banner to get Robin to hurry things up, Robin snatches it back, causing the officer to grab his wrist. Theo then reacts, and it results in him getting arrested. Afterwards, Robin is delighted that Theo stood up to them.
On the way back home, they get stuck in Chicago when their flight home is delayed due to bad weather. A few days after they get home, Robin wants to go birding. At the nature preserve, Robin listens to the bird calls and tries to identify them. They watch a family of sandhill cranes fly across the sky.
The next planet Theo dreams up is Similis. The planet is in decay, but the sky is covered in solar panels where it takes in light. In an industrial area is a computer server farm that is maintained by robots.
HHS Investigation and DHS Involvement
“For his tenth birthday…”
When Theo turns 10, he brings Theo breakfast in bed, eager to start the day. He has a training session at Currier’s lab scheduled that day, and Robin wants to walk there, even though it’s two hours away. When they get there, Ginny and Currier inform them that things have been put on hold by the Office for Human Research Protections. Anything funded in part by Health and Human Services has to stop while they “review for possible violations of human subject protection”.
More specifically, the government was stopping this experiment as a show of dominance against, environmentalism, science and spending tax-payer money. With the upcoming elections and the attention that Robin had gotten, it was a way to rile up the red base.
Currier says that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He certainly can’t license the technology right now, and Robin is one of 56 subjects they’re treating, all of whom are going to be “yanked violently” from their training. Currier hopes that Robin will be able to maintain his progress or even improve upon what he’s learned. However, he theorizes that DecNef is like any other form of exercise where the body seeks to return to homeostasis and regress to it’s “set point” if you don’t keep practicing. He says he’s not even permitted to bring Robin in for periodic evaluations in the meantime.
On the way home, Robin is still optimistic about things. He reassures his father that they can keep up with training by themselves.
On the first Tuesday in November, the Presidental election happens, and the President declares that it’s invalid. Things across the country are chaotic. (The chapter ends with the sentence “Only pure bewilderment kept us from civil war”).
One day, Robin slams shut his notebook as Theo approaches. Later, Theo goes to find the notebook. He sees that drawing that Robin had been working. Underneath, Robin has written a reminder to himself: “Remember what she feels like! You can remember!!!”
The following Monday, Robin says he didn’t sleep well since he had a nightmare that all the birds were gone. Still, Robbie peps up and the day is fine. That night, Robbie asks to hear a poem. Theo ends up reading a lengthy poem he remembered Aly once reading to him, Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter.” Afterwards, Robin says he doesn’t “get” it. Finally, Theo suggests that perhaps Robbie would like a dog as a birthday present. Robin agrees, but isn’t too enthusiastic about it.
Despite Robin’s initial optimism despite the training sessions ending, it’s clear that he feels further away from his mother now that he’s no longer training with her brain scan. His nightmare about the birds being gone seems to be as much about his memories of his mother disappearing (and the feeling of closeness to her) as it is about the prospect of birds disappearing.
Soon thereafter, as they are driving back from shoe shopping, Theo accidentally hits a squirrel, and Robin has his first meltdown in a long time. When Robin sees the dead squirrel, he starts screaming, and Theo has to hold him down to keep him from leaping out of the still-moving car. Afterwards, he’s still upset and refuses to eat. When Theo offers to make up a planet that night, Robin declines. Late that night, Robin tells him he thinks he’s regressing, just “like the mouse, Dad. Like Algernon.”
Over the holidays, Theo lies to get out of visiting Aly’s family. Robin starts having difficulty focusing again. Theo lies to Robin and says that Dr. Currier said it was possible the lab would be operational again soon, and Robin seems to pep up a little. As an assignment, Theo tells Robin to make a timeline of the history of Earth, stretching back 4.5 billion years, using the leftover butcher paper he had.
On the news, the same disease that killed the wheat crop in China had now cropped up in Nebraska as well. Another disease was ravaging cattle in Texas as well. Theo makes the mistake of audibly reacting to the bad news, and Robin is instantly curious about it. Theo brushes him off, but as Theo is trying to work later, he sees that Robin is banging his head against the wall — it seems Robin looked up the news himself and was upset by the images of the distressed and demented cows.
As Robin screams, Theo tries to calm him down. Finally, Robin tires himself out. That night, Robin sounds scared and says that he doesn’t “want to go back to being me”. Then, as Theo starts to say Alyssa’s prayer, Robin says he wants to amend it to say “May all life. Get free. From us.”
The next Monday, two caseworkers from the Department of Human Services show up, Charis Siler and Mark Floyd. They start asking Robin questions about what he’s learning, and Theo assumes they are checking on his homeschooling curriculum. However, when they start inquiring about Robin’s head injury, Theo understands what the visit is really for. Robin and Theo both explain that it had to do with the cows, but the caseworkers are clearly skeptical.
