Physicist, adjunct MIT professor, and writer Alan Lightman - best known for his 1993 novel, “Einstein’s Dreams’’ - imagines an even higher consciousness in his newest novel, a charming, comic explanation of how The Maker might have created the cosmos.
To hear Him tell it, He, Mr g, awakes one day from a long sleep in the Void, and, finding himself bored, decides to create the universe, actually myriad universes. He concentrates His efforts on one He especially likes and develops it on His own, despite interference from cranky old Aunt Penelope, who worries that He might really mess things up. After all, eternal life is pretty peaceful for a deity in the Void, though nothingness can get a bit dull. On the other hand, Uncle Deva, a more docile soul than Penelope, doesn’t mind his nephew’s experiments.
First, Mr g creates time accidentally. “By deciding to create something, I had pressed an arrow into the shapeless and unending Void, an arrow that pointed in the direction of the future.’’ So, now there would be a before and an after. Mr g just had to figure out how time should flow: smooth or choppy. Time came before light and dark, matter and energy, and even before space.
Unto His favorite universe, Aalam-104729, named after the easy-to-remember 10,000th prime number, Mr g sets forth some guiding principles. First, there will be symmetry of position and movement. Second, there will be no absolutes, only relatives. Third, every event will be caused by a previous event. Mr g invents quantum physics, evolutionary biology, and specifies the parameters of a few particles. Bang! Matter appears: electrons, quarks, muons, photinos; and antimatter: positrons, antimuons, antiquarks, and “anti et cetera.’’ He sees that many of these inventions are good, but He isn’t exactly sure what they’re good for. As Mr g contemplates what He’ll do next, Aunt Penelope often wonders, “What’s He done now!’’
Eventually, animal and human life evolve due to “[c]ause and effect, cause and effect, cause and effect,’’ Mr g stresses. Sympathetic Uncle Deva warns Him not to get too attached to His creations, and Mr g contents Himself with observing how His sentient creatures act and doesn’t interfere, all the while patiently parrying suggestions from Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva about what He should do next.
But bickering old Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva aren’t the only beings to offer Mr g advice. Mr g has an alter-ego, an anti-Mr g, if you will, called Belhor, whom He created inadvertently and simultaneously when He created the universe. A demonic figure, Belhor serves as a sounding board and debate partner for Mr g as He tackles some philosophical problems concerning free will, determinism, and non-interference. One of those philosophical problems takes physical shape on an earthlike planet. There, Mr g could intercede, says Belhor, and solve the problems of a poor, young woman whose mother asks her to steal to support her family.
An atheist, Lightman depicts a deist or immanentist universe: a deity created the cosmos but hasn’t interfered since. Neither Lightman nor Mr g addresses how the first deities came into being. But the book is entertaining enough to forgive that. If you’re a devout atheist, you’ll cringe at the idea of a world created by a deity. If you’re a staunch religionist, you’ll likely find this book heretical. This novel won’t bridge the chasm between those two extreme groups. But if your philosophy allows for the possibility that science and faith in a creator can coexist, you’ll enjoy this clever and witty creation.Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his blog at josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/