Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #94: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
An amazing little book of brief vignettes, all of them imagined worlds based on different concepts of the physics of time as allegedly conceived by Albert Einstein when he was a young patent clerk working in Switzerland. Written in sparse but carefully chosen and often lovely language, this piece of fiction is at once a poem, a metaphysical exercise, an exploration of the science of physics, and a philosophical treatise on how people live their lives.
In one instance, time slows down at higher elevations, and people vie among themselves to build their homes on mountaintop, on stilts, looking down both literally and figuratively on those who live at lesser elevation and are aging more quickly. In another world, time is reversed like Benjamin Button’s life, with the aged and infirm slowly recovering their memories along with their youth and their passions, eventually to become childlike and ultimately infantile. In still another, cause and effect are reversed, and thus there is no concept of consequences. Scientists go mad, artists are joyous, people live in the moment, and it becomes a world of impulse. In another, each city or population cluster lives according to its own sense of time, preventing interaction and progress. And in yet another, the Clock is worshipped, Time is absolute, every moment is calculated, every action predicted, every end predetermined.
In Lightman’s presentation of how people choose to exist in these different worlds he has created, we can see the parallels to how we are all in fact living in our own temporal realities. At the same time, he shows us the flaws embedded in our life styles, and we are made to question such fundamental concepts as freedom, success, religious worship, even the paradigm of parental love. We laugh at the crazy little people in Lightman’s world where time hiccups and is disjointed, flows backwards, or speeds up and slows down at intervals, but we cannot fail to recognize those moments in our own lives.
Lightman’s book is not uniformly brilliant, and I found myself disappointed that it ended not with an explosive revelation but rather with a sigh. But Einstein’s Dreams is a thoroughly lyrical and thought-provoking jewel of a novel, and should be in everyone’s library and discussion group.