They say that someone phoned in a tip, and they produce a whole file of documents about various issues that have arisen over the years at school with Robin. They also have information about Theo’s arrest in Washington. They eventually leave, but not before warning Theo that they’re watching him. Afterwards, Robin says he feels as though he’s ruining Theo’s life.
In March, the polls reopen for the new election. The President wins another term in office.
The next planet that Theo comes up with is Xenia. There, each being contributes a tiny part of themselves to each new child, so they are all each others’ parents and siblings. One day, one younger being asks its father why another planet has never responded to their messages. The father says that they tried everything, but he imagines they were too busy too notice.
Back to the Smokies
“The days lengthened…”
With spring break approaching at work and Robin feeling low, Theo suggests that to Robin that they do a real treasure hunt by going back out to the Smoky Mountains and looking for flowers. Theo gives Robin a list to look for. Robin perks up temporarily at the thought of the trip, and Theo tells himself that he will reach out to a doctor and start Robin on a course of treatment once they return from the trip.
Before Robin’s transformation, Theo was adamant that he was unwilling to put Robin on drugs. However, by now he has seen how much happier and at peace Robin is capable of being. He realizes that perhaps Robin would be happier even with the drugs. Still, he wants to spend one last week with Robin without it, since he knows that drugs will alter him in some ways.
On the ride down, Robin talks incessantly about Aly. When they get there, they stay at the same cabin they’d stayed at last time. The next morning, they go hiking on the trails nearby. With his field guide and list of flowers, Robin attempts to identify and draw the flowers on his list.
As they’re out there, Theo is interrupted by an alert on his phone when he gets a little bit of service. He sees texts from his colleagues and the news that the NextGen telescope project — after thirty yeasrs and 12 billion dollars — has been cancelled. Not only is it a blow to astronomy, it means that the Seeker really has no chance of funding now.
Meanwhile, although Robin is identifying many flowers, he wants to hike somewhere that Aly has hiked instead of being there. So, Theo ends up driving them to another trail, the same one they’d hiked last time. Robin also notices that something is wrong with Theo, and Theo tells him the bad news he’d just gotten. Robin comments sadly that “everything’s going backward” and that all the civilizations somewhere out there are going to “wonder why they never heard from us”.
When they get to a clearing to set up camp, they go sit by the river for a while. There, Robin sees a heron and is transfixed by it. The heron grabs some fish from the water and flies off. In response, Robin comments that “mom’s here”.
Right afterwards, Theo notices the many cairns that people before them had stacked up along the river. Theo tells Robin how much Aly had hated them, since they destroy the homes of the wildlife in the river in order to build them. Robin insists that they take them apart. Theo is tired, but he does as Robin asks and they take down the ones nearby. Robin wants to keep going, but Theo knows they likely stretch endlessly up and down the river, and he says they’ll have to come back and take more down some other time.
That night, camping outside, Robin peppers him with questions about the stars. He asks why the sky isn’t full of light from all the stars (also known as Olbers’ paradox). Theo explains that it’s because our universe is young and expanding, and the other stars are “rushing away from us at an increasing rate”. As they listen to the sounds in the woods, Robin marvels at it all, saying “can you believe where we are?”
Laying in the tent that night, Theo remembers when he’d been here with Alyssa. He remembers talking to her about whether or not it matters whether they discover proof of life elsewhere. He imagines her saying “Does it make any difference at all if it happened anywhere else? It happened here. That’s everything, right?”
When Theo falls asleep, he’s awoken by Robin exiting the tent to go to the bathroom. When he awakes again later, he’s worried that Robin is still gone. He finds Robin injured in the stream and knows that Robin had snuck out to dismantle more cairns. By now, Robin is weak, shivering and his pulse is faint. Theo struggles to move him across the wet rocks to safety. Unable to do so, Theo tries to warm him up, but Robin slips away from him.
The next planet Theo dreams up is one where it dies of loneliness.
Theo is granted “compassionate leave” from the university. They have a funeral for Robin. Theo loses interest in eating, the news, paying bills or answering the phone. The book ends with Theo getting a text from Currier. He writes “If you’d like to be with Robbie, you can be.”
The story ends with Currier inviting Theo do use DecNef with Robin’s brain scans. I think it’s meant to be a little ambiguous about what will happen going forward and whether that process really makes someone feel closer to someone whose brain scans they’re using. It’s entirely possible there’s was a placebo effect with Robin or it’s possible there was something a little magical in that process.