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In the opening sequence of Alan Garner’s powerful 1973 novel, Red Shift, two young lovers, Tom and Jan, are hanging around an area of Cheshire overlooking the M6 motorway chatting about Jan’s imminent departure to study in London. The dialogue is remarkable, as indeed it is throughout the book, mixing observations of trivial detail with profound emotion. In particular, it quickly becomes apparent that Tom has a high verbal acuity possibly shading into the speech of a savant. He alternates between moments of drably stated self-pity, genuine tenderness and voluminous, pedantic iterations of his encyclopaedic knowledge. He is a sad and maladroit character unable to reconcile the reality of his emotional life with his knowledge of the vastness of the cosmos. Cosmology seems to tell him that there is nothing to hold on to, nowhere solid to grasp and hold, nothing to provide a fulcrum of certainty. But what is also apparent is that his relationship with Jan provides him some sort of definite point of reality. Jan’s presence in his life is the lode star around which his cosmos moves.
In the opening exchanges, as they watch the motorway traffic passing beneath them, Jan asks of the cars and their passengers, “Where are they going? They look so serious.”
“’Well,’ said Tom. ‘Let’s work it out. That one there is travelling south at, say, one hundred and twenty kilometres per hour, on a continental shelf drifting east at about five centimetres per year _‘
‘I might’ve guessed –‘
‘- on a planet rotating at about nine hundred and ninety kilometres per hour at this degree of latitude, at a mean orbital velocity of thirty kilometres per second –‘
‘- in a solar system travelling at a mean galactic velocity of two hundred and twenty kilometres per second, in a galaxy that probably has a random motion –‘
‘- random knickers of about one hundred kilometres per second, in a universe that appears to be expanding at about one hundred and sixteen kilometres per second per megaparsec. . . The short answer’s Birmingham.’”
This exchange establishes Tom’s sense of disparity between the insignificance of mundane life on Earth and the inconceivably vast, expanding universe. His knowledge of cosmology haunts him through Red Shift, undercutting any sense of self-respect or importance that he might begin to feel, and making a mockery of his new feelings of love for Jan, constantly reminding him that everything in the universe is being pulled apart.
His opening skit on the movement of planetary and cosmic bodies is played for laughs. He is an adolescent in the early throes of sexual infatuation and this heightened sensibility allows him to conjure with the immensity of the universe at arm’s length. In a similar way, Gregory in Bill Forsythe’s film Gregory’s Girl tries to impress a girl by riffing on the vertiginous rush brought on by meditating on the movement of the Earth through space. Whilst they are both lying flat on the ground, he encourages her to join him in dancing: “I’ll tell you something, and not a lot of people know this. We are clinging to the surface of this planet while it spins through space at a thousand miles an hour, held only by the mystery force called gravity.” At this point the camera starts to twist round so that their position shifts from horizontal to vertical. “A lot of people panic when you tell them that and they just fall off. But I see you’re not falling off. That means you’ve got the hang of it.” Presumably, the invocation of cosmic immensity verges on the romantic because it has some relationship to the sublime. Immersion in the vastness, whether of space or of wild landscapes, produces a euphoria born of vulnerability. As a mating strategy it may be flawed but it is not irrational.
But for Tom in Red Shift, his awareness of vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe is part of a deeper problem. For much of the book, Jan is able to protect him from the reality of a conceptually unrealisable, expanding universe, providing him with a deeply felt human connection that succeeds in grounding him. In this respect, Garner’s explanation of Red Shift as a retelling of the Tamlin ballad makes sense. In the varied versions of Tamlin, a maiden known as either Janet or Margaret meets with Tamlin who used to be a mortal man but has now been captured by the fairies. After their meeting, she finds that she is pregnant and returns at Halloween to the place where they had met. Tamlin reveals that he fears the Queen of Faery will send him to hell as a tithe when they ride that night. He instructs Janet/Margaret to catch him from his horse and hold him tightly. He further warns her that he will be transformed into different beasts but that she must continue to hold him and that he will do her no harm. She does so and despite the difficulty of holding on to him through his transformations they both come through together and thwart the Faery Queen.
