Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is a skilful, urgent, immersive novel about time-travel, dreaming, love, sex, and the end of the world. For the specialist or niche reader who’s deeply invested in feminist early-modern historical fiction situated in Britain (that would be me—I know I’m not alone, but I’m definitely not this book’s entire market), The Heavens is also a jarring read that raises a lot of disturbing questions. Mind you, many of these questions about early modern female creative agency already exist, have existed for a long time, outside of Newman’s novel. They are encapsulated, not created by it.
Changing tack for a minute, here’s a question I think is deliberately created and advanced by The Heavens. What kind of imaginings, and fictional practices, can serve us best now, as we attempt to reckon with a planetary outlook full of loss: one that responds less and less to hopeful, Edenic conceptual nudges? I won’t say I was glad about the answer Newman finally offers. And I won’t say I agree with some of her implicit arguments, especially where they touch on how we should think about the past in relation to our at-risk present and endangered future. But I am glad I know her answer. I am glad to have gone through the process of thinking about these things, with the help of this complex, unsparing, beautifully written book.
A lot of The Heavens’ success derives from Newman’s sure-handed execution of the book’s conclusion. That conclusion depends (securely, like an aerialist with a well-anchored trapeze) on her expert ability to sustain our investment in the novel’s present-day main characters, Ben and Kate, who drift unstoppably into each other in the euphoric context of an alternative Y2K Manhattan. When they meet, Ben has stable work that he’s not particularly invested in: it’s a way to pay the bills, nothing more. Kate, a visual artist who at some point dropped out of school, doesn’t have any clear sources of income. But she is buoyed and sustained by a network of wealthy, politically progressive friends, and absent, wealthy relatives. And she is enchanting in a drifty, compassionate, observant way that’s well suited to the material plenitude and generative coincidences of life in New York City.
Here they are, beginning:
When they lay down together, their bodies fit in an uncanny way, interlocked; however they moved, they fit together again, plugged in, and electricity flowed between them. [Ben] stayed awake for hours while Kate slept easily, naturally, in his arms. (p. 12)
The start of their romance coincides with, and is emotionally inflected by, a sense that human history has just turned for the better. Climate change has been solved. The U.S.A. has recently elected its first female president. War, and inequality, are waning.
For the rest of [Ben’s] life, he would remember it: that intoxicated moment not only of first love but of universal hope, that summer when Chen swept the presidential primaries on a wave of utopian fervor, when carbon emissions had radically declined and the Jerusalem peace accords had been signed and the United Nations surpassed its millennium goals for eradicating poverty, when it felt as if everything might work out. (p. 13)
Is this as good as it’s going to get? As far as the world goes, yes. And it won’t last. Believe it or not, the worm in the apple—the gun on the mantel—is Kate’s “easy, natural” sleep. Which, it turns out, is not the sign and seal of an easy, natural physical love between her and Ben. Rather, we learn that sleep is Kate’s element: her real life, almost. And when she sleeps, and dreams, her dreams cause the world to change for the worse. In the end, they will bring it perilously close to our own, which is to say, perilously close to being unsaveable.
Does the conceit sound familiar? There’s been some internet dialogue about The Heavens’ degree of borrowing from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971). For what it’s worth, here are my two cents on that: yes, there’s conceptual indebtedness, which I’d argue is the same thing as an appreciative tribute (viz. Newman’s book’s title—she’s not hiding.); but Newman’s structural use of Le Guin’s novel is nusuth, no matter, if what one’s worried about is the question of originality. The Heavens is indebted, but it’s also original. That’s … how smart new fiction happens? Both books are about dreams that alter the world; both are about apocalypse and climate change, about romantic partnership and the grinding limits of individual agency. But Le Guin’s plot elements, her world-altering dreams, have here been adapted and altered to advance Newman’s narrative purposes. Their origins have become more mysterious, and their function and purpose far more obscure to the people who must learn how to deal with their consequences. By making these changes—which she does so subtly and thoroughly it will make you shake your head in disbelief: how did she do that?—Newman taps into and gives narrative form to our own ambient sense of not knowing how we got here: here, in 2019, where it all seems to be starting to go down and where many of us feel as if we are desperately trying to wake up, but how, how, and to what?
Unlike Kate, who at the beginning of The Heavens has no cause to suspect that she’s causing any problems whatsoever, Le Guin’s protagonist George Orr knows from the start of The Lathe of Heaven that something really big is happening because of him. And, while he doesn’t know how his dreams operate, he knows why they exist. His brain has a clear set of reasons for creating “effective dreams” that change everything: without those dreams, the sweltering, war-ravaged Earth might already have been wiped clear of human life.
