Galileo's Dreamby Kim Stanley Robinson Published 06 Aug 2009
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At the heart of a provocative narrative that stretches from Renaissance Italy to the moons of Jupiter is the father of modern science: Galileo Galilei.
To the inhabitants of the Jovian moons, Galileo is a revered figure whose actions will influence the subsequent history of the human race. From the summit of their distant future, a charismatic renegade named Ganymede travels to the past to bring Galileo forward in an attempt to alter history and ensure the ascendancy of science over religion. And if that means Galileo must be burned at the stake, so be it.
From Galileo's heresy trial to the politics of far-future Jupiter, Kim Stanley Robinson illuminates the parallels between a distant past and an even more remote future—in the process celebrating the human spirit and calling into question the convenient truths of our own moment in time.
"Galileo's Dream" Reviews
All right, I can't stand it anymore. I still have 80 pages to go, but I honestly don't care about any of the characters, and can't bring myself to slog through the rest of the book, book club or no. This has got to be the worst story I've ever read that was written by a purportedly professional author. It's infected with some of the most hideous bloat I've ever seen-- cutting out about 200 pages of nonsense would probably improve it. The "historical" parts are like a biography of Galileo tweaked by some amateur writer into an "educational" novel form-- it's like Robinson shoved in every fact he learned about Galileo, his family, and the time period without bothering to trim out all the bits that weren't at all relevant to his story. For every scene there's a sizable chunk of narrated exposition-- pages and pages, detailing months or years, that could have been condensed to a few lines or even cut entirely. The "earthbound" Galileo isn't even a proper character most of the time-- just a caricature of the historical person-- which is unfortunate given that he's supposed to be the main character.
The "space" bits are a little more interesting. There are two main threads-- the time-travel/history-manipulation thread, and the smaller (but more important??) "planetary intelligence" thread. Unfortunately they're not really well developed-- they're buried in a lot of nonsense about endless walks through hallways and endless trips on a spacecraft that takes forever to go anywhere. There's a character called Hera who takes it on herself to therapize Galileo by finding his "trauma nodes" and forcing him to relive certain key traumatic memories, apparently so he can become enlightened and...? She's also supposed to have a sort of semi-romantic relationship with him, which mostly comes across as creepy and grotesque. (If you describe your character's hernia in revolting detail, and then write a scene where he's running around naked in a boar's-head mask and an iron hernia truss, then I will not be seeing him as a romantic prospect for ANYONE-- especially if you follow it quickly with another scene that deals with his intimate bodily functions. Gross, Robinson. Ew.)
Again, I didn't read to the end, so I don't know if the book gets any better in the last eighty pages. I expect someone can tell me what happened tomorrow. This is not a book I would have read of my own volition, and I can't in good conscience recommend it to anyone.
Eppur si muove, come la Terra mi emoziona.
Time travel fiction is, at its heart, primarily a literature of regret. Oh, there is the occasional pure travelogue, to be sure; the odd parody played for laughs; and the even rarer voyage of self-discovery... but for the most part, why send some hapless schmuck through time at all, but for the opportunity to step twice into Heraclitus' river, to redirect its flow—to change those things that might not have to have been?
And, usually, to find out that altering events to positive effect isn't all that easy.
Immediately engaging, raffish and a bit ramshackle, occasionally downright raunchy but also contemplative and far-reaching, Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream confronts that impulse to correct the course of events, shuttling forward and backward in time to that pivotal series of events in the history of early science: Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter, advocation for the Copernican model of the solar system, and subsequent trial for heresy. The combination of a far-future Jupiter worthy of Arthur C. Clarke and a pungent, earthy Renaissance Italy illuminates our fumbling present as only the best science fiction can. I was reminded of Jack Dann's "secret history" of Leonardo da Vinci, The Memory Cathedral, which I read several years ago—itself a good novel, carefully written and meticulously detailed. Compare also Rudy Rucker's As Above So Below, another exhaustively-researched foray into historical reconstruction by a noted sf author.
Robinson vividly evokes Galileo's Italy, a tumultuous collection of warring city-states in which cardinals brawled in the streets, Venice vied with the Vatican (see, for example, this brief history of Veronese's 1573 painting, "Feast in the House of Levi," whose original title was "The Last Supper" until Veronese ran afoul of the Inquisition), and intrigue was the preferred mode of political interaction. This is the era that gave us the adjective "Machiavellian," after all, and made the Medicis and the Borgias into household names.
Galileo's Dream is also unafraid to engage deeper questions. Though it's obvious where Robinson's sympathies lie, the novel's depiction of the conflict between science and religion is surprisingly nuanced, and not at all as one-sided as one might expect. Galileo was a devout Catholic, after all, and he saw his experiments as devoted to the discovery of God's handiwork—by his own lights, he was not a heretic at all.
