Fiction Reviews

Galileo's Dream

(2009) Kim Stanley Robinson, Harper Voyager, £18.99, hrdbk, 584pp, ISBN 978-0-007-726031-7

Kim Stanley Robinson has written a number of political hybrid speculative fictions. Famously there was the combination of climate change science with politics with the trilogy beginning with the Forty Signs of Rain (2004). He has also written alternate histories with the Locus Award winning Years of Rice and Salt (2002) in which China and the West gets wiped out by a plague and so the Islamic nations dominate the World. Now with Galileo's Dream we get the science of Galileo presented as an alternate reality wrapped up in what reads very much like a 1960s or '70s SF space opera. And then of course there is the science politics with the Catholic church's reluctance to adopt the Copernican view. So underpinning Galileo's Dream is a bit of a heady mix.

The novel begins with Galileo Galilei is minding his own business in a Venetian market place when a man, speaking Latin with an odd dialect, introduces himself. He claims he is a colleague of Johannes Kepler (the German astronomer in case you do not know your science history). He says he is impressed by Galileo's compass (Galileo's compass was a refinement for gunners and was a refinement on the designs by Niccolò Tartaglia and Guidobaldo del Monte in case you do not know your science history). Anyway, this stranger tells him of a device he has seen that (used in conjunction with Galileo's compass) could help gunners assess their ranges. It is a tube with a lens at each end: it is a telescope.

So Galileo goes home and, to cut a long story short, develops his own telescope. This proves to be a big hit with Venice's ruling class but Galileo's newly-elevated position takes a slight knock when others point out that Galileo has not actually invented the telescope, merely refined it… Anyway Galileo decides to further enhance his telescope so as to make it indisputably the best and along the way uses it to do astronomy. Before long he has observed the moons of Jupiter.

One thing leads to another and Galileo concludes that there are similarities with the Jovian system with its moons and the Sun's system with its planets (and the Earth), so leading him to support the Copernican, heliocentric, theory of the Sun being the centre of the Solar system. This is not the preferred view of the Roman Catholic Church who ban Galileo from promulgating such notions. All well and good and in line with our known history of the Galileo. However Kim Stanley Robinson adds another dimension with his character that speaks in a strange dialect of Latin. He turns up again and this time whisks Galileo away to the far future – the year 3020 – on one of Jupiter's moons. There, Galileo visits a human colony and finds himself considered a renowned historical figure who may help settle an ethical quandary as to whether or not explore the biologically pristine ocean beneath the ice of Jupiter's moon Europa. This dilemma is confronted on a number of visits Galileo makes from his own time to the Jupiter moon system of 3020.

This then is the basic set up. There are further complexities; chiefly that time is not immutable and that in terms of his hosts of the future, history says that Galileo was burned at the stake and so became a martyr for science. (In case you did not know in our reality this did not happen and Galileo died an infirm man of 77.) Naturally the idea of being burned to death puts the fear of God (well not that but I could not resist that turn of phrase) into Galileo who then tries to alter matters to prevent this outcome when he returns to his own time.

Kim Stanley Robinson has a substantial following and his novels have critical acclaim. Personally, and this is a personal view, I do find that they tend to drag just a little as he seems to develops his plots slowly. However, as said, he has a following and his novels have critical acclaim. I suspect that this is because he does take time to set his stories' scenes. Indeed I found that the historical (as opposed to the future SFnal) parts of Galileo's Dream were far more engrossing. This could be – and here I am to an extent hazarding a guess –that Kim Stanley Robinson thoroughly researched Galileo and so was able to bring this half of the novel to life remarkably well. Conversely the imagined future seemed like something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis with crowds of citizens on each side of the ethical debate (as to whether or not to disturb through exploration Jovian system biomes) behaving like a mob. With only the author's own imagination to draw on, and not the mass of writing about Galileo that illuminated the historical part of the novel, the SFnal future seems to be padded by comparison. However others may disagree, and probably will.

Irrespective of my own hang-ups, it is an intriguing notion as to what might have happened had the Church had treated Galileo far harsher, and how we (in our real present) might consider Galileo today. In short, Galileo's Dream has its thought-provoking moments. It was also interesting to see how science was undertaken in those days even if this illumination comes by way of a fictional novel. Further, that Galileo's Dream is published on the 400th anniversary of Galileo's observation of Jupiter's moons adds a certain poignancy. SF readers who also enjoy historical novels will simply love the mix of genres, while the simplicity of the SFnal future should help make it digestible by more mainstream readers. This novel is bound to do well.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Duncan's review of the paperback of Galileo's Dream.

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