Wednesday, 29 September 2010

In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin

The scales of time and distance that are involved in astrophysics and quantum science can often leave me floundering and disorientated.
The idea that there at least 1,000 billion stars in our own Milky Way and an equivalent number of galaxies, each on average containing a similar numbers of stars to our own, in the visible universe is astounding.
It gets worse when you also have to struggle with the concept that all those suns – and presumably thousands of billions of planet that orbit them as well – all emerged from a point that at one stage was many times smaller than an atom.
It is impossible to conceptualise yet fits in perfectly well with the most up-to-date theories of how our universe began.
However, John Gribbin piles on the conceptual anguish as he theorises that our universe may be just one of many, numbering much more than a mere 1,000 billion. The figure he comes up with is an estimated 1 with 500 noughts after it.
There is no way this can be demonstrated by observation, but the existence of a multiverse stands the scrutiny of science and, according to Gribbin, is a logical outcome of what we know about the physics of our universe.
Alternative universes may be separated from ours by a miniscule spacial distance, although in one of a possible seven other dimensions than the three we are used to as a result of quantum splits.
He also theorises that new universes could be created by black holes in our universe which are in fact gateways to an entirely new universe. Indeed out universe may be the result of a black hole in another universe.
Gribben runs through all the various theories that allow for a multiverse in this immensely readable book.
Although some of the physics that he draws on to back up his arguments was well beyond me he is good at trying to flesh out his ideas in laymans terms.
A glossary at the back explains the recurring scientific terms.
The last chapter was the most bizarre in which he speculates that our universe may actually be the result of intelligent design – not by an omnipresent deity but advanced alien civilisations.
This is not a sci-fi geek writing here but a respected physicist.
Yet he pays homage to those science fiction writers who speculated on such scenarios and about the existence of the multiverse long before it became a viable scientific theory.
Michael Moorcock, one of the few science fiction writers I like (and former poet-in-residence with Hawkwind), gets a nod.
Not mentioned by Gribben, but the best fictional take on his theory that I have read was The Number of the Beast by Robert A Heinlein in which four interdimensional travellers navigate through a multiverse with three spacial dimensions and three time dimensions, creating a total of six which can be raised to the par of six to the par of six... creating a multiverse based on the biblical number of the beast.
Gribben does mention a story called The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges in which he speculates that each choice made by every human results in a split in the universe and that results in a constantly branching multiverse in which versions of the same people are living a whole series of alternate lives.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell

Jakob Sammelsohn hovers on the fringes of central European history, meeting real life figures and becoming caught up in landmark events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

He is a peripheral figure who seems to epitomize the dilemma for European Jews of that era, wanting to belong but at the same time trying to stay in the background in case they attract too much attention to themselves.

He meets Sigmund Freud and ends up romantically involved with one of his patients—a woman who is inhabited by the spirit of Jakob’s second wife, whom he was forced by his father to marry when he was 12, and who took her own life on their wedding night.

Freud is portrayed almost as a Sherlock Holmes-type figure, able to deduce the life story of those he meets, their preoccupations and phobias, based on the briefest of conversations.
Ghosts and angels mingle with the real-life historical events and Skibell’s fictional creations over nearly 600 pages.

He uses highly stylized prose to portray the intellectual milieu in which his character moves, and while this does work for the overall tone it can grate sometimes.

This is a brave novel, not unafraid to undertake big themes and ideas but it does suffer from being overwritten, with pages upon pages that seem to go nowhere.

Skibell has a tendency to take a joke or humorous situation and run with it. Jakob’s father speaks only in Hebrew, and only using direct quotes from scripture. These are transcribed in the novel in both Hebrew, with their English translation and scriptural citation alongside.
It is absurdist, deliberately so of course, however, it comes across as being clever first time round but showing off after a while. The chapters when Jakob become involved in the Esperanto movement suffer from the same overindulgence.

Criticisms aside this is a hugely accomplished novel, unafraid of taking its readers into the fields of psychology, linguistics, reincarnation, and the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto.

A Curable Romantic is a book that has you constantly Googling events, movements, and characters to see if they are historical realities or Skibell’s fictional inventions.

A Curable Romantic has tangible depth and a well-defined sense of time and place, its comic tone creating an uneasy tension as the story moves into the darker aspects of 20th century European history.

However, it might have been a much better read if it had been more tightly written, with less meandering prose.
This review was written for and first published by The New York Journal of Books..