But Galileo's Dream is not—or, at least, not solely—a scholarly work of historical fiction, though it is that as well. Robinson's novel is also a grand work of speculative fiction, able through the device of those Jovian observers (so similar to the disputants in Galileo's own works) to explain for Galileo (and hence for the reader) a sophisticated understanding of the universe we live in as a "manifold of manifolds," a continuum in which past and future coexist, influencing each other in a great multi-dimensional tapestry. This accords well with my own evolving view of the evolving universe, as well as with contemporary (if that word's at all valid anymore) physics, and in this Galileo's Dream reminds me also of Tim Powers' underappreciated Three Days to Never, which treats on the same subject though from an utterly different direction. Robinson's novel proceeds in expanding rings of physical, temporal and sheer mental scope, raising the stakes repeatedly after each temporary lull.
There is such a wealth of detail here, in fact—both historical and scientific—that sometimes it seems a little overwhelming, and I think it may have confused a lot of the readers who have reviewed the book here. The inexorable (if it must be so) movement towards Galileo's epoch-making trial is often nearly obscured by the minutiae of his medical conditions and daily grumblings. (I've had a hernia myself, as it happens, and found the descriptions of Galileo's especially disconcerting.)
Of course, "one always hopes for more than one hopes for," as Robinson himself says as Galileo on p. 316. Galileo's Dream, though, comes very close to granting all for which one might wish.
I suspect that this passage, late in the novel (p.481), is not so much from Galileo's perspective as from Robinson's own dream:
"Any event in history that gets more crowded the longer you look at it—that's the sign of a contested moment, a crux that will never stop changing under your gaze. The gaze itself entangles you, and you too are one of the changes in that moment."When I was done with reading this book, I felt like that, too, at least for awhile... and I wanted to be a better person, the kind of person who could affect the grand unified tapestry of past, present and future for good, and not for ill. That's a powerful feeling, and a rare one for me to get from a book these days.
This may well be Robinson's best book—at least, in this universe.
This latest novel from Kim Stanley Robinson is at once both identifiable as Robinson's unique brand of philosophical science fiction and a departure from his work. In some ways it feels more like a homage to the early works of the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.
It starts as a simple biography of the first true scientist as he first observes and then shows others the miracles he can observe through his telescope. But one night a mysterious stranger asks Galileo to take a look at his device. Galileo obliges and finds himself transported to another world: Europa in the 30th century to be precise. The Galilean moons are home to human factions currently arguing over whether scientific knowledge should be advanced by attempting to communicate with an advanced intellect that lives beneath the surface of the icy moon. The occupants of Europa require the assistance of Galileo to stop it happening and talking the other representatives out of their plan. This particular plot in so many ways reflects what is happening to Galileo in the 16th-17th century by mirroring in theme each phase of his engagement with the Vatican. He doesn't make one trip; instead he flits constantly between the two worlds to allow real-world events to happen before he is whisked back to Jupiter.
This is a "warts and all" look at Galilei Galileo. Far from portraying him as a Saint for the secular thinker, he is shown as a short-tempered bully, an excessive drinker, a womaniser and sometimes a fanatic whose single-mindedness in overturning the Ptolemaic model leads him to push his daughters into a convent without much thought for anything else. Also, we get an intriguing insight into the world of Vatican politics as a succession of popes are confronted with the problems of the age; not just Galileo but the impending 30 years war and other religious conflicts.
There is a moral tale at work too. The Europans are attempting to manipulate Galileo for their own end, pushing him further in order that he is burnt at the stake to become a secular martyr. Their ultimate goal is to end the war between religion and science quickly. Galileo feels uneasy at this; after all he always considered himself a good Catholic. In real life he died a sick man under house arrest having been brow-beaten into recanting.
Not only is this an intriguing and thoughtful novel, it is also quite fun. We delight at the sense of adventure as he explores the four primary moons and confronts the sentient being that lives in the Jupiter system. I really cannot fault this book.
See more book reviews at my blog
There is a theory that views all of history as the result of actions by individuals at pivotal moments. These "Great Men" (or, let's be fair, "Great People") are the movers and shakers of historical periods. Leaders like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Elizabeth II, and Napoleon Bonaparte shaped society. Scientists like Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, and yes, Galileo Galilei shaped our perception of the world. These are the people whose mark lasts long on history, or so we think. I do not subscribe to the Great Person Theory. It appeals too much to our individualism and our love of anecdotal explanations. We are creatures who like nothing better than a story, and the episodes from the lives of these Great People make for great stories. Assigning all, or even most of, the responsibility for historical change to these individuals is simplistic.