Here, Orr gives an account of his first experience of effective dreaming -- which took place after he collapsed from radiation poisoning:
“… I was dying. And … everything else was dying. And then I had the—I had this dream.” His voice had hoarsened; now it choked off.
“I was all right,” he said at last. “I dreamed about being home. I woke up and I was all right. I was in bed at home. Only it wasn’t any home I’d ever had.” (Le Guin, p. 107)
That simple, impossible act—one man dreaming himself out of death, into waking “at home”—gives the planet a dodgy new lease on life. Keeping it is no sure thing, and due to the overwhelming difficulty of survival, Orr and his dreams are preoccupied exclusively with his own time.
Newman’s Kate, on the other hand, dreams mostly because she wants to dream. She isn’t forced into it by terrible circumstances: at the beginning of The Heavens, things are good! But she pursues sleep because she is fascinated by what happens to her there. In sleep, she encounters—powerfully, immersively, hungrily—another time and another life, where she becomes the musician and courtesan Emilia Bassano, who is eking out a culturally rich, materially precarious existence in Elizabethan England. A sense of purpose pursues Kate, via Emilia’s experience. It seems as if being Emilia is, in a way, Kate’s calling:
She woke [from the dream of Emilia’s London home] in Ben’s arms – strange, cold, elated…Kate was covered in sweat. The sheet was damp with it.
Oh no, she thought happily. I have to go back. I’m no use here at all. (p. 44)
I will note here that the historical Emilia Bassano eventually became the poet Aemilia Lanyer, whom the critic A.L. Rowse suspected of having had an affair with Shakespeare, and thereby inspiring the Dark Lady sonnets. (Rowse suspected this, I guess, because an untitled woman of that era could surely never have published anything on her own without being blessed by Shakespeare’s … pen. I just. But OK, onward.) Lanyer’s country-house poem “The Description of Cooke-Ham” has become an important entry in BritLit surveys, and courses on feminist literature. Her distinctive voice, and fascinating status as a published, non-aristocratic female poet of the seventeenth century, inspired the new play Emilia! by Morgan Lloyd Malcom.
But Sandra Newman’s Emilia does not grow to become Aemilia, and she certainly very much does not evolve into Emilia! This is how it is, in alternative-history or butterfly-effect narratives: when new things are created, old things are changed or lost. It makes sense, by the independent lights of The Heavens, that the Elizabethan woman whose life Kate inhabits should remain Emilia Bassano, musician and mistress, until she—with Kate’s help—erases herself from the record entirely. The violent and distressing scene of her death, which takes place very close to the end of the book, is necessitated by what seems to me the concluding message of The Heavens: that we do not have a great deal of time left to look back, to be possessed by seductive what-ifs and how-was-it-back-thens. To live alternate existences.
Here is Emilia, not a poet, dying with a dagger in her throat in a Southwark open-air theater in the late 1590s. She is looking up at the theater’s blue stage-roof, its heavens:
On her back, and the searing. The last thing the painted heavens. Blue cloth, and beside it real sky that was gray and translucent as if it might be soft to the touch. She blinked her eyes. The painted heavens and the gray heavens. Still alive.
Then she was watching the scene from above, like a bat, like a beetle that clung to the painted heavens. She saw Emilia kicking as she struggled to breathe … (p 214)
Terrible choices must be made, Newman argues. Dreams must die: messily, bloodily, painfully.  The painted heavens, though beautiful, must give place to “real sky,” which is the remaining life Kate can still have, in a compromised world very like our own, if she can stop dreaming of Emilia. Visceral immersion in different past lives, The Heavens suggests, is linked to indulgence in fantasies of being able to save our future. And neither can help us now, when our most urgent task is to make the most of the damaged, mortal, and beloved existence we have left, and the still-fulfilling relationships we can cultivate within it.
Initially, participation in Emilia’s experience is fascinating but not overwhelming for Kate. Her early dreams intersect with the Elizabethan woman only when Bassano is in the process of memory-recall or half-asleep. At this stage, Kate is insulated from the experience of Emilia’s emotions, and retains an I/they distinction, where Kate is herself and Emilia is “the person.” Aesthetic distance makes everything fun:
In the dream, Kate was magically happy. The person had fears and resentments and sorrows, but even these were a wonderland of sensations, like a series of beautiful colors. When Kate woke up, there would be a few minutes when she felt that way about real life. (p. 15)
Already, though, there are warning signs about the side effects of Kate’s all-consuming experience of alterity:
On mornings after she’d had the dream, she felt a particular, sublime importance—as if the dream were a secret mission, on which depended the fate of millions; as if it held the key to the salvation of the world. (p. 15)
Readers of The Lathe of Heaven will notice another echo here. For much of that novel, Le Guin’s effective dreamer, George Orr, is under forced treatment by the oneirologist William Haber. And Haber is a world-saver.
