A conversation with Alan Lightman about his new book, Mr. g
What was God thinking as he created the universe, and what does he think of humanity? A new novel offers one interpretation. Alan Lightman, humanities and physics professor at MIT and author of Einstein's Dreams, provocatively tells the story of creation from God's perspective in Mr. g, released this this week from Random House. A tour through astrophysics and morality, Mr. g shows God wrestling with the same questions humans have debated for years: Why must there be suffering? How can we come to terms with mortality? And where do organisms get that sense of self we call consciousness?
Debating with Mr. g are his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, along with a curious and problematic by-product of creation: a practically minded and highly intelligent Satan-like character named Belhor. Yet in a place where time is measured in the "ticks" of hydrogen atoms, music is also a preoccupation of gods and humans alike, and Mr. g and his relatives find tunes from intelligent life in the universe stuck in their heads.
Here, we've asked Alan Lightman about the inspiration for this novel, and how some of these themes fit together in his own life.
Where did the idea for this book come from? Is it something you've had in your head a while, or a relatively new idea?
There are several impulses that formed the idea for Mr. g. I have always loved magic realism as a form of writing. I have also been fascinated for a long time with the intersection of science and religion. And finally, I am a fan of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, which portrays a group of celestial beings who, even though powerful, are willing to deal with the mundane affairs of mortal beings.
Any inspiration in particular lead to God having an 'Aunt Penelope'? Any reason in particular that God, or Mr. g, would have an aunt and uncle as opposed to a grandmother and grandfather or a brother or cousin or friend?
From the beginning of my conception of the novel, it was clear that Mr. g would need some divine sparring partners, both to give a narrative to the book and to flesh out Mr. g's ideas. The idea of an aunt and uncle, without any other relatives, seemed to me much more provocative and comic than a regular family. Of course, once you create characters, you need to give them personalities and complexity to make the interactions more believable and compelling.
Music is granted a nearly divine status in this novel. It is present before creation and complexifies afterwards; music is the most striking way in which humans change God. It's also during a poorly performed opera that we first see Belhor and his minions cause trouble on earth. Music plays a role in Mr. g's emerging definition of good versus evil. What role does music play in your life?
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Music is, of course, a universal emotional experience, cutting across cultures and languages. I studied piano for ten years as a child and consider that experience one of the most valuable in my life. I still will sit down at the piano and play when I am wrestling with something emotionally or just want to move into the musical world.
It appears that the single thing about intelligent life that most disturbs Mr. g and his relatives, and most intrigues Belhor, is the creatures' longing for immortality, and their grief at being mortal. Mr. g winds up granting humans a fleeting consciousness of his own presence and immortality as a sort of balm to this grief. We also see the dispersion of a human's atoms, upon death, and the beauty of their reabsoprtion into the completeness of creation. What is the challenge of mortality to which you are speaking here?