BOOK REVIEW / Whimsical larks in which time is of the essence: 'Einstein's Dreams' - Alan Lightman: Bloomsbury, 11.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
ALAN LIGHTMAN's first fiction is a series of whimsical situation comedies about time, and before we go any farther we might as well point out that this is not a new subject. Virgil was going on about time flying - fugit irreparabile tempus - about two thousand and forty years ago; and almost every great writer has sooner or later glanced at the bank and shoal, the whirligig, the whips and scorns or the backward and abysm of time's winged chariot. No doubt they will go on doing so, right down to the last syllable.

But modern science has given Alan Lightman, a young physics teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a fistful of engaging new metaphors. Time, these days, can speed up, slow down, stop, shrink, collapse, and go backwards; on a good day, it can be persuaded to perform its trademark quadruple somersault, with full twist. Stephen Hawking has already given us a brief history; Lightman has seized the chance to give us a brief description.

So far as the element of fiction goes, he takes every available short cut. He starts by imagining a weary Einstein in his office at dawn, and then offers 30 different visions or dreams. For some reason, these are all given a date in the spring of 1905: 14 April, 16 April, 19 April, 24 April, 26 April, and so on. It is tempting to think that this sequence of numbers is highly charged with Einsteinian significance, but only algebraically minded readers (or those with their hands in time's wallet) will know what it is. Perhaps they simply show the dates on which Lightman wrote each chapter.

Anyway, one of these dreams strikes Einstein as especially exciting. This is the only bit of suspense in the whole book, so we shouldn't complain, but there doesn't seem to be any sure way of identifying it. Maybe it is the one (29 May) in which time, quite literally, is motion. People's houses whizz around like trucks, saving time by speeding up. This certainly looks rather like a dramatisation of relativity theory, especially when all the rushing around comes to a dizzy, futile end:

'In this world of great speed, one fact has been only slowly appreciated. By logical tautology, the motional effect is all relative. Because when two people pass on the street, each perceives the other in motion, just as a man in a train perceives the trees to fly by his window. Consequently, when two people pass in the street, each sees the other's time flow more slowly. Each sees the other gaining time. This reciprocity is maddening. More maddening still, the faster one travels past a neighbour, the faster the neighbour appears to be travelling.'

This is, it has to be said, the least elegant of the dreams, perhaps because it is clogged by a didactic desire to make something absolutely clear - you can almost hear the teacher holding up an orange and saying: 'This is the Sun, right? And this pea is Earth, OK?' The action, the nice idea of houses stuck in traffic jams, or kerb-crawling, is never quite allowed to take precedence over the idea it is seeking to flesh out.

That might be unkind. Many of the other chapters are playful, witty and easily kindled by the author's quick intelligence. He imagines a place in which people live high on mountaintops or on stilts, in the belief that time goes more slowly up there; he suggests a city in which time is visible, so people can skip along the axis marked 'T' at any speed they choose; he conjures up a world like a black hole, in which everything is frozen and infinitely trapped.

But what's this? A world that has gone into reverse? I suppose there had to be one of these, but we can hardly help noticing that, in this backwards world, Alan Lightman's book would precede by two years the obviously derivative work by Martin Amis (Time's Arrow, 1991), which was based on exactly the same idea.

And it is dreadful to recall that Italo Calvino will have the barefaced cheek to write, a full 20 years from now, a book called Invisible Cities (1972), which anyone can see is a blatant pastiche of Einstein's Dreams. Calvino doesn't just adopt, in his delicious portraits of imaginary cities, the same dreamy structure that Lightman engineered; he imitates his syntax and vocabulary, too. He might even be reckless enough to write, in Cosmicomics and Time and the Hunter, two exquisite science fiction collections that imagine what life might be like in a world with a squiffy sense of time.

Enough of that. Calvino is a great man to admire, though a hard one to emulate. And Lightman cannot really be faulted for the composure he brings to the task of describing tricky concepts. A more serious complaint is that the book delivers a vague insult to fiction by using it as a merely decorative clothing for scientific notions. It is as if e=mc2 were too bald and striking. Why don't we make up a little explanatory story about the big house and the little girl who lived next door and the baker who came round every morning on his horse and cart?

This procedure - the book is forever inching away from ideas that already exist, rather than towards them - gives to much of Einstein's Dreams the tone of a teacher struggling to explain things to a simpleton, with a few winks to the clever ones at the back. There isn't really any narrative pressure at all, and nothing you could call a surprise; just the steady succession of more or less elegant vignettes. It seems both telling and disappointing that where Virgil was happy with tempus fugit, Lightman ends by imagining time as a flock of birds flittering about all over the place. The busy nightingales were already caged in Virgil's sharp and suggestive metaphor. Seeking to get up close and touch their wings, Lightman instead lets them escape. Whether anyone will be able to catch up with the little blighters now, only time will tell.