[Haber] asked Orr if any particular type of daydream was congenial to him. “For example,” he said, “I frequently daydream heroics. I am the hero. I’m saving a girl, or a fellow astronaut, or a besieged city, or a whole damn planet. Messiah dreams, do-gooder dreams. Haber saves the world! They’re a hell of a lot of fun – so long as I keep ‘em where they belong.” (p. 33)
That … sort of sounds okay? But tempted by the immense power that comes with partial access to Orr’s subconscious mind, Haber cannot keep his daydreams “where they belong.” He compulsively tries to enact his own heroic fantasies by manipulating Orr’s dreams through augmented hypnosis, to unpredictable and terrifying effect.
So, here’s what I mean about The Heavens being both indebted and original. One decent (I hope) but incomplete reading of Kate’s relationship with her dreams is that she is both Orr and Haber; simultaneously Le Guin’s effective dreamer, and Le Guin’s presiding scientist deluded by a sense of “sublime importance.” She dreams, and she feels she might have been selected out from billions, to save the world through her dreams. But while Le Guin is deeply interested in exploring via Haber the destructive consequences of a particular type of self-celebratory, “rationalist,” isolationist, “positive,” masculine do-gooder-ism, and pegs a lot of the causality of her novel to the oneirologist in this way, Newman is more preoccupied by the question of what both men and women are willing to sacrifice in the name of their idiosyncratic recreational and reputational ambitions. What happens when we get too submerged in our own individual projects to pay attention to what’s happening around us? (This is part of Kate’s problem: massively complicated, of course, by the fact that she’s creating ever-worsening timelines by being immersed in her dreams.) If, by some stretch of imagination, we happen to possess world-changing powers, what happens if we don’t perceive an overlap between fame and saving the world? (That’s William Shakespeare’s problem, which I’m coming to.) And, as a worst-case scenario, what if individual recreation and/or fame comes at the world’s cost? How much loss are we willing to accept on the part of the planet, and the rest of humanity, as long as we retain the freedom to pursue what interests us and be remembered for it?
Yes, all of that is in this book. It is.
This, FYI, is where Shakespeare comes in. Shakespeare, the bloke the historical Aemeilia Lanyer may or may not have had an affair with.  In Newman’s telling, the poet is an utter sociopath. He’s a charming one—they often are, aren’t they, if they want something?—and somewhere in her dream/life of 1593, Kate/Emilia slowly falls for him, as well as falling into the role of feeding him news about his future reputation. He’s careful about how he approaches the matter, but it eventually becomes clear that fame through his art is his primary concern. And on these grounds the William Shakespeare of The Heavens—who has also travelled through time and recognizes a fellow-dreamer when he sees her—initially has cause for worry. One of the speculative elements of the novel is that, during most of Kate and Ben’s “present,” circa Y2K, no one knows who Shakespeare is, because he didn’t survive his thirties.
It began with [Kate] asking, “Have you heard of a poet called William Shakespeare?”
Ben was startled from a reverie about getting married and it took him a moment to focus. Then he said, “I don’t think so. Should I have?”
“You haven’t? A sixteenth-century poet?”
“I might have, but I don’t remember. Why?”
“I dream about him.”
His oh was a bleak and critical note, but Kate just smiled...
[She] was sure. [Shakespeare] had certainly existed. He’d written some plays that weren’t extant and a long poem called Venus and Adonis … Anyway, he’d died young. There was a record of his burial in London in 1593, when he was thirty years old. (p. 132)
When Kate-as-Emilia meets the man she thinks of as “Sad Will,” in the train of the Earl of Southampton, he has premonitions of his own historical insignificance that distract him from his physical interest in her. But his reputation in the future gets stronger and stronger the more Kate dreams about Elizabethan England, especially once Shakespeare persuades her to tell him how to avoid his own premature death so that he can keep writing. The more Kate/Emilia is drawn in as his lover, and rooted in her early-modern life, the more Shakespeare’s fame begins to take hold in the sixteenth century—and the more it grows forward in time toward the twenty-first. And, in parallel with the rise of his fame—which is the price of his love, and of Kate’s deep engagement with his time, an engagement she keeps hoping is useful, purposive, world-saving—Kate’s waking world and waking relationships fall apart, until it seems certain they are all headed for destruction.
