Fiction Reviews

Galileo's Children: Tales of Science Vs. Superstition

(2005) Gardner Dozois (ed), Pyr, US$25, hrdbk, 343 pp, ISBN 1591-02315-7

We don't usually review US book releases unless there is a chance of them coming over to Europe. However US-based Pyr does have a UK distributor (Lavis Marketing of Oxford) and it is a new SF imprint that does seem to be publishing above-average titles. Furthermore, treading the boundary between science and SF, this collection is bound to be of interest to Science Fact & Fiction Concateneers. So can we let this title pass? No we can't.

Gardener Dozois is probably best known as Asimov's SF former editor as well as the editor of the annual collection series The Year's Best Science Fiction that covers anglophone SF. The advantage of The Year's Best... series is that it is a sampler of the best across the speculative fiction genre from fantasy and SF horror to cyberpunk and hard SF. The disadvantage of the series is that it is a sampler of the best across the speculative fiction genre from fantasy and SF horror to cyberpunk and hard SF. In short it is great if you want a broad sampler, but bad if the reader having a familiarity with speculative fiction has established specific likes and dislikes. However with collections like Tales of Science Vs. Superstition you are getting some focus and so can take it or leave it. Here with a title like this it is surely to be one that is of interest to those more into harder SF and / or who are scientists who read SF. Indeed you can be assured that in this instance this is really the case...

Gardener's collection is perhaps a little eclectic in that it draws stories from the past half century. I would have thought there was more material than this to mine and without a doubt it might have been fun if this had been one of a number of volumes covering different time periods to see if there was any overall trend in SF writers' treatment of this topic. So the man is spoilt for choice and so his own personal tastes come to the fore. Gardener probably has his reasons for doing what he did but we don't know for certain because this is not covered in his introduction. The introduction does though make it plain as to where Gardener is coming from vis-a-vie 'science' and 'superstition'. That is to say that it appears that the two are distinct even if one can be superimposed on, or undermine, the other. This is itself interesting, though of course it means that we aren't exploring more subtle relationships between the two such as the inherent nature of one in the other, a famous example of which might be Carl Sagan's novel Contact. Instead what we are getting is a sense of conflict between the two, which is probably how many outside of science or religion see both camps. This might be all well and good because an editor has to relate to his readership and the publisher, for reasons of commerce, wants their readerships to be as large as possible. Furthermore, conflict engenders tension hence plot interest. So some of the stories are gripping.

Gardener's introduction is also interesting in that he uses the Galileo-Church heliocentric controversy of the Sun going around the Earth rather than vice-versa as an example of the conflict that is the book's raison d'etre. Actually the problem for the Church was that the Galileo model did not place the Earth at the centre of the Universe and not so much about what was orbiting what. My making this distinction is not trivial (for those of you who actually care about how science and superstition relate) because a few centuries on and we have Hubble (all the large galactic clusters are moving away from our large galactic cluster) as well as Einstein, the curvature of space-time (an analogous circumstance of which might be that both you and I are both directly above the centre of the middle of the Earth). In short it is possible, should one wish, to reasonably fairly make the case that the Earth really is the centre of the universe (even if everywhere else is too). So which was right, Galileo or the Church? Meanwhile back at this SF collection you can take it as read that we are not looking for subtle relationships between 'science' and 'superstition' as we know who the white and dark hats are in nearly all of the stories. So let the battle commence...

First up is a story by Ursula leGuin which parallels the afore-mentioned Galileo's tribulations when an astronomer is persecuted, his observatory burnt to the ground and so is forced to go into hiding in a mine. Geology to the rescue.

Keith Roberts next and of course the guy is either a writer you love or can leave as demonstrated by the number of SF commentators who say that he is overlooked. Here Gardener himself comments that SF publishers need to note that a posthumous collection of his work is overdue. Keith Roberts was the Guest of Honour of a British Eastercon of whose committee I was a member, so I am not entirely unfamiliar with the guy's work but I have to confess not being a fan. His story in the collection, 'A Will of God', is well written: Roberts may not push my SF buttons but I recognise that the man can write. The story concerns an inventor struggling in (I guess) late Medieval times to construct what we might today call a telephone - this is signalled too early on in the tale for my liking (so I am not spoiling it for you) - and this inventor is then persecuted. The ending tag focuses on one of the key differences between science and art and may be news to some... Sorry Keith, where ever you are.

George R. R. Martin's 'The Way of the Cross' is fun. Well it tickled my funny bone albeit in a slightly dark way. It is the first story in the collection that is set in the far future. Humanity has spread across the stars, met aliens, interacted, and religions have diversified across the cosmos. The dilemma here is what is truth for one is heresy for another. What then if the leader of one sect realises this and does his own thing?

Edgar Pangbom's story 'The World is a Sphere' has in one sense a title-giveaway ending but is of interest nonetheless. It is set (presumably) on another world or maybe some ancient civilization. Here the science Vs. superstition conflict rises but this time good old pragmatic politics (if that's not an oxymoron) is thrown into the mix. Of course this is something that happens all the time which makes this a very relevant addition to the collection.

Chris Lawson's 1999 story 'Written in Blood' was clearly inspired by Hugo - that's the HUman Genome project that was underway at the time and not Gernsback. Suppose you could insert inert DNA into your very cells via some gene therapy-type method, then you could conceivably carry a message. For the religious you might insert a scripture. But would that genetically mark out the religious from the non-religious and if so there might be some serious consequences to address? This story has a solid hard SF progression and a lovely tag at the end. Quite charming.

Brendan DuBois' 'Falling Star' I found quite disturbing, in an enjoyable way I hasten to add. It being originally published in 2004 it is also the most modern in the collection. Disturbing because our modern technological society is far frailer than I believe many reckon and here Brendan takes us to a time in the not so far future where such a societal collapse has taken place. Such a time is also one in which superstition and bigotry rears its ugly head.

'Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Bloodstream' by James Alan Gardner is a fascinating tale of how 'scientific' observation can fail. (It reminded me of the Brownian motion controversy, to name but one.) It is, as the title suggests, a three-part story that takes place at different historic times in a parallel universe where an apparent observation becomes embedded in religion and politics. I loved the part where an alternate Charles Darwin has an interview with the Queen. The alternate Darwin's line 'The birds of Pacific islands are hardly fit study for a scientist,' is delightfully ironic especially when contrasted as the story does with pigeons (which of course also feature in the real The Origin of Species).

Next is probably the most famous, and also the earliest, story in the collection. Arthur Clarke's 1950 tale 'The Star'. Though renowned in its own right it has also been turned into a 1985 episode of The Twilight Zone so bringing it to the attention of a larger audience. A space exploration team discovers the records of an ancient civilization on what was the outermost planet of a system whose sun went nova. But there is a problem for a religious member of the team...

Paul Park's 'The Last Homosexual' looks at what happens if in the near future sin is considered an illness. Very relevant this it would appear to our human condition as though the story is set in a very 'Christian' part of a possible future US, it could equally apply in the today and also in many parts of the World.

'The Man Who Walked Home' by James Tiptree Jr. is in Gardener's words a compelling look at how a scientific experiment could itself become the basis for a host of superstitions and perhaps even a new religion. Solid stuff.

Mike Resnick, in 'When Old Gods Die', looks at how technology both can both enhance and undermine cultures, it all depends on your view. Of course views tend to change with time and new generations. It would be a shame to say any more than this.

Gardener concludes his collection with Greg Egan's 'Oracle'. Egan is probably the hardest SF writer to come out of Australia. It might be argued that the hardness of his writing is at the sacrifice of his protagonists' characterizations. Though this view may have some currency regarding the main body of the man's work to date, this charge is hard to level at 'Oracle'. Though possibly this is because Egan is holding up a mirror to some real people. 'Oracle' is a tale of a parallel twentieth century that seemingly benefits from other continuums, but does it really? In one science fictional sense this is the most philosophical of the collection's stories, though others in the book have their own strengths. Nonetheless it enables the collection to end on a powerful note.

Given our technological society is underpinned by science and that SF has a fundamental (if at times unclear) relationship with science and engineering, a collection like Galileo's Children: Tales of Science Vs. Superstition is long overdue. I do not hesitate to recommend it. I hope it does well. Touch wood.

Jonathan Cowie

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