Review: Mr g: A Novel About the Creation by Alan Lightman

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Mr g by Alan Lightman book cover
Mr g: A Novel About the Creation (2012) is the latest novel of physicist and atheist Alan Lightman, who frequently brings together the worlds of philosophy, literature, and physics; most notably in Einstein’s Dreams. Mr g returns to similar topics, here exploring the idea of Deism and the evolution of the universe. The novel opens in The Void, with the awakening (both literal and symbolic) of Mr g, an inquisitive and powerful being, who decides to create both time and space on a whim. With these additions The Void, where Mr g lives with Uncle Deva and Aunt Penelope, begins to take shape and soon he starts to create universes, putting in place physical laws and allowing the universes to develop accordingly. His Aunt and Uncle act as guiding voices throughout this process, and eventually suggest that he focus on one universe, Aalam-104729. However, with the conception of time and space Mr g also made possible the existence of Belhor, a strange and devilish creation who acts as an intellectual counterpoint to Mr g, challenging him on theological and philosophical points throughout. As the worlds of Aalam-104729 flourish under the physical laws that govern them, Mr g is inspired by their order and beauty, but desires something more: sentient matter. With the creation of sentient beings, or at least the conditions from which they will develop, comes a new range of philosophical quandaries that confound Mr g, and he grows as his creation develops, challenged all the way by the mysterious Belhor.

The novel’s plot is based on the idea of Deism, which suggests that the universe was set in motion at its origin by a divine force, who then allowed things to develop naturally. However, the god in Mr g, as perhaps suggested by the lower-case g (although this is not carried through to pronouns; His, He, etc.), is far from the omniscient god of the Abrahamic faiths. Here he is an inquisitive philosopher who, lacking divine foresight, learns from his creation as it develops, his own growing consciousness reflecting the development of the human and scientific knowledge as the ungraspable becomes known. Lightman offers no discussion of the existence of god; by the Deist nature of the novel, if he exists then he is beyond our comprehension or any measure of proof, and thus he can be made in any image the author desires.

Lightman plays with some big ideas, although mainly on a surface level, and translates them into symbolic and digestible prose, offering a light introduction to contemporary physics. As the novel develops it moves away from describing the beauty and order of fundamental physics and, with the creation of conscious beings, begins to delve into the world of philosophy. Here Belhor, who understands the need for both good and evil in the world and supports the idea of interventionism, provides the foil for the obdurate Mr g, who remains resolute in his original position of letting the world develop guided by his primary laws, and free will alone. This creates an interesting moral dynamic, but the discussions opened up are all dealt with on a relatively shallow level, the novel offering up a light dabbling in philosophy, much as it does with physics.

Given the weight of the subjects discussed, the prose is equally light and creates a wonderful, ethereal atmosphere, almost of stark minimalism. That this lends itself to an overriding sense of the cosmos’ indifference to the individual, in combination with the mystery of the transcendent, makes this a fine achievement.

Lightman foregoes conventional punctuation for his dialogue when Mr g, Aunt Penelope, and Uncle Deva converse between themselves (which makes up the majority of the novel), only reverting to more formal style when Belhor is present. This neat technique points to the shared consciousness of the three divine characters, and gives a clear indication that they represent the Holy Trinity, written through Lightman’s lens. Indeed this is a godhead far removed from conventional Chirstianity, here combining domesticity with spirituality, and naivety. Belhor, whose name derives from demonic figures in the apocrypha, himself has two companions; Baphomet (larger) and Baphomet (smaller), thus creating a mirror image of the trinity and reinforcing a sense of order that pervades the novel. But while there is beauty in the order of the universes as they flourish from the basic physical laws, there is also a sense of the randomness of creation, perhaps the best example of which being when Mr g plucked Aalam-104729 from a plethora of possible universes, and chose to make it his main concern.

In Mr g Lightman has created a na├»ve and appealing narrator with a child-like wonder for the worlds he creates, which is shared with the reader as the two explore his creation together. With regards to Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, it’s interesting to note that, despite existing without stereotypes to reinforce their behaviour, both conform largely to gender conditioning akin to that of the Western world. Even with the development of stereotypes within Aalam-104729 it still strikes a disharmonious chord when Penelope demands a beautiful, pink dress. Given that the characters are so divorced from the conventional Christian view of deities and that both exist in a supposedly androgynous state, their characterisation is somewhat of a missed opportunity.

There is an overwhelming lightness to Mr g. Certainly, it introduces simple but fascinating ideas, and in the end is a contemplation of the universe as much as of any creator it might have. Although an atheist, Lightman has written a work of mystery and insoluble questions, which at no point discounts the idea of a transcendent deity, but equally does not conform to any religious teaching about the creation and the nature of god. There are periods in the book’s first half where the discussion of universe’s early development may prove a little obtuse, and even for those with a working knowledge of physics may drag a little. However, there is much to enjoy still and as the novel develops it discusses increasingly accessible topics, which will engage a range of readers. Perhaps the greatest risk for this slim volume is that it falls between too many schools, failing to prove wholly satisfying for the theologian, moralist, scientist, or philosopher. However, for the dabbler, the autodidact who drifts from one intellectual discipline to another, this should prove a light, enjoyable read. Though Aalam-104729 is not our own universe, through its prism Lightman explores much about our own existence in this intelligent, at times witty, and always very readable novel.

After enjoying the book from the start, I felt the middle section became a little dry and the plot began to lose moment, happily the whole thing came together really well for me, and overall I enjoyed this short novel.


Useful Links
Reviews of Mr g on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Mr g on Amazon (US)

2 comments:

Jeff Rivera said...

This books sounds interesting. Another version of the creation of the universe. The story looks like similar with the original story we knew but this was written by a Physicist. I think this is a must read book.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

It's a good little read Jeff. Easy prose and pretty short - definitely one to have a look at.

I've just picked up Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great - I really seem to be into anti/theism at the the moment. Now all I need is a strong theist book to balance my reading habits!