Cosmology Themes in Modern Literary Fiction

My first class in the University of Chicago Masters in Liberal Arts program, taken this past spring, was “The New Cosmology” taught by Professor Michael Turner.  It was lots of fun and this is the final paper. There are some recommendations for summer reading if you are interested in literary science fiction.

Cosmology Themes in Modern Literary Fiction

Cosmology’s favorite topics are common themes in modern and post-modern fiction. Expanding, contracting, and bending time, parallel universes, the time-space continuum, the beginning and the end of time and the fragility of our isolated human existence are used as literary devices to explore human nature and address larger, even metaphysical questions. Critics often dismiss novels and plays with these subjects as science or “genre fiction” rather than literature or “literary” fiction. When do some novels and plays that use cosmology – the science of the origin and development of the universe – to stir emotions rise to the level of classic literature?

One explanation is that “literary” fiction focuses on meaning and ideas rather than purely entertainment. The prose, the style, and the choice of theme aspire towards art rather than pop culture, rising above the mainstream rather than pandering to it. Defining literary fiction may be as simple as looking at which books academics critique. Robin Roberts is a feminist critic of science fiction who wrote in 2010[1] that, “academic criticism of science fiction is now respectable. Since Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing and renowned writers such as Margaret Atwood and P. D. James, among many other luminaries, have published acclaimed works of science fiction, it is difficult for anyone but a prejudiced critic to dismiss science fiction as unworthy of study.”

Gregory Benford, a prolific author of fiction about astrophysics and cosmology, is also a professor emeritus of astrophysics at the University of California, Irvine. Benford has said there are two distinct ways to view our place in the universe; humanity is either seen as a context through which to view the Universe, or the Universe is seen as a context through which to view humanity. [2] Science fiction authors can use the cosmos beyond our own solar system, and beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, as a literary device or even a character by anthropomorphizing it, to delve into man’s role as a very, very small part of a greater whole.

Some writers like H.P. Lovecraft, known more for the strange and macabre, took the overwhelming nature of the cosmos and turned it against the reader. Lovecraft’s philosophical framework, cosmicism, runs through his works. Its main thrust is that “humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence, and perhaps are just a small species projecting their own mental idolatries onto the vast cosmos.” There is meaning in the universe but humans are too stupid to ever understand it and achieve a meaningful existence.[3]

In 1945, not too long after his death, the esteemed literary critic Edmund Wilson[4], dismissed Lovecraft as a “hack”. Lovecraft has now, apparently, entered “the literary canon” with the recent publication of a critical edition of his stories by Roger Luckhurst[5]. Luckhurst says, “Lovecraft did not create cosmic horror. He recreated it. Lovecraft desacralized cosmic horror, reinterpreting it through the lens of modern scientific theory and removing its Victorian moral assumptions.”

Luckhurst believes Lovecraft has had a profound influence on later creators of “fantastic” fiction. That must count for something.

When authors use cosmology to tell stories about the human condition, they typically use language and concepts non-scientists consider technically challenging and difficult to understand. The writer asks us to suspend our disbelief as time travel, unimaginably hot or cold temperatures, unfathomable distances, and microscopic subatomic particles support down-to-earth stories of love, war, and redemption. Those stories can’t just be fascinating descriptions of science. To hold our attention and rise above pulp status, they also have to be rich reads.

Some science fiction, called “speculative fiction”, describes a future vision of the cosmos. A few authors seemingly predicted the scientific and technological future while holding us spellbound at the same time. H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut wrote science fiction and are also considered literary lions. Is that because tastes have changed or, because many of their predictions have been realized?

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was written in 1895 when Albert Einstein was only sixteen years old. The novel is credited as one of the first to address the subject of time travel. In the first chapter, Wells’ character the Time Traveller tells some guests that there is a fourth dimension, the dimension of time, even though most mathematicians at that time acknowledged only three dimensions of space – length, breadth, and thickness. Ten years later Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity, describing the space-time continuum. In 1906, one year later, Hermann Minkowski announced a mathematical representation of Einstein’s theory as a 4-dimensional space-time continuum.