So whenever someone comes along and proposes that history would be different if, say, Galileo had burnt at the stake, I wonder: aside from the tautological sense, would history truly change if this happened? Of course, we don't know, and we probably can't ever know. Such counterfactual speculation remains just speculative, which is probably why I enjoy it so much.
Kim Stanley Robinson plays a bit to the Great Person Theory in Galileo's Dream. I wouldn't go so far as to say the book propounds it, because Robinson's model of time travel accommodates alternatives. Rather, many of the characters from the 31st century who travel into the past to alter it—commit "analepses" in the book's terminology—subscribe to this theory. Thus, Ganymede tries to ensure science's dominance over religion first by aiding Archimedes; when that does not go well, he moves on to Galileo. However, he does not want to help Galileo. He wants Galileo to burn at the stake, to become a martyr for the cause of science.
It's a profound thought. Galileo's heresy trial is an infamous moment in the history of science and the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Often we envision it as a moment of ignorance—or arrogance—triumphing over justice. Galileo was found guilty of "vehement suspicion of heresy" and forced to recant any belief in the Copernican model of the solar system, a model we have since adopted as the preferred one. We have the advantage of hindsight, however, and Pope Urban VIII did not. He was embroiled in ongoing enmity both within the Catholic Church and between Catholics and Protestants. His enemies, many of whom did not much like Galileo, accused him of being soft on heretics.
Robinson emphasizes the political climate around Rome at the time of Galileo's trial. Galileo's Dream shows how his trial was more than just a matter of science versus religion (although it was that); Galileo's fate was as much a matter of political expediency and political expectations than justice or injustice. In an era where many of the highest-ranking clergy were related by blood, Galileo's trial involves more than testimony. It was an intense episode of intrigue conducted across family lines. Galileo called in favours for services rendered, and his friends marshalled his crumbling support base.
There is more to Galileo than his trial, of course, and the book follows Galileo from Padua to Florence. We share in his hope that the patronage of Duke Cosimo de Medici will give him the freedom to tinker and experiment. We experience his anxiety over the fates of his children: his two daughters have been destined for a convent since birth, but the convent they enter is impoverished and their health suffers as a result; his son is lazy and unaccomplished. And then there's his mother. Apparently insane (or just very mean), Giulia is a thorn in Galileo's side, one that he cannot remove.
Despite such hardships, his continuous illness, and his troubles with Rome, Galileo's life wasn't that bad. He had some money; he had family (no matter how difficult at times); he even got recognition for his ideas as well as scorn. The telescope was a pretty neat invention; his experiments involving incline planes were neater still. I get a sense that Galileo was, like many scientists, a discovery junkie, always hooked on the next big idea.
So far I have mostly just been gushing about Galileo. That's because Galileo's Dream offered me a rich look at his life. Though not without fault, this book's depiction of Galileo was diverse and thoughtful, and it has made me want to learn more about Galileo through other sources (such as non-fiction). I love it when books make me think, question, and want to learn more.
The historical parts of Galileo's Dream, then, are exceptional. What of the science-fictional elements? Time travel! Visits to a far-off future of Jovian colonization! Encounters with extraterrestrial intelligence! Compared to the chapters set in 17th-century Italy, the adventures of Galileo in space are lacking. It seems like I'm not the only reviewer who has noticed this.
The characters and society of 31st century are very vaguely described. We meet only a handful, and they refer to various councils—presumably democratic—who are quite ineffective in the crisis of the moment. Ganymede is the one who begins bringing Galileo into his future, ostensibly as some sort of rallying symbol for his quest to stop the Europans from contacting the intelligence in their ocean. Soon enough the people who initially oppose Ganymede's analepsis begin bringing Galileo forward quite frequently. They educate him in all of mathematics and science since his time, then wipe his memories when they create a debilitating sense of déjà vu. But each time Robinson latches onto a plausible reason for Galileo's visits to the future, such as the intermittent attempts to communicate with this strange intelligence, the story pushes the reason aside and stubbornly returns to a discussion of the philosophy of time travel.
What we have here is, rather than a lack of exposition, misplaced exposition. Robinson spends all of Galileo's time in the future explaining time travel and not enough explaining the 31st-century society. Since we never learn much about the society, it is difficult to care about the politically-motivated action sequences or the attempts to contact the Jovian intelligence. Galileo's visits offered little of interest, and I found myself wishing for a swift return to the past.