In Red Shift, Tom undergoes a very particular series of transformations. He does not shape shift or alter his bodily constitution but he nevertheless experiences a type of transformation that ties in with the book’s parallel with Tamlin. Tom is somehow connected with characters living in both Civil War times and at the time of the Roman occupation. But none of the characters understands how their lives are intersecting or even that there is any intersection. The three characters from each timeline, Tom, Thomas from the Civil War period, and Macey from the Roman period, each experiences moments of seizure that are accompanied by hallucinations. This is the mechanism by which their lives appear to be connected. When each of the men suffers this seizure (apparently an epileptic seizure) he sees colours and glimpses of images from other times. Somehow, at these moments, the veil separating the lives of the three men across time wears thin and shadowy forms of information are able to leak through.
Tom’s anxiety about the size and nature of the universe is understandable. Estimates of the number of stars and galaxies in the observable universe seem to be continually revised upwards. A popular cosmology book published in 2016 estimates that there might be 165 billion galaxies in the observable universe. The current Wikipedia entry for ‘Star’ puts the estimate of the number of stars at 1023. A 2017 article on space.com gives an estimate of 1024 stars but adds, “that number is likely a gross underestimation, as more detailed looks at the universe will show even more galaxies.” It’s quite possible that the number of stars might be twice that, or even higher.
These numbers appear as nothing but abstractions to our minds. As a species we have never needed to deal with anything at this scale and it is very difficult, probably impossible, to begin to conceptualise a universe persisting at such a vast scale. We have simply never evolved the capacity for apprehending a universe of 1024 stars, nor for that matter the difference in scale between a universe of 1023 stars and a universe of 1024 stars. We can dutifully write the number out and count the zeros, but we can’t project an image of such a universe out into our conceptual space.
By the end of Red Shift, Tom has become disillusioned with Jan. Their relationship begins to break down as each feels a sense of betrayal by the other. It is very mundane and predictable except that they have both elevated their love into something transcendent, so that the dip when it comes hits them both very hard. Crucially, the betrayal that they both feel means that Tom no longer feels protected from the world by Janet. They argue at cross purposes with each other in an all too plausible manner and Tom begins to feel the cold indifference of an incomprehensible universe as a pressing anxiety. At the end, Tom is still haunted by knowledge of the scale of the cosmos but, without the security provided by Jan, he has become hopelessly nihilistic. “Galactic. Red shift. The further they go, the faster they leave. The sky’s emptying.” Tom and Jan had spun a protective caul of love for one another largely conjured from the secret, esoteric language that lovers always develop between themselves, but when this breaks down Tom is no longer able to keep his vertiginous terror of the immensity of the cosmos at arm’s length. Jan is able to hold on to him through his varied transformations but in the end it is a misunderstanding concerning a shared symbol between the two that undoes them.
The horrifying sense of cosmic indifference marries up with a further sense of mystifying disorientation when considering the nature of time as it subsists within the universe. In his book, The Order of Time, the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli summarises the understanding of time as it fits within our current model of the universe. He points out that time is not a necessary feature of any particular fundamental principles or formulae of contemporary science. Whilst this has been known for some time it has also been assumed that the direction of time (time’s arrow) is determined by the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy. In an isolated system there is a movement from more order to less order (higher entropy to lower entropy) and this movement coincides with the passage from past to future. In fact, this is literally the only thing that determines the passage of time from past to future. This was the position taken by Stephen Hawking in his A Brief History of Time: “I shall argue that the psychological arrow is determined by the thermodynamic arrow, and that these two arrows necessarily always point in the same direction.”
We might often see a glass fall from a table and shatter into dozens of pieces but we never see dozens of pieces of glass spontaneously gather themselves together and form a perfect whole. It’s possible to run the equations in both directions but in real life it is not possible to actually run time’s arrow back to the past. This is because everything we see is governed by the second law of thermodynamics. All systems, including life, are embedded within this fundamental feature of the universe. The physical processes in our bodies produce heat and so increase entropy. It is not possible to escape from this basic and irreversible directionality of time.