In stories like “The Wonderful Visit” and “Men Like Gods” Wells also took advantage of time as the fourth dimension to describe parallel universes.

A Wrinkle in Time is a science fiction fantasy novel for children and a Newberry Award winner by Madeleine L’Engle that was first published in 1962. The pure ambition of the novel, especially for the time, including complex and numerous literary and biblical allusions make it, arguably, a candidate for the literary science fiction pantheon. In 1962 space exploration was new and exciting to US citizens. In 1961, a year before A Wrinkle in Time was published, both the US and Russia sent manned rockets into space for the first time. The themes of A Wrinkle in Time reflect when it was written.

In the story, a young girl’s father, a government physicist, worked on a mysterious project called a tesseract and is now missing. A tesseract, in mathematics, is a four-dimensional shape (hypercube) that, when represented in three dimensions, looks like a cube inside of a cube with spokes connecting the corners of the two cubes together. In the novel, the tesseract is a portal from one area of space to another, made possible through the bending of space and time. Although the journey the children in the story take is fantasy, some of L’Engle’s story is based on real science.

L’Engle makes space travel sound exciting to children but sounds an alarm for adults as well: we don’t yet know everything there is to know about the universe. The book, surprisingly, has been one of the most frequent candidates for banning in the 50 years since its publication because of L’Engle’s use of magic, crystal balls and time travel combined with references to the Bible. Some do not agree science and religion should be mixed especially in books for young people. It was also innovative for its use of a young girl as the heroine.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969, has an experimental structure and also uses time travel as a plot device. It’s a satirical novel about the World War II experiences and random journeys through time of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim. The Modern Library ranked it as the 18th greatest English language novel of the 20th century.

Astronomer and Pulitzer, Peabody and Emmy award winner Carl Sagan’s novel Contact published in 1985, was also made into a movie. The heroine of the story is a woman, Eleanor Arroway, an astrophysicist and radio telescope engineer. The novel tells the story of the discovery of radio signals from outer space that lead humanity to reevaluate its romantic ideas about the nature of the universe.

Alan Lightman’s 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams was an international bestseller and has been translated into thirty languages and performed on the stage. The book is a collection of stories about what Lightman imagines Einstein dreamt while working on his theory of relativity as a patent office clerk in Switzerland in 1905. In one, dream time is circular and the characters are fated to relive their triumphs and failures over and over. “Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”[6] In another, time stands still, and in another, time is a nightingale.

More recent uses of time travel as a literary device aren’t as easily classified as science fiction, which may be why there’s no question you’ll find them in the bookstore on the literary fiction shelf. Jeanette Winterson’s 1997 novel Gut Symmetries is a love story about two physicists. The title is a play on words since GUT also stands for the Grand Unified Theory or the theory of everything science wants to discover. According to an interview with Winterson,[7] the title also represents “gut instinct, the feelings that lead us on much more than we like to admit. Symmetries, well, it’s the search for a perfect parallel universe, the one just like ours but without the problems. I suppose that’s what we look for when we fall in love…”

An excerpt from the novel shows how much Winterson has incorporated cosmology themes into the novel’s prose.

“Now that physics is proving the intelligence of the universe what are we to do about the stupidity of mankind? I include myself. I know that the earth is not flat but my feet are. I know that space is curved but my brain has been condoned by habit to grow in a straight line. What I call light is my own blend of darkness.”[8]

Audrey Niffeneggar’s 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife is also a romance that some critics wrote off as melodrama. The novel is less concerned with the science of time travel and its paradoxes than it is the love story. Instead it “uses time travel as a metaphor to explain how two people can feel as if they’ve known each other their entire lives,” according to critic Marc Mohan.[9] Maybe that’s why Niffeneggar’s novel rather than Winterson’s was a worldwide bestseller and made into a film.

In 1949 mathematician Kurt Gödel introduced a new solution to the Einstein equations one that includes models for a rotating universe and the existence of closed, time-like curves. “For us believing physicists,” said Einstein, “the distinction between the past, the present, and the future is only an illusion.”[10] Time-like curves, according to Gödel, pass through every point in space-time, implying that it is possible to travel into the past.

A paper by John Barrow at the Center for Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge says that this was “the first time that the possibility of time travel (into the past) had emerged in the context of a theory of physics.”[11] H.G. Wells’ discusses time travel in The Time Machine, but time travel to the past seemed to be in conflict with the laws of Nature. (Forward time travel, into the future, is routinely observed and is a simple consequence of special relativity, according to Barrow.)

Gödel’s universe is not the reality we live in. His universe is not expanding and there is no evidence that our universe is rotating. If it is, according to Barrow, “then its rate of spin must be at least 105 times slower than its expansion rate because of the isotropy of the microwave background radiation”[12]. But if time travel was now even remotely possible, according to the scientists, that was enough inspiration and justification for novelists to start creating alternate or parallel universes.

After that more novels make prominent use of the cosmos as a character and alternative or parallel universes also play a role. The stories are not limited to the English language. Jorge Luis Borges short story El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (“The Garden of Forking Paths“) was published in 1941 and describes a Sinologist who discovers a manuscript by a Chinese writer where the same tale is recounted in several, often contradictory, ways. The main character explains to his visitor (the writer’s grandson) that his relative conceived time as a “garden of forking paths”, where things happen in parallel in infinitely branching ways.[13]

“The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.”

Borges never received the Nobel Prize in Literature although he did share the Prix International with Samuel Beckett. Borges was fascinated by the concept of time, as is evidenced, according to translator Donald Yates, in many of his other works including the essays “A History of Eternity” (1934), “Circular Time” (1941), and “A New Refutation of Time” (1947). Yates believes, “The notion of time described in the “Garden of Forking Path” where each reality branches into alternate versions of simultaneous reality presages the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, introduced by the physicist Hugh Everett in 1957, 16 years after the publication of this story.”

Stephen King calls his seven-volume Dark Tower series the “linchpin” of his creative multiverse.[14] A traveler can go anywhere or any time from the Tower including Earth and any of the many parallel universes King has written about in his other books. Niven’s Ringworld was the 1970 winner of the triple play of science fiction literature prizes, the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards. The book was followed by three sequels, all set near the year 2855. The Ringworld is an enormous artificial world built in the shape of a ring, with gravity generated by the ring’s spin. The ring has a habitable flat inner surface of an area equal to roughly 3 million earth-sized planets.

Andrew Love[15] works at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and almost exclusively uses Niven’s Ringworld as the basis for his speeches to promote the use of science fiction to teach and inspire, especially about physics.

Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia premiered in 1993. The Independent describes it asan English country-house farce about the death of the universe.”[16] The action takes place in two different centuries.

Thomasina is one of Arcadia’s primary characters living in the early 1800’s. She is a thirteen-year-old math prodigy with insights into thermodynamics and heat transfer. One equation that runs only one-way: heat turns to cold. Thomasina’s worries about the cooling of the universe reflect worries of the period about nature run amok. A poem called Darkness written by her contemporary, Lord Byron, in 1816 describes a dark, cold world where the sun has been extinguished. (The “Year Without Summer” was caused by atmospheric volcanic ash from the Mount Tambora eruption in the Dutch East Indies.)

Bernard, a character in the play’s modern 1990’s wing, rejects the sterility and fatalism of modern science:

“We were quite happy with Aristotle’s cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God’s crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can’t think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars, big bangs, black holes – who gives a shit? If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge it isn’t doing much mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing ‘When Father Painted the Parlour’? Leave me out, I can expand my universe without you.”

Stoppard’s play, says The Independent’s reviewer Johann Hari,[17] “stirs the most basic and profound questions humans can ask. How should we live with the knowledge that extinction is certain – not just of ourselves, but of our species?”

In 1998, astrophysicist Benford wrote Cosm[18], novel about speculative cosmology using a black female physicist heroine set in the RHIC (the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider) experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. The plot of the novel focuses on a possibly plausible concept in theoretical physics. Stephen Davis’ review[19] describes it as, “an area of “false vacuum” that could be created in our “true vacuum” universe, and that this “false vacuum” would be a universe unto itself, connected to this universe by a “neck” of negative energy density.”

Can cosmos-themed literature be so powerful as to turn our assumptions about the universe, and life as we know it, upside down? Lt Col Peter Garretson is a transformational strategist at U.S. Air Force headquarters. In 2009 he was a visiting fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in India, researching space and energy cooperation between the United States and India under the sponsorship of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). In an interview with Kalkion Science Fiction and Fantasy Web Magazine[20] Garretson said we need “science fiction that creates a compelling vision of where we can take humanity over perhaps three generations using real, not just imagined technology.”

A 2012 obituary of Ray Bradbury said that it wasn’t so much his ideas but his writing that turned so many literary heads. U.K. writer Dr. Sanjida O’Connell wrote[21] that the tautological definition of literary fiction is works that “win literary awards, such as the Booker Prize for Fiction.” In 1996, Stephen King won an O. Henry Award for his short story “The Man in the Black Suit”. In 2003, King was honored with a lifetime achievement award, the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, by the National Book Awards. The choice stirred controversy because some critics believe mass popularity and literary merit are mutually exclusive. King is one author who has achieved both, even penning a guide to the art of writing, the prose master class called, On Writing[22].

Robin Winks was a professor at Yale University and expert on suspense writing, a category much of science fiction could arguably also belong to. He was quoted in a now-classic essay from thirty years ago by the New York Times critic Michiko Kukutani [23] saying the lines have now blurred between literary fiction and genre fiction.

“I also think that the very notion of what serious fiction is has begun to break down. It’s harder now for a serious reader to argue that the element of mystery in a well-written detective story is so different from the mystery in, say, a Donald Barthelme story. Both are engaged in using encoded language, both in communicating a lot more than they appear to be on the surface. Perhaps this will lead to a willingness to see that some writers of genre fiction are also serious writers – that it’s less a question of what a writer is dealing with than of the literary skill he brings to it.”

Science fiction that addresses cosmological questions also focuses on the most fundamental questions of human existence: How did the universe begin? Why is there human life on earth? Are we alone? How will the universe end? This genre is full of ideas. When the cosmological novels, stories and plays also have depth, depth of character, style and exquisite prose, we should treasure them not just for what they teach us but also for how they enrich our lives.

[1]Robin Roberts, “American Science Fiction and Contemporary Criticism,” American Literary History, (22, Number 1), Spring 2010: 207-217.


[3] Fritz Leiber, “A Literary Copernicus,” Discovering H. P. Lovecraft,”ed. Darrell Schweitzer, New York, Borgo Press, 2001.

[4] Luc Sante, “The Heroic Nerd”, The New York Review of Books, October 19, 2006.

[5] Jess Nevins, “Why Lovecraft?” on The Classic Horror Stories, Los Angeles Review of Books, May 5, 2013.

[6] Lightman, Alan. Einstein’s Dreams. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1993. Hardcover.

[7], Books, Gut Symmetries, ©2008

[8] Winterson, Jeanette. Gut Symmetries. London: Granta, 1997. Hardcover.

[9] Marc Mohan, “Love and Other Disasters, Time shifts in a heartbeat in this novel relationship”, The Oregonian, 26 October 2003.

[10] Hikida, Yasuaki, and Soo-Jong Rey. “Can branes travel beyond CTC horizon in Gödel universe?.” Nuclear Physics B 669, no. 1 (2003): 57-77.

[11] Barrow, John D. “Godel and Physics.” Kurt Gödel and the Foundations of Mathematics: Horizons of Truth (2011): 255.

[12] D. Barrow, R. Juszkiewicz and D.H. Sonoda, MNRAS 213, 917 (1985).

[13] This translation appears in Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, Donald A. Yates, ed., New Directions Publishing Company, NY, 1962.


[15] Andrew Love, “Ringworld 40th Anniversary: Learning Physics with Ringworld”,, October 18, 2010.

[16] Johann Hari, “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?”, The Independent, May 22, 2009.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Benford, Gregory, Cosm, London: Orbit, 1998. Hardcover.

[19] Stephen M. Davis, “Cosm”,, 1998.



[22] King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002. Hardcover.

[23] Michiko Kakutani, “Mysteries Join The Mainstream”, The New York Times, January 15, 1984.

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