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Exploring the Speculative Sci-Fi of Einstein’s Dreams

A Man at a sci-fi Clock Tower - Reviewing the Speculative Fiction of Einstein's Dreams

Einstein’s Dreams: Science Fiction Used to Understand Potential Reality

Dr. Alan Lightman’s truly unique investigation into the potential ramifications of alterations of Einstein’s theories of relativity is titled Einstein’s Dreams. Einstein’s Dreams is a science fiction novel which is comprised of a series of anecdotes “dreamed” by Albert Einstein as he struggles to put together his theory of relativity in the Swiss city of Bern. Each of his dreams are self-contained hypothetical realities in which the property of time behaves differently than we are used to. The author holds a PhD in theoretical physics, and so each anecdote is well-thought out from start to finish, though only tenuously connected to the actual mathematics of relativity. There are truly few books as creative and fascinating as Einstein’s Dreams, and Lightman’s expertise shows through strongly.

An important caveat about Einstein’s Dreams is that answers are fewer in supply than questions. The individual anecdotes about different configurations of time itself are airy vignettes, not intended to be held to the standard of realism or gritty analysis. Time must be taken exactly as it comes; considering that there’s no explanatory materials that come with the novel, it’s the only choice we’ve got.

Time

Each anecdote in Einstein’s Dreams takes place in Bern, which at the time of the story’s setting, was a bustling mercantile town rather than a hub of Swiss banking as it is today. Located centrally in the fictional Bern is the clock tower, a constant reminder of the passage of time. The clock tower is frequently referred to as an expository device which crystallizes the differences between the different realities that Einstein dreams.

In one anecdote, time is understood to have a finite start at some point in the past, and a determinate end point in the near future: September 26, 1907. While it’s unknown what exactly will occur at the end of time, the residents of Bern take it in stride, and resolve to take it easy for the last month of time. Stores close, and people reconcile with each other and enjoy their final days together–strongly implying that the end of time is suspected to be the end of their world. The city has planned for the end of time well in advance, and things go smoothly as a result. Time ends peacefully as planned, and with it, the anecdote. Much like many of the other anecdotes, the reader’s impression of bleakness (related to the end of time being the end of the world) is rejected in favor of a relativist approach, perhaps ironically.

In another anecdote, time repeats itself in relatively short intervals. The residents of Bern rise each day, fully content that things will play out exactly as they have the previous infinite number of times. Each day is an exact copy of the previous day, and “resets” imperceptibly overnight. Things are very boring, but the status quo is safe. There is no fear, nor emotion whatsoever. Instead, people play their roles, because it is the only thing that exists.

Bern and the Berners

Closely related to this anecdote is the dream in which time exists as a dynamic equilibrium. Time has a definite direction and doesn’t cycle per se, but things tend to be nearly the same as they were before. There are no major changes over an infinite amount of time. Instead, small details change, though they are confined within a narrow range. Clothing styles remain static, though perhaps the color that an individual wears from day to day may be different. The seasons of Bern change in a predictable fashion, with an especially cold winter being a degree or two cooler than others. People are born, age, and die, although their likeness to their parents and grandparents is nearly identical. The residents of Bern are dimly aware of how uniform their society is, although none are ever able to develop the idea further. In this conception of time, the more things change, the more they are the same.

The real beauty of Einstein’s Dreams is in the poetic license that Lightman takes with Bern itself: no matter the conditions of time, Bern and its residents are perfectly adapted, because it is all they have ever known. Frequently the conditions of Bern seem oppressive or offensive, particularly in anecdotes where time is altered in such a way as to preclude changing of the course of events. The residents of these hypothetical Berns show no angst. To them, the bizarre distortions of time encapsulated in each anecdote are as fundamental as our reality’s flow of time is for us. After all, you wouldn’t lament E=MC2 in our reality, as it’s an ineffable law of nature.


Phillip K. Dick’s novel The Man In The High Castle depicts a dark alternative future in which the Axis powers beat the Allies in World War 2. In the history of The Man In The High Castle, the United States of America as we know it has been disbanded and split into three occupied territories: the Pacific States of America, occupied by Imperial Japan, the United States of America, occupied by Nazi Germany, and the Rocky Mountains buffer zone, with sparse [Click here to read more…]


Interspersed with the stoical residents of the Bern of Einstein’s dreamworlds are a few interludes of the “real” Bern that Einstein inhabits as he attempts to develop his theory of relativity. Einstein shuffles about with an overflowing mind, frequently meeting his friend Michele. These passages are largely intermissions from the mind-bending of Einstein’s dreamworlds. In the real Bern, we see an orderly town that behaves exactly as we would expect of an early 20th century Swiss town. Notably, the readers are introduced to many hypothetical alternatives to the real Bern before seeing the benchmark for “normal”, doubtlessly an intentional choice on Lightman’s part.

Fascination is eternal

The strongest aspect of Einstein’s Dreams is the mental engagement of the reader. Lightman is an expert on provoking the reader to fill in details and ask rhetorical questions. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to read through Einstein’s Dreams without coming out enriched. By playing with an attribute of reality as fundamental as time itself, Lightman does great justice to Einstein himself. Even in a fictionalized form, wrestling with something as simultaneously imperceptible and ubiquitous as time is extremely difficult. The only “message” to derive from Einstein’s Dreams is one that was frequently echoed by Einstein himself: the laws of the universe are for mankind an infinite source of wonder.

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1 Response

  1. Garrett Carroll

    You may have found my next book to read, or at least a few books down the line.

    I definitely like reading harder sci fi novels, and this one seems to be one I’ll be reading sometime Soon!

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