As far as Robinson's time travel mythology goes, I'm ambivalent. On one hand, it is confusing, and Robinson resorts to vague, semi-philosophical explanations rather than any solid, say, physics. On the other hand, time travel, if it is even possible, is bound to be confusing, so I don't think I can fault him for that. Yet the time travel in Galileo's Dream disappoints me, because it doesn't change much. As far as I understand it (and maybe I'm wrong), Galileo didn't "originally" (always a dangerous word to use when discussing timelines) burn at the stake, but Ganymede wanted to change his present by ensuring Galileo did. Since the book ends with Galileo not burning (and also burning . . . but that's a couple of chapters of explanation), nothing much has changed. Oh, we've got some time travellers stranded in the past, and then there's the question of whether Galileo would have stumbled upon telescopy without Ganymede's prompting . . . but it's not enough for me.
The narration of the book is odd, because it is seemingly in third person for the entire book—but first-person pronouns occasionally sneak into the text. In the end, we learn that Cartophilus, Galileo's servant from the future, is the author of the text. He refers to himself as "Cartophilus" in the third person because this is just a role he plays, albeit one he has played for a long time. However, like the time travel, this doesn't add much to the book.
Galileo's Dream reads like two books, one historical and one science fiction, united by the mind of a single man, who was a great man if not a Great Man. It contains a fascinating look at Galileo and a . . . not so fascinating possible future. What will stay with me overall is its depiction of the human struggle to discover, as well as the obstacles that one must overcome during the discovery.
Publisher's Blurb (courtesy of Harper Voyager): Late Renaissance Italy abounds in alchemy and Aristotle, yet it trembles on the brink of the modern world. Galileo's new telescope encapsulates all the contradictions of this emerging reality. Then one night a stranger presents a different type of telescope for Galileo to peer through, enabling him to see the world of humans three thousand years hence. Galileo will soon find himself straddling two worlds, the medieval and the modern. By day his life unfurls in early seventeenth century Italy; by night he is transported through dimensions of time and space no other man of his time could possibly comprehend. Inexorably, Galileo faces trial for religious crimes in his own time, while in the new world he discovers, where science assures men that they can perform wonders, but does not tell them what wonders to perform, he is revered.
Galileo's Dream is, first and foremost, a masterclass in how to write historical fiction. Much of the novel is based in Renaissance Italy, following Galileo at what most consider to be the height of his fame before he is embroiled in disputes with the Church. Life in Italy, the importance of religion, the baby steps being taken towards scientific understanding - all of these are brought to glorious life, with wonderful descriptive passages and the use of Galileo's letters to enforce the events he was living through. I confess that I would have been hugely satisfied with an historical novel that purely explored the life and times of Galileo.
Kim Stanley Robinson, however, intersperses the historical passages with brief visits to the far-flung moons of Jupiter - Galileo travelling through both time and space to discover the colonised moons in 3020. To begin with, these passages felt as though they were shoehorned into the novel in a clumsy fashion, with the reader suffering the same confusion as the Galileo of this novel must have suffered. The passages set in the future were roughly sketched, the worldbuilding not living up to the meticulously researched historical sections. Eventually, you become used to the rough transitions, but I never enjoyed them, and I grew frustrated at the fact that each time Galileo returned from his future visits, his memory was partially cleared of events experienced in the future.
As well as the excellent historical sections, for me the greatest strength of this novel - the factor that gave it both humour and heart - was the stunning characterisation of Galileo Galilei. This is a man who infuriated many of his contemporaries - arrogant, stubborn, opinionated. A man who was liable to forget the day to day running of his household, who was able to commit his daughters to difficult lives. And yet also a visionary - a towering historical figure who gave so much to the world of science. All of this, and more, Kim Stanley Robinson manages to commit to paper - Galileo lives on through this novel.
Ultimately, then, Galileo's Dream is a richly rewarding read that I thoroughly enjoyed. My main issue with it is the pacing created by the dual storylines - this caused me no end of frustration because, at heart, I felt this should have been a straight historical novel. I would recommend this book to those who have even a passing interest in the progression of science. It is excellently written and the "frustrated genius" of Galileo takes centre stage.
Arthur Clarke thoughts: Hmm, Galileo's Dream is yet another solid entry into the short list of six books - and, once again (I feel I am constantly repeating myself in these short analyses) it is a completely different novel from the other five. It brings the science to science fiction, in this case - exploring actual science as well as taking us on a space opera journey to future worlds. It is massively deserving of its place as a finalist, not least of which because this novel shows the continual fascination with science that gave us science fiction in the first place (I think I have expressed that in a rather clumsy manner - but it is the truth that without men such as Galileo and Newton, we wouldn't have such a desire to look at what might be achieved through the use of science). Kim Stanley Robinson's enormous affection for his subject matter shines through, and gives us a novel which is possibly the most honest of the six. I don't think it will win - but I secretly want it to.
Careful, researched, prolix.