In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.
Alan Lightman is a physicist and a writer who often merges the scientific and the artistic in his work, both fiction and non-fiction. His newest novella, Mr. g: A Novel About the Creation, is perhaps the logical outgrowth of his unique blending of science and transcendence, doing exactly what he says in the title — telling the story of the universe’s creation from beginning to end (and perhaps beginning again).
“As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe. Not much was happening at that time. As a matter of fact, time didn’t exist.” Thus begins both the novella and the universe and you can see at once the playfully modest voice of our omniscient, omnipresent narrator, who from the void creates time and space, then universes, stars, and planets, and then life itself, which bursts out in magnificent and surprising variety. Even more surprising is the appearance of Mr. Belhor, seemingly Mr. g’s equal in thought and ability to travel. It is Mr. Belhor whose conversation convinces Mr. g to let things unfold without his intervention or prediction and as his creation grows, Mr. g learns the act of creation changes even the creator. If Mr. g is God, he is the Deist version: the god who creates then steps back wholly and lets the world unwind according to the rules he set down from the start.
If Mr. g is the primary, unknowable cause, the rest of the creative act flows along the most modern scientific tracks. When Mr. g makes matter, we get “Electrons and muons and taus, top quarks and bottom quarks, squarks gravitons . . . W and Z bosons” and so on. We get a scientific explanation for when and why light began, even as Mr. g tells us tongue-in-cheek, “and I decided that these things were good.” Later, in definite non-King-James-Bible language, these particles formed pockets that “oscillated and vibrated in response to the electrical attractions and repulsions between them . . . unleashing a flood of polarized photons.” That isn’t to say there isn’t poetry here as well, however, for these photons “create a display far more spectacular than the evanescent veils of the void. There were cascades and blooms of light, spiraling helices.” There is also near-perpetual music, art, and beauty, joy and love. And, as Mr. Belhor argues, inevitably there is also grief and sorrow, death and cruelty, suffering and murder. And there is poetry as well in this and in Mr. g’s response to it, along with the reactions of his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva.
Mr. g is a slim book, which is as it should be, and it’s hard to imagine carrying the conceit much farther. To be honest, there are a few places where it lags just slightly, mostly in the scientific sections, which at times feel a little too textbook-like and as well a bit prescriptive. In other words, if one is familiar with modern day physics/cosmology, nothing in those sections is surprising and it all comes in familiar order and fashion. On the other hand, the less scientific half of the book is filled with pleasant and playful surprise, such as Mr. g having an aunt and uncle. This isn’t to say the science shouldn’t have been included; it just needed to be integrated more smoothly.
I also would have liked to see more of Mr. Lightman’s imagination play out in the variety of worlds and inhabitants. We do get a few glimpses of strange planets and peoples, such as a planet that cuts off the hands of all its females (with the females’ full cooperation) and another whose inhabitants have wholly separated body and mind. These are thought-provoking excursions and I would have loved to have seen more of them. Though perhaps Mr. Lightman felt it would have smacked too much of his earlier well-deserved classic, Einstein’s Dreams.
Mr. g doesn’t rise to the level of that novella, but it is a subtle, playful, thought-provoking book with moments of quiet beauty, one that respectfully mingles science and faith and offers up the answers science has provided most recently as well as the questions it cannot.