Review by Phillip Clement
Last year marked a hundred years since Albert Einstein published forty-six pages that would come to change the course of human history and everything around it. His Special and General Theory heralded a new way of thinking in physics, suggesting as it did that the universe is dynamic, that time is not independent, and that black holes – unfortunately for all who pass them – exist. Since its conception, Einstein’s theory has influenced countless physicists and paved the way for numerous further discoveries. To celebrate the centenary, Freight Books has published a collection of short fiction, poetry and essays edited by Pippa Goldschmidt and Tania Hershman. This is not a physics book. Far from it! But it is a book inspired by physics.
Two people could not be better suited to overseeing such a collection. Goldschmidt, whose books The Falling Sky and The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space react against some of the most exciting scientific discoveries, has a PhD in astronomy; Hershman, on the other hand, began her working life as a science journalist before publishing two spectacular short story collections, My Mother was an Upright Piano and The White Road. Between them they have produced a collection that is as thought-provoking and inspiring as its subject matter, and which acts as a central hub around which the various pieces expand and contract.
To better introduce new readers, and others who may be put off by the collection’s perceived lofty heights, the editors begin with a welcoming introduction explaining relativity and the importance of Einstein’s most famous work. This, and the short essays which act as interstitials throughout the collection, are pitched so as to appeal to readers regardless of their background. They also serve to obstruct the long-held view (heavily dented by the popularity of shows such as The Infinite Monkey Cage) that between those who practice science and the arts is a never-shrinking gulf.
a collection that is as thought-provoking and inspiring as its subject matter
Happily, though, I Am Because You Are often leaves the reader with questions and astonishment. Contributions to Goldschmidt and Hershman’s bananas universe range from intimate character explorations that tap in to the peculiarity of life on a living space rock, as in Andrew Crumey’s stellar ‘Eclipse’, to the downright, out-and-out, balls-to-the-walls lunacy seen in works like Vanessa Gebbie’s ‘Captain Quantum’s Universal Entertainment’, which features, among other things, Lucille, the Incredible Bearded Shrinking Lady – say no more.
One story that shines out in this diverse and thought-provoking collection is ‘Correspondence’, which captures a snapshot of Einstein at home as his work begins to eclipse his duties as a father and a husband. Another is Goldschmidt’s ‘The Shortest Route on the Map is Not the Quickest’ which, serving as the signal to the collection’s untimely end, sees a Helmand-veteran-turned-London-cabbie and a peculiar P.I. talking around one of Einstein’s most famous two-part statements.
He positioned two fingers someway apart on either side of his cup. “When you do the knowledge you’ve got to learn how to negotiate around that coffee. It’s large, it’s hot and it’s causing a hell of a traffic problem.”
I watched as he traced some imaginary routes on the Formica table top. Some were graceful arcs, others irritable little detours that travelled straight up to the cup and buckled around it at the last minute.
“The sooner you’re warned about the coffee, the better state you’re in. The more possibilities you have and the quicker the detour will be […] City’s a creature in time as well as space.”
More than just another celebration of Einstein’s work, I Am Because You Are attempts to locate the cultural impact of his life’s achievements and reminds us that:
Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
Phil Clement was raised by foxes in the Forest of Dean and currently works in academic publishing as a production editor; neither of these are as glamorous as they sound. He is a regular contributor to the New Welsh Review and Open Pen Magazine, and can be found at https://niagraphils.wordpress.com/
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Vaguely literary things we’ve been enjoying
FutureLearn works with unis and cultural institutions around the world to create courses on some pretty interesting topics – all for free – from the comfort of your laptop or smartphone. They’re super accessible and are a great way to intro yourself to or brush up on subjects when you’re short on time and juggling other projects. I’m currently enjoying their course on Hans Christian Andersen with the Uni of Southern Denmark. Next up on my list is their Shakespeare course run by my old uni lecturer Jonathan Bate.
Roald Dahl had one. Virginia Woolf had one. Thoreau went to one to live deliberately. Hemingway had one over his garage with a bridge to his bedroom. Now I’m building one too. Sandwiched between the chicken yard and the sheep pen on my friend’s farm, I’m wrapping up the exterior work on an 80 square foot writing cabin. It will have a bed, a desk, and a bookshelf — simple living for weekends. It’s no Walden, but I do hope that the peace and quiet (not counting the crowd and bleats of the barnyard) will help me finish my chapbook projects.
One of my very favourite podcasts, Book Fight—subtitle: “tough love for literature”—is an irreverent and often hilarious show about books and writing from two of the editors at Barrelhouse magazine. If you like the sound of a podcast which successfully couples insightful literary analysis with the occasional half-hour tangent about erotic fanfiction, this one’s for you. Just don’t mention The Sliver Linings Playbook.
>> Check out the VLTWBE archive here.