The Heavens. Sandra Newman.

Newman, Sandra. The Heavens. Grove press, New York, 2019. F;2/19.

I was put off early in this story by somebody having a dream that felt like those highly-computerized animated adventure stories much beloved of ten-year-olds of all ages: Harry Potter at their best but mostly more like electronic games or promotions for them. This didn’t persist fortunately, but a different and quite a bit more interesting story type took over: Back to the Future. Derivative though this might be, it raises all sorts of ontological puzzles and this author deals with that creatively. It’s a bit of a movie waiting to be shot, but I found it intriguing if at times a bit murky.

I’m not going to bother with plot alerts here, so if you haven’t read this book I suggest you skip this review and go get it: it’s pretty good.

Kate is a perfectly nice girl who falls in love with Ben, a perfectly nice guy. But she has atavistic dreams, and wakes up with the physical world around her slightly but definitely different from how it was before she went to sleep. Kate dreams about 17th century England, and there, when as a Jewish Italian girl Emelia she meets and falls in love with a small-time entertainer called Will, we start to get the spooky picture. Especially as back in her twenty-first century present Kate finds that Will’s records include an obituary of a nobody who died only shortly after the time of her dream. Back asleep and dreaming, she arranges for Will to get the patronage of a nobleman, and prevents him from going to London where the obituary was published.

Kate often dreams of a horrifying burnt city where even the insects are all dead. Once she figures out what is probably going on and tells Ben about it, the doctors he has her see make a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and Kate is put on medication and is in and out of a psychiatric hospital. She (and Emelia, who is a character in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets) both get pregnant, and the twenty-first century father turns out to be a charismatic former navy SEAL who is another time traveler from the future. He for now likely important reasons tries to talk Kate out of going into politics. William Shakespeare is also a traveler…

A dark philosophical side of the story creeps in: each time Kate wakes up in the twenty-first century things seem to be a little, or a lot, worse. Her brother never existed, she is at one point unaware that there was slavery in the United States. Finally we know that far far off in the future whoever “invented” time travel can’t avoid the entelechy of that abandoned burnt-out world coming earlier and earlier in history, so that that inventor no longer exists: global suicide.

Kate wakes up in Manhattan the morning of September 11, 2001, and she understands even more deeply that that no matter what she does the future only gets worse.

It’s partly about the butterfly effect: tiny perturbations in the past produce disproportionate and unpredictable things in the present and future. We see poor old Michael J Fox as Marty McFly at a 30-years-previously high school dance trying to prevent his parents from not meeting. Along different but related lines, back when I was writing papers on philosophy I did a thought experiment where I froze time and was able to explore in unlimited detail all the universe’s nearly infinite physical realities of that frozen instant. If I then advanced my frozen universe by the tiniest conceivable division of time and froze time again, everything would be very similar, but not quite exactly the same. Can there be, how could there be, anything in the second infinitesimally subsequent frozen universe that was not caused by something in the previous one? If physical causation is real there can’t be any such thing. And so the history of the universe is locked as each cause leads to every other result from beginning to end. But how could it possibly be that what we all presume is true actually is: we can in any instant choose one action over another, and change the course of the future. Causation would be magically violated all the time.

And then there’s the literary and creative approach to this whole issue taken by J L Borges in The Garden of Forking Paths: all the possible past and future realities do exist in some way. Come to think of it in Borges’s The Circular Ruins we have somebody dreaming somebody else and the Alice-in-Wonderland question of what would happen if he woke up and stopped dreaming.

Even though Sandra Newman’s story has been told in one way or another a dozen times, she has a new slant that includes physical apocalypse and more than enough character development, emotional truth, and dramatic what’s-going-to-happen-next to float it way clear of comic books and movies aimed at mental schoolchildren. She’s not in Borges’s league and does just occasionally bog down, but never enough to spoil the fun.

Highly recommended. 9.3/8.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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