October the First Is Too Late

October the First Is Too Late
written by Fred Hoyle,
published in 1966.

I read this book and wrote this review about a month or so ago, immediately after finishing Paul Davies’ About Time. I wasn’t sure about sharing something that is purely a book review in this space (as opposed to a piece of writing that is inspired by or a reaction to having read the book), but decided that as this blog is increasingly becoming my working-out space for my thoughts about time, it all fits. So it’s belated, but here it is:

First thing I have to say is that for most of the book I thought it didn’t have a vigorous-enough plot line to explain the scientific stuff that was going on. One of the characters is a scientist and he is the decoder for us of the big events that happen in the book. These events concern time and how the world falls out of sync so that different countries are operating in different time periods. So it’s ancient times in Greece and 1917 in France and 1966 in the UK. All at the same time. The scientist explains all of this in terms of Einstein’s theory of block time: there is no such thing as the past, the present and the future as divisions of time. Every moment exists already. Past and future are only directions. This is why I read the book – to see how Hoyle used the novelistic form to treat this abstract concept.

But what we get is the scientist surmising what’s going on (and turning out to be right), but not actually explaining his reasoning. So as readers we’re hearing huge ideas that are coming out of nowhere. Big conclusions that the scientist seems to have just decided are true and that we can’t see the evidence for. Of course, in theoretical physics scientists do actually discover laws of physics through thought and calculations, not through experiments. But in a novel, we require a little more in terms of plot development.

However, chapter 14 makes up for a lot. Our characters have found a section of the Earth that is in the far future and they must decide whether to stay there or return to the past. There are consequences for themselves in that decision. It’s all explained very well a little earlier in the book (in chapter 7) using an analogy of our consciousness being like the contents of a series of pigeon holes lit in any direction by a random light. Effectively our life’s moments could be out of order but we don’t notice anything. According to our perception time takes us forward as usual. There could even be two versions of us, as long as only one consciousness is aware at any one time. This is the idea on which the book turns and clearly the reason it was written. It’s a scientific idea beautifully illustrated by the choice the characters must make. The moment of my understanding was glorious.

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