Celebrating the centenary of the publication of the general theory of relativity, “famous for its story-like thought experiments,” in the manner of spacetime itself an invitation was issued for “writers to respond to the theory… to stretch and curve their imaginations,” and the result is a mixed bag of short stories, poems and essays as varied in content, style and approach as the backgrounds of the contributors could warrant.
The collection opens with Pedro G Ferreira’s A Month in Berlin, pleasant and with a strong sense of place and time, both the present and the echoes of the past tied with the reassurance that Albert Einstein’s theories did not drop in his lap in the manner of Newton’s apple but that he worked for years, stumbling sometimes down blind alleys before he was sufficiently satisfied to offer them for public scrutiny.
Many of the stories frame a personal relationship – familial, friendly or romantic – in the language of physics, veiled or explicit: Joanna Walsh’s Me and the Fat Woman sees the second party as a black hole, while depression is the subject of Rosa Campbell’s Eric’s Mum has a Black Hole Inside Her, but neither contributes significantly, the former too vague, the latter told through the eyes of a child and hampered by that simplistic viewpoint.
Similarly, Andrew Crumey’s fragmentary Eclipse remains in shadow while Tasneem Zehra Husain’s abstract reflection drifts aimlessly under the Pont Au Double. Perhaps the best of this approach, framed as two ends of a series of actions, the consequences of experiments and choices, the unresolved possibilities of words deliberately not spoken, their outcomes suspended, the information provided on the long distance relationship in Neil Williamson’s Shifting requires sorting and analysis but the strongly indicated outcome is not optimistic.
The writers were given carte blanche, but often the links are so tenuous as to be negligible, only able to be superimposed by the will of the reader: are the twin sisters of Ruby Cowling’s The Two-Body Problem supposed to represent quantum entanglement, two particles forever linked despite distance, their spins equal but opposite? What of Lynsey May’s The Cosmos in a Paper Cup, a terminally ill patient where the only link is the title and the final line where the artefact appears?
Captain Quantum’s Universal Entertainment from Vanessa Gebbie is billed as “an expanding story, with no boundaries,” yet spends more time shrinking and receding from the ordered structure associated with the theory of relativity, regressing into incomprehensible chaos, and the title of The Path of Least Resistance sums up too well Lucy Durneen’s approach, the story seemingly without even tangential connection to the apparently daunting subject.
Initially more interesting is the heavily appended ouroboros of R A Martens’ like this, the part In Which Mrs Pandit, a not entirely successful transposition of the oddities inherent in quantum theory and the formation of the early universe to a domestic setting. While at times it has a quarky charm, it may suffer in that without an existing knowledge of the subject – for example, that Mrs Calabi-Yau refers is named for a multi-dimensional complex of spacetime – readers could be baffled.
Quantum Gravity or: The Pygmy Marmoset and the Prefabricated Concrete Bungalow is disconnected strands in parallel leading back to thoughts of stars, nebulae and galaxies and the incompatibilities of the cosmological macro scale and the quantum micro scale, but perhaps that is Helen Sedgwick’s point, that even though things are connected that connection may not be apparent, though Nick Parker’s Extracts from the Dream Reports is exactly as it is described and precisely as enlightening as would be expected.
Reminiscent of one of editor Goldschmidt’s own stories published earlier this year, Stuart Clark takes a very different approach to the outline in Scatter and Trend, his focus not on Einstein’s theory but on dear Albert himself, the man behind the legendary intellect, his failed first marriage, his difficult relationship with his son and the troubled times of Berlin between the wars.
Proceeding from a similar conceit but placed later in the collection, Correspondence perhaps suffers more unfairly than had the reader encountered it first but it falls short on two counts; while both are fictions, Dilys Rose’s is once removed, an imagining of Einstein’s son imagining his famous father, with the descriptions of his thoughts trite and generic, failing to convey a genuine connection to the subject or the reader.
Misdirection is the theme of Goldschmidt’s own Shortest Route which emphasises the difference between information and knowledge as a man hunts in random patterns for a missing dark matter researcher, but all is concealment, in her discovery, in what he reveals of her, in the nature of the universe. Co-editor Hershman’s The Lizard is Waiting is playful, but if it has a deeper meaning it is concealed beneath the abstraction.
Without doubt the standout story is Simon Barraclough’s wickedly enjoyable Ticked Off which dares to take both the science and the fiction and run with them as far as he can without actually breaking the rules in his tale of a new technology and the predictably underhanded applications it will be turned to by unscrupulous users.
Moving to the poems, Rebecca Elson’s Explaining Relativity may not encompass the whole but does at least visualise some of the concepts and Rishi Dastidar’s Towards a singularity has fun playing with the perception of cause and effect, while Benjamin Judge’s An Endless Parade of Little Heartbreaks is an abstract blank verse of little purpose.
Of the essays, Jo Dunkley’s Cosmology is a direct and accessible summation of that branch of astronomy which considers not where the stars and planets are and how they are moving but where they have come from, why they move as they do and where they are going to, approaching the sometimes intimidating subject of dark matter with the attitude that it will simply be the next challenge to be resolved in the manner of earlier related conundrums; Lance Miller takes a similarly professional and comprehensive approach in his essay Black Holes.
I Am Because You Are is available now from Freight Books