I’ve very much been looking forward to Knockabout publishing Jen Harder’s Alpha, the first of a projected three graphic works which aim to take in one of the grandest themes a book can tackle: life, the universe and everything, from the fizzing, bizarre microseconds around the Big Bang when even the universal laws of physics and nature hadn’t yet taken effect (in fact they didn’t yet exist as we know them) through the slow birth of stars, planets, whole galaxies, then the molten lumps which would grow and reform to become one planet in particular, our own beautiful Earth.
In Alpha Harder takes us on a mind-blowing head-trip through some four and a half billion years (give or take) from the “let there be light” moment to formation of the Earth, the endless ages of changes, the first sparks of life, the astonishing spectacle of evolution, of great geological processes, from the beginning right through to the Anthropocene era, the “human era”. And as a subtle reminder that humans are not as special as we like to think we are, we come in only at the very end of this volume, comparative latecomers in the great book of life on Earth.
The Beta and Gamma volumes are aiming to look at the rise of humans, form primitive ape-like forms to modern humans and establishing civilisations then potential futures, but those are stories for other days, and while I very much want to read those, Alpha offers up more than enough imagery, spectacle, amazement and food for thought for any reader to mentally digest.
“At first only a germ exists, the singularity. From this infinitely hot and dense original state, no bigger than a football, the Universe expands. An inflation commences. The beginning of Space-Time.”
The breadth and scope of Alpha is remarkable, and Jens has the confidence to trust his readers and their own ability and knowledge, frequently giving us entire pages without text, just images, trusting his readers to participate with him, to be an active part of this story telling experiment. And what a story – the great story, the one philosophers, sages, religious leaders and scientists alike have explored since… Well, for as long as humans have been capable of thought. The first section come across very much like a fantastic voyage, spectacular images splashed across our retinas, from the infinitely small world of sub-atomic physics, quarks, of matter and anti-matter springing into being and annihilating one another, then to the much larger scale, to the cosmological scale. Hydrogen gas accumulating, gravity starting to exert its power billions of years before Isaac Newton would lay down his laws. Atoms are formed, stable substances, they start to group together under the influence of gravity.
As they clump together they are changed, enlarged, spinning, turning, growing. From simple dust and gas will come the most massive of structures: swirling gas spins before our eyes, faster, faster, heat generated by the friction, the rotation, pressures building from being so squashed together until heat and pressure pass the point of no return and this accumulation of matter ignite: nuclear fusion takes place at their heart and the first stars burn into existence, fuelling in turn the creation of more elements, while around these new stars more rocks come together, slowly, oh so slowly forming what will become the planets. It will take billions of years, but these cold rocks smashing together will one day become vast, complex ecospheres of their own, especially our own remarkable world.
We move from the cosmic to the Earthly, to a world we wouldn’t recognise, one we couldn’t actually live on – the atmosphere, such as it was, poison to us and to most other life we know of, no water yet, the surface crust just the thinnest covering over raging magma, constantly bombarded by debris from the formation of the solar system. And yet this volcanic hell-world is destined to become the richest and most diverse source of life in our entire solar system. Wind and water start to form on this embryonic planet, shaping it as much as the geological movements do, that spinning metal core starts to generate a magnetic field, deflecting the worst cosmic rays, an invisible umbrella that will encourage and protect the endless variety of life to come.
And that life too will change the form of the Earth, the earliest lifeforms breathing the foul atmosphere and excreting oxygen. We can even still see some of those incredibly ancient lifeforms, such as the Stromatolites off the coast of the great island continent of Australia. We know that mighty oaks come from a humble acorn, but here Jens graphically shows us the almost miraculous formation of worlds, stars and life, from the most primitive bacteria which would eventually lead to swimming creatures, then backbones, eyes, legs. Giant sea scorpions, massive dinosaurs, the rise of the mammals, the waves of extinctions and the new forms which would emerge to take their place, a never-ending cycle of death and new life while around that life the Earth itself, seemingly so solid to short-lived beings like us, is continually changed, altered, mountains rise, erode, entire continents move and reform…
Jens doesn’t just offer up imagery of these events though – throughout the entire book he constantly inserts frames from much, much later, from our own human culture era, into the events. The slow coalescing of gases into the spark of nuclear ignition that forms a living star comes across like a NASA countdown. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, we have ignition, and appropriately this sequence is intercut with the mighty blast of human-built rockets defying gravity to launch a spacecraft beyond our world. The growing power of the young sun bathing the early planets is intercut with more human imagery, Egyptian pharaohs and their children beneath the all-powerful sun-god Ra (or perhaps it is the Aten sun-god of the heretic king Akhenaten). Early creatures experiencing celluar division are contrasted with mythological beings from Incan and Mayan civilisations.
