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This is a brief discussion of Alan Lightman and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Lightman.
This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Lightman: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)
I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Lightman tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Lightman worthy; in sum, to help you rank Alan Lightman (and the works by Lightman listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.
My knowledge of Lightman’s fiction is limited to one book, his much-praised novel Einstein’s Dreams. (He has written two other novels of a speculative-fiction nature—cited farther below—which I have not yet read.)
Einstein’s Dreams is actually less a novel than a set of related but disparate meditations (one cannot really call them “stories” in the usual sense). Each, presented as a dream the young Einstein has while still formulating his theories of relativity, explores some different conceptualization of what the universe would be like if the nature of time were in some way—a way unique to each “dream”—different from what it actually is (so far as we, and Einstein at that time, can grasp them).
What makes this little book a treasure are two things: first, the ingenuity of the various visualizations Lightman—an expert physicist—conceives, and the curious universes that each implies; and second, the luminous prose in which Lightman sets forth each “dream”.
Here is one example:
It is late afternoon, and, for a brief moment, the sun nestles in a snowy hollow of the Alps, fire touching ice. The long slants of light sweep from the mountains, cross a restful lake, cast shadows in a town below.
In many ways, it is a town of one piece and a whole. Spruce and larch and arolla pine form a gentle border north and west, while higher up are fire lilies, purple gentians, alpine columbines. In pastures near the town graze cattle for making butter, cheese, and chocolate. A little textile mill produces silks, ribbons, cotton clothes. A church bell rings. The smell of smoked beef fills the streets and alleyways.
On closer look, it is a town in many pieces. One neighborhood lives in the fifteenth century. Here, the storeys of the rough-stone houses are joined by outdoor stairs and galleries, while the upper gables gape and open to the winds. Moss grows between the stone slabs of the roofs. Another section of the village is a picture of the eighteenth century. Burnt red tiles lie angled on the straight-lined roofs. A church has oval windows, corbeled loggias, granite parapets. Another section holds the present, with arcades lining every avenue, metal railings on the balconies, façades made of smooth sandstone. Each section of the village is fastened to a different time.
And here, one more:
In this world, time is a visible dimension. Just as one may look off in the distance and see houses, trees, mountain peaks that are landmarks in space, so one may look out in another dimension and see births, marriages, deaths that are signposts in time, stretching off dimly into the far future. And just as one may choose whether to stay in one place or run to another, so one may choose his motion along the axis of time. Some people fear traveling far from a comfortable moment. They remain close to one temporal location, barely crawling past a familiar occasion. Others gallop recklessly into the future, without preparation for the rapid sequence of passing events.
At the polytechnic in Zürich, a young man and his mentor sit in a small library, quietly discussing the young man’s doctoral work. It is the month of December, and a fire blazes in the fireplace with the white marble mantel. The young man and the teacher sit in pleasant oak chairs next to a round table, strewn with pages of calculations. The research has been difficult. Each month for the past eighteen months, the young man has met his professor here in this room, asked his professor for guidance and hope, gone away to work for another month, come back with new questions. The professor has always provided answers. Again today, the professor explains. While his teacher is speaking, the young man gazes out the window, studies the way snow clings to the spruce beside the building, wonders how he will manage on his own once he has received his degree. Sitting in his chair, the young man steps hesitatntly forward in time, only minutes into the future, shudders at the cold and uncertainty. He pulls back. Much better to stay in this moment, beside the warm fire, beside the warm help of his mentor. Much better to stop movement in time. And so, on this day in the small library, the young man remains. His friends pass by, look in briefly to see him stopped in this moment, continue on to the future at their own paces.
Note well that besides the lambent prose and rich imaginings, a subtle moral is being expounded there; that is so in many if not all of the “dreams”. Lightman is heavily invested in moral questions (as most of his many non-fiction writings make manifest), but here he delivers them softly and gently.
(While I have yet to read either of his other two speculative-fiction works, I can say this: Mr g: a Novel About the Creation is pretty much just what it says: a parable about God’s creating of the universe, told with a light touch; and Ghost tells of a man whose life is changed by a brief moment in which he has seen a ghost, which event is the only “speculative” thing in the book.)
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Lightman has his own web site (maintained by MIT).
A few of the pages—there are many—relating to Lightman include:
There are also numerous interviews with him on line; here are some:
Lightman has written some book reviews for The New York Review of Books; here’s a linked list of those reviews. The Review also published a David Levine caricature of Lightman (which is copyrighted material).
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I could find none.
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