But Rovelli thinks that this picture of the universe is wrong or at least it is a picture that is constrained by our own inability to see. There is nothing in the science that insists that the film of the universe has to be played forwards rather than backwards. There is a pattern of more entropy in one direction and less entropy in another but intriguingly Rovelli argues that our perception of the irreversible flow of time is simply a blurred and partial view of things conditioned by our own perceptual apparatus. So the thermodynamic arrow of time is not a prior condition that determines the flow of time as we experience it. Rather, the necessary way in which we subjectively experience time conditions our understanding of the unidirectional flow of entropic time. In other words, and contra Hawking, the thermodynamic arrow of time is determined by the psychological arrow of time.
It is certainly an obvious source of sublime mystery to look at the stars and know that we are seeing objects as they appeared years or even hundreds of years ago. Still more so when considering stars that sit far beyond visibility with the naked eye. The furthest star from Earth detected within the Milky Way is 900000 light years away. The researcher who discovered it attempted to frame its location within a comprehensible human context: “To put it in perspective, when the light from ULAS J0015+01 left the star, our early human ancestors were just starting to make fires here on Earth.” If these considerations provoke an uncomfortable feeling of disorientation we should not be at all surprised. It may be that such disorientation is the first step towards an apprehension of the universe as it actually is.
An understanding of spacetime leads to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a shared present. What exists as the exact moment of the present for me, my now, is not the same as your now and it is certainly very different for the now of a hypothetical being on a distant planet. And this relativity of time is not simply a mathematical problem relating to the vast distances involved. Rovelli explains the nature of the problem with reference to a hypothetical sister on a planet called Proxima b which is four light years away. If you could look at your sister on Proxima b through a telescope you would only be able to see her as she was four years ago. The now that you see through the telescope is four years out of date. So, if you then surmise that your sister’s now is what she will be doing four years after you have seen her through the telescope, would that be correct? Surprisingly, it would not: “four years after you have seen her through the telescope, in her time, she might already have returned to Earth and could be (yes! this is really possible!) ten terrestrial years in the future. But ‘now’ cannot be in the future. . . Perhaps we can do this: if, ten years ago, your sister had left for Proxima b, taking with her a calendar to keep track of the passage of time, can we think that now for her is when she has recorded that ten years have passed? No, this does not work either: she might have returned here ten of her years after leaving, arriving back where, in the meantime, twenty years have elapsed. So when the hell is ‘now’ on Proxima b? The truth of the matter is that we need to give up asking the question. There is no special moment on Proxima b that corresponds to what constitutes the present here and now.”
It is not a matter of working out the moment of the present for me then tracing back the course of light from a distant planet and arriving at some sort of concord between them. The now for me here on Earth simply does not exist on that planet or anywhere else in the universe. There is no shared moment of simultaneity within the universe.
This complete loss of any possibility of temporal concord attaining through the cosmos is another devastating blow to the sense we have of our special status. Not only do we live on an infinitesimal speck of dust orbiting one star out of 24 quintillian, we also do not even persist in a shared timeline with the other stars. For a species that finds meaning in shared, communal events and in a special sense of place, these findings of contemporary physics are a ruthless assault on our capacity to endow our lives with any meaning at all. We seem to be lost in an almost infinite darkness and in a temporal sphere outside of which there is not only an absence of life but also an absence of now. We are radically alone in both space and time.
Not really now not any more.
1. Cox, B. And Forshaw, J. (2016). Universal: A Journey Through the Cosmos. London: Allen Lane.
2. Howell, E. (2017). How Many Stars are in the Universe? [online] Space.com. Available at: https://www.space.com/26078-how-many-stars-are-there.html
3. Hawking, S. (1988). A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. London: Bantam Press.
4. Wall, M. (2014). Found! Most Distant Stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. [online] Space.com. Available at: https://www.space.com/26483-milky-way-most-distant-stars.html
5. Rovelli, C. (2018). The Order of Time. London: Allen Lane.