Books

Review: Eugenia Cheng / James Gleick / Mark O'Connell / Jaroslav Kalfar

Five new books travel through time and space to blur the lines between science and art

Having enjoyed decades of relative calm in the west, the cold water plunge into the land of Brexiting Trumpton still feels for many of us like a living dream, a daily assault of nonsense dialogue and perpetual game-changing and rug-pulling. In the world of books this surrealist sidestep seems to have inspired a particular kind of liberation, shrugging off the constraints of knowable reality (whatever that is) to make transcendent creative leaps which fly off into the future looking for ground-breaking means of escape.

This new audacity of imagination has thrown up some intriguing esoterica. Trailblazers like Carlo Rovelli (Seven Brief Lessons on Physics) and Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens) have created a welcome trend for writers to apply a poetic sensibility to slippery subjects like quantum physics, astronomy, pure mathematics and the fusion of biology and technology. In just the last month I have gathered a little munro of such ‘magical science’ gems, each as arresting and enchanting as the next.

In the words of a belligerently optimistic Bill Hicks, ‘open your mind real wide.’

Eugenia Cheng’s Beyond Infinity is mesmerising, her argument about how our minds are stretched in the effort to conceive infinity ultimate proof that it’s the journey, not the destination, which counts. This approach is echoed in Lawrence Weschler’s literally wonderful Waves Passing in the Night, which breathes life back into a marvellously ambitious, contemptuously discredited 18th century theory of astrophysics by way of outsider science devotee, Hollywood film editor Walter Murch. The book is both a profile of the irrepressible Murch and an appeal to the reader to, in the words of a belligerently optimistic Bill Hicks, ‘open your mind real wide’.

Magic science veteran James Gleick’s Time Travel performs a delightful sleight of mind. Employing the baffling universe of quantum physics as a back-drop for a page-turning thrill-ride, he traces our urge to beat the clock from HG Wells to Doctor Who, checking in with a diverse cast of contributors including Proust, Ballard, Terry Gilliam and Ali Smith along the way. His definition of time travel – whether through black holes, memory, dreams or ripples in the space/time continuum – remains open to discussion throughout. But he is clear on what drives our obsession; the longing to elude death, more panicked than ever in this increasingly secular world.

To Be a Machine considers the same compulsion, via quite different means. It’s an investigation of transhumanism – the movement committed to employing technology to combat the restraints of human biology. It could have been rather dry, but in Dublin journalist Mark O’Connell’s hands the exploration is more philosophical than academic, and his line-up of hopeful, if sometimes scary, robot-researchers, life-hackers and utopians and make for as many laughs as genuine pauses for thought.

Fiction is also fixated on the potentially enhancing or belittling impact of scientific endeavour. Czech / American writer Jaroslav Kalfar’s futuristic Spaceman of Bohemia tracks astronaut Jakob Procházka’s lonely mission to investigate a dust cloud over Venus. As he travels further and further from home, Kalfar’s novel turns into a very moving – as well as often absurd and funny – contemplation of our reliance on the basic stuff of life on Earth. Despite the panoramic vista of its awesome interplanetary setting, this is as affecting a dissection of the humble human heart as you’ll read this year.

Eugenia Cheng, Beyond Infinity, Profile Books, £12.99

Lawrence Weschler, Waves Passing in the Night, Bloomsbury, £30.00

Time Travel, James Gleick, Fourth Estate, £16.99

To Be a Machine, Mark O’Connell, Granta, £12.99

Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfar, Sceptre, £12.99

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