Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favourite writers ever since I picked up a copy of Blue Mars (yes, I read those out of order for some reason). His vision of Mars and his blend of natural and social sciences and spirituality usually make for fascinating reading. I must admit I still haven't read his entire catalogue but I'm getting there. His last effort was the Science in the Capital trilogy, which deals with rapid climate change and a possible response to it. I didn't consider those books to be his strongest work but the were interesting reads. With Galileo's Dream Robinson has taken on quite a different project. In a book that is part biography, part alternative history and part science fiction, he takes a look at the live of one of the greatest scientists of all time, Galileo Galilei.
The story opens in Venice in 1609, right before Galileo starts the project for which he is perhaps most famous, his improvement of the telescope. He is approached by a man who tells him that in the low countries someone has made a discovery on how to use lenses to make an object appear closer. Intrigued Galileo begins experimenting and soon realizes the potential of this new device. He arranges a demonstration a the court of the Doge. The military advantages are immediately apparent to those present at the demonstration but Galileo is a scientist. After a nudge from the mysterious stranger and further improvements to his telescope he starts looking at the moon and the planets. Something that eventually brings him into conflict with many scientists of his time as well as the Catholic church.
From 1609 on we follow the life of Galileo to his death in 1642. It soon becomes clear that the strangers who has been giving him hints is not who he appears to be. After they deem Galileo sufficiently prepared for an upset in his world view he is taken to the Jovian system in the year 3020. There a technologically advanced society capable of time travel (in a fashion) has just made contact with an alien mind. Debates on how to proceed are fierce but when it looks like one of the more radical factions is going to take rash action, Galileo, one of the most intelligent scientists of all time, is asked for his opinion. Or at least, thatis what they tell him. Several more visits to future Jupiter will follow, each finding the place in a deeper crisis. It appears the Jovians not only try to avert disaster in their own time, they are not above a bit of meddling in history either.
Robinson is an author who is fascinated by science. Not just the knowledge it yields, but the entire process of observing, hypothesizing, testing and publishing. The many hours of hard work that is involved as well as the scarce moments of new insight. Many of his characters are scientists and their work as well as their impact on society is a frequent theme in his work. What better subject to pick than the man who is credited with major contributions to developing the scientific method? Robinson clearly admires Galileo, in fact the Jovians seem to think he is the third most intelligent scientist of all time, after Bao (I am pretty sure this is a reference to a character in the Mars trilogy) and Einstein. He does not fail to show his humanity. Galileo is portrayed as a man who knows exactly how smart he is and he's not afraid to say so. He is arrogant, stubborn, angry and temperamental and has little patience with stupidity and frequently lashes out at his critics. On the other hand he is also brilliant, caring and sometimes selfish. This obviously does not make him the most beloved person in his age and it certainly did not help him in his struggle with the church.
As far as I can tell Robinson has written a faithful biography of Galileo. With the inclusion of the Jovian story line it, is of course not entirely historical but it is usually quite clear where Robinson switches from historical to purely fictional. A lot of Galileo's correspondence has survived and Robinson quotes liberally from the letters from and to him. The historical part of this novel was an absolute delight to read. Especially the machinations that lead to his conviction and the banning of his book by the Vatican are very interesting. It is amazing to see that this stifling sense of conservatism still rules in the Vatican. It wouldn't be until 1835 that the offending book was taken of the list of banned works, and not until 2000 did the pope offer a formal apology. The current pope however, has mentioned the words "rational" and "just" in relation to Galileo's conviction. It makes one wonder what the church's position on the concept of inertia is.
The Jovian story line is the one that readers will have more problems with I suspect. About a third of the book is dedicated to this story line. As a result we only get to see the barest outline of Jovian society and the conflict that is going on there. Quite a bit it is dedicated to how this time travel is possible and I must admit the physics went right over my head. You need to be able to endure a fair bit of hard SF to enjoy this part of the story but even then it seems a bit under developed. More than a few readers will wonder if this part of the story was actually necessary. Personally I think it adds another layer to the book that enables Robinson to discuss the events in Galileo's time in a more modern perspective. There is quite a sharp contrast by events separated by 14 centuries (not even getting into the theory on time presented in the Jovian story line). I thought Galileo's response the strange, almost surreal, environment he finds himself in very convincing. This is not something everybody will agree with though.
The author took a chance by adding the Jovian story line and I don't think it quite worked like Robinson intended. It's interesting it its own way but it cannot balance to absolutely brilliant historical part of the novel. Despite that, I enjoyed reading this book an awful lot. Galileo's Dream is a novel with several layers, historical element was absolutely outstanding to me but there are also some very interesting scientific, philosophical and religious elements to the book. It is a book that is written to be reread. Several times probably. As usual, I am impressed with the scope of the novel and Robinson's knowledge of the subject. Perhaps not perfect but certainly recommended reading.
Title: Galileo's Dream
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
First published: 2009