Sequences depicting the first order out of chaos as the laws of physics establish themselves following the Big Bang are intercut with human desires to impose order on nature, the swirl of the subatomic coming together to form the larger-scale reality intercut with the creation of the great Pantheon and its wondrous dome by the Romans. The embryonic seas form in a sequence intercut with Hokusai’s famous Great Wave artwork. Depictions of continental drift are contrasted with delightfully inaccurate and yet still so beautiful medieval Mappa Mundi, the amazing new life forms of the great beasts contrasted with woodcut images from a bestiary, the era of the giant “terror birds” with Alice meeting Dodo, the evolutionary adaptation of skeletons to move from sea to land with the structure of the mighty Forth Rail Bridge, nature and human culture and invention entwined repeatedly.
It’s a remarkable experience; this journey across unbelievably vast tracts of time and creation is mind-bending. It puts me in mind of The Light of Other Days, a collaboration between Stephen Baxter and the great Arthur C Clarke, in which wormhole technology allows humans to look anywhere in time and space, one character following his own family line back, back, back, his mother, father, grandparents, following them visually all the way back to early hominids and further back. But here, unlike Clark and Baxter, we are moving forward, not back, sailing through space-time and history and evolution.
And while the concepts are as vast and complex as the timescales and lifeforms they depict, this counter-cutting the story of creation with human images puts a scale on it we can understand, while also reminding us strongly that we’re not different, we’re not apart from all of this, we are an integral part of this magnificent chain of creation. It also subtly hints that out of all of those billions of years and different lifeforms, we are the only ones we know of who have established an understanding of these things, and even then only comparatively recently.
It’s only a few hundred years since Hooke explored the microscopic world we never even knew existed before that period, even more recent since we started to understand world-shaping concepts like continental drift or stellar physics or sub-atomic physics or the Darwinian notions of evolution, barely half a century since we discovered DNA or set foot on a surface that was not part of our own world, but another celestial body. And yet all those new discoveries and knowledge are all connected with what went before, standing on the shoulders of giants, our precious knowledge showcased so wonderfully here also part of that same great chain of circumstances across billions of years which allowed the conditions for these things to happen, these creatures to be, these people to exist, to think…
It is both incredibly humbling, putting us in our place, just another part of a long cycle of life, and yet also exalting humanity for being the only life on Earth to be able to comprehend and celebrate this knowledge. Humans are a part of this creation, not aside from or above it, but a part of it, the latest in a long, oh so long chain of events leading to the conditions for life, then for that life to slowly evolve into beings who could regard this universe and start to read it’s history like a book, to start lifting back the heavy curtains of Dark Matter to peer at the very structures of the universe or to explore the book of life through DNA or the extensive fossil record our remarkable world has furnished us with and start putting together those stories. Which are our stories, the stories of all life.
This is a spectacular book, a ride through the creation of everything, leaving the head spinning, flooded with ideas, imagery, offering new lenses to look again at the world around us and marvel at it all. It’s combination of physics, cosmology, geology and evolutionary sciences is like a terrific mixture of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. Ultimately though, Alpha offers readers something truly special, that beautiful feeling that comes simply from the sheer sense of wonder.
“Don’t ask me and don’t tell me. I was there.
It was a bang and it was big. I don’t know
what went before, I came out with it.
Think about that if you want my credentials.
Think about that, me, it, imagine it
as I recall it now, swinging in my spacetime hammock,
nibbling a moon or two, watching you.
What am I? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
I am the witness, I am not in the dock.
I love matter and I love anti-matter.
Listen to me, listen to my patter.
Oh what a day (if it was day) that was!
It was as if a fist had been holding fast
one dense packed particle too hot to keep
and the fingers had suddenly sprung open
and the burning coal, the radiant mechanism
had burst and scattered the seeds of everything,
out through what was now space, out
into the pulse of time, out, my masters,
out, my friends, so, like a darting shoal,
like a lion’s roar, like greyhounds released,
like blown dandelions, like Pandora’s box,
like a shaken cornucopia, like an ejaculation –
I was amazed at the beauty of it all,
those slowly cooling rosy clouds of gas,
wave upon wave of hydrogen and helium,
spirals and rings and knots of fire, silhouettes
of dust in towers, thunderheads, tornadoes;
and then the stars, and the blue glow of starlight
lapislazuliing the dust-grains –
I laughed, rolled like a ball, flew like a dragon,
zigzagged and dodged the clatter of meteorites
as they clumped and clashed and clustered into
worlds, into this best clutch of nine
whirled in the Corrievreckan of the Sun.
The universe had only just begun.
I’m off, my dears. My story’s still to run! ” Planet Wave, Edwin Morgan (excerpt)*
(* = apologies for such a lengthy quote, but Alpha put me in mind so much of the poetry of the great Edwin Morgan, who often showed a fascination for real science and for science fiction in his work, and I had to include the opening of his Planet Wave verse, which celebrates the creation of the universe, the world, people and life, much as Alpha does, although in very different ways. Carcanet have it in his collected poems, should you wish to read the full thing)
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog