Fiction Reviews

Galileo's Dream

(2009) Kim Stanley Robinson, Harper Voyager, £8.99, pbk, 584pp, ISBN 978-0-007-26032-4

You don’t have to have read Galileo’s works to enjoy Galileo’s Dream, but if you’ve read The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler, Galileo by Bertolt Brecht and Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel, you will know the story of his life and be better able to enjoy the imaginative detail with which Stan Robinson makes it come alive for us.  I would say you have to have a knowledge of conditions on the four moons of Jupiter which we still call the Galilean satellites; any good astronomy book will give you the basic findings of the Voyager missions (spaceprobes, not publishers) but for the more recent picture, The Worlds of Galileo by Michael Hanlon (2001, Constable; Foreword by Arthur C. Clarke) would serve very well.

The basis of the novel is that in the 3020s, the human inhabitants of the moons of Jupiter have the power to reach back in time (analepsis). Entire gas giant planets have been destroyed to make it possible. Political factions on the different moons bring Galileo forward to their time in hopes to sway him and use his influence in the big issue of the day, which is whether or not to attempt contact with a suspected intelligent life in the subsurface ocean of Europa. The first attempts at contact are pushed through with disastrous results, but the Ganymede faction wants to persist, one of them claiming to be from a still more distant future and to be trying to prevent worse outcomes. (It is an interesting novel to be reading so soon after I reviewed Normal Spinrad’s He Walked among Us for Interzone.) A previous attempt of Ganymede’s further back in history has failed (the Antikythera Mechanism is the ruin of a time machine.) But now there’s another opportunity to intervene, by saving Galileo from his death at the stake in history as the Jovians know it.

Fascinating, complicated, transiting effortlessly between the city-states of early seventeenth century Italy and the political arenas of the four Galilean moons 1400 years later (not 600, as in the Evening Standard review quoted on the rear cover.) I could leave the review there, and any fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s – or Galileo’s – would be keen to read the book. It got that reaction at once, when I cited it at a recent meeting of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle. And yet I have a problem with it…

There are some minor irritations. Galileo puns in English when speaking Italian, on p.268; Americanisms creep in here and there ("the view out the glass walls", p.278). But what jarred for me is that within the multiple layers of time-streams and political factions, on Earth and at Jupiter, there is another group of watchers. Were this Report on Probability A, we the readers could take that in our stride. I say 'we the readers' because although the novel is otherwise written entirely from Galileo’s viewpoint, on p.78 the viewpoint suddenly shifts to an unidentified 'we' among Galileo’s servants. An author can do that for dramatic purposes, but this one seems be made just to give the reader a first-hand account of an event where Galileo was not present – something one would normally encourage beginning writers to avoid. When it happened again for a single sentence on p.159, I wondered for a moment if I was reading a proof copy, though the cover is stamped ‘Voyager First Edition’. On p.387, "whether Galileo understood was not clear" – but to whom? and on p.390 a still more awkward paragraph begins with "they", the servants, and ends again with 'we'.

But on p.163 it’s revealed that ‘we’ are working in Galileo’s interests, though unidentified. On p.321 it turns out that they are immortals from ‘Ganymede’s’ future (but which one – 3020 or beyond?), masquerading as gypsies and Wandering Jews, watching the results of the analepses but with no agenda of their own. They are not even really here but are some kind of projection – possibly from the greater intelligence Galileo meets within Jupiter, centred on the Great Red Spot, which would echo Solaris – but if that is the explanation, readers do not find out. When the watchers do intervene to save Galileo, on pp.494-496 and 500-502, their Mission Impossible-type actions are described in the third person, though they are ‘we’ once again on p.510. When their actions are supposed to have generated modern history as we the readers know it, I would have expected more care to be taken with them.

Duncan Lunan

See also Jonathan's review of the hardback of Galileo's Dream.

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