In Shakespeare’s view, this is an acceptable price. Here are Kate/Emilia’s final words to him on the subject of his fame, after she has done everything to advance it via her own reality-shifting, dreaming presence:
“Well, be of good cheer,” she said. “Thou art remembered. For four hundred years and more, men will go to theaters and applaud thy works. They will repeat thy name as a shibboleth; every good household will keep thy books. And then, as thou knowest, the world will burn and all be forgot in the general pyre. Is that all thou wished’st?”
His jaw was set, but tears grew in his eyes. “Ay. I thank thee, madam.”
Then she wanted to hate him, but her own eyes softened. (p. 213)
I think it may not be initially clear from reading this excerpted paragraph that Kate/Emilia is saying the following: “You will be famous. And on account of that, in four hundred years, the world will end. Okay?” To which, Newman’s Shakespeare replies: “Perfect.” If Kate has given up too much of the future world’s welfare out of visceral interest in the sixteenth century (and if Emilia has given up too much of it for financial patronage and desire), William Shakespeare was never concerned to bargain for the future’s longevity at all. One side-effect of reading The Heavens is that for weeks after you finish it, whenever Shakespeare’s name comes on the radio or enters your peripheral vision, you will have the following thought: “Not that asshole again!” It’s an unusual and revelatory experience. And so, not to be flip, is this novel.
My God, the writing in here. The seamless transitions between joy and sorrow, absurdity and earnestness—This is not an easy book, and the questions it leaves us with are hard; but, hot damn, it’s good. In a recent Paris Review essay “Beyond the Narrative Arc,”, Jane Alison tells us that “neuroscientists have recorded the inner sensations of reading as “a felt motionless movement through space,” and once you get inside the travel-pod of The Heavens you will, I promise, not be able to reemerge until the journey’s done. Because of my own personal preoccupations with the early modern, though, I fear I have skimped somewhat on discussions of Ben and Kate’s plotline, which is just as beautifully realised as the rest of the novel. Please take this passage, then—in which they are attempting to mutually cope with the disintegration of her grip on contemporary events—as both apology and example:
Kate asked who [President] Bush was, and everyone groaned. Ben took Kate’s hand and whispered the answer in her ear, and she leaned against his shoulder and cried a little bit. For a while Ben and Kate were whispering about Bush and Gore and her imaginary brother and father, while [their friends] peaceably argued and watched TV and argued. (p. 203)
They’re not together anymore by this point. Kate is eight months pregnant by another man from their circle of friends, and her dreams have changed the world so much she can’t keep up. She is hovering on the periphery of forced medical treatment and supervision. But look, they are doing what they can. She and Ben are being as honest and loving with each other as anyone possibly could, under terrible circumstances. And it’s the restoration of this particular relationship, its hard-won resurrection as a new and sustainable version of itself, that gives the conclusion of The Heavens its distinctive double-impact of delight and sorrow. At the end of the novel, things are not good in the world that Shakespeare, and Kate, and other dreamers like them have made: the world so much like our own. But we care enough about Ben and Kate that as long as they are still conversing – still in love – it feels as if something important remains.
 It is, honestly, hard to watch one of the foundational voices in early modern British women’s literature off herself with a dagger, in a theater, before she has written a word. I have many thoughts and questions about why Newman may have done this: at a guess it may be partly to do with the fact that she could not bring herself to romanticize or over-emphasize Lanyer’s literary accomplishments, which are VERY COOL and also idiosyncratic and non-plentiful. There isn’t room or time here to expand on the way the historical Lanyer has been construed as a corrective to Virginia Woolf’s quietly suffering Judith Shakespeare—if you are interested you can look up Ann Baynes Coiro’s article, “Writing in Service: Sexual Politics and Class Position in the Poetry of Aemilia Lanyer and Ben Jonson,” Criticism Vol. 35 no. 3 (1993), and sort of take it from there. I will say, as a stopping-point, that unlike Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare, Newman’s Emilia Bassano does not go quietly: with her death, she occupies the stage and marks it, and so marks out the cost of her participation as an unrecorded part of history. Pyrrhic? You (ha) bet your life. [return]
P.S. Thank you Rachel for talking this over with me.
 *whispers: though either way A.L. Rowse can get stuffed.* [return]