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Fiction: Cosmic creation

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Pedro Ferreira explores Alan Lightman's latest novel — a magical-reality take on the origins of the Universe.

Mr g: A Novel About the Creation

  • Alan Lightman
Pantheon/Corsair: 2012. 224 pp. $24.95/£9.99 9780307379993 | ISBN: 978-0-3073-7999-3

When a physics heavyweight is mentioned in the same breath as Salman Rushdie and Italo Calvino, it is tough for a reviewer. Few venture into air that rarefied and make it out alive. But when the book is Mr g, a creation myth by physicist Alan Lightman, it is worth the risk.

In Mr g, Lightman has taken the core of what we know about the origins of the Universe from physics, chemistry and biology and wrapped a few characters around it. The protagonist is the narrator: god, dubbed Mr g. Mr g lives in a timeless Void with his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, playing out skits that could have been lifted from a Woody Allen film — but with the humour on mute. One day, Mr g wakes up from a nap, decides to create a Universe called “Aalam-104729”, and from then on marvels at his creation as it evolves and becomes more complex — from the beginning of space and time, to the emergence of fundamental laws, particles, forces, stars, galaxies, planets and, ultimately, life itself.

Credit: ILLUSTRATION BY ALESSANDRO GOTTARDO

As sentient beings finally emerge out of the cosmic mess, Mr g is torn: should he intervene or let them go their own way? Throughout, he is taunted by the creepy Belhor, a devilish character (a fine role for Al Pacino if this were ever made into a film) and Belhor's annoying daemons, the Baphomet siblings. Belhor pushes Mr g to allow his creations to do their own thing, and watches with glee as evil and unhappiness begin to emerge — leaving Mr g to observe as, for instance, an impoverished young woman anguishes over stealing meat to feed her starving siblings. Lightman uses the exchanges between Mr g and Belhor to riff on good and evil, free will and relative morality.

Lightman's grasp of the science, in all its gory detail, is unerring. His ability to interweave the fantastical with the factual is impressive — not surprising, given his background. In the 1970s, Lightman established himself as an astrophysical relativist, writing several important papers and books. I still use them. In 1993, he published a magical collection of short stories, Einstein's Dreams (Pantheon), in which he took the strange concepts and consequences of Einstein's principle of relativity and wove them into vignettes. I was shocked at how well it worked — and I was not alone. The book has been translated into 30 languages and has led to several stage productions around the world.

Lightman had done something that I had thought impossible: he had brought in the hard science and softened it up. Einstein's Dreams is sensual; it breathes. Mr g is different. Much more abstract and almost pedagogical, it is a detailed description of the birth and evolution of the Universe that reads like a Rushdiesque fable about an invented place and time. The facts are faultless. Yet the book can occasionally be unintelligible.

For example, Lightman defines a tick of a clock in terms of a particular frequency of the hydrogen atom. Beautifully precise and clear. But as a result, any other timescales that he mentions must be written in scientific notation. And, of course, other big numbers — such as the number of neurons in a brain or of Universes in what he calls the Void — can also be accurately presented only in scientific notation. You begin to wonder about the readership. Are these nuggets meant to be seen as just icons, like hieroglyphs? Or is the generalist supposed to know what they mean?

It has to be said too that Lightman's work could have worked well as a short story. It loses steam early on and sometimes feels like interspersed vignettes on science and morality with a dose of 'magic' thrown in. Finely crafted it may be, but it can be hard going. Throughout, I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen and, given the nature of the story, the characters didn't need to be developed. There was nothing to wait for.

Yet ultimately, this is a marvellous counterpoint to all of the other nonsense out there on creation. Lightman writes exquisitely, so this fable on the origin of space, time, matter and life is a wordfest that is securely pinned to the rational — making him a 'magic realist' of a refreshingly different stripe.

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Correspondence to Pedro Ferreira.

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Ferreira, P. Fiction: Cosmic creation. Nature 481, 262–263 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/481262a

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