Our Tragic Universe

by Scarlett Thomas

The newest novel by Scarlett Thomas, this time centering on the end of the universe, the possibilty of superbeings, a mysterious beast of the moor, and the nature of storytelling.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780156031523
  • ISBN-10: 0156031523
  • Pages: 384
  • Publication Date: 05/12/2011
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book

    Can a story save your life?

    Meg Carpenter is broke. Her novel is years overdue. Her cell phone is out of minutes. And her moody boyfriend’s only contribution to the household is his sour attitude. So she jumps at the chance to review a pseudoscientific book that promises life everlasting.

    But who wants to live forever?

    Consulting cosmology and physics, tarot cards, koans (and riddles and jokes), new-age theories of everything, narrative theory, Nietzsche, Baudrillard, and knitting patterns, Meg wends her way through Our Tragic Universe, asking this and many other questions. Does she believe in fairies? In magic? Is she a superbeing? Is she living a storyless story? And what’s the connection between her off-hand suggestion to push a car into a river, a ship in a bottle, a mysterious beast loose on the moor, and the controversial author of The Science of Living Forever?

    Smart, entrancing, and boiling over with Thomas’s trademark big ideas, Our Tragic Universe is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, how we can rewrite our futures (if not our histories), and how stories just might save our lives.

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  • About the Author
  • Excerpts
    I was reading about how to survive the end of the universe when I got a text message from my friend Libby. Her text said, Can you be at the Embankment in fifteen minutes? Big disaster. It was a cold Sunday in early February, and I’d spent most of it curled up in bed in the damp and disintegrating terraced cottage in Dartmouth. Oscar, the literary editor of the newspaper I wrote for, had sent me The Science of Living Forever by Kelsey Newman to review, along with a compliments slip with a deadline on it. In those days I’d review anything, because I needed the money. It wasn’t so bad: I’d built up some kind of reputation reviewing science books and so Oscar gave me all the best ones. My boyfriend Christopher did unpaid volunteer work on heritage sites, so it was down to me to pay the rent. I never turned down a commission, although I wasn’t at all sure what I’d say about Kelsey Newman’s book and this idea of surviving beyond the end of time.

    In some ways I was already surviving beyond the end of time: beyond deadlines, overdraft limits and ultimatums from my bank manager. I hit deadlines to get money, but not always to give it away. That winter I’d been reduced to cashing all my cheques in a high-commission, no-questions-asked place in Paignton and paying utility bills at the Post Office with cash. Although what did anyone expect? I was hardly a big-time writer, although I was still planning to be. Every time a white envelope came from the bank Christopher added it to the pile of mail on my desk upstairs. I never opened any of these envelopes. I didn’t have much credit on my phone, so I didn’t text Libby back; but I put the book down and got off the bed and put on some trainers. I’d vowed never to go out in Dartmouth on a Sunday evening, for complicated reasons. But I couldn’t say no to Libby.

    The grey afternoon was curling into evening like a frightened woodlouse. I still had fifty pages of The Science of Living Forever to read and the deadline for my review was the next day. I’d have to finish the book later and make sure I filed the review on time if I wanted any chance of it being in the paper on Sunday. If it didn’t go in until the next week I would miss being paid for a month. Downstairs, Christopher was on the sofa cutting pieces of reclaimed wood to make a toolbox. We didn’t have a garden he could work in, just a tiny, completely enclosed and very high-walled concrete yard in which frogs and other small animals sometimes appeared miraculously, as if they had dropped from the sky. As I walked into the sitting room I could see sawdust getting in everything, but I didn’t point this out. My guitar was propped up by the fireplace. Every time Christopher moved the saw back or forth the vibration travelled across the room and made the thick E string tremble. The sound was so low and sad and haunting that you could barely hear it. Christopher was sawing hard: his brother Josh had been for lunch yesterday and he still wasn’t over it. Josh found it therapeutic talking about their mother’s death; Christopher didn’t. Josh was happy that their father was dating a 25-year-old waitress; Christopher thought it was disgusting. It had probably been up to me to stop the conversation, but at the time I was worrying that I hadn’t even looked to see what book I was supposed to be reviewing, and that the bread was running out and we didn’t have any more. Also, I didn’t really know how to stop the conversation.

    Sometimes when I went downstairs I’d think about saying something, and then I’d imagine how Christopher would be likely to reply and end up saying nothing at all. This time I said, ‘Guess what?’ and Christopher, still sawing madly, as if into the back of his brother’s head, or perhaps Milly’s head, said, ‘You know I hate it when you start conversations like that, babe.’ I apologised, but when he asked me to hold a piece of wood for him I said I had to take the dog out.

    ‘She hasn’t been out for ages,’ I said. ‘And it’s getting dark.’

    Bess was in the hallway, rolling on a piece of rawhide.

    ‘I thought you walked her this afternoon,’ Christopher said.

    I put on my anorak and my red wool scarf and left without saying anything else; I didn’t even turn back when I heard Christopher’s box of nails fall on the floor, although I knew I should have done.

    How do you survive the end of time? It’s quite simple. By the time the universe is old enough and frail enough to collapse, humans will be able to do whatever they like with it. They’ll have had billions of years to learn, and there’ll be no matron to stop them, and no liberal broadsheets and no doomy hymns. By then it’ll just be a case of wheeling one decrepit planet to one side of the universe while another one pisses itself sadly in another galaxy. And all this while waiting for the final crunch, as everything becomes everything else as the universe begins its beautiful collapse, panting and sweating until all life arcs out of it and all matter in existence is crushed into a single point and then disappears. In the barely audible last gasp of the collapsing universe, its last orgasmic sigh, all its mucus and pus and rancid jus will become pure energy, capable of everything imaginable, just for a moment. I didn’t know why I’d contemplated trying to explain this to Christopher. He’d once made me cry because he refused to accept spatial dimensions, and we’d had a massive row because he wouldn’t look at my diagram that proved Pythagoras’s theorem. According to Christopher the books I reviewed were ‘too cerebral, babe’. I didn’t know what he’d make of this one, which was a complete head-fuck.

    According to Kelsey Newman, the universe, which always was a computer, will, for one moment   —   not even that   —   be so dense and have so much energy that it will be able to compute anything at all. So why not simply program it to simulate another universe, a new one that will never end, and in which everyone can live happily ever after? This moment will be called the Omega Point, and, because it has the power to contain everything, will be indistinguishable from God. It will be different from God, though, because it will run on a processing power called Energia. As the universe gets ready to collapse, no one will be writing poetry about it or making love for the last time or just bobbing around, stoned and listless, waiting for annihilation, imagining something beautiful and unfathomable on the other side. All hands will be on deck for the ultimate goal: survival. Using only physics and their bare hands, humans will construct the Omega Point, which, with its infinite power, can and for various reasons definitely will, bring everyone back to life   —   yes, even you   —   billions of years after you have died, and it will love everyone and create a perfect heaven. At the end of the universe anything could happen, except for one thing.

    You can’t die, ever again.

    It wasn’t the kind of book Oscar usually sent me. We reviewed popular science, however wacky, but we drew the line at anything New Age. Was this a New Age book? It was hard to tell. According to the blurb, Newman was a well-respected psychoanalyst from New York who had once advised a president, although it didn’t say which one. He had been inspired to write his book by reading the work of the equally well-respected physicist Frank Tipler, who had come up with the idea of the Omega Point and done all the necessary e
  • Reviews
    "Few writers can mix science, philosophy, and humor as cleverly as Thomas..." —Library Journal

     A "delightfully whimsical novel"...Thomas "dexterously mixes the serious with the humorous..."
    Publishers Weekly

    A "freewheeling intellectual journey with no destination. ... For the omnivorous reader who, like Meg, can't get enough of the insights and passions and theories and inner lives of others, Thomas's fifth novel should be an addictive delight." —Kirkus Reviews

    "Thomas brilliantly reminds us that, despite popular representations, many women are actually staying up half the night talking ideas. One feels alone. And then one reads Our Tragic Universe." —Jincy Willett, author of Winner of the National Book Award

    "A delight, not least for the quality of Scarlett Thomas’s writing, which is full of a very enjoyable life and energy." —Philip Pullman

     "Our Tragic Universe surprised me with where it goes, and in such a terrific way. Scarlett Thomas’s prose is so addictive you can’t help but fall deeper and deeper under her spell. How does she do it? She is a genius." —Douglas Coupland

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