Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ came out in 1726 and was an immediate best-seller. Gulliver, a surgeon and master mariner, encountered a number of bizarre races on his travels: the tiny Lilliputians, the gigantic Brobdingnagians and the uncouth Yahoos. These weird, early science-fictional encounters were actually satires on the now long-forgotten politics of the day.
Time, therefore, for an update. In the Flambaum’s ‘How to Make a Big Bang: A Cosmic Journey’, the latter-day Gulliver is Alice (the ‘Wonderland’ reference is hardly accidental) and here is how the book starts.
“Welcome to the show, folks. I’m your host, Bruce Lensig. We were informed that the winner of the global search has been selected. She is Alice N. from a small town with an avid scientific community. Alice will travel to a distant planet to be educated by aliens for a year, teach them about us, and return with the combined knowledge of both worlds.”
Alice is accompanied on this journey by her opinionated (and genetically-engineered) pet cat Meowhugs together with an obnoxious talking parrot named Mara and an AI-directed starship called Joe. But no straightforward trip to her alien destination awaits: the travelling troupe unfortunately encounters the time-dilating horizon of a black hole and is propelled billions of years into the future. Here they meet the perfect beings of the planet Utopia (shortly to become extinct in their hyper-optimized evolutionary cul-de-sac); robot worlds terraformed and prepared for humanity’s arrival (they have forgotten what humans look like and attack the travelers on sight); and Dark-Matter Djinns who fight their Titan enemies using neutron stars as weapons (Alice offers useful tactical advice).
Alice discovers that our universe is embedded in a higher-dimensional reality. In fact, Amunet, a student in this greater universe has created our own universe as a class project. Amunet is a deeply moral girl and enters her creation to meet up with Alice and help her find a new Earth (our Earth having been destroyed by now in the final flame-out of the sun). Amunet’s own world is horrible: to graduate from college she has to pass an exam in lies, deceit and manipulation; her final test is to betray her closest friend in front of the entire class. She comes through this ordeal with flying colors.
At various points in this novel we encounter a painting which sucks the viewer in, a super-intelligent human/killer-whale hybrid called Guia and Roman-style gladiatorial games with genetically-engineered combatants. We visit the Greek Gods, driven from Mount Olympus in Greece by pesky humans who keep climbing up and bothering them – in an echo of Dan Simmons’ ‘Ilium’, they decamp to Olympus Mons on Mars. And we finally discover the ghastly fate suffered by our close cousins, the Neanderthals.
Interspersed with these adventures co-author Victor Flambaum (a Professor of Theoretical Physics) provides mini-tutorials on the Big-Bang, Supernovas, Dark Matter and Dark Energy (which he controversially equates with the field responsible for initial cosmic inflation).
I imagine that the other co-author, Andrew Flambaum, is primarily responsible for the fast, feisty and rather literary style. There are many examples of imaginative writing to savor, like this example from page 157.
“I recollected the time when I seized a new book and headed to the late autumn forest. It was a tale of a solitary space traveler who inadvertently tore off the mask from the stars to discover their bleak profiles hidden behind dazzling disguises. Secluded in the forest, I had many revelations. The silhouettes of distant trees shimmered with curious lights. I read the pattern in the stones. I guessed the origin of crows. Their beaks. So black. So long.”
In conclusion, there is plenty to like in this knockabout, surreal satire and it repays a second reading. It isn’t for everyone, however. There’s not much plot – the authors are far more interested in assembling dazzling episodes – and it’s clear that characterization and personal development are not what this book is all about. Read ‘How to Make a big Bang: A Cosmic Journey’ instead for its scintillating concepts and wonderfully-